Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II Review

by

Date Released: April 15, 2012
Date Reviewed: June 3, 2012
Genre: 2D Platformer
Players: 1-2 Players, Locally and Online
Length: 50+ Minutes
Replayability: Fair

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Introduction

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is the latest main-series release in the Sonic franchise, but a continuation of it’s original 2D style of gameplay. Conceptualized in ways to reclaim former glory and fans who have left or shunned the franchise ever since it’s transition into a 3D play space, Episode II is much of what was expected from a Sonic game in the early 1990s, but does not limit itself based on tried-and-true mechanics and concepts from the past. Created by Sonic Team, tooled by DIMPS and developed by SEGA Shanghai, Episode II is an improvement over it’s predecessor in all ways, but still fails to compare to the original series.

Concept

As a continuation of the episodic Sonic the Hedgehog 4 titles, the game is presented before 3D games like 1998’s Sonic Adventure happened, although character themes and general art presentation are very similar to modern age Sonic games, such as Sonic Colors and the Sonic Advance Game Boy Advance releases. To reflect this, some newer concepts like Sonic’s homing attack, Team Move abilities and collectable Red Star Rings are included, sometimes forcefully.

Each level in Episode II is laid out in three different acts, which upon completing will unlock a ‘boss’ fight against Dr Robotnik or Metal Sonic and then continue onto the next zone, a different setting entirely. With five zones in total and seven hidden Chaos Emeralds inside ‘Special Stages’ to be obtained, Episode II is similar length to the majority of 2D Sonic games. While not as diverse in comparison to the majority of them, it is still significantly more unique than the previous episode in terms of art, mechanics, level and boss designs.

Taking place after Episode I, the game does not show what happens directly after the first episode, making the episodic nature feel unnatural and forced. The impression the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 ‘series’ gives is that the developers preferred to only make one half of a game in 2010 and the other half later. This is reflected with the arguably overpriced selling point at 15 USD, half the amount of money needed to purchase all previous portable Sonic games by DIMPS at their launch; The only exception is the recent Nintendo 3DS release of Sonic Generations.

[If the player dies, they resume play at the last goalpost they touched]

Story

Dr Robotnik (AKA Eggman) has returned after his defeat from Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, but this time has revived Metal Sonic, the robotic rival to Sonic. Even worse, Metal Sonic is now more powerful than ever and Robotnik has revealed that he is rebuilding the Death Egg space station that was destroyed after the conclusion of Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic prepares his Tornado plane and brings his sidekick Tails along to stop the mad scientist’s evil plans once again.

The most unique portion of it’s plot is the use of Sonic CD as a backstory, which although considered a classic, is very different from the original trilogy and has constantly been left out of compilations of Sonic games sold in singular packages. The marketing prepared players as if this will effect major points of the story or be an excuse to revisit locations from past games, but none of this is fully realized and it is all just an excuse to make the rival character Metal Sonic a large focus of Episode II — moreso than he has ever been in any previous game in the franchise. Confusingly, nothing happens with the “Return of Little Planet” subplot and there is no unlockable secondary ending, even though the game hints otherwise. Regardless of how minimalistic the game’s story is, it only succeeds at making everything established for almost 20 years align less and become more convoluted and create more unanswered questions.

[Short voice-less cutscenes add little to the narrative, but give the game a lot of personality]

Controls

Episode II improves greatly over the first with giving the player more control over the characters and where they can go. Both Sonic the Hedgehog 4 games inaccurately represent the classic Sonic series by focusing more on progression than exploration or strategic use of spinning through and on places, but Episode II still succeeds in offering more maneuverability throughout each act. Level layouts are significantly less forceful with how springs and dashpads are set up, so players can now actually focus on playing the game instead of watching Sonic constantly be pushed forward through a level. Some excessively lazy level designs still exist, but typically these are only small sections of very long levels that have multiple paths regardless.

[Floating monitors suggest actions players should try without the use of any text]

For several years now, Sonic has had an ability called the ‘Homing Attack’. It was designed with 3D play spaces in mind, so that he could reach enemies easier, without it managing the dimensions would be improbable. If an enemy is within the general direction of Sonic, jumping and the player presses the jump button again, Sonic will quickly propel forward in ball form towards the enemy, without one nearby it will simply just move Sonic forward at nearly full spreed. This was never an issue in a 2D play space, but the ability is included regardless. It can sometimes add clever concepts to the game, such as during the Metal Sonic fights, but generally it is a forced addition that makes other abilities like spindashing, clever bouncing puzzles and basic forward walking momentum completely useless and obsolete. The worst example of it is a required path in White Park Zone Act 3 where players must rush through an underwater section that completely locks them in unless they use the homing attack perfectly. Not exactly game-breaking or as forcefully used as the first episode, the homing attack only succeeds in differentiating Sonic from Tails. It is a poor gameplay mechanic used as a crutch for lazy design.

