A few months ago, the world saw the release of the Western-developed Sonic Mania, a game that I would argue is the best in the hedgehog’s decades-old franchise. Meanwhile, as Sonic Team were busy finishing up their newest title, I was confident that it would be at least alright. Their last three games met that standard, plus it had now been an unprecedented four years since their most recent entry. Such circumstances made me hopeful that Sonic Team spent this time refining their craft and brewing up their best game in ages. Well if that’s the case, then they must still be working on it because Sonic Forces is a considerable step down.
Forces begins with Sonic getting a brutal beatdown from Eggman’s newest creation, a mask-wearing edgelord named Infinite. With Sonic captured, the Doctor takes over the world in just a few months. But when your custom-made Avatar character joins the resistance and frees Sonic from his prison in space, and Classic Sonic arrives via dimensional travel, there finally seems to be a chance to take back the planet. It’s an epic setup to be sure, serving as the backdrop for the gameplay styles you’ll switch between through its four-hour (being generous) story.
Sonic is back to using a boost formula, something we last saw in the far-superior Sonic Generations. In that game, you had to make real movement choices that would change your experience and often determine life and death. Here, you just keep boosting forwards with a limited degree of control and allow the stage’s excessive automation to do the navigation for you. With the Avatar character you do the same, albeit instead of boosting you’ll deal with unthreatening enemies using your overpowered weapon. With Classic Sonic, you’re more frequently jumping on platforms, but that’s the problem- they’re just platforms. You don’t spend any time playing with momentum or even navigating levels, and the physics are so bad that boosters and artificial acceleration zones are littered throughout stages as a means of disguise. Finally, you have the tag-team stages with your Avatar and Sonic, where the weapon and boost buttons put you in control of either one. These tend to be the most spectacular, while also containing some of the only instances of 3D platforming; they’re easily the game’s strongest levels. It’s too bad there aren’t more of them, and even these tend to boil down to running in a straight line. And hey, you wanna feel a real gut kick? Few of the stages breach the three-minute mark, and most of them hover around two. Yeah, I know. Not one stage is thoroughly satisfying.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this game isn’t fun. It’s actually full of exhilarating and gorgeous moments, sending you through a variety of set-pieces while your furry comrades coordinate via radio. As you can probably gather, the game’s presentation is its greatest asset. Graphically, it’s astounding, with crisp textures and a robust lighting engine at 60fps. Musically, it upholds Sonic’s winning streak. I definitely enjoyed the use of guitars and synth, which are used in tandem and complement each other nicely. The many vocal tracks are typical Sonic cheese: melodically infectious and lyrically inept; the type of song you might blast in your car but crank down at an intersection. All together, Sonic Forces is a treat to the senses.
Sadly, the game’s plot is more on par with the level design than its presentation, which is very problematic in a story-driven title such as this. Eggman might be in control, but it sure never feels like it. Never at any point do we get to see the effects or ramifications of his dominion, with even his six-month conquest being delivered in a lame text block. The game as a whole has this huge issue with telling things rather than showing, and characters have a tendency to behave in strange and irritating ways. Sonic constantly cracks jokes at Eggman and Infinite, despite the latter having nearly beaten him to death, not to mention the situation he’s up against. Eggman contradicts his own earlier actions and at one point opts for a blatantly self-defeating plan. And Tails the Fox is just pathetic this time around, cowering in fear of the weakest baddies in the game and standing on the sidelines when Sonic is being pummeled. Then you have the plot holes, the cringeworthy speeches about the power of friendship, and the frustratingly anticlimactic ending. For most players, this missed potential constitutes an unintentionally amusing misfire of a story. For diehard fans, it’s even worse.
The most consistently effective way to make the cutscenes more enjoyable is to design your character (in)appropriately. Forces relishes in giving you outlandish and even disturbing aesthetic options. You can play as a wolf with soulless, red eyes, a gas mask, neon crocs, and a baseball cap that reads “GAMER.” This customization is a nice bid towards depth and replayability, but other attempts are less effective. It’s far too easy to earn the highest rank on every stage, and with lives done away with, rings are meaningless to go out of your way for (clothing items are unlocked via points). There are a variety of weapons to unlock, but since they all kill enemies with equal efficiency, the only reason to switch out is when you need an air boost for one of each stage’s five red rings. These unlock some blocky and ugly extra stages that you’ll play through once and never revisit.
Any time spent replaying Sonic Forces will be in the name of shallow fun and cheap thrills, which the main levels deliver in droves. But the game is constantly reigning itself in with absurdly automated and limited player movement compounded by underwhelmingly short stages. It’s a particularly dire case of style over substance, putting you through an easy, unremarkable rollercoaster ride that you’ll play in an afternoon and forget about a couple days later. And with the number of quality family titles and platformers to choose from this year, I just don't see a place for a game like this. There’s a point in the weak story where Classic Sonic has to go home, making Tails feel sad. Sonic cheers him up: “I’m sure we’ll run into him again.” Well, 3D Sonic, with Mania’s quality and success, I'm sure we will too. It’s you I’m worried about.