I’ve spent a few hours puzzling over one thing with Sonic Forces: who, exactly, is it for? It calls back to nostalgic older Hedgehog-fans with levels that reimagine the green hills, mystic ruins and neon-lit casinos of the earliest games, but the focus on user-created characters and interminably annoying sidekicks seems to pitch it at a much younger audience. The more I’ve played Sonic Forces, the more I’m convinced its gunning straight for the kids.
It looks incredible, it has all the characters they love and it won’t bother them that the storyline is dumb and the dialogue excruciating. Most importantly, it’s the kind of game where you seem to be doing a lot while doing very little. You can push through vast swathes of Sonic Forces by holding the left-stick up or right, then pressing the jump button when you see a gap or a green crosshair. Super Mario Odyssey this ain’t.
Good looks, but nothing new
When I say it looks incredible, I mean it. Sonic Forces does a fantastic job of reimagining the environments of classic Sonics for today’s console hardware, and there’s a real buzz when you see, say, the cliffs, loops and chutes of the Green Hill Zone bathed in sunlight, the grass swaying gently in the wind. Other levels riff on the space stations, jungles, gargantuan pinball machines and ancient ruins of the early Sonics, and each is a feast for the eyes. The game switches back and forth between 2D and 3D sections, and the visuals don’t falter in either. This is what I dreamed Sonic might one day look like when I first picked up the Megadrive pad over 25 years ago.
It’s fast, too. Ludicrously fast, with the scenery rushing past your eyes at a whiplash-inducing rate. It’s super-smooth on PS4 and PS4 Pro, and if you’re watching, rather than playing, it’s a dizzying spectacle of colour, light and speed.
Gameplay's a blur - in a bad way
As a player, though, it’s a weirdly dull, unengaging and empty experience. Each level starts, Sonic runs, you press right or up and jump a lot, and then it ends. What happens in-between can be – almost literally – a blur. Sonic (or rather the Sonics – I’ll get to this later) control perfectly well, but there’s barely any reason to put their abilities to the test. Just keep moving and keep pressing jump when the green crosshairs appear, and in many of the stages you’ll be fine.
Okay, there is a little more to it than that. Right at the start you’ll design an avatar – a new, custom-made Sonic critter who’ll appear in future cut-scenes and many of the game’s stages. Early on Sonic’s captured by Dr. Eggman’s evil forces, and your new hero will get the job of busting him out. You’ve got a range of hedgehogs, cats, bears and other l’il beasts to choose from, and you can kit them out with clothes, accessories and hairstyles, not to mention weapons, or ‘wispons’, which give you ranged or melee combat powers. With these there’s no need to keep spamming jump to bounce into baddies, as you can spam them with the R2 button instead.
And did I mention there are actually two playable Sonics? One’s the cuter Classic Sonic of the early games, while the other’s the taller, more aggressive Sonic we’ve suffered since the Sonic Adventure days. There are subtle differences between the two in terms of mechanics, controls and handling, and while Classic Sonic gets mostly 2D stages, you still have to remember which one you’re working with at the moment and not try to use the other’s moves.
Now, Sonic Forces isn’t all bad by any means. There are some exhilarating, high-speed boss chases/battles – though also some overdrawn and tedious ones – and some of the rollercoaster, looping, chuting action works pretty well. And there are levels, particularly later in the game, where Sonic Team seems to remember briefly what a Sonic game should play like, mixing raw speed with multiple pathways, precision platforming and a lot of hidden areas and temporary power-ups to explore. These are moments that could have typified a great Sonic game. Sure, many of these are in 2D sections, but I’ve got space for a well-designed 3D section too.
But then I think of Nintendo’s recent Mario games, and the way they manage to push Mario and the player with new inventions and endless cool ideas, while still staying true to the feel and spirit of the series. The best Sonic Forces can do is bring us moments that feel a bit like the best chunks of the old games, and the worst is a lot less interesting than that. Don’t Sonic’s many fans deserve a little more?
This is a short game of short levels, yet desperately short of real ideas. It sacrifices everything for speed, while failing to offer any challenge beyond some sudden, stupidly unfair sections right at the end. And while there’s some fun to be had in building and customising your avatar, thanks to an almost silly stream of new costumes and options at the end of every level, it’s not nearly enough to keep you coming back for more. You’ll have finished Sonic Forces in a day – and forgotten everything except the waste of money not long after.
Sonic Forces has one defence; that it’s a great-looking, fan-serving, accessible Sonic for the hedgehog’s younger audience. With Sonic Mania pitched as the Sonic for real gamers, that’s all it needs to be. Well, that’s not good enough. Sonic’s younger fans deserve a game with more imagination and more chance to discover, learn and build their Sonic skills, and the Mario series shows it’s possible to do this in a game that appeals to fans both young and old. Sonic Forces does not.
Reviewed on PS4.