Sonic Unleashed Review

Of all the endless possibilities, I just had to end up with you, didn’t I?

You know, I never set out to go through and review every mainline Sonic game, but it recently occurred to me that I was on track of doing just that, having gone from the original Sonic The Hedgehog to Shadow The Hedgehog and from Sonic 4 to… well, Lost World, as I have not picked up Mania or Forces yet.  And seeing as how I am not enough of a masochist to play Sonic ‘06, I guess I may as well complete the saga with Sonic Unleashed… the Wii version in particular, as that is what I played when the game came out.

Sonic Unleashed Review
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, WIi(Reviewed), PS2
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Sonic Unleashed picks up in media res of a typical scenario for this series, with Sonic rushing through the flying fortress of Dr. Eggman before using the power of the chaos emeralds to go Super Sonic and expectedly wreck Eggman’s plans.  But in a fairly clever move, Eggman recognizes this familiar predicament and uses the power of Super Sonic and the chaos emeralds to  launch a beam of light at the Earth that cases the planet to shatter into several pieces and unleashes Dark Gaia.  An ancient evil force which Eggman thinks he can control, because apparently the creators gave up on making Eggman seem even remotely senseable.  Also, unleashing Dark Gaia ended up transforming Sonic into a werehog, a haphazardly worded way of saying that he turned into a furry and more savage looking beast creature with spiked shoes and a gravelly voice added in for good measure.

From there, Sonic is sent back to Earth by Eggman, who apparently had yet to think about keeping Sonic prisoner and torturing him for six months, where he encounters the new animal friend of this title, Chip.  After befriending the flying fairy chihuahua thing, Sonic realizes that he transforms back to normal during the day and sets off on a journey to save the world, as he seemingly does every other week.  

From that overly complicated introduction, the story really does not do much noteworthy, interesting, or all that memorable.  It very quickly devolves into a series of levels only loosely tied to finding seven magical temples that are tied to the chaos emeralds, which Sonic has from the get-go but they are inert, and travelling around a world that borders on being an uncomfortable one due to the very exaggerated and at times garish designs of the people who exist within it.  Travel from continent to continent in a predetermined manner, talk to the people in an arbitrarily chosen village, find the person who knows about the temple, go through stages to get to the temple, and then rinse and repeat until story ends.

The Wii version is notable for how underplayed the whole globe trotting aspect of this story is, as instead of travelling across a small hub area, players simply select areas from a list, go talk to an image of a 3D model while reading their stock dialog, and then move onto the next dialog scene on the list.  I stopped listening to what characters were even saying after a point, and actually began to appreciate how simple and short their dialog was, as it meant I did not need to look at their malformed faces for much longer.

There are a few notable characters who are featured in the game’s numerous pre-rendered cutscenes.  Tails and Amy both return for rather bit parts.  A new character by the name of Professor Pickle is thrown in for… reasons I could not determine, seeing as how he mostly just directs Sonic to his next destination and gushes about cucumber sandwiches.  While the markque new character, Chip, is easily the most useless and obnoxious thing to ever be inserted into the Sonic series, while also serving as a giant fluttering macguffin whose true purpose with regards to the plot is utterly asinine.  The only positive thing I have to say about him is that at least he has the decency to die before the story meanders into a predictable conclusion that wraps things up and returns the series to its status quo, with nothing begin gained or learned.

Story aside, Unleashed is notable for establishing the boost gameplay that served as the primary gameplay for 3D Sonic games for the last few major releases, excluding Lost World.  In addition to that innovation, Unleashed also introduced another gameplay format with the dark beast form of Sonic, which was called a werehog because somebody at Sonic Team did not understand how the word werewolf worked, and these werehog stages account for the majority of the game.  I do not have a solid number, but saying that 75% of the game focuses on the werehog sounds accurate.  As such, I’ll talk about them first.

This werehog is a bizarre conceptual hodgepodge of Dark Jak, Ristar, and Altered Beast, whose gameplay sections are clumsy, sluggish, and competently built to the extent where they are playable, yet never enjoyable.  Combat functions as a subpar God of War-esque button basher with annoyingly evasive enemies, a frustratingly unhelpful camera, and damage numbers that begin working against the player later on in the game in order to increase the difficulty in the easiest way to program.  Enemies also often clutter to overwhelm werehog Sonic, who lacks much in regard to crowd control, in spite of his incredibly long and stretchy arms.

Combat itself also suffers from the limited movepool available to werehog Sonic, which is also driven by a strange combo system that involves alternating between L and R to perform left and right punches, or slashes I suppose.  Holding them together performs a series of unlockable special moves that are difficult to perform due to how often enemies wander away from the werehog’s attacks, and are easy to trigger by accident while button mashing, which works perfectly well for the majority of the game.   

When not taking part in combat, the werehog sections either consists of travelling to the next combat encounter by haplessly running, or a piece of platforming that is largely informed by that featured in the Prince of Persia series, but without the poise, care, polish, and, well, enjoyability.  Platforming is slow, sluggish, simple, and imprecise due to a variety of factors that I could just summarize as poor design.  Jump towards an interactable glowing object, press the grab button, and hold it while fighting against the fixed camera to move effectively and not accidentally jump into a bottomless pit because the control stick was not being pointed in the exact right direction.

