Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice by Sanzaru Games has been carrying a heavy weight of sour expectations by its name alone since its unveiling last year. I wasn't surprised by the reception it already received, as it follows the ill-fated releases of Big Red Button's Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric on Wii U and Sanzaru's own Shattered Crystal for the Nintendo 3DS. Heck, I admittedly wasn't above writing this one off as well before its Fall 2015 launch.
Suddenly, SEGA vowed to win back fans' trust by maintaining quality over scheduling and the launch of Fire & Ice was subsequently delayed by a whole year, with promises made about incorporating fan feedback into what would become a better and faster-paced game than its predecessor. SEGA and Sanzaru have now proven that their claims were more than hot air, as Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice manages to deliver the fun experience it was set out to be, although it does take a few missteps along the way.
The game opens to a diabolical Doctor Eggman as he plots his ultimate revenge against his longtime blue nemesis, this time by using a powerful new mineral called Ragnium. With his discovery, he plans to use this new energy source to fuel his new line of Egg-Bot Racers and therefore strip Sonic of his title as the fastest thing alive. His mining activity for the new element comes with an environmental cost, as Eggman is piping the byproducts of his operations onto the surrounding islands, thus cracking open fissures, geysering fire and ice, and affecting the weather. Sonic and friends must travel from island to island to seal these new fissures and deal with Eggman's robotic racers as well as a powerful new threat in the form of D-Fekt—a diminutive robot Eggman built to help mine Ragnium. While it can only magnetize and attract everything but the new element, this odd defect turns out to be its greatest and most terrifying strength.
The plot alone is nothing outright serious or dire, and the writing is built to match the tone established in the comedic Saturday morning cartoon. There is no greater evil power to contend with in the same vein as Lyric from the previous games, nor does the game take itself too seriously. It merely centers around a goofy story with Eggman acting on his ages-old vendetta for Sonic, all while the rejected D-Fekt seeks the Doctor's love and approval by trying to destroy the blue hedgehog himself. Yes, this is the Sonic Boom universe, where, among others, Sticks is still a schizophrenic badger and Knuckles is still the beefy dunce. While these characterizations did feel a bit toned down this time around, if you weren't a fan of the redesigned cast before, Fire & Ice likely won't change your stance on the matter.
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice was built up to fix the mistakes made in its predecessor, which wandered far from familiar 2D Sonic formulas with its heavy emphasis on exploration. It wasn't so much that the idea of exploration or picking up collectibles along the way didn't fit in the grand scheme of things, as it very well could if done right. The problem with Shattered Crystal was that the game forced roadblocks upon the player if they didn't pick up X amount of collectibles, prompting constant backtracking through already long and dreary action stages.
Thankfully, Fire & Ice has completely done away with these issues while Sanzaru Games has further refined their own 2D Sonic Boom formula, which ultimately made the game that much more enjoyable. True, collectibles are still present in the game, but later levels weren't barred from me because I didn't complete previous action stages "enough." Levels are much shorter with little areas I could choose to explore for a quick reward before blasting right through with sonic speed on the main path, and this freedom of choice ultimately motivated me (not forced me) to detour for hidden treasures.
The more streamlined action stages made Fire & Ice really fun to speedrun as I figured out and memorized what actions or combos I should execute in order to shave off a few extra seconds. Once I decided on a path, I really started to get a feel of the sense of speed a Sonic game is meant to convey as I took off down the main path while turning Eggman's bots into smoldering heaps of scrap or frozen chunks of ice. Little things like a lack of transitions between loading screens, Sonic's Air Dash launching immediately instead of taking a moment to charge, and the returning Enerbeam mechanic trimmed down to swinging around all make Fire & Ice that much more fun to play. Even the titular gimmick, imbuing Sonic and friends with an aura of either fire or ice, added a fun twist in split-second decision-making of taking down icy roadblocks or freezing up water for additional platforms.
Unfortunately, I noticed one glaring downside as I went fast for the first time in Kodiak Frontier: the sense of speed in the main levels of Fire & Ice relies on a lot of boost-pads and auto-running between stage segments. Speed is not so much a reward as I would have appreciated like in the classics, as here it was instead thrust upon me while Sonic would blaze through twists and turns past landmarks without my control. I also noticed a lack of momentum physics when my character of choice would come to a dead stop once I released the circle pad. This was best exemplified with Sonic's Spin Dash when I would jump after releasing its charge, without holding the circle pad towards a certain direction, and Sonic would quickly drop like a rock. There was also the fact that the Spin Dash takes off for a set distance before slowing down, even as I was going up or down slopes when I would expect to slow down or speed up respectively. In that respect, the physics are oddly reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
My other gripe with the gameplay in Fire & Ice was the patronizing hint system. From start to end, blocks of ice would all have Fire icons, blobs of water all have Ice icons, all Enerbeam swings are marked with the A button by default, and areas requiring character-specific actions to proceed already have their icons on display. Almost every necessary action I need to take is already labelled for me instead of letting me figure things out as I play. I understand that Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is aimed at a younger audience, but having the option to turn these hints off would have been greatly appreciated.