The biggest addition to the game is the Team Move abilities. Similar to Sonic Heroes and Sonic Advance 3‘s character interactions only on paper, these are simple additions to the game that rarely feel as forced, very unlike the two other games mentioned. At any time, players can press one button for Sonic to call Tails to him and use his unique two tails spinning for either flying or swimming depending on if they are in the air or in the water. Another ability exists where the two characters roll as one large ball, but it is extremely clumsy and only used cleverly in two instances. These add very little to the overall package and can tend to slow down the action dramatically at times, but they do help Episode II stand out as unique in it’s own right.

[Collecting 50 rings before a level concludes will open up a ring portal to the Special Stage, just like in Sonic 1]

Sound originalreviews

One of the most wildly disliked elements of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was the music. A large, very vocal amount of players complaints ranged from poor samples to bad attempts at emulating the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive’s sound abilities to excessive repetition due to the shortness of the tracks to the songs just not being all that enjoyable overall. Most jarring of all is that beyond all else, the Sonic the Hedgehog game franchise was always considered to have outstanding musical direction, regardless of the established quality of any of it’s games.

For Episode II, little has changed. Although for the most part, the soundtrack is easily more enjoyable than the previous episode due to less repetition, most still come off as minimalistic in creativity and ability. Praise should be given in that that almost every level has it’s own music, but it hardly matters when most sound as if they are first attempts or scraps from other games. One boss song in particular is around nine seconds in length and then repeats right away, while many of the fights it is featured in last for upwards of six minutes. Insult to injury is added with the use of a remade song from Sonic CD. Exceedingly longer than the rest of the soundtrack found in both episodes and is much lower quality than the original (a song that is nearly 20 years old) almost to the point of hilarity.

[Players can run on water at a certain speed, discovering new locations]

The sound effects are largely ripped from throughout the rest of the franchise. Basic ring collecting, jumping, rocks breaking and robots popping sounds are taken from the earliest games in the franchise, whist some newer noises from later releases (such as Sonic Adventure) are in place to not clash with the modern designs of Sonic and the rest of the cast. The only real issue to the sound direction is a bizarre switch of the spinning sounds where rolling into a ball provides the spindashing sound and a spindash makes the rolling sound. This type of oversight is pathetic and gives the impression the developers never played the original Sonic games.

It is shocking that series veteran Jun Sunoue, whom had created a large amount of some of the franchises’ most treasured songs was in charge of the entire game’s sound direction when it comes off as this amateurish. If both episodes were to be considered as a whole, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is easily one of the worst sounding games Sonic Team has ever produced.

Gameplay

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is a 2D platforming game where the goal is to reach the signpost at the end of the level. Along the way players collect rings as a means of defense, becoming damaged when holding any amount of rings will cause each collected ring to fall and bounce around for a small while before disappearing permanently; They are not required, but without even a single ring one hit from an enemy or level hazard kills either characters in one hit.

Progression was broken in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, but Episode II attempts to rectify some of the issues. Unlike almost every platforming game ever, players are able to go to whichever level they want right from the outset of the game. Skipping directly to the last level like in the first episode is no longer a possibility, but the game still suffers from a lack of focus in this regard. A poor programming choice is how players are required to press a button to continue onto the next level after an act concludes, making normal progression feel like more of a chore.

[Although Sonic 2 and 3’s competitive modes do not return, the Special Stages can still be played as a team or a rivalry]

The focus on a menu-driven game as opposed to a normal one has also hurt the playability of the title a bit. Only one save file is possible and there are no options to simply play through the game trying to unlock or find everything again. A simple addition of a ‘no save’ game mode at the very least would make the game more replayable. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in 1994 was the first Sonic game to include saving functionality and allowed players to make and easily access or delete all game progress, how the developers managed to screw up such a basic concept that was perfected their first attempt over 18 years ago is baffling and appalling.

It can be argued that improving one’s score was the reasoning behind the limited save functionality. This is partially true as now players can save and share every level score and time they have accomplished with others online. The glaring flaw here is that because each level is ranked individually, there are no whole game rankings. The score bar on the screen indicates players can reach under just a billion points, but because each level is scored separately, it is impossible to reach even one hundred thousand, almost 1% of the overall amount the game seems to expect. Four, maybe even five of the zeros on the counter are redundant, how Sonic Team managed to mess this up in Episode I is beyond me, how they never even noticed within the almost two years it took to release Episode II screams complete incompetence and an overall lack of care.

[Each Team Move ability controls differently, but not to the point of confusion]

Well designed boss battles were always a major factor in making Sonic games so popular back in the early 1990s. Recent titles have focused far too much on them being frustrating and frantic, instead of well-made and creative. The first episode uses revised boss battles with Dr Robotnik from various early releases, but Episode II uses completely new ideas. Each fight is suited to the setting of the particular zone and typically work well with the Sonic and Tails team abilities, but rarely require or are gimped due to them. The dreaded ‘always-running’ fights return, but in this case they work fairly well and include nice additions, such as how dropped rings are not pulled away from the player as soon as they hit the ground. However, one major issue found with each boss is that they have overly long cutscenes before anything occurs, with the worst offender not allowing the player to attack it at all within the first minute. This is initially not an issue, but players who die once should be able to at least skip the video sequences.

