For fans of Sonic the Hedgehog, the Blue Blur's 25th anniversary closed on a pretty good note with Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice in 2016, but not without teasing two major return-to-form titles in the coming year. Blue believers who grew up with a SEGA Genesis in their youth—or a Mega Collection of sorts in later years like myself—were promised a brand new 2D game developed by community all-stars who would embrace nostalgia and reimagine the classic Sonic experience. On the other hand, those who enjoyed Sonic's more recent adventures were teased with Sonic Team's very own "Project Sonic 2017," bringing Modern Sonic not only back to Boost-style gameplay last seen in Sonic Generations, but also to darker and more serious storytelling of the pre-Colors games.
In August, the phenomenal game Sonic Mania finally launched to widespread acclaim, showing the world that Classic Sonic was truly back and better than ever, and it was only a few short months until Sonic's next big adventure would finally hit store shelves. I had plenty of reasons to be excited for the upcoming game to, such as: how Mania's ending would tie in to its story, how I could create my own playable Avatar, how familiar villains would return alongside a deliciously edgy newcomer, and how I enjoyed my time with the PAX West demo.
So with all of that in mind, how does Sonic Forces live up to my expectations? Did it deliver the high quality supersonic thrills I've long been waiting for, or does it force itself too hard, spread itself too thin, and trip up on its own hype? Let's find out!
Sonic Forces opens to a day in the life of Sonic gone wrong. His beloved Green Hill Zone is overrun by sandy desert. Doctor Robotnik has launched a full-scale attack on the world to expand his Eggman Empire. And worse still, the Blue Blur falls at the hands of Infinite, his longtime nemesis' unstoppable new creation, after getting tossed around like a ragdoll by the likes of Shadow, Zavok, Metal Sonic, and Chaos. Six months pass, and Eggman has at last succeeded in conquering the globe, but a ragtag Resistance made up of Sonic's friends is still holding out. With help from the Rookie (that's you!) during a prison break and Classic Sonic chasing the Phantom Ruby into the modern world, Sonic must join forces with his allies to take back the planet from Eggman's clutches before the doctor enacts his final plan.
The story of Forces held a promising premise, but it shows one of its weaknesses right out of the gate: its storytelling. A good chunk of the actual progression ultimately relies on a series of codec calls between Resistance members between and during stages, leaning less on showing and more on telling as it leads you towards your next objective. I still enjoyed the return to a darker story for a Sonic game, and while the dialogue is expectedly "Saturday morning" corny à la writing styles of Pontac and Graff (who are thankfully relegated to localization and not lead writing), what really detracted from the plot was how its massive buildup doesn't really deliver.
For all the excitement behind the returning baddies (in order of most to least contributive): Zavok actively interacts with Sonic before engaging in a boss battle and Shadow gets his day in the limelight with his own sidestory (more on that later), so these two villains had plenty of focus already, and Metal Sonic at least gets a boss fight, but "God of Destruction" Chaos gets one-offed during a cutscene early on.
Additionally, with how high the stakes were raised over the Phantom Ruby in Sonic Mania, all Classic Sonic's appearance amounted to is him just tagging alongside Tails as he doesn't seem all that invested in hunting down the gem that came from his time—or dimension, rather. Additional questions I've had about Forces and its story, such as "at what point did Silver show up?" or "how did Infinite and Eggman first meet?" are all answered in promotional material comics outside of the actual game, and while I doubt this would annoy a social media savvy Sonic fan, not every gamer tends to follow the Sonic Social channels. It all comes across as lazy.
At the very least, there are still some highlights peppered throughout. The Phantom Ruby acts as an interesting foil to the oddly absent Chaos Emeralds as we learn more about its reality warping capabilities, the latter turning "thoughts into power" while the former turns thoughts into reality (which raises some interesting questions about the world of Sonic Mania), and the prideful-to-a-fault Infinite gets several moments to shine as you confront him several times along the story. Plus, there's a special kind of self-indulgent, teary eye-inducing joy in seeing your own customizable Hero interact with the actual Sonic cast, lead the charge, and team up with Sonic himself.
(Alright, so I may not have had a lot of friends when I was a kid.)
If there's one thing a Sonic game almost always gets right, it's the presentation.
