Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I had a lot riding on it, since Sega hyped it up to be a potential revival of the franchise. It ended up being pretty divisive – you either loved or hated it. After a couple years of uncertainty as to whether Sega would keep the episodic format or not, the publisher delivers Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II, which sees the return of Miles “Tails” Prower as our helpful sidekick. Unfortunately, this “sequel-to-a-sequel” lacks the spark that defines the great Sonic games of the past, eschewing unbridled speed for boring platforming and some truly maddening boss fights.
With Tails in his classic role as invincible teammate in single-player and a second player in co-op, he’ll assist Sonic traverse each level with some fancy team-up moves with the press of a button. The catch here is that these maneuvers do a poor job of camouflaging questionably designed levels; having to get a lift from Tails to ascend out of a dead end just feels cheap, and though the duo’s double rollspin looks cool and travels quickly, you can’t change directions while spinning, making this feature near useless for most levels.
The co-op seems to prioritize griefing your friends instead making real in-game progress. Because either player can force the other to warp to their position instantly, the platforming segments turns into ridiculous games of “make your partner fall into the pit first.” What’s even worse is when you accidentally tag-team a maneuver at the wrong time; because it’s a conditional one-button transformation, we were constantly flying when we meant to spin. What could’ve made for cool co-op ends up feeling like Tails babysitting Sonic – and that’s no good.
Sonic controls smoothly, though the Tails team-up moves felt just as jarring as the physics tweaks seen in Episode I. That said, while the gameplay mechanics play too fast and loose with Sonic’s classic formula, the soundtrack does the game a greater injustice. Frankly, it’s awful.
While the Genesis tunes were catchy as all get-out, the soundtrack to Episode II is nothing but grating music that sounds like a short MIDI file stuck on loop. Throw in a few ear-piercing sound effects, and it’s assured to disappoint any fans of the series’ 16-bit ditties.
Episode II still looks sharp, but the visually-stimulating stages of Episode I far outclass the bland settings of Episode II, which include sparse oil fields and generic space stations (though the wintry White Zone themeparks are pretty great). Each act in the five stages has multiple paths and secrets to uncover, but they’re incredibly inconsistent in the entertainment department. Every time we felt like we were reliving our old Sonic glory days, the next stage would incorporate limp and uninspired gimmicks like shifting winds or avalanche snowboarding.
That’s not to say that Episode II is a total trainwreck; it’s still got some great moments. The second act of the Sky Fortress Zone finds Sonic and Tails zipping across airships and soaring over bottomless pits at a liberating velocity. But it’s bookended by two sluggish and bland flight stages filled with cheap deaths and monotonous mini-bosses. The game’s pacing ensures that in the five-odd hours it took from start to credits, there isn’t a brilliant play session that isn’t totally undermined by a groan-worthy, momentum-halting hurdle of a level.
But nothing comes close to the disappointment of fighting the game’s bosses. It’s not that early Sonic bosses can be defined as an enjoyable experience, but the Zone bosses in Episode II can easily be described as “obscenely un-fun.” Each battle feels like it’s artificially drawn-out to cheaply lengthen the experience; because of Sonic games’ damage system, you can look forward to multiple, cheap deaths, since the boss fights are poorly structured and far too long. To add insult to injury, with each death, you’ll be forced to endure the same unskippable animations for each bosses’ introductions and transformations.
Even if you loved Episode I, it might be hard to stomach Episode II’s constant stumbles and shortcomings. When instructed to collect every Chaos Emerald after the final cutscene, all we could think was “no thanks.” No, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II isn’t an atrocious game, but poorly implemented mechanics and questionable design decisions consistently hobble its attempts to deliver the exhilarating speed that we’ve come to expect from the series. Given the more stout options that have recently graced consoles – Sonic Generations and the downloadable redux of Sonic CD come to mind – there’s little reason for most gamers to bother with this game. After finally getting it right with the most recent game, misfires like this once threaten to re-break those nostalgia goggles we got after the surprisingly great Sonic Generations, and that’s the last thing anyone wants.