In some ways, an OK game can be worse than a terrible game. When a game is terrible, you can make jokes about it. You can commiserate with other players who expected something, and show it to friends who don’t believe a game could possibly be this terrible. The Sonic series has had its fair share of bad games, including the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and the horribly bugged Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. But it’s also seen a number of great titles, even 3D ones: Sonic Adventure remains a classic among fans, and Generations showed that Sega still has some idea what they’re doing. Sonic Forces looked to be another win for Sega; it followed on the heels of the phenomenal Sonic Mania, and Sega made a big deal of its gameplay being similar to Generations. But sadly, it’s not the return to force I was hoping for, despite having so much going for it. It’s just…OK. And that makes it all the more disappointing.
The plot is a shade darker than we usually associate with this series. Eggman, using a new invention, has created a being that can defeat Sonic. With the hedgehog’s defeat, it’s up to his friends to form a resistance movement to fight back. This darker story is something fans have wanted to see in a Sonic game since the Archie comics and Saturday morning cartoon presented similar ideas, but as you’ll see become a theme here, the great idea is squandered. The writers sadly aren’t familiar with the concept of “show, don’t tell.” The early game tells major parts of the story via text, and much of the story is only portrayed in conversations. I also take some issue with how the story treats the Avatar character, which we’ll get into later. The Avatar comes in as a scared kid who survived an attack and doesn’t really know what He’s doing, but soon becomes Sonic’s partner and helps save the day. It’s a typical fan fiction Mary Sue story, and while I can see the appeal of such a thing for kids, they could have been more creative with it. The story is also somewhat disappointing because it squanders the promise of an all star villain team up suggested in an early trailer. You never even fight Shadow, Chaos, or Metal Sonic. The connection to Sonic Mania is also unexplained; while both games feature the Phantom Ruby, they tell completely different stories of its origin.
Each of the three characters plays slightly differently, so I’ll discuss them one by one. The main player character is modern Sonic. His stages are similar to those in Generations, combining 2D and 3D sections, but with greater use of the returning Boost mechanic. He plays better than he did in Lost World, but somehow the physics still seem somewhat off. Sonic loses momentum when he lands, and the timing of his Homing Attack doesn’t seem quite right either. He definitely takes some getting used to, but his levels do eventually become more fun once you train yourself to the game’s physics. It’s also worth noting that the Boost mechanic can sometimes make parts of the game feel automatic, which is unfortunate, especially given how short the stages are.
Classic Sonic, who has been ret-conned to coming from a different dimension in this game, also plays pretty much the same as in Generations. Players who loved Sonic Mania will be disappointed to hear that these are probably the worst stages in the game. Classic Sonic feels heavy and sluggish, which is pretty much as far from how he should be as possible. He too gets better once you get used to him, but he still never feels like Classic Sonic ought to. It’s nice to hear 16-bit-style versions of the game’s music and see the return of classic power ups and the like, but without the right physics, it all falls apart. Classic Sonic doesn’t really even need to be in this game; he has only a handful of levels, and plays a small role in the story. I think he’s only present so people will know that this game is similar to Generations.
And finally, there’s the Avatar. I’ll give Sega credit: it’s a great idea to have custom characters in a Sonic game. Sonic fan characters are so common that it’s become a long running joke online, so letting players use fan characters in a game is such a slam dunk that I’m amazed it’s taken this long. The levels play pretty similarly to Modern Sonic, except that instead of the dash, the Avatar uses a variety of weapons, each with a corresponding Wisp power-up from Sonic Colors. Overall, these fall into the same place as Sonic’s dash: sometimes they feel like a cool way to freshen up the gameplay, while other times they make the levels feel trivial. A lot of them also mess up the character’s momentum, which is really a shame, because those often come with really good power-ups. I will say that there are quite a few options for customizing your Avatar; there are several types of animal you can choose, each with a different ability, and each with several styles available. You can then unlock a ton of clothing and accessories for them by beating levels and completing challenges.
The stages themselves are something of a mixed bag. While they are all new, they’re all set in a handful of repeating locations. This includes a few new places, and the three most used areas in the series: Green Hill, Chemical Plant, and Death Egg. On one hand, I like how this helps flesh out the world; without the hub worlds of Sonic Adventure, it can feel like locations in this series lack permanence. It’s nice to know that Green Hill is a place where Sonic still hangs out, and that the Chemical Plant is defunct but has been converted into a base by Eggman. The environments also look great, especially the weird combined forest/casino area. That said, it does get a bit dull seeing the same areas over and over again. I also feel like maybe we’ve seen enough of Green Hill and Chemical Plant, even with new looks and stages. And as I mentioned before, the stages are often way too short. Especially with the power-ups available, many of them are too quick to really get into. This means that even though there are quite a few stages, the game is extremely short. Throw in some frustrating boss fights as well, and you end up with a game that just never feels quite right.
Before we conclude, I need to add one thing: the game’s soundtrack is awesome. It features a kickass theme by Doug Robb, lead singer of Hoobastank (one of my favorite bands), and a host of other great tracks. It might not be for everyone, but this is one of the few game soundtracks I listen to on its own. I was happy to see this trait return, as it’s been pretty much standard for the series ever since Sonic Adventure.
Sonic Forces is not the complete and utter failure the Internet makes it appear, but it could have been so much more. Everything is so close to working out perfectly, but it all falls just short. It’s still a fun game for Sonic fans, and I don’t regret playing it, but I was hoping it would be the return to force that 3D Sonic needed. But it isn’t the 3D equivalent of Sonic Mania, and it concerns me. I worry that Sega will see the relative responses to these two games and stop making 3D games in the series. That would be sad, because 3D Sonic can work, and has worked before. Sonic Forces may not be the best demonstration of that, but it does show signs of potential. It’s just a shame that potential wasn’t met.