Review: Sonic 4: Episode II

The revival of Sonic the Hedgehog, at least back to his glory days, is always going to be a tricky subject. Sonic 4: Episode I certainly wasn’t the explosion of nostalgia anyone had been waiting for, and even paled in comparison eventually to that of Sonic Generations’ snappy speeds and engaging level designs. Finally, we’ve been graced with Episode II of a game that clearly should have been released as an entire package after some proper sprucing up. The verdict? It’s still not the Sonic we know and love from our childhood, but it’s entertaining for what it is.

The second installment hearkens back to what the first downloadable segment started, and there’s plenty here for fans of that separate downloadable endeavor. In fact, if you played through that release, you’re actually given a few additional stages to get you “up to speed,” if you will with the first game. Metal Sonic is a playable character throughout these stages (more like quick revisits to Episode I’s locales) and nods to players who shelled out the cash for the first ride are thoroughly rewarded. This immediately put a smile on my face, even if the game feels too “new” still for my tastes.

There seem to have been numerous improvements since the release of Sonic Generations, with a throwback to the Tornado (the plane you ride on top of as Sonic in an on-rails stage) and familiar elements as seen in the classics – a personal favorite reference of mine. In fact, it’s pretty easy to discern which classic Sonic Episode II has been inspired by. Even the iconic Special stages make a return, which was a welcome addition in the new-school world of Sonic.

Unfortunately, newer additions such as the partner skill system aren’t so decadent. Tails is along for the ride and you can look to Mr. Prower for aid with a super spin dash or a boost with flight. These skills are all but required in nearly every boss encounter throughout the game, and quickly run into the ground rather than remaining simple, interesting augments to a classic mechanics. They work well and offer new perspectives on each level rather than “zip from point A to point B,” however.

Episode II is also played best with a friend either online or offline via co-op, however feels a bit out of place for the player who is stuck with Tails. Partner skills can get muddled and complicated if the player using the golden fox isn’t in the correct spot needed to advance, and some areas simply weren’t meant to be played with Tails alone (or involving him at all.) Instead, many times Tails feels more like an afterthought, rather than a valuable addition to gameplay.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous, though, and is a vast improvement already from Episode I and even Sonic Generations. Vibrant environments that call to mind watercolor portraits and some of the better fan-created artwork out there are a treat for the eyes, and the soundtrack is classically Sonic – one of the game’s high points, by far. It’s worth checking out the OST alone if you’ve been a Sonic follower over the years.

In the end, Sonic 4: Episode II feels like Episode 1.5 – improvements here and there, but a few missteps backward as well. It seems as if it’s increasingly difficult to grasp what exactly makes a Sonic game feel closest to the games we love from our youth. The closer we get, the further that elusive “X” factor seems to be. As Sega claims this is the final episodic adventure we may never see just how close these downloadable chapters might have come. Whatever is missing, Episode II doesn’t quite have it, but it’s an interesting engagement for the Sonic fan. Just don’t let it get your hopes up.

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