Sega’s classic Sonic The Hedgehog series was one of the powerhouse franchises of the 16-bit era. However, a slew of substandard games have diluted the series’ appeal and kept the blue mascot on life support for the majority of the 2000′s. The recent releases of the excellent Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations have turned the fortunes of the franchise, and the 2010 release of Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I was a decent game despite some glaring shortcomings.
Nearly two years on, Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode II has arrived with developers Dimps and Team Sonic once again at the helm. Fortunately for the fans, the game comes with a few improvements that address some of the issues in the first episode. Unfortunately, these improvements are offset by a few new setbacks.
Taking place a few months after the events of Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I, Sonic catches wind of Dr. Eggman’s return and, unsurprisingly, the villain is up to no good. It turns out that he has plans to build a “Death Egg”, a large device that he will use to claim control of Little Planet, and this sends Sonic on mission to stop him. Sensing that he will need help, Sonic teams up with Tails, his trusty fox friend with two tails, and they head out into space in search of Dr. Eggman and attempt to foil his plan. As video game plots go, it’s light on substance, but it’s serviceable in giving the player a sense of purpose.
The second plot thread deals with the return of Metal Sonic. At the end of Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I, it was hinted that Metal Sonic might be making a return after his demise in Sonic CD. It is now revealed that Metal Sonic was not dead, rather he was severely damaged and rendered inoperable. He was discovered by Dr. Eggman, who clandestinely brought him back to life, and now he is coming after Sonic and Tails. Fans of the Sonic universe will definitely enjoy the nostalgic references and nods to earlier games in the series, which is complemented by the classic 2D side-scrolling style that the game is presented in.
In contrast to its platforming contemporaries, the Sonic series has always been about speed and forward momentum as opposed to precise platforming, and that is still the case with Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode II. Sonic can still move at a breakneck pace, picking up momentum as he goes and forcing you to stay alert in order to avoid enemies and environmental hazards. Each level is littered with enemies that you can lock onto and take out with a single button click, as well as hazards like spikes and bottomless pits that will either send all your rings flying or lead to an instant death. They are, thankfully, not overdone ,and the game feels more playable and balanced because of it.
The objective of each level is simply to make it to the other side and with as many rings intact as possible. The level design in Sonic 4: Episode I was inconsistent at best, however they have improved it somewhat here. You have a variety of stages, in a variety of colorful and well-designed locales to run through, with hidden items to reward those who try taking alternate routes. The levels consist of above-ground landscapes, underwater locations and special 3D races where you collect Chaos Emeralds, all of which are colorful and artfully designed. Capping off the levels are the boss battles, which provide the most challenging moments of the game.
The biggest addition in Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode II is the return of Tails, your trusty two-tailed fox friend, as a playable character. The single player game has Tails following you the entire time, and your combined efforts are needed in order to get through many of the levels. Tails’ main ability is to fly, but using his twin tails to create a helicopter effect, which can be used to get to higher platforms and hidden areas, as well as carry Sonic to safety if things get too hectic. He can also perform combos with Sonic, such as a rolling spin attack that can take out enemies and break through walls. As sidekicks go, he is good to have at certain times and cripplingly annoying at others.
Players cannot fly solo as Sonic, so having Tails tag along creates some rather frustrating issues. He frequently lags behind as you’re running through the levels and he will sometimes get stuck in the environment. Additionally, he can be summoned to fly Sonic up in the air, however the controls for doing so are not always responsive. This frequently happens when you accidentally fall into one of those bottomless pits, as he will not follow commands and you die as a result. Tails can also be problematic in the underwater levels, as your air depletes quickly and you need catch air bubbles in order to survive. Tails will sometimes steal your air bubble and this can lead to your death.
The emphasis on teamwork in Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode II ultimately leads the game’s fatal flaw; uneven pacing. For a game that emphasizes speed and momentum, having to stop and perform an action with Tails can slow the game to a crawl. The fact that the controls don’t always perform the required actions, and minimal instruction is given, does not help matters. This “buddy system” has been used to great effect in other games, however it feels out of place here, and the pacing issues will be especially noticeable to longtime Sonic fans. Having Tails as his own playable character or saving the teamwork aspect for co-op would have served the game much better.
One of the chief complaints about Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I was the patchy game physics and unintuitive controls. This has been improved here and the controls feel much more natural, with the left analog stick moving you forward and actions being conveniently mapped to the buttons. Despite the issue with utilizing Tails, the controls are fluid and responsive for the most part, however they can be cumbersome when you are trying to be precise with your platforming. Controlling Sonic is not an easy task, and sometimes the simple act of jumping onto a platform can be a frustrating experience. However, this was a relatively small annoyance.