Sonic Lost World on 3DS is the first true 3D Sonic game to appear on any handheld ever. That makes it something of a big deal, especially considering it shares so much with the Wii U version, which is a very high quality product. The two games share the same name, zone themes, and core elements, but they’ve both been built separately from the ground up with the corresponding hardware’s capabilities in mind. Can the handheld version live up to the high standard set by its Wii U sibling? No. It can’t.
3DS Sonic Lost World immediately evokes feelings of low-budget production as the game opens with one of the worst-quality cutscenes you’ll see this side of a Sega Saturn. The video clips have all been lifted from the Wii U version’s HD cinematics, but they’ve been compressed to a resolution even lower than the 3DS’ already diminutive screen. Fuzzy, pixelated and throwaway, the game would genuinely be better if they weren’t in there, especially as the story hasn’t gotten any better during the jump.
Fortunately, the 3D engine itself is excellent once you take control of the eponymous hedgehog, and the opening levels are extremely promising. The same spherical gravity effect from the Wii U version (and Super Mario Galaxy) is evident, giving it a fresh feel and a visual style that looks striking, particularly with the 3D turned on. The sound that Sonic makes when he jumps is lovely too, foregoing the classic sound effect and instead sounding like a logical next-gen extension of the classic sound palette.
The R button is designated as the ‘sprint’ button, which solves the old problem of 3D Sonic handling like a dog at low speeds. Movement is assured at both low and high speeds, with enjoyable set-pieces and logical transitions between platforming and twitch reflex sections. The levels are explorable, hidden items are dotted around, and the lock-on mechanic works very well. It all adds up to a game that you'll really feel you’re playing, which isn’t something that can always be said for 3D Sonic games.
However, the magic of the opening levels doesn’t last, as the game starts to move away from its initial winning formula, presumably for the sake of variety. The Color Abilities--which turn Sonic into a rocket or electricity-zapping grapple line among other bizarre powers--at least feel more integral to the game than they do in the Wii U version, but that doesn’t mean they make the game better. Entire sections depend on using a gimmicky transformation, breaking up the free-form gameplay and shoehorning in a clumsy mechanic instead.
The Colors aren’t the only culprits when it comes to over-egging the Sonic pudding. Later levels require you to roll snowballs around, fending off enemies until the ball is big enough to trigger switches, or even to destroy a set number of enemies before you can progress. The joyous exploration and acrobatic freedom offered by the opening levels gives way to plodding, convoluted level design that frustrates more than it rewards as you fulfill arbitrary criteria. It feels like obvious padding.
Subsequently, Sonic Lost World introduces far more mechanical concepts than it needs, expecting you to realise you have to hit a glowing point in the middle of an underwater fan, or block a vent with a snowball… it becomes a scrappy, laborious slog to see off large enemies within a time limit or find the next item box to keep your Color ability going.
The Wii U version may not have had traditional special stages, but the 3DS version does. Sadly, they’re borderline unplayable, at least for the first few times you try them. Sonic is adrift in space, and you have to use the gyroscope functionality of the 3DS to turn him and then boost forward to collect orbs. You can hold a button to reset your position, but even when you learn its workings and ace a level, it never feels better than awkward. And, again, gimmicky: It feels as though each new idea has been tweaked until it ‘sort of works’, rather than everything being honed to an intuitive and enjoyable sheen.
In later levels, difficulty is literally balanced with free lives and last-ditch lock-on targets. The complex level design and enemy placement demands such controller dexterity, there’s no way most players will be able to complete some sections on their first attempt. This obvious difficulty spike is offset by a wealth of extra lives and the densest distribution of restart points of any Sonic game ever. For every one moment that works in these sections, there are two that make you wish you were playing something else.
Sonic Lost World on 3DS at least bodes well for Sonic’s future on handheld. The game engine is smooth and solid, the character’s movement in 3D space is better than it’s ever been (at least during regular play without power-ups) and the graphical style looks beautiful on the handheld’s screen. If only the whole game had been designed to suit Sonic’s key characteristics, this would have been spectacular. ‘Vanilla’ Sonic gameplay is a joy, now both solid, controllable and great-looking. It doesn’t need all these arbitrary extra ingredients. The result is a game that’s passable in both sense of the word. Passable as in ‘it’s alright and not completely broken’ but also, ‘you’ll probably want to pass on this one’.