Sonic Forces Review

Together we will show the world what we can’t do!  You are stuck with me and I’m stuck with you!  Pushing on through until the deed is done!  No one’s gonna give nothing to us!  In each other we have no trust! Standing divided, after this farce!

Sonic Forces Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Sonic Forces asks a fairly familiar question for series that center around a designated hero character fighting against a villain, what if evil won?  What if after after failing… at least 20 times to take over the world, Eggman and the cast of assorted antagonists managed to defeat Sonic and dominate the world.  A concept that puts the expanded cast of characters on the defensive, only occupying a small pocket of a mostly Eggman dominated planet, desperate to rescue the captured and tortured (yes, really) Sonic in order to stand a fighting chance.  With the game recapping the story of the uprising of Sonic and his assorted friends as they try and take back the planet one step at a time, except not really because every facet of this story is, well, blatantly underdeveloped.

It is incredibly easy to view so much of this game as being a diehard modern Sonic fan’s dream come true.  A game that adopts a darker storyline, featuring the entire cast of assorted characters, including nods and ties to prior titles, familiar areas that had been industrialized as part of the Eggman regime, and incorporating them all into a story featuring their very own OC.  It is an idea that would require a lot of passion, drive, and resources, which all seem like the sort of thing that a supposed 4 years of rigorous development could bring, amounting to a title that feels like even more of a tribute to the series than even Sonic Generations.  Except, well, that is not what Sonic Forces is.  Not even close.  

The Sonic series is not known for its quality storytelling, but up until Forces at the very least it could all be considered to take place in a somewhat cohesive world.  A world with a lot of abstract and stylized locales that, while impractical geographically, do draw some general basis from reality, and all of which are said to exist in a somewhat realistic world.  Realistic in the sense that there are distinct nations, a large population of human beings, modern cities, and even some iconic landmarks. While the more realistic aspects are ignored in certain games, and are outright avoided in recent titles like Sonic Colors, Generations, and Lost World, as they all are disconnected from the main Sonic world, this is something that I have taken for a given, and has been supported by just about every game… until Forces.  

In the world of Sonic Forces, there are no humans other than Eggman, and instead the dominant species of this planet appear to be vaguely anthropomorphic animals, not dissimilar to the approach taken by the comic series.  However, there is no explanation given why this is now the case, or for other oddities of this game, such as how the world apparently only consists of a handful of very specific biomes, or why characters such as Silver, who comes from the future, is randomly here and… nobody ever asks why or how he got here.

Then there is classic Sonic, who contributes basically nothing to the story and is just included because people liked seeing him in Generations, and he functions as another selling point for this game by technically making it a crossover title with Sonic Mania.  However, there is something about his inclusion that bugs me, and it is how Tails comments that classic Sonic hails from another dimension.  Not a different time, as seen in Sonic Generations, despite Tails implying that he met with classic Sonic before, so this is a sequel to Sonic Generations or not?  Wait, considering how different from the rest of the prior titles this game appears to be, does that mean that it actually takes place in a different dimension than the other mainline titles?

If that’s the case, that means that all of these discrepancies were intentional, as the writers and designers must have known this was going to be an alternate universe take from the beginning!  Or maybe they were just being a gaggle of incompetent fools who just did not give a damn about what they were doing… Actually, no, this is Sonic Team I’m talking about, so the answer is probably that “basically what happened is that everyone had like, amnesia.”  

The story proper naturally involves Sonic, classic Sonic, and the player created avatar characters bringing down the Eggman regime by going through a series of stages at rapid speeds and battling against a group of familiar and imposing villains.  By which I mean Metal Sonic, that red thing from Lost World, the perpetually incompetent Eggman, and a new antagonist in the form of Infinite, who is little more than a bargain bin Saturday morning edgelord.  This involves bopping around the surprisingly small world of Sonic, recapturing territory while the gaggle of Sonic’s friends allegedly do things in the background and fill most stages with repetitive chatter that I honestly stopped paying attention to halfway through the game.

