Poor Sonic. He's just a hyper-speed hedgehog stuck with a permanent 1990's rude 'tude, trying to make it in the modern world. It doesn't help that he ends up starring in a lot of games that aren't tailor made for him, like Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for the 3DS. It might be a 2D side-scrolling platformer, but that's where its resemblance to classic Sonic games ends. What's a career racer doing in a slow-paced scavenger hunt through confusing mazes? Generally feeling out of place.
It's hard to think of a more cliched video game plot than having the hero rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, and that's exactly the tale trotted out here. Sonic and his friends attempt to engage in witty banter along the way, but the writing is flatter than, well, a motorway hedgehog. Sonic never gets more clever than joking about how Shadow has emerged from - wait for it - the shadows, while Knuckles has been given a frontal lobotomy and Sticks is an unlikeable idiot. The only character who comes off well is Tails, who doesn't try to tell jokes and seems like a nice little guy. These painful story scenes are plentiful and unskippable, with the text plodding across the screen at a snail's pace.
Once the action finally begins, Sonic and company are deposited into huge labyrinthine levels, instructed to find their way to the end while collecting all the blueprints and crystal shards they can. There can be a pleasing rhythm to the gameplay, with segments in which it's possible to perform a fluid series of leaps and swings that feel satisfying when they're pulled off. These happy moments are far too fleeting, however. Too much gameplay time is devoted to solving uninteresting puzzles and attempting to navigate the levels.
Once per main level, Tails gets to play a mini-game with his toy submarine. You'll get to navigate it through treacherous underwater tunnels, avoiding bombs and shooting barriers in search of a hidden blueprint. Time ticks down slowly unless the sub is hit, so collecting time power-ups and driving carefully are important. You can check the map briefly by tapping the touch screen, but that also causes the blueprint's location to light up and spoils the fun. Actually hiding the blueprint or adding some enemies to the map would have made this game more interesting and fun.
The puzzles, such as they are, revolve around the unique abilities that each of the four playable characters possesses. Sonic can air-dash through barriers, Knuckles can dig in soft dirt, Tails can hover, and Sticks can throw her boomerang to flip switches. It's easy to switch characters, but the premise of their different abilities is mostly wasted on unimaginative activities that must be performed over and over throughout the game. Is there a rotating pillar of spikes? There will be a boomerang switch close by. Is there a hole in the ground? Send Knuckles down it into a secret room. These puzzles aren't nearly as fun as the platforming segments that they interrupt, especially since they bring the flow of action to a screeching halt.
Knowing when to use special abilities might be easy, but navigating through the levels as a whole is confusing. Each main level is longer than it needs to be. The scenery is repetitive, backtracking is often required, and it's impossible to see the entire map at one time. There are warp points scattered everywhere, some of which lead backwards instead of forwards, and the only way to know where they connect is to painstakingly memorize each one. It's easy to get stuck going in circles.
Worse, simply completing a level isn't enough. Unlocking most levels requires a specific number of Sonic Badges, which are earned by finding blueprints and crystal shards as well as by completing a level. It's very difficult to find all a level's collectibles in one run thanks to points of no return, so repeat runs are basically required in order to finish the game.
I tend to be an obsessive collector in games, and I had fun treasure hunting at first. Blueprints are the most interesting collectible, since a set of six creates a gameplay enhancement such as a map improvement or extra damage shields. Still, the levels aren't interesting enough to drive even a collector like me to full completion. Finding the obscure path that leads to each collectible is an exercise in tedium, and the thought of going for an optional time trial challenge through some of those confusing levels gives me a headache.
Shattered Crystal's short side-levels add a bit of welcome variety to the game. Worm tunnels are on-rails races through an obstacle course, challenging Sonic to collect as many rings as he can without hitting anything. They're quick, entertaining, and make good use of the system’s 3D effect. Race levels actually resemble classic 2D Sonic games – there's no backtracking or puzzle-solving, and managing to stay near the top of the level is advantageous. These races lack the clever design of Sonic's best titles, but they'll at least make fans feel at home. It’s too bad that more of the game doesn’t take cues from the smart design decisions that made Sonic popular in the first place.
Sonic has experienced a bit of a renaissance lately, but Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is a step backwards. It certainly has its moments, like when Tails successfully sails through a series of wind gusts or Sonic rail-grinds through a worm hole, but it doesn't have enough of them. Where it fumbles, like in its perplexing level design, forced repetition, and poorly-written story scenes, it fumbles in a big way. Even without the baggage of living up to Sonic's legacy, Shattered Crystal isn't particularly compelling. It's time to shelve Sonic until he's given a game that truly allows him to shine again.