The dubbed "Hedgehog Engine 2" does a wonderful job as a graphics engine; oftentimes I'm tempted to come to a full stop and admire the glorious scenery and lighting effects. The familiar Green Hills are blindingly bright and sunny as you would come to expect, and the dark, snowy clouds looming over Chemical Plant does make it feel brand new, while the destroyed City area (area names are not this game's strongest suit) looks as rightfully tragic and desolate as it is beautiful in the sunset's glow. The one downside is that most of the stages rely more on the industrial area trope, which isn't surprising given the Eggman-centric premise of the game, but those mechanical levels still look fantastic. That said, I am starting to feel tired of seeing older Zones yet again and am left wanting newer level ideas.
While the game is undeniably at its visual best on higher definition platforms, the Nintendo Switch version is no slouch in the looks department either. Sonic Forces was ported to Nintendo's hybrid system late in its development cycle, and while some concerns were raised over its technical performance based on preview builds, the final product thankfully runs at a smooth 30fps in 720p in both Docked and Handheld modes with no noticeable hiccups in my experience. Yes, some visual sacrifices had to be made, but the benefits of playing Sonic Forces on the go—and the exact same version of the game instead of an entirely different product like previous Sonic titles on handheld Nintendo platforms—can't be so easily ignored.
To reflect the three different styles of play, like Sonic Generations before, the Tomoya Ohtani-led soundtrack of Forces is split into three separate genres. Modern Sonic's gameplay is accompanied by appropriately intense and faster-paced music with rock-leaning instrumentation, my personal standouts being "Sunset Heights" and "Egg Gate." The Avatar's songs are a mix of drum & bass and hiphop with delightfully Sonic R levels of corny vocals that I found myself memorizing and singing along to before long. The music backing Classic Sonic, while similar to the Avatar's sans lyrics in the past with Generations, differentiates itself by emulating the Genesis sound font, starting off strong with "Ghost Town." Overall, the sound direction is pretty solid, as one would come to expect from the series, and is home to several memorable songs. Infinite's theme in particular already goes down in edgy infamy for its Shadow the Hedgehog-inspired composition.
...oh boy. Where to begin?
Just like its story, Sonic Forces talks a big game and shows a lot of promise from the outset. Unfortunately, the game does very little to tap into its full potential, and in some cases it actually takes some design steps back compared to previous entries. There are plenty of stages to play through, sure, but the game feels like it went for quantity rather than quality.
Starting off with Modern Sonic, the Blue Blur we know today returns to the Boost formula from the Unleashed era. I enjoyed the Parkour mechanic from Lost World to an extent, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to go back to high speed twists and turns through intricately designed stages and plowing right through enemies. Unleashed did an amazing job with the mechanic and Generations refined it, but the execution in Forces is heavily railroaded. Modern Sonic's levels are much more linear and shorter than ever before, and enemies act as nothing other than Boost fodder throughout the entire game and rarely strike back. His controls also feel heavy in the air, and his acceleration feels more artificial than in Generations—either you walk or go fast on a dime—which makes precision 2D platforming tedious and prone to frequent deaths.
Gone are wall-jumps and Drifting that allowed for zanier Zone design, as even sharp turns are automatic more often than not. The few instances that aren't will catch you by surprise and have you veer off into a pit and will make returning players think "Hey, what happened to the Drift?" This takes away agency from the player who could control Sonic during these sections in the past, as this does nothing to actively challenge them.
Worse yet is that Modern Sonic's platforming is only ever expanded upon in predominantly 2D areas, when 3D areas offer few alternate paths and are just meant to steer you from one part to the next. By the time levels finally feel like they start opening up to the player, they come to an unceremonious end. It isn't until you're closer to the end of the game where stages are finally expanded on.
The Avatar is the star of the show in Sonic Forces, but while the experience here is marred by similar control woes, they thankfully don't suffer from shorter stages for the most part. The amount of customization and unlockable clothing options provides a ton of variety in creating a Sonic character of your very own; you could easily recreate your self-insert imaginary character from your childhood, make a brand new friend that fits right in with the main cast, or throw good taste out the window and create something wonderfully horrid or goofy like Coldsteel the Hedgehog or Plurmp Dankenstein McFlurten the Cat, Esquire. While you're locked to one species and their allocated ability for the duration of the game, clearing the main campaign allows you to create multiple Avatars of any kind, or you could switch out with an online "Rental Hero" Avatar mid-stage.
