Now we know how to make a 3D Sonic game, right? Well yes, but one thing all those wildly diverse Sonic games were good at was getting your hopes up. Maybe the next game will work better than the last. No? How about the next? They can always come up with new ways of making fans hopeful and thus still interested in the franchise, but it seems to me like the one thing SEGA are truly afraid of is Sonic becoming stale and same-y.
Why else would you make the new Wii U game, Sonic Lost World, one of the most different Sonic experiences yet after finally finding a gameplay mechanic that works? Gone are the frenzied euphoric dashes through detailed environments, boost button firmly under finger. It's a game that for the most part relieves the blue blur of a lot of his speed and traditional momentum physics, and puts him in a far more simplistic, fanciful and less ordered world than he's accustomed to. Yet at the same time, it emphasises, more than any other game in the series, the technical joy of proper platforming and an ingenious variety of objects, hazards and gimmicks the likes of which have been few and far between until now. One could say it's the absolute antithesis of "boost to win" gameplay.
With such a varied fan-base to contend with, Sonic Lost World was always going to be a game that divided opinion. Whether you're a classic purist, a modern speed freak, or someone just looking for a great technical platforming experience, whatever your first thoughts were on seeing the game in action, I would imagine they would not change much upon playing it.. But let's find out anyway...
So we begin with the story. The opening cutscene certainly has a ring of nostalgia about it, as we find Sonic and Tails chasing Eggman across the skies on their trusty, original, Tornado, hoping to secure a last capsule full of animals. Apparently Eggman has taken an endearingly back-to-basics approach with his latest evil scheme. A scuffle sees our heroes hurtling towards a floating land called Lost Hex - and that's pretty much the only background we're given on what the hell this place is and why it's here.
It transpires though that alongside turning Sonic's thousands of furry friends into nuts and bolts, Eggman's also acquired the subservience of the Deadly Six, a colourful cast of villains whose powers are controlled by blowing into a mystical shell. Early on, Sonic makes the mistake of relieving Eggman of this shell, causing the Deadly Six to go nuts, take control of the hoards of vintage badniks that have been shipped in straight from the 90's, and generally run amok. Queue the unlikely teaming up of Sonic and his oldest foe to foil the Six's dastardly plan of sucking up all of the energy from the planet below to make themselves ever more powerful.
Though things start out quite cheesy, the numerous cutscenes actually begin to demonstrate some interesting character development (well, by Sonic game standards anyway) as the three main protagonists progress through the story. Eggman at one point demonstrates some surprisingly violent anger, and the whole situation actually causes some noticeable tension between Sonic and Tails. It's also quite interesting to see how Sonic, not known for his emotional displays, reacts to everything going wrong, and for once being in the wrong himself. It's not exactly Shakespeare, and the dialogue isn't as funny as Sonic Colours, but it's not bad. I felt the ending somewhat lacking and anti-climactic though.
Now the world of Lost Hex is a curious place, and unlike any other from Sonic's world. In what is at least partially an attempt to increase the length and variety of the game by making levels easier for the developers to build, the zones are minimalistic, abstract and perhaps child-like. The ongoing theme is that, although Lost Hex is an incomplete globe of hexagons, most of the places Sonic seems to visit are above this surface, spread out across floating platforms amongst the clouds, leading to level design reminiscent of what a lot of Sonic Heroes levels turned out to be.
As is now very much the norm, the game's zones divide themselves fairly evenly between 2D and 3D portions - some are entirely one or the other, others mix and match at certain points. In both dimensions though, many platforms and chunks of ground tend to employ the use of gravity in ways that will be extremely familiar to anyone who's played Mario Galaxy 1 or 2, and the comparisons are hard to ignore when you see Sonic running around huge spheres with their own gravity field. Other examples are more Sonic-ified, such as long looping cylindrical structures that only Sonic's speed could traverse quickly, and the 2D camera will often twist with Sonic as curved walls become floors while you walk across them. I suppose it's a shame that they've had to borrow so heavily from another, very popular game that's very well known for using this effect - It's almost a little embarrassing actually. If you can get Sonic to dash across these structures then it's at least interesting to see what he can do with them that Mario can't.
I say if you can get Sonic to dash because the other key aspect that will immediately grab you about Lost World is that it's easily the slowest Sonic game in recent memory. This is very deliberate and represents the recent realisation that some people aren't crazy about Sonic simply running everywhere very very quickly. There are still bursts of speed, but these are quite rare, and instead this game caters much more to the cerebral Sonic player, with all manner of platform-hopping layouts and trials in timing and precision to encounter.
