There was an air of gloomy inevitability about Sonic Forces. Sonic Mania brought the Blue Blur back to his heady 90's 2D heights. Yet the record of 3D Sonic titles is…let’s say, not great. With that, it is at least easy to come into Sonic Forces with low expectations. In some ways, that’s made it more enjoyable, in others, the expectations set might be still too high.
For his latest escapade in the third dimension, Sonic has actually revisited some of the ideas of previous games rather than doing the usual trick of dumping the previous gimmick and starting all over again (usually to no avail, which keeps the cycle going). This time we get a bit of the tag-teaming from Sonic Heroes, the retro Sonic 2.5D sections of Sonic Generations, and the comically bad dialogue of every Sonic game since he gained vocal chords. The hitch here though is that it's still very much got the same issues every 3D Sonic does.
So first up, there's the story. Eggman finally defeats Sonic thanks to the help of other villains. A roster that includes Chaos, Zavok, Metal Sonic, and more importantly, the mysterious and powerful Infinite. Without Sonic, the world is at war with Eggman, and a resistance is formed by Knuckles. It is he that recruits a rookie, that is designed by you, the player.
Yes that's right, the one thing every hardcore Sonic fan has dreamed of. Having the ability to insert your fanfic Sonic character, complete with collectable, interchangeable clothing options. Plus, you get to put them into an actual Sonic game and be part of the story, no matter how terrible it is, and trust me — it's terrible. On the upside, it's definitely rubbish to the point of being entertaining. Knuckles' retains much of the idiotic wit of his Sonic Boom TV series persona. Infinite is the most delicious kind of ham evil, and Silver routinely provides the kind of amusing, cretinous hopelessness that would make Frank Spencer green with envy. The story may be utter bobbins, unable to make anyone over the age of 8 seriously invest in its world-ending nonsense, but it is at least unintentionally hilarious.
It helps that the game actually looks quite nice. Menus are a touch dull, but the cutscenes and in-game visuals are genuinely solid. The 3D representation of Green Hill Zone for instance, is the best modern reimagining of the iconic stage I've seen. There's plenty of detail in the foreground, and usually something bustling about in the background. The 3D sections are a beautiful blur of activity, though the person playing hasn't got much time to appreciate that. The corkscrew turns and quick fire assaults on enemies are particularly pleasing. Hats off to the delightfully cheesy, catchy soundtrack for complementing the speed of the game well. If only the game contained a bit more to do.
Gotta Go Fast…and Awkward
The 3D sections are still very hands-off. Most of the time you're literally just picking a direction to move, tapping a button in time to the prompt. It keeps the pace up nicely, but it's painfully obvious how limited things are whenever the game slows down for a second. There's little to explore, even less to interact with.
The grapple hook skill your player-created character has is often reduced to the same kind of minimized interaction too. Somehow it’s still the most tactile aspect of the game. You can collect a variety of flavors of it that can do some nifty extra tricks. This includes a lightning whip and a hammer that can freeze enemies, making them into temporary platforms. It’s a bit fiddly to use sometimes, but it breaks up the monotonic jump/dash/run cycle nicely.
At the other end of the mechanical spectrum are the ‘Classic Sonic' stages. Here you have a bit more interactivity. Yet it’s oddly floaty and bland when compared to the more fluid and diverse Sonic Mania. I've little doubt that the intended audience for Sonic Forces are young-uns, but the direction is less about compromising for a more inclusive all-ages feel, and more about consistently misunderstanding some of the key magic behind Sonic's relevance. Granted, this is not a new problem for the series, but here it actually feels like an effort was made to learn at least one lesson. Unfortunately the lesson was perhaps focused on the wrong subject matters.
There’s an effort to give Forces a bit more longevity after you conquer it’s fairly brief campaign. You unlock secret special stages after a while. There’s an online aspect that allows you to step in the shoes of other player’s created monstrosity. The you can take them into special one off runs of levels. These usually are accompanied by a new objective. It’s worth it at least to see the…ahem, creativity of the Sonic fanbase.
No Go Zone?
Despite its issues, I have a soft spot for Sonic Forces. It's a decent enough game for kids, and features some neat fan service. Even if it's not exactly reaching for the stars where ambition is concerned. There's a goofy, dumb appeal to the game. Unlike Sonic Unleashed, Boom, or Gods forbid, Sonic 06, it's short and sweet (ish) enough to not end up sending you into a rage. There’s far less clunky, broken, and/or slow sections by comparison.
The problem I, and many others, will have with Sonic Forces is that it represents the other, less exciting and inventive path for Sonic at this stage in his muddled career. Sonic Mania has shown clearly where Sonic is best. There's a chance that next time the lack of hope for a 3D Sonic ends with a pleasant surprise because key lessons about Sonic's appeal have finally been learned. For now however, 3D Sonic is still languishing in a spike pit of its own making.