It is a story that lacks the same fanservice as Generations, despite aiming to service fans quite blatantly.  Lacks the bite and detail needed to drive home the idea it uses as its core premise.  And in general lacks anything to really drive home investment in these characters, who are presented with little to no context, and mostly serve as talking heads for most of the game.  It all feels overly restricted by either disagreements about how the story should play out or just general development resources, which is something that I feel I should address before even talking about the gameplay.

There are three factors I want to bring up.  Firstly, a large number of Sonic Team staff who worked on games like Sonic Unleashed and Generations have left the company and worked for other developers, namely Nintendo.  With former Sonic Team staff having worked on games like Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.  Secondly, the game only started full development roughly one year prior to release, 5 years after Sonic Generations was released, with the interim time being spent working out the concept and making improvements to the Hedgehog Engine.  Thirdly, once development started though, there were a lot of contract workers employed, and one of the most important jobs in any game like this, the level design, was only handled by three level designers, a dramatic decrease in comparison to prior 3D Sonic titles.  One of these designers worked on Lost World, which has a completely different gameplay style, while the other two had never worked on a Sonic game before.

That all sounds like a recipe for an unmitigated disaster, but that is not necessarily the case, as the game in general manages to capture a very strong “okay” status.  Where the quality of the level design dictate the bulk of the game’s quality, and it very much fluctuates. With certain stages being fairly enjoyable, and others being genuine slogs rife with unintuitive design elements.  

The enjoyable stages share the common theme of fluidity, allowing for creative and intuitive fast speed platforming as the three playable characters, moving along a well laid out path across a stage with clear hazards and a few alternative paths that are clearly laid out and encourage some degree of replay value that is reinforced by, well, everything else.  While the less enjoyable stages do the exact opposite, featuring unintuitive design elements that often encourages a slower paced means of progression, or demand that the player move as fast as possible, lest they be met with a sudden death.

Little thing simply are not aligned properly for the form of fluid fast movement that the game encourages, whether it be elements of the level geometry itself, bad enemy placement, or the general physics.  It all genuinely feels like a regression compared to how solid Generations wound up, and falls into the same ruts that I found to be overly common in the Wii version of Unleashed and Colors.  People have also levied criticisms towards how linearly certain levels are designed, and while I am inclined to agree to them, that is closer to boring level design than it is bad.

Moving onto specifics, stages are divided into four different playstyles.  Ones involving modern Sonic, which follow the trends established with the three prior “boost” titles.  Classic Sonic stages that feel more like the ones seen in Generations than anything else.  Avatar stages that play like a slowed down rendition of modern Sonic stages, replacing the boost with equippable weapons and the return of wisps, despite the fact that Sonic Colors ended with them all leaving for their home planet.  Along with stages wherein the player controls both modern Sonic and the Avatar, utilizing both Sonic’s boost, and the player’s weapons.

Modern stages are largely what one would expect from the preceding games in this series, but with an emphasis on taking on large groups of enemies who are arranged like bowling pins and generally speeding through obstacles.  I would say that I like this gameplay in places though, as it captures the core appeal of the boost style gameplay, which is to say stylishly and quickly moving through a given level. Yet a number of instances where the the level design stalls, or something difficult to process is thrust in front of the player as they are boosting away does diminish the general enjoyability of some of these stages, as it is alarmingly easy to go against the deliberately structured route for these levels and fall into the great abyss.

Classic Sonic stages are overall fine, though I feel as if most of the criticism brought up towards them stem from how they compare to Sonic Mania, which had staged crafted by the undisputed masters of 2D Sonic, and here, well, the physics are off, and the general design does not emphasize speed as much as it probably should.  They are playable, but contain many instances of oversight and in general, well, I found them to be the least enjoyable out of all of the three playable character due to how I feel they have the least amount of highlights across the stages, none of which I found particularly appealing.

Avatar stages are similarly linear to the modern Sonic stages, but with the lack of boost and introduction of a variety of equippable weapons, does hint at a new and different playstyle that really never comes to fruition.  Instead, the weapon chosen is primarily how the Avatar deals damage to the copious amount of enemies that they gotta mess up, and it determines which singular wisp power the avatar can use, which I honestly found to be needlessly restrictive.  