To accommodate this, the engine needed to change, and it changed drastically - most notably that Sonic now has two gears - walking and running, with the latter only accessed by holding the right trigger. Of course objects like speed zippers and springs will send you off as quickly as they ever did, and the left trigger unleashes the spin dash, though this is more useful for climbing long curved walls than injecting a prolonged period of acceleration. The truth is, unless the game wants you to move particularly quickly, you won't, and there will be times that you'll really want Sonic to get a move on, even while holding the run button down tightly.
I admit, it may be a difficult adjustment to make initially, and one that I do worry slightly contradicts the child-friendly aesthetics of the game, perhaps being too complicated for the young ones. On top of that, you have a wide range of moves at your disposal. Although A, B and Y buttons are all jump, they perform differently when pressed again in the air. Without a homing target around, A and B double jump, while Y performs a bounce. With an enemy nearby, the B button turns into the homing attack (which can now chain multiple targets with one press), while pressing Y gets you a new kick attack, which sends the badnik flying. It's a nice idea that employs a bit more strategy, as some badniks require one or the other to defeat, or both in a certain order. My only gripe is that it's rarely obvious, visually, which badniks need which attack until you've found out the hard way, as the wrong method can result in ring loss.
One of the more difficult moves to master though is the wall run. Jump up to a wall while holding L and Sonic will attempt to run up it until he loses all momentum or can grab on to the ledge at the top and hoist himself up. It takes a little practise to jump between adjacent walls while in 2D, allowing you to keep on going when done correctly, but doing the same in 3D is something I'm yet to master.
It all takes some getting used to, particularly the reduced speed and more prescribed sense of momentum, but after a while it sort of all makes sense, and I began to find that jumping Sonic from one platform to another feels more accurate and reliable than it's ever really been, particularly in the third dimension. Just last night I managed, first time, to retrieve a red star ring by carefully jumping across a couple of very small platforms, requiring the momentum from different running speeds. In pretty much any other 3D Sonic game this would have been challenging at best, and almost impossible at worst. Without different gears, we've been slipping off of narrow pathways or over-shooting jumps and dashes for years now, but thanks to the new system, it was rarely a problem for me.
Not only that, but considering factors such as the gear that you should approach a jump in, whether you should employ the double jump in mid-air, or if you'll just about make it with the wall run or clinging onto the edge.. it all adds a slightly more strategic element to basic platform hopping that's relatively new to the series. Overall, with one notable exception that I will get to in a minute, I would say that technically this is a very solid title, with little in the way of bugs or control issues. Most types of movement feel sturdy and precise.
The game offers seven levels, each split into four zones (notice they've gone with the Sonic CD school of confusingly referring to what are normally acts as zones, and what are traditionally zones as unnamed clusters of stages). An eighth is unlocked upon completion, plus more zones appear at certain points, the criteria for which remain unknown to me at this moment. Everything is accessible by plotting Sonic round a top-down map made of hexagons, with zones, bonuses and other items appearing on certain panels. We'll cover all that later.
There's no denying that this time they've certainly opted for very generic level themes across the seven main clusters of zones - green hills, desert, beach, snowy, lava - you can't get much more route 1 platformer than that. However, as advertised early on during promotion, the zones in each level diversify greatly, sometimes into what would normally be thought of as completely different, and more specific level themes. Desert Ruins Zone 3, which gains an extra letter 's' and becomes a ludicrous food-based world, and Frozen Factory's casino level are still the best examples of this. After seeing that Desert Ruins has at least three totally different themes within it, I was curious about whether every other level would match this too. Sadly it doesn't quite work out like that, with some themes reappearing within different levels - the whole of level 6 for example is a total cop out, with no great discernible theme of its own other than simply more clouds. Despite this though, the new philosophy on level creation checks out, as we have at least a dozen completely different types of location in this game, plus many small permeations, compared to the usual maximum of only nine.