The Avatar's abilities come second to the Wispons they wield, each with their own special attacks and assigned Wisps you can collect in each area. The concept on paper sounds excellent, but its execution comes off as shoddy. Some Wispons work better for certain stages and bosses (with no prior indication to the player), but the Avatar's stages (both solo and Tag Team with Modern Sonic) are pretty stop-and-go, while there is more tangible platforming in 2D.
Now... Classic Sonic.
Given how closely the two games were released from one another, and seeing how Christian Whitehead's team got the classic formula absolutely right, it is impossible for me not to compare Sonic Forces to Sonic Mania and say that Sonic Team lost their touch here ages ago. The addition of the Drop Dash is a nice addition, sure, albeit at the exchange of the one-button Spin Dash implemented in Generations (yet another step back). Classic Sonic's physics feel wonky and weightier than ever, and the lack of actual momentum physics when you're not rolling makes itself painfully obvious when you reach Chemical Plant. This all goes without mentioning the overabundance of Dash Panels Forces has come to rely on for an actual sense of speed, which reminds me all the more of Sonic 4 in all the wrong ways.
What's even more jarring is how few level designers were on board for a game as ambitious as Forces. This isn't necessarily unusual for a Sonic game, but when the lead designer only worked on the critically mixed Sonic Lost World and their two understudies are new blood, it feels as though level and gameplay design was more of an afterthought to Sonic Team instead of the main priority. The bosses thankfully stand out at first, but the endgame battles come off as uninspiring; the final battle against Infinite plays near-identically to the Metal Sonic fight, and the last boss... well, mechanically speaking, you fought it before. Twice.
As someone who first got into the franchise with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle all those years ago, there was one thing about Sonic Forces I very much looked forward to ever since I bore witness to it behind-the-scenes at PAX West: the long-awaited return of Shadow.
Sonic Forces: Episode Shadow is exactly the kind of fan service I can get behind. The free add-on launched with the game and put the spotlight back on Team Dark for the first time in over a decade, setting the stage for a prequel story detailing Shadow the Hedgehog's meeting with Infinite. Three stages unique to Shadow are available, each providing a decent amount of challenge and a number of musical callbacks to both his Dreamcast debut and his solo adventure in 2005, all on top of Shadow being interchangeable with Modern Sonic in the main campaign for a number of the other hedgehog's levels. SEGA mentioned that should additional, similarly-themed Episodes be released in the future, these too will be free, so hopefully we might see the return of other playable characters.
In addition, new downloadable costume pieces for the Avatar only add to the amount of fan service SEGA has lined up on the sides. Whether you aim for the stylish look of the Phantom Thieves in the Persona 5-themed Joker costume, bring out your inner rebel to the beat of Jet Set Radio, or just want to slap on a Sanic T-shirt and call it fashion, I can only hope more free content like this will come down the pipeline.
The Final Verdict: Forces Doesn't Measure Up to the Greatest Hits
With the caption "From the team that brought you Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations," Sonic Team's two most critically acclaimed titles in recent years, Sonic Forces had a lot to live up to from the very second its teaser trailer premiered back during the 25th Anniversary party at the House of Blues. With it being released just months after the highly revered Sonic Mania, the expectations were even higher for the bigger budget game coming right from the home of the Blue Blur himself.
Let me make one thing clear: Sonic Forces is nowhere near the level of unfinished or broken like the ill-fated Sonic '06 or Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. God no. It still provides some good, mindless fun at the end of the day, and if you're just looking for more Sonic goodness, you can't go wrong with Forces. For me, sadly, it's an ultimately average experience that does little to advance the series or build upon the successes of its predecessors. I love Sonic as a franchise and have been a big fan for most of my life now, so please know that I take no pleasure in writing my final verdict.
It's disheartening to me that all of my excitement amounted to an underwhelming at worst, moderate at best game because I know Sonic Team has done better in the past. Sonic Team can do better, but they really have to step up their game and concentrate on their strengths, rather than try to cater to fans on both Modern and Classic sides and wind up coming up short.
I said this before in my Mania review, but hopefully now Sonic Team will let Classic Sonic—no, 2D Sonic as a whole—rest while the retro iteration of this gaming icon is in more than capable hands with a certain team of indie developers. SEGA, please trust Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest with Classic Sonic from this point on while Sonic Team tries to make 3D Sonic work again. Do keep Avatar character customization though—that can be a mainstay.
SEGA and Sonic Team's Sonic Forces is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Sonic Forces was reviewed with a copy for the Nintendo Switch purchased at retail by the author.