Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II
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It was a badge. A mark of allegiance. If there’s a timeline of modern gaming history, it’s split between B and A16 (before & after 16-bit). Flying the flag of Nintendo’s Super Famicom ensured childhood memories of Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger. Throwing your lot in with Sega meant one thing: Sonic the Hedgehog.
During the Mega Drive’s heyday in the early-90s, the release of a new Sonic game commanded the same level of excitement as a new Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Sonic was viewed by his fans as a counter-point to everything Mario came to represent, and the release of each new title was a cultural event. Times have changed.
For years, some purists have argued that Sonic games haven’t been good since his foray into the third dimension. They argue that the franchise went off the rails the moment the Blue Blur was seen speeding towards us, away from a killer whale, and longed for a return to the style of the older games. Sega responded in 2010 with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I.
Unfortunately, Episode I was plagued by too many inexcusable mistakes. It’s art style made everything look like plasticine. The music was repetitive and uninspired. The game was too short. The physics made controlling Sonic an exercise in hair-tearing tedium. It all added up to a disappointing product which dampened enthusiasm for future episodes. Now, after two years, Sega has released the second and final episode in their experiment.
Right from the start, it’s clear that Sega has been listening. Gone is the glossy finish which turned Episode I into an extended trailer for a Wallace & Gromit movie. Instead, the game takes cues from last year’s Sonic Generations and features bright bursts of colour, detailed textures and a nice sense of scale and depth. Sonic’ and Tails’ character models are based off their modern incarnations and features longer limbs and trimmer midsections. The animation is smooth and works nicely with the overall art direction to create a visually interesting game. There are even moments which feature truly sublime lighting effects.
The physics have been overhauled and control much as they do in the first three Sonic titles. Sonic starts and stops as we all expect him to, and he no longer freezes in place midway through loop-the-loops. In short, the issues have been fixed. Sadly, the music remains a jumbled mess of pop tracks which only serve to grate on your nerves. Unless, you’re hard-wired to experience extreme pleasure at the sound of chiming rings, I’d suggest muting the entire game.
Generally, level design has been vastly improved from the last game. Episode II wisely skips the rolling green countryside and jumps right into an old world castle ruin. There’s a true sense of depth and height throughout each of the levels and the game even offers sufficient warning when Sonic leaps over bottomless chasms. About the only complaint is the presence of an annoying water stage.
The big gameplay additions come by way of the re-introduction of Sonic’s sidekick, Miles ‘Tails’ Prower. Sonic and Tails retain their classic helicopter move which allows for some last minute saves when you mistime a jump. The second is an underwater combo, which is basically the same thing as the helicopter combo except underwater.
Finally, there’s the new rolling combo. Sonic and Tails can combine into a huge ball which allows them to bash through obstacles throughout the game. Think of it as Episode II’s take on the Mega Mario seen in New Super Mario Bros. on DS. But, for all the improvements and supposed additions, the entire game feels conservative and uninspired.
The first thing which springs to mind when one plays Episode II is how much they’ve tried to recapture the magic from the old Sonic titles. It’s a solid game and offers decent value as a downloadable title, but it never attempts to push the boundaries in any memorable way. As Nintendo has shown through constantly reinventing the Mario formula, the worst mistake a series can make is in trying to keep things too safe. For as much as people lapped up New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it was the vastly more imaginative Super Mario Galaxy games which exhibited just how much life is left in the plumber. Episode II has no identity and seems satisfied with emulating its predecessors. It’s a game which hopes to appeal to the gamers who loved the older titles by replicating the same beats, inadvertently rendering itself completely unnecessary in the process.