Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2

Sonic’s back, again, for another attempt at reliving the glory of the past.  After a severely lacklustre attempt in Episode 1, Episode 2 is built on a new engine, has apparently addressed a number of criticisms from the original title and is yet another attempt by Sega to prove they can still do Sonic right.  Well, they can, but only to a degree.

I’ll be the first one to admit I’m an astronomically massive Sonic nerd. It’s a franchise that is very dear to my heart (it was, after all, the first game I played, ever) and every time a new title is about to come out I get a little excited, particularly when it’s based on the fundamental mechanics that made the series great in the first place like the Sonic 4 series is.

Due to my severe Sonic fanboy-ism, I’m also as nitpicky as they come when a Sonic title comes out. I know what feels right in a Sonic game and what doesn’t, picking out little problems with physics and so forth that may be lost on others. This is exactly why my opinions are divided about Sonic 4;  it’s a good little Sonic game that has a huge amount of throwbacks to great moments in the series, but the implementation and overall design is nowhere near as good as the classic titles on the Sega Megadrive (that’s Genesis, if you’re American).

One of the most problematic flaws with the game is Sonic himself. He controls well and is responsive enough, but he doesn’t just feel quite right.  His speed, in particular, seems dramatically reduced from what I’m used to playing with (and believe me, I’ve played Sonic games enough to know the difference) and this ultimately results in the game playing much slower than traditional Sonic titles.  It’s almost as if Sonic, over time, has slowed down significantly and in a series that’s forever been built around Sonic’s trademark speed, this slowdown is particularly noticeable and detracts from the overall fun of the game.

Sonic’s new animations aren’t that great either. Instead of the confident, no-nonsense hedgehog we used to have, Sonic even looks a bit worried when he’s bouncing off springs, as if he’s saying ‘I’m getting too old for this crap’.  After playing Generations last year and seeing Sega get the gameplay of Classic Sonic so right, it really baffles me to why they’ve changed up the formula again and tried something new. Admittedly ‘Modern’ Sonic is a different hedgehog from his predecessor, but it would of made much more sense to retain the gameplay present in Sonic Generations and apply it to this game, rather than meddle with the overall control scheme. It’s a particularly big risk on Sega’s part because rabid Sonic fans like myself relentlessly tear apart any changes, however small, to Sonic’s overall controls and presentation and I have to feel that this particular hedgehog isn’t quite right.

That’s not to say it’s absolutely terrible though. Sonic still controls pretty good and moves at a good enough pace through levels, it’s just that the difference between this game and Generations from last year is so noticeable that Episode 2 ends up becoming more of a brisk jog through a park then a relentless, all-out-sprint through exciting levels like Sonic should be.

Sonic 4: Episode 2
In terms of stage design, Sonic 4: Episode 2 is a huge, huge throwback to both Sonic 2 and 3.  There’s many a time when playing this game that you’ll inwardly smile to yourself as you recognise an enemy, mechanic or even an entire level that’s been remade for this game, ranging from classic Badnik’s such as the Cuckoo from Wing Fortress Zone to a snowboarding section that’s basically entirely ripped off from Sonic 3’s Ice Cap Zone.   These nostalgic throwbacks are great for long time fans, but at the same time you’re silently cursing the game because it feels like you’ve done it all before.
The saddest thing is, the games from the early 90’s actual did it better. Episode 2’s stages can’t be saved by nostalgia alone, and thanks to a few regular speed-bumps, bouncy springs in abundance and even air bubbles that grind Sonic to a halt combined with Sonic’s slower speed,  all make the experience a rather geriatric one.  I’ll admit I had a few moments of pleasure during some of the stages as they’re so obviously throwing back to the classic games, but then I remembered how much better they were and felt very sad again.

For Better or Worse, He’s Back

TailsIt could easily be argued that Tails was the first catalyst that spawned forth a whole cast of unnecessary Sonic characters, but let’s forget that and remember when he first appeared in Sonic 2. At the time Tails was a pretty useless guy; he’d follow Sonic around, occasionally jump on enemies’ heads and then repeatedly die, only to be replaced by another Tails clone that would repeat the process. In Sonic 3, Tails became marginally more useful for his ability to fly and carry Sonic around, although this is a gimmick that is not over-used by many Sonic fans as it feels a bit like cheating.