As a whole, these stages are not necessarily bad, and instead represent what I consider to be an experiment of sorts for a new form of gameplay while keeping close to what Sonic Team, in theory, already knows.  I genuinely would have liked to see these stages adopt a design closer to those seen in the Adventure games, focusing more on the use of weaponry, and maybe even the wisps themselves. I could easily see this gameplay being taken into a direction more akin to the Ratchet and Clank series, but with a faster pace, less intensive platforming, and a greater focus on flashy gameplay.  There is a good idea here, but it, like just about everything else in this game, feels underdeveloped.

As for the other aspects of the Avatar, one of my favorite things to do in games with character creators is to craft goofy, cool, and edgy outfits for my personal character, trying to find a good style for them, and ultimately creating a fashionable avatar for me to use in this world.  Gradually gaining new styles to try out and experiment with, before settling on the final design for a given character. Sonic Forces gives the player copious amounts of articles of clothing to create their idealized character, and gaining these by completing stages, getting S ranks, doing stupidly restrictive time trial challenges, collecting every bloody Red Ring, and so forth.  It was rewarding at first, but diminishing returns came in soon after everything I received started to be a recolor of something I already had.

At this point in time, I considered being able to recolor a character’s clothing in a game like this to be a fairly obvious trait, but no, instead the player receives three versions of all pieces of clothing, and is unable to recolor them.  The avatar can be whatever color the player wants, same with their mouth, but not clothes, despite this being a relatively easy feature to implement as far as I am aware. Furthermore, the options available for character creation itself are rather limited, and the player is unable to replicate certain character trait in their original characters.  Such as Knuckles’ dreadlocks. I have Knuckles’ shoes, but I can’t have his hair? What nonsense is that?

Visually, I actually find Sonic Forces to look rather indistinguishable from Generations, if only due to the visual fidelity featured in the 2011 title, and how graphical leaps are getting incrementally less impressive as times goes on.  It is still a very good looking game, one that is a bit lacking in certain effects, such as the fire spurted out by one weapon, but in general it manages to be a very detailed and attractive looking title.  Yet it is unfortunately marred by environments that are repeated with very little variation employed between them, and a few sections where it is genuinely difficult to keep track of the playable character thanks to the lighting, screen positioning, and busy backgrounds that do not allow characters to pop out.

It also adopts a stylish approach to its user interface and menus with a limited color palette and an emphasis on jutting angled quadrangles that I actually found to feel appropriate with the revolutionary theme this game tries to evoke.  It is certainly something that I feel is not reflected in the game’s 7 total environments, except for the city that is perpetually ablaze and the final area. In fact, I would say that most of these environments feel overly plain, including repeats of Green Hill and Chemical Plant that I think actually reuse assets from Generations.  With the only sort of unique one being the poorly lit neon filled Mystic Jungle.

As for the soundtrack, I have been listening to excerpts from the OST for a while now, and I actually like a good portion of the tracks featured here, which do a better job at capturing the edgy tone Forces is obviously trying to achieve better than any other aspect.  I am a sucker for vocal tracks in Sonic games, and the ones featured here certainly do not disappoint, though many of the faux-retro tracks in the classic stages can be a bit grading in comparison to the ones used in the modern and Avatar stages.  Also, I feel that the biggest note against this game’s soundtrack is how it is implemented in the game, with many tracks audibly drowning in the radio chatter that is played throughout most stages. I am glad to see a level of greater involvement from the extended cast, but it is hard to enjoy the music when there is so rarely a 30 stretch without dialog.

I want to stress the fact that Sonic Forces is enjoyable at certain points.  The gameplay does have some merit, and in what should be the motto for the Sonic series as a whole, when it works, it works very well.  However, the game ultimately feels underdeveloped in every facet. From the story over bloated with wasted potential. To inconsistent stages that are greatly lacking in polish.  While I personally found the Avatar system to be something of a highlight, it is merely an interesting idea sandwiched in a game that unfortunately falls into the same middling category as so many other Sonic games.  But hey, there’s always next time.  There’s always next time…

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