[Episode II features some of the most creative and engaging boss fights Sonic Team has made in over 15 years]

This is the first main series Sonic the Hedgehog game in 14 years to feature multiplayer in the main portion of the game, the last was an afterthought in Sonic Adventure. Even nicer of an addition, the game also includes local and online for this co-operative mode. Although inspiration from other multiplayer-focused platforms is in place to keep frustration at a minimum, a severe flaw where no one person is ever the ‘leader’ that controls movement of the screen arrises when players do not keep up with one another. As the pacing of the game can be so fast, this happens constantly. It is easy to say that the addition of two player is a good extra to the game, but little planning was put into how players would and should react in several levels – The worst example are the flying levels, which suddenly become outrageously challenging if played with two people. Almost every portion of it, everywhere from how the menus are arranged to how no cutscenes will occur during the levels or how no achievements/trophies will unlock within multiplayer make it all feel as if Sonic Team expected no one to play with people they knew or play it like this first.

Special Stages return and like many concepts in Episode II are fashioned after the ones found in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Controlling in a 2D plane of movement, these extra levels give the sensation of a virtual roller-coaster ride with turns, bends and even tunnels where players can run on the ceiling if moving fast enough. Each section is broken up by the amount of rings players need to collect to progress to the next section, if the player or players do not meet the requirement, the level ends. The later levels are not simply longer, but consecutively get harder and introduce new innovations to the gameplay that can be clever at times. Although this type of Special Stage is far overused in the Sonic game franchise, Episode II attempts new ideas that are not intrusive and are generally easy to understand, with the possible exception of the very last Special Stage requiring very distinct memorization.

Visuals

Graphically Episode II is somewhat impressive compared to other downloadable platformers and is around as complex as the Wii release Sonic Colors with a few improvements, such as HD perspectives and fairly rare lighting effects. Ascetically, the game attempts bolder art direction when in comparison to the first episode, but much of it is still a mess. As a downloadable game, it is expected for textures and special effects to be fairly muted when marketed against retail games, but some levels are very inconsistent in terms of detail. The worst offender is the White Park Zone level which uses textures and unique patters for the water, but not the snow or ice. The trees displayed in the background have very high detail, but some are layered in 3D whilst others right next to them are much lower resolution 2D. Likewise, Oil Desert Zone is evenly detailed in terms of textures and how as the acts progress the work site clearly becomes less and less stable and is almost completely destroyed by the time players reach the boss. These are likely cases of developers making one level far later than another.

Use of color is also inconsistent. All of the main story characters and badniks have good use of bright colors, but several of the settings are drab, dull or uninspired. Most levels look similar to what is expected from 2D Sonic games, but lack extreme amounts of creativity as far as the world is designed. Almost every location is realistic and believable, which could not clash worse with the incredible and memorizing art deco themed locations from the original Sonic games.

A few animations from previous Sonic games return, but most appear awkward with the modern designs of each character. Very little thought was put into how characters roll and most of Tails animations are directly reused from Sonic, but a lot of effort was put into making Sonic’s homing attack have the exact same bouncing animations from Sonic Adventure 2. As the franchise progressed, perception of how large and small things were have changed and the current models of the main cast demonstrates this perfect. Having an unlockable option of the character’s classic designs was one of the most requested features and would have fixed most of this, but as-is players will just have to deal with Dr Robotnik’s head being the size of all other character’s hands.

[Special graphical effects are usually minimalistic, but add a lot of charm to the presentation]

Episode Metal

Those who own Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I on the same platform as Episode II are able to unlock a special small set of levels titled Episode Metal. In here, players control Metal Sonic in a 2D space for the first time as he goes through four levels themed after the first episode’s zones. Although these have only four acts overall and no boss fight, the level design is a vast improvement over the original episode’s messy layout and in many cases feel completely unique instead of just basic remixes.

The narrative of these are in the same voice-less style, but are much more interesting as they show how Metal Sonic became super-powered and where he found Sonic. The way Metal Sonic is revived is uninspired and no explanation is given as to why he would be fighting Dr Robotnik’s badniks. This extra episode is an afterthought, but a nice one.

Issues from the original episode are still partially present, but many have been altered, fixed or removed entirely (such as forced motion controlled gimmicks). While the art and music can be argued to be beyond repair, Episode Metal‘s stronger focus and stream-lined pacing make it a better overall experience than the first episode.

Conclusion

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II as a continuation of the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive originals is a weak attempt at best and an insult at worst. On it’s own however, the game is one of the best downloadable 2D action games on most of the platforms it is available on and easily outclasses all of the previous Sonic games developed with DIMPS, with the exception of Sonic Pocket Adventure on Neo Geo Pocket Color. Partially redeeming of the first episode which has become hated by many fans of the series, Episode II has more focus and less glitches than any game Sonic Team has released in over 10 years, making it more playable and accessible than even the highly praised Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations games.

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Formats: PlayStation Network for PlayStation 3, Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360, iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android and Steam for Microsoft Windows

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