Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 Review

The year is 2010. A number of mediocre to absolutely disgusting console titles have utterly annihilated the reputation of the once beloved blue hedgehog, Sonic. Fans and critics alike treat each new release with more and more vitriol, and look to the second dimension, in which the hedgehog was much better received, for help. The well-received handheld Advance and Rush games, developed by Dimps, had already set a precedent that 2-D Sonic games tend to fare better than the console-based 3-D ones, and thus many believed that a return to 2-D on consoles would save this declining franchise from the trash heap. Thus, SEGA once again outsourced to Dimps and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, the start of a downloadable throwback series to the original Genesis trilogy, was created…and it received one of the most polarized receptions of any game in the series since Sonic Adventure 2. Most critics liked it, most others thought it was okay, and much of the fanbase treated it with almost as much bile as the despicable Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. To go into detail would make this introduction drag on forever, so I’m just going to use some popular buzzwords: physics, automation, physics, rehashing, and physics. Oh, and green eyes.

Of course, I did review the game back in October of 2010 and, at the time, I freaking loved it. It was the most fun I had had with a console Sonic game in nine years. Of course, after the shock of actually enjoying a Sonic game wore off and I played the game more and more, some of the problems did begin to become more apparent. In particular, the glitchy, inertia-less physics started to bug me more and even aside from that it really couldn’t hold a candle to the classics it was billing itself as a sequel to. That said, I did find myself going back to it a lot and enjoying myself every time, so I’m still happy that I bought it in the end. Now we have Episode 2, for which they promised to take our complaints to heart and make a better game. Did they succeed at doing so or do what Square Enix did earlier this year with Final Fantasy XIII-2 and fail miserably? The answer lies herein.


Let’s start things off this time by talking about the aesthetics. One thing veterans of Episode 1 will immediately notice is that the game’s visual style has been completely redone, and it looks great. The visuals are a lot more vibrant and colorful and Sonic’s sprite looks considerably better and is a lot more expressive. Environments are made out of a lot more materials than the plastic and cardboard of old. The backgrounds are simply gorgeous as well and there’s usually a lot going on in them. In Oil Desert’s background, for example, you can see the drills and machinery operating and you’ll be able to see the various colorful attractions in the background of White Park. Zones, in general, look very inspired and quite diverse, and they feature some nice set pieces as well. Oh, and rest assured: this game, for the most part, does NOT rehash Zones or enemies from older Sonic games. I can’t say, aside from the enemies, that it’s all-new, as some elements – especially in Sky Fortress - are definitely going to feel familiar, but the Zones feel new enough that I doubt you’ll have a problem with it. Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn’t fare quite so well.  Many decried the “dying cat” synthesizers of the first episode, and thankfully, they’re gone, but they’ve been replaced by what will come off at first as an obnoxious metallic buzzing, or, in the case of Oil Desert Act 2…quacking ducks. Some tracks may eventually grow on you and there may be some that you’ll love immediately, but there were definitely several, such as the Eggman boss theme and White Park Acts 1 and 2, that I just couldn’t get into.

Now it’s time to discuss the gameplay and before you ask, yes, they did fix the physics and they did a pretty good job at that. All of Sonic’s jumps and other such movements carry inertia just as they should and Sonic can no longer stand upright on walls as if his shoes contain ridiculously powerful magnets. As such, movement feels a great deal better than it did in Episode 1. They still haven’t gotten the rolling mechanic quite down just yet, but eh, it’s a small problem at worst. So, with that said, the Rush and Rivals games aside, if you’ve played a 2-D Sonic game before, you should have a good idea of what to expect from Sonic 4: Episode 2. It’s a platformer based around the fact that Sonic can run really, really fast. There are also Rings to collect so you won’t die, enemies to bounce and homing attack into, springs to bounce off of and everything you associate with Sonic. However, Sonic 4: Episode 2 introduces a new gimmick that you will be making use of a lot in the game.

See, Episode 2 brings Sonic’s sidekick Tails back into gameplay. You won’t be able to control him solo in single player mode, but you will be using him a lot to help Sonic get through the level. Pressing the “Square” button (on PS3) on the ground will cause them both to curl up into an uncontrollable, spinning ball of death that destroys everything in their path, which is useful for clearing otherwise insurmountable obstacles and just annihilating everything. You will have to uncurl from it eventually, however, as you can’t control left or right movement while using this move. Tails’ ability to fly using his two tails also comes into play; press the “Square” button in mid-air and Tails will be able to fly you upwards for a short time, and doing so while underwater will let you use Tails to swim since, as usual, Sonic can’t do it himself. Really, you’d think he’d have taken lessons by now.  Anyway, this is an interesting gimmick that is executed pretty well. You will be using it a lot to find different routes through levels and the level design puts it to some other pretty fun and inventive uses, such as navigating an underwater cave filled with suicidal ice-breathing walruses, as the game goes on.

