Red flags were raised immediately upon the announcement of Sonic Forces. While the reveal of a spiritual sequel to the fan-loved Sonic Generations was a good play, taking a much more grim-dark approach versus the joyous nostalgia of its predecessor seemed to miss the point of what made Generations special.
Now released, it’s not the only area where Sonic Forces misses the point. Not only does it fail to understand the success of Sonic Mania, but even fails to understand the joys inherent within their flawed but actually quite fun predecessors — Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, and the ilk. This is Sonic blended down and distilled into a soulless and bland concoction.
For a series that was once king of the platformers (and yes, I have played Mario thank you very much) to fall this far is almost beyond belief. It’s legitimately embarrassing. Mechanically, the game is so fundamentally flawed that the simple act of platforming feels horrid, and all take place within the most basically designed stages imaginable. You go up a bit, you go forward a bit. It switches from 3D to 2D briefly and then oh, you’re at the end. It’s like Sonic Team heard all the jokes about Sonic being “just push forward to win”, and mistook that for a suggestion.
Playing Sonic Forces fills you with the same fear as hearing one of your roommates going at it with their other half in the next room over.
The worst thing is — they have to have known. It fills me with existential dread. Dedicating potentially years of work on a game that is so obviously not up to scratch or grounder. It’s not so much dread at the situation Sonic Team is in, but it’s more like — what if I’ve done something similar but not known? Playing Sonic Forces fills you with the same fear as hearing one of your roommates going at it with their other half in the next room over.
Playing Forces, I wondered if my enjoyment of its similar predecessors was rose-tinted. But, booting them up, the games are night and day against Forces. The controls feel much tighter earlier in the series, with interesting conceits such as Sonic’s drifting around corners. Here the drifting is non-existent as Sonic, and automated as the Custom Character (more on that later).
Sonic Forces fills me with existential dread.
The stage designs were much more interesting and varied too, whereas Forces‘ stages feel incomplete and for the most part unmemorable — 2 minute vertical slices you won’t remember playing, and stage names as uninspired as “City”, or simply retreads of previously revisited stages such as Chemical Plant Zone.
Look at a side by side of the approaches taken to the stage design of that toxic factory in Generations and Sonic Forces, and the issues are obvious. For all of Forces‘ issues, the lacklustre stage designs are the biggest offender, ensuring even those who are able to make it past the game’s initial flaws will be left with the feeling it was severely under-baked.
Pile all this up next to Sonic Mania, and it just gets sort of sad. Here’s a studio of fans who cut their teeth making fan games, creating the best Sonic game in years that stayed true in all forms to the classics; and Sonic Team, a studio literally created for the sole purpose of making Sonic games, can’t even come close.
The goofy clothing you can unlock and dress up with is fun at first.
The biggest new addition is a Custom Character, who has their own stage styles next to Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic. There is some fun to be had making your own character, and it’s nice that different animals have their own unique passive abilities. The goofy clothing you can unlock and dress them up with is fun at first, but quite quickly you’ll mostly end up unlocking different colours for clothing you pretty much already own, and the novelty begins to wear off.
You can also equip them with different “Wisp Weapons”, though they all play mostly the same, and holding down the attack button will see you safely through most stages. The levels themselves play a bit like a slower paced Modern Sonic, with gadget abilities that mostly come down to press the grappling hook button when prompted. You can grapple to enemies, which is like a very slow homing attack, though as already mentioned, simply shooting with your weapon will clear the slow to react enemies out easily.
Platforming in any of the 3 modes simply isn’t fun. Everything is so weirdly heavy and unintuitive that you’ll see yourself plunging to your death time and time again unavoidably in later stages. Blasting through levels at high speed also isn’t very fun when everything is so short and linear. There’s no joy to be found in learning speedy routes from it, as was the case with its predecessors.
There’s no joy to be found in learning speedy routes.
Even the challenge of trying to get S ranks on the stages has been ruined thanks to the game’s bizarre “daily challenge” system. Your score will be inflated to the point of making earning them trivial — as long as you play within the half hour score multiplier window completing the challenges gives you.
The fidelity of the environments you blast through is at times stunning
And it’s just all such a shame, as there’s a lot in here that could have been good. Like, really, there’s promise here. Visually speaking, Sonic has never looked better. Yes, everything is for the most part a bit dark and gritty, but the fidelity of the environments you blast through is at times stunning.
For all my gripes, even the custom character thing doesn’t feel that out of place. If anything, Classic Sonic does, as he has little bearing on anything. Even the focus on story, and a darker one at that, had potential — I’m a massive fan of the Fleetway Sonic the Comic. But it’s tonally all over the place and so, so shallow, that it’s completely uninteresting.
There’s a certain thrill at having a console Sonic game on a handheld for the Switch version, and new full console release for the other systems. But it makes me wish it was instead a port of pretty much any other game in this particular arc of Sonic design styles. Ultimately, it makes me yearn for the hope and promise that the day stages in Sonic Unleashed originally offered. Sonic Forces is devoid of hope.