Sonic 4’s Tails is sort of a mix of the two forms from Sonic 2 and 3.  He’s still pretty damn useless most of the time and will repeatedly die and be replaced by another rabid orange fox who’s obsessed with Sonic, but he’s also forced upon you as a pretty integral part of the gameplay.

Going back to the stage design again, Sega will routinely throw massive walls in front of Sonic that simply say ‘You ain’t getting over this unless you fly’, effectively forcing you to use Tails as a means of transportation. Since he’s been included in the overall gameplay it’s probably a good thing to have this kind of mechanic in place, but in terms of the pacing of the overall levels it means that, again, everything slows down far too much, too often.

Tails also now has the ability to combine with Sonic to create what is essentially a super spin-dash, where both the characters combine together into one big ball of destruction that charges forward and can destroy obstacles. It’s a neat little new move for the Sonic universe but I’m afraid to say that this unfortunately once again slows down things too damn much as the animation to get into the move simply takes too long. I know it sound like I’m nitpicking, but with a game that’s built fundamentally on speed, slowing down this often really makes things a drag.

It’s Not All Doom and Gloom

Thankfully, Sonic 4 Episode 2 isn’t all bad. If you can get past the mechanics and the slower pace of Sonic, there’s actually a good couple of hours of fun to be had here. Boss designs in particular are extremely well done and bring new fights to the table that we haven’t actually seen before rather than relying on nostalgia, while fans of the franchise will love the new special stage, which is essentially a revamped version of Sonic 2’s with a few new mechanics like springs and power-ups thrown into the mix for good measure.

One of the most interesting inclusions of this title is the revival of Sonic’s foe Metal Sonic, who you may or may not be very familiar with. It really depends on whether you played Sonic CD or not whether you know much about Metal Sonic, but this guy is essentially the main bad guy of that title, stealing Amy Rose from Sonic and then finishing the game with an epic race across a deadly speedway filled with traps. Since that time good old Metal Sonic has been biding his time and now returns to do battle with Sonic once more, appearing as a boss regularly instead of Robotnik at certain times throughout the game.

While his fights are generally quite unique and fun to play, there’s time where fighting Metal Sonic turns from fun into a drag, particularly as Sonic’s doppelgänger will routinely use moves out of the blue that kill you instantly with no prior warnings. At the risk of sounding too much like a modern gamer who likes having his hand held, this is extremely frustrating as many of the boss fights go on for a damn long time without any checkpoints.   It does make the boss fights more challenging, but given that Sega fills each of the boss fights with more rings than you’d find in a doughnut shop, these cheap moments where you suddenly fall into a pit or get thwacked off the screen by a giant missile of doom really start to grate on the nerves after a few tries.

Meanwhile, Robotnik also routinely pops up to try and mess with you in a vast array of machines, each of which always has a conveniently placed weakness. You’d think by now the guy would realize that Sonic always beats him by jumping on his head, but he will still routinely show his face and promptly get jumped upon. The boss fights with Robotnik are generally quite cool and the new machines are pretty exciting (look out for the Tetris-inspired falling box fight) but – and here’s a pro tip – you can generally kick the snot out of any boss fight – including the last boss – by simply flying upwards using Tails, waiting until Robotnik shows himself then drop down onto his head.

Sonic, with Friends

If you’re so inclined, Episode 2 also gives you the option to play co-operatively with a chum either locally or online, leading to many, many disputes over who gets to play as Sonic and who’s left to pick up the dregs with Tails. This mechanic generally works exactly like it did in the older games, and feels more like a pointless inclusion rather than anything that’s totally fleshed out and fun to play.

Speaking of pointless, each stage also has a collectable red ring for you to find, which give you absolutely nothing whatsoever after getting them all except an achievement.

Overall, Episode 2 is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s moments of brief glory here and there, but a slower-paced Sonic, far too much reliance on nostalgia to get the fans excited and some appallingly cumbersome Tails mechanics turn Sonic from a Blue Blur into a hedgehog that limps out on the motorway, staring into on-rushing headlights and is too slow to move out the way.

For it’s low price, Episode 2 is still worth picking up if you’re an avid Sonic fan. Just don’t expect the glory of the old days to be relived, as Sonic 4 Episode 2, no matter how hard it tries, is not as good as the games from the 90’s.

Score: 6.5/10

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