It’s no secret that Sonic’s 3D adventures have seen their fair share of both impressive highs and shocking lows over the years. For every creative and extremely fun Sonic Colours or Sonic Generations, we also have to endure a Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric or Sonic and the Black Knight. To be honest, it often feels like a bit of a gamble with every new release as to whether you’re going to get the blue hedgehog at his best or worst. However, with Sonic Forces promising an experience taking inspiration from the better 3D releases can SEGA deliver us the undeliverable – two great Sonic games in the same year?
In terms of story, Sonic Forces goes big and dark with a very end of the world vibe that throws pretty much the entire cast from the series into the mix (although no signs of Cream the Rabbit or Big the Cat, thankfully). Infinite is the latest member to join Eggman’s team and after defeating Sonic with relative ease, the world then falls to the evil scientist and his crew. Six months later and Knuckles and the remainder of the good guys have formed a team known as the Resistance, but with no sign of Sonic and the world in turmoil, morale is low. Also, Classic Sonic shows up with a tie-in to the ending of Sonic Mania, for reasons. What then follows is the push to defeat Eggman and take back the planet from his grasp.
Despite the okay premise, the story feels rushed and like it was cobbled together purely because there needed to be reasons for going from stage-to-stage. Cutscenes abruptly end at weird moments, sometimes even seconds after they begin, while the narrative jumps around from place-to-place and character-to-character so quickly and randomly that it becomes jarring. There could have been an exciting tale of good fighting back against evil in an all-out war here but Sonic Forces never delivers.
The newest feature to the series is the Avatar creation. Yes, you heard right, finally, you are able to add your own Sonic character to the story – everything from animal type (each with their own abilities), eyes, colour and outfits. In fact, the creation aspect is surprisingly detailed with plenty of customisable items unlocked the more you play.
Stages themselves come in a number of different flavours this time around, although all focus on platforming. Classic Sonic stages offer a purely 2D experience complete with retro-sounding music as you jump and spin-dash your way through the environments. These portions try to replicate the old Genesis-style gameplay although coming off of Sonic Mania the physics here feel nowhere near as satisfying. Modern Sonic meanwhile mixes both 2D and behind the shoulder gameplay while also throwing in a few other tricks such as sliding, boosting and homing attacks. These are by far the fastest and most hectic sections of the game.
Your Avatar meanwhile plays similarly to Modern Sonic albeit a little slower and with weaponised Wisps in toe. Combat is extremely basic rarely stopping you for more than a few seconds while using a hook shot will propel you to new areas. The final stage type allows you to play as both Modern Sonic and your Avatar together which doesn’t handle too differently and just gives you speed and weaponry in one. With thirty stages in all (not counting secret stages) you’ll get the chance to play as each character multiple times.
Where the game truly falls apart is that none of these gameplay styles feel especially good to play. Take the physics for example, that left me either frustrated, confused or simply both when playing as any of the characters. Classic Sonic’s stages see him hitting faster speeds when the game says he needs to rather than you actually building up the momentum, while handling Modern Sonic or your Avatar feels far too loose and inaccurate whether it’s navigating smaller platforms or simply trying to use the homing attack.
Furthermore, the actual level design varies between bad and satisfactory with many stages featuring huge chunks where the game either plays itself or simply lacks any really clever ideas other than running fast. Boss battles, too, aren’t particularly great often suffering due to the game’s controls. There are brief moments that had me smiling – seeing Sonic grinding along a rail only for him to realise he’s in space with Earth in the background, but these are so few and brief they don’t make up for the rest of the lacking campaign.
The main story can be finished in as quick as three or four hours with your times posted to leaderboards online. Collectable red rings make a return scattered randomly around each stage. Grabbing all five then unlocks another set that need to collected in the right order, while the final group need to all be gathered within a time limit. It adds replay value, sure, but hardly warrants re-treading older stages for.
The game runs fine enough on the Nintendo Switch in 720p at 30 fps, but this is noticeably worse when compared with the other console versions. Sure, the level of detail in the game looks impressive enough when playing in Handheld mode, but when blown up on a television things become blurrier and less defined. The characters, too, animate in a very awkward manner especially when things slow down.
What doesn’t help matters is the uninspired world itself taking a more industrialised approach and lacking the creativity seen in previous Sonic titles. Even worse is seeing the return of Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone both already featured in numerous titles before. I remember the brilliance of Studiopolis Zone in Sonic Mania or Sweet Mountain in Sonic Colours. It’s tough to point out any standout locations in Sonic Forces.
The soundtrack, often an area of praise in the Sonic series feels like a big step down especially when compared with past titles. A mix of cringing vocalised songs and fairly forgettable tunes disappoint. Voicework is pretty much what you’d expect although having characters talk over you while playing is annoying especially since they do this even when you replay a stage.
It’s tough to believe that Sonic Team has managed to take the enjoyable gameplay blueprint of Sonic Generations and turn it into this clunky mess of a sequel – a lazily told story, poor level design, and gameplay that lacks any real excitement the biggest offenders here. Sonic Mania managed to steer the hedgehog back on track and it’s disheartening to see Sonic Forces potentially undo that so soon. The game isn’t unplayable like others have been in the past, but it’s certainly clear Sonic Team are capable of better. Much better.