And that’s another thing that people hoped would see improvement: the level design, and, well…it definitely has in some ways, but some fans will still be disappointed by the overuse of automation. Yes, Episode 1 was criticized for its perceived overuse of springs and speed boosters, which some thought was often unnecessary and made the game feel like it was playing itself at some points. Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of that here. I never actually found this inherently problematic in Episode 1, but honestly, even I’m getting kind of tired of it at this point. Don’t get me wrong; in moderation, just setting the controller down and watching Sonic blast around at high speeds can be pretty satisfying and there are even times where it’s kind of satisfying here, but the problem is that this game just overuses it. Of course, that’s not to say that the level design is bad; there’s still plenty to enjoy here and the automation doesn’t hurt the experience too much – at least for me – but it is disappointing. Actually, there was one level that I thought it kind of worked for, and that was White Park Act 2. Being a level meant to simulate a giant rollercoaster, the use of springs and boosters felt like it fit and there was still some decent platforming here and there. Some fans will find the level to be bland, but personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anyway, while Episode 2 doesn’t get rid of the automation, its level design does prove to be quite a bit better than Episode 1’s regardless. For one thing, levels tend to be a lot larger, providing a lot more to see and plenty of different ways to get through each stage, which is always a very good thing. Straight-up platforming appears more frequently than in Episode 1 and there is much more creative use of stage-specific gimmicks as well as the previously mentioned team actions. Levels are also very diverse in the challenges they pose, and speaking of challenge, there’s a LOT more of it than in Episode 1. It’s not quite what I’d call a particularly difficult game, but it won’t be a cakewalk either, especially in its second half. Oh, and the game also has a level that features Sonic riding on Tails’ airplane, in the vein of such stages as Sky Chase or Tornado Defense (eh…sort of), and it’s probably the best stage of its kind to appear in the series thus far. And then there are the bosses, which actually impressed me a lot. Okay, the first one is bad – really bad – but beyond that, things improve considerably. The Oil Desert and final bosses, in particular, are some of the most epic, unique and challenging bosses I’ve fought in a Sonic game in a long time – barring Generations of course – and all of the fights against Metal Sonic are really fun. It actually surprised me how good the boss design was; you can really tell that Dimps got on their A-game here…after the first one. Honestly, it confuses me how that one turned out so ridiculously easy and boring, especially considering how awesome it looks. But I digress.
The other ones are awesome, it's just...this one. How.

And then there are the special stages, which are reminiscent of Sonic Rush’s special stages, which means that they’re reminiscent of Sonic 2’s special stages, which have been recycled by the franchise a number of times now.  Sonic 4: Episode 2 unfortunately doesn’t even go as far as Sonic Heroes or Colors DS did to cover this up; you’re just running forward through a half-pipe, collecting Rings and dodging obstacles. Don’t get me wrong; the stage is still plenty fun and does add a couple of new twists, and the last few are pretty dang tough. It’s just that the Sonic 2 special stage is getting kind of old at this point, and it’s about time for them to come up with a new one. And if not that, then they really need to give the Blue Sphere special stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles a nod. Those were the best in the whole freakin’ series.

Sonic 4: Episode 2 allows you to play co-op with a friend, either locally or online, in which one player takes control of Sonic and one takes control of Tails. I’m not much of a co-op guy myself, but I did try it out, and it seems to work pretty well. The one thing I found fault with was that both players share one Ring counter, basically meaning that if one player gets hit, neither player will have any Rings. Honestly, I think that it would have worked better if they either had separate Ring counters or only half of the collected Rings were lost if one of them took a hit. Regardless, because of this, you will want to play co-op with someone as skilled as you are, and also because it’s easy to outrun other players thanks to how fast the game moves.

One more thing: if you own both Episodes 1 and 2 on the same console, you will actually have access to a free bonus episode called “Episode Metal”, in which you play as Metal Sonic through four levels from Episode 1 in a story that bridges the gap between Episodes 1 and 2, and the four levels feature different designs from their original incarnations. Unfortunately, since I bought Episode 1 on Wii, which Episode 2 is not available for, I probably won’t be playing it anytime soon. I can’t say it’s not cool that they did that, though.

The Good:
+ Great graphics 
+ Greatly improved physics 
+ Team gimmick works well 
+ Generally solid level design 
+ Co-op is good 
+ Free bonus episode if you own both main episodes on one console 
+ Great boss fights…

The Bad:
- …Except for the first 
- Too much automation 
- Hit or miss soundtrack 
- Sonic 2-style special stages are getting old

So how does Episode 2 fare when compared to the classics? Well, I’m afraid Dimps still has a ways to go before they can reach that standard of quality. Sonic 2 and 3 & Knuckles are, after all, some of the greatest 2-D platformers ever made, though, personally, I don’t think Sonic 4 will ever get that good no matter how many episodes it gets. In its own right, though, Sonic 4: Episode 2 is a very enjoyable 2-D platformer despite the flaws and it’s a significant improvement over Episode 1. I personally found it to be worth the money I paid for it, and you just might, too. Until next time, adios.

Grade: B

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