Although the highly generic central themes become more specific, I can't deny that this particular visual direction is not for me. The simplistic style and cartoon-like look to the trees, mountains and clouds is far more Mario than Sonic, and it struggles to gel with anything we've seen before in the series, which has traditionally favoured occasionally fanciful ideas but always within a certain realistic aesthetic framework. Much of the game lacks that slightly more serious tone Sonic has always had over Mario, and forgets its normally quite active pursuit of seeking out whole new ideas for themes and locations (see Sonic Colours for excellent examples). I rarely felt the wonder and excitement upon first arriving at a brand new level that I normally look forward to more than anything else in a new Sonic game, simply because I'd pretty much seen everything done a million times before, not just in Sonic but many other generic platformers before it.
It doesn't help that most levels, at least their initial zones anyway, are simply an arrangement of various blocks strewn across the sky, with no sort of detailed structure holding them together. You definitely get the impression that the developers saw Mario Galaxy and said "let's make a Sonic game just like that" - my most optimistic thoughts are that this was only supposed to be a starting point of inspiration, but just ended up borrowing way too heavily from it. Some zones, such as Tropical Coast 2 - which has Sonic luring giant watermelons and pineapples across spherical planetoids into equally large fruit juicer blades - could be put straight into one of the Galaxy games with absolutely no adjustment whatsoever.
However, when you're chased by huge tropical fruits rather than boulders or killer whales, you have to admit, you're in a world with slightly further boundaries of what's possible. Things can happen that don't normally happen and luckily, along with Mario's unfortunate aesthetics come by far his best attribute, and the one aspect I have always wanted Sonic to be inspired by - the sheer variety of level content and gimmicks. When Sonic runs at ridiculous speeds, there's only so much variety one can encounter in that type of gameplay. When he trots around at a slower pace within a wackier, more abstract and colourful world however, the perfect storm is created to make this one of the most inventive and imaginative Sonic games around, and I'm thrilled that they've actually taken as much advantage of such an opportunity as I would have liked.
Sonic spends the entirety of Frozen Factory Zone 2 inside a giant snowball that you must roll around between narrow walkways, sticking collected rings on the outside surface. A later zone mimics Sky Chase but without the plane, as Sonic glides side-scrolling across a windy sky strewn with obstacles, while in others you must hide from the search lights of a large mechanical owl, or dodge huge purple sand creatures with massive jaws. New ideas to Sonic are explored; in one zone, running outside of one edge of the screen will have you reappear on the other, and elsewhere, Sonic and his surroundings are cast in a black silhouette until you pull Sandopolis style light switches. There's more familiar ideas too, such as levels entirely consisting of grinding, albeit with the twist of controlling your speed by hopping to different coloured rails, and of course the classic pinball table segment is here too. Refreshingly, the amount of generic objects across all levels, normally red coloured and consisting of speed devices or pulleys etc, and which frequently plague modern Sonic games, are kept to a bare minimum here. In their place are much more level-specific features and obstacles, which may be no more complicated than a sheep that you bounce off of, or a flower bud that opens up as a larger platform when hit. It all adds up though and by the end you really feel like you've covered a lot of different ground in the game.
The Wisps - little aliens in item boxes that give Sonic new super powers - are also part of this attempt at mixing up the gameplay a bit, though unfortunately they represent the one main area that I feel is technically flawed to a significant degree. Luckily they don't quite appear often enough to totally ruin the game, though when they do, use of them is quite often essential. The problem stems mostly from their use with the gamepad, which I felt seemed only to be used for the sake of it more than anything else - some require you to stop what you're doing, look down and drag your finger around the screen, others have you looking at your TV but tilting the controller, and others don't seem to require any special feature of the pad at all. I dreaded having to use them really, they're just inconsistent, disorientating and quite often really don't work very well at all. I still don't quite know how to fully control the Rhythm Wisp, and as for the Laser, well this little bastard raised alarm bells when I saw him in previews both at Summer of Sonic and Eurogamer, and I also saw countless people wondering how the hell it works and what it's even really for. That was perfect user testing that should have made them rethink things a bit, but of course it hasn't at all.
Any sort of in-game help is quite minimal in general, and this is particularly missed when it comes to the Wisps, where it's needed most. After getting the Hover Wisp I could see a long line of rings that - I know from Sonic Colours - I should be able to light dash across, but it didn't seem to be explained anywhere how I could make this happen or anything about said maneuver whatsoever. Sadly, as I found out first hand during an interview with Takashi Iizuka himself, Wisp power-ups are here to stay as a regular feature in Sonic games. Though they were a little intrusive in Sonic Colours, they were at least handled very well. Unless they can return to that degree of quality, and preferably ditch their use of any interaction method that isn't a button or a thumbstick, then I don't look forward to their return at all.