These stages are all mediocre fluff that serves as filler content and a way to make use of the numerous assets required to make the daytime levels of Sonic Unleashed, which are supposedly the main attraction, but either Sonic Team was still struggling to figure out this new gameplay style, or the team assigned to these versions lacked the time needed to hone out the kinks.  I say this because while the daytime stages are enjoyable to an extent, they possess a rough and unpolished quality, which is all the more apparent considering how there are, not counting boss battles, only eight stages.

At their core, the daytime stages are 2D and 3D set pieces where a mixture of speedy movements, a keen attention for detail, and experimentation can allow for an enjoyable sense of speed as players learn how to traverse these expansive and visually impressive areas with both ease and grace.  Which I suppose one could call the core appeal of Sonic altogether.  However, and I know I bring this up a lot when reviewing Sonic games, the controls, level design, and underlying physics do not always work well together, and it often can feel as if the player must fight against the game in order to achieve the sense of accomplishment and euphoria the game is meant to evoke.  

Sonic’s stages are designed around utilizing his speed, something that arguably not at the forefront in the 3D titles before now, but in the developer’s attempt at making Sonic feel faster, they sacrificed the ability to control him freely.  Sonic is designed around moving forward, with the act of turning being relegated to a dedicated drift button, the homing attack being the primary means of interacting with the stage, and the new boost mechanic being introduced to further emphasize the sense of speed above all else.  Every level is designed around speedrunning to the end to get a higher rank,  with the entire concept of the score being thrown out, oddly enough.

Now, this idea can and has worked in subsequent titles, but here Sonic is a bit too hard to control with finesse.  With the way he moves combined with the design of the stages, it can be very easy to boost off of a cliff accidentally, or miss a dash or jump panel despite trying to steer into it.  I honestly lost track of how many times something like this happened in my playthrough, and while I am fully open to admitting that something like that would be my fault, I rarely ever felt that way at any point in Sonic Unleashed.  Either its environmental cues were too subtle, the camera was not clear, or Sonic simply did not want to go in a perfectly straight line.

All of this lack of polish culminates in a collection of enjoyable levels that occupy the front half of the experience, while the latter half is where the issues begin piling up.  With the final stage, Eggmanland, being the biggest offender.  Many sections of this stage feel as if they are deliberately designed to punish players who want to go fast, with uneven runways, tight turns, and an assortment of obstacles to impede progress.  If I was not playing this on an emulator with save states, I don’t know if I would have ever beaten this stage.  In fact, back when I first played this game back in 2008, I could never manage to get past this stage, and sold the game back to GameStop accordingly

I should also mention another element, another part of gameplay that stands between the two aforementioned gameplay styles.  By doing well in stages, and by completing the incredibly simplistic and asset recycling side missions, players are rewarded with access to various puzzle rooms where they must switch between werehog Sonic and daytime Sonic in order to obtain keys to other puzzle rooms, rubbish collectibles, more challenge missions, and extra lives.  

These puzzles are simplistic, slow, and are overall forgettable beyond their novel concept, but they are the only way to get extra lives in this game.  You see, instead of having a continuous number of extra lives, and allowing players to earn them by collecting rings, extra lives restock after every stage, and the restock amount is based on how many extra lives have been connected in these puzzle rooms.  Otherwise, players only have two extra attempts at each stage before they must start over again.  I have absolutely no idea why they thought this was a good idea… and why they didn’t just remove lives altogether while they were at it.

I should also mention that the Wii and PS2 versions of Unleashed have quite a bit of cut content when compared to its HD counterparts.  One area is relegated to only a single boss fight and no regular stages.  One area was completely removed.  While the town hub areas, which were supposedly annoying to navigate anyways, were replaced with menu navigation and talking to jpegs of 3D models, but that may actually be a benefit.  These areas and environments are also referenced during some pre-rendered cutscenes, which makes these omissions seem all the more glaring.

On that note, the game looks like a simplified and overall worse version of the vastly more visually impressive HD counterparts, with low quality textures, simple lighting and shadow effects, and a rather sterile feeling series of environments.  The game is clearly compromised by hardware limitations, the requirements of its fast paced gameplay, and what was likely a fairly small dev team without a lot of time for optimization.  Playing it in an emulator with anti-aliasing and rendered at a higher than native resolution did help make the game look better, but not by a whole lot.  In fact, I actually think the game looks worse than the Dreamcast-era 3D Sonic games.

Sonic Unleashed is an often frustrating yet occasionally enjoyable title.  It’s daytime stages serve as a blueprint of something that would be further refined as the series went forward, but their small quantity and occasionally frustrating designs prevent them from achieving much of a sense of splendor.  While the majority of the playtime is spent playing as a slow sluggish and temperamental little beastial hedgehog through long stages full of dull platforming and repetitive combat.

Oh, but I would be remiss if I ended this review without addressing the Project Unleashed mod for Sonic Generations, which ported the daytime levels of this game into the PC version of Sonic Generations.  The end result is a rather impressive recreation of several levels that are actually quite more enjoyable than what was offered in the Wii version.  With the exception of some of the later levels, which feature difficult to observe obstacles and lack the same immediate visual clarity that seemed more common in the first few stages.  Still, when the game is good, it is really, really good, and it makes me curious about how the HD version of Unleashed, which I never played, would hold up in comparison to the SD version.  Also, the project was cancelled last year, so don’t expect to see the rest of the stages be brought over.

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