Outside of the main stages and the Rivals-esque Bot Races, each island has three bonus stages players could choose to complete for extra collectibles. The underground tunnels from Shattered Crystal return, with Sonic bolting down a 3D tunnel, using Ener-Rails to cross large chasms and quick-stepping around obstacles, now with Fire and Ice Modes to melt or freeze terrain when necessary. The time-limited Sea Fox stages also play similarly as before, as players navigate the submarine underwater, equipped with missiles and sonar to destroy naval mines and debris. Finally, there are also the brand new Hovercraft stages, where Tails must sail down the end of a frozen canal and destroy icebergs—definitely the easiest of the three side-stages.
As for the optional collectibles, you can hoard Ragnium by destroying robots, collecting Dragon Rings, clearing levels under a certain time, and using Streetpass. There are also Trading Cards available as rewards for clearing Challenge Rooms in each main stage and the Sea Fox and Hoverboard bonus stages, and Junk and Hammer Parts scattered around the main stages. The Hammer Parts allow you to change Amy's Piko Hammer, Junk Parts net you the Sticks-bot, and Trading Cards reward you with new stages for local multiplayer Bot-Racing on Thunder Island. Ragnium is where your main focus will likely fall under, just as it did for me; you can spend Ragnium for pieces of production art of the cartoon, complete with creator commentary, including some sneak peeks at what's ahead for season 2. Should you choose, you can also hand Ragnium over to Tails to build other character-themed Bots and power-ups.
Graphically speaking, there isn't a whole lot to be amazed about, but Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice saw some minor upgrades over Shattered Crystal.
Players will notice right away that the opening cutscene appears to be lifted wholesale from the Sonic Boom cartoon, due to the fact that Sonic Boom studio OuiDo! Productions has animated a few cutscenes for Fire & Ice. (Correction: The pre-rendered CGI for Fire & Ice was actually produced by Pure Imagination Studios. I apologise for any confusion this might have caused.) For the most part, the story progresses through scenes using in-game models just like in Shattered Crystal, but with one major difference: Sanzaru Games has opted for fully-voiced, moving scenes in Fire & Ice instead of relying on character model closeups and text boxes. Dialogue and interaction between the cast is therefore conveyed much more fluently, and the jokes, whether one likes Boom-brand humor or not, never overstay their welcome as a result.
The Zones themselves are pretty diverse when it comes to themes. Kodiak Frontier serves as the perpetual wintery introduction; Seaside Island is the bright and cheerful coastal jungle Sonic and friends call home; Paleo Tarpits brings together unearthed dinosaur bones and oozing tar; Cutthroat Cove stands out as an abandoned pirate hideout; and Gothic Gardens—my personal favorite of the bunch—beholds a dark and dreary graveyard setting before transitioning towards a breaking dawn over expansive castle ruins.
Altogether, it makes for a neat cavalcade of stages to explore or blitz through with memorable set-pieces in mind, and most of the drawn backgrounds are quite pretty to look at. Level maps on the bottom screen are much more detailed and easier to read instead of being a simple blue outline like last time, and the same can be said for the underwater Sea Fox stages. However, the overall level design is still pretty blocky-looking rather than flowing together organically.
As for sound, Richard Jacques has composed, arranged, and contributed music for a number of Sonic games in the past, going as far back as Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R on the SEGA Saturn, and most recently with the Sonic Boom games, having returned once again for Fire & Ice. Those familiar with Jacques' work will know what to expect: music with great atmosphere for the stage it is catered to and catchy melodies to boot, although I didn't find myself memorizing a lot of these by the end of my time with the game. Some standouts for me personally are "Hazardous Conduit," which accompanies Sonic in those underground speed tunnels, and "Terror Tower" towards the end of the game, if only because it heavily reminded me of the music of Sonic and the Black Knight—which Jacques also contributed to.
The Verdict: A Stepping Stone for Future Sonic Boom Games
With all of that said, Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable to me. It definitely isn't fantastic, as there are still some issues that need another closer look, but it otherwise is exactly as advertised: a much better and faster-paced game over its predecessor, and a game that redeems the Sonic Boom name.
I get that fans of the series will rather wait for Sonic Mania, but if you're willing to give the spinoff franchise another chance, you're bound to get a fair amount of fun out of Fire & Ice, as I would call it a worthy addition to any Sonic fan's 3DS library. In the future, I would look forward to another Sonic Boom title if Sanzaru Games was once again at the helm, provided they can be just as effective in incorporating feedback for that new game as they have proven to be with Fire & Ice.
You done good, Sanzaru Games. You done good.
A copy of Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice was provided to Gamnesia by SEGA of America for the purposes of this review.