Lost World has a very traditional and rather casual approach to bosses. For the first time in absolutely ages (I'm talking Sonic Advance, maybe Sonic Advance 3 at the latest), most bosses can be found at the ends of levels, rather than in dedicated boss arenas. They're quite frequent (every other zone in fact), but because more is at stake if you lose, you'll find they're usually quite straightforward, and also small scale compared to the massive bosses Sonic usually has to fight nowadays. Despite their frequency, they're not too repetitive and I wouldn't mind replaying them afterwards as part of the levels. And let's be honest, how often do you normally choose to play boss levels again, for fun? Later on, you also seem to quietly learn a technique to increase the strength of your homing attack, to deal with bosses more quickly too.
Each boss is of course one of the Deadly Six, patrolling a level each, and unfortunately you tend to be able to somehow hear their thoughts as you get closer to meeting them, throughout their zones. Some of the characters offer mildly amusing voice overs, such as the girl or the emo fella (I've no idea what their names are - I'm not sure it's important really), but others, such as the first one, who is irritatingly mental, kind of ruin the experience quite a lot. And it's always annoying when you keep dying on a particular bit and have to hear the same piece over and over. They're not a patch on Eggman's hilarious tannoy announcements from Colours.
Speaking of dying, prepare to do rather a lot of it as this game is no pushover. You'll regularly be falling into pits or finding ingenious new ways for Sonic to kick the bucket instantly that you would swear, ordinarily, would just cause ring loss. Though this is not without frustration, it rarely feels unfair as the controls are so tight this time around, you've really no one to blame but yourself, and it's certainly no worse than anything Mario regularly dishes up. Also, they've finally implemented a very simple idea I've been suggesting for ages - don't restart the music upon each death. It's surprisingly effective at reducing frustration. Extra lives are few and far between too, especially as the ever useful 100 ring bonus life is curiously absent. Replaying Desert Ruin Zone 2 is your best bet, which can give at least five extra lives relatively easily.
Though Game Overs will be plentiful, there is a very curious and surprising addition that makes up for the lack of lives. Should you return to the same checkpoint a certain number of times or get down to your last chance, an item box with a wing symbol appears nearby, which simply teleports you to the next checkpoint. For me, the jury's still very much out on whether this is a good idea or not. On the one hand it's saved me a lot of bother in having to deal with particularly frustrating sections, but on the other I did feel that I kind of cheated a little bit, and there are still portions of levels I've yet to defeat because of it. If you could gather enough lives, you're theoretically guaranteed to have most of the game beaten for you. Then again, inputing up, down, left, right, A and start into Sonic 1 has the same effect and is a heck of a lot quicker too.
The game feels fairly substantial in size, not so much in the amount of levels but their duration, as most of them are satisfyingly lengthy - especially if you keep dying in them. I still managed to beat the game over a weekend though, including long gaps of time where I actually went outside too, so I still don't know if it's as long a game as it could be, which is a shame, given their devotion to making level creation a more efficient process. There's the usual amount of extra stuff to do afterwards, including red star rings, time trials, unlockable hidden zones and even an Omochao-lead feature that offers three little side missions at a time, just like mobile games do. Unfortunately though, other than pretty much just the very first zone, multiple routes in the levels is not a strong point in this game, from what I've found so far at least, so if you're hoping for some further exploration afterwards then you're unlikely to have much luck.
Lastly, the game is accompanied by a very good, and varied soundtrack, bringing the stages to life as they always do. It's possibly not the best, as there are few that I would say are absolute instant classics, but there are no real disasters either. Favourites include Windy Hill 1, Desert Ruins 1 and 2, Tropical Coast 3 (a beautiful piano piece) and the very Sonic-y and melodic Sky Road Zone 1 to name a few. I'm desperately looking for a full rip to tide me over til the OST is released next month!
My excitement levels for this game were admittedly not as high as they have been for pretty much every other major Sonic game in history, and its good and bad points were pretty much exactly what I expected them to be. I probably won't be playing the levels over and over again all that much either. However, I come away from this game generally very satisfied, and feeling that they've done a good job. What it lacks in a less than impressive or interesting art direction, and a philosophy that borrows too heavily from another series, rather than a unique look of its own, it makes up for in its great use of ideas and level specific features, and a highly precise and technical platforming experience.
I suppose the question of whether or not you'll enjoy Sonic Lost World is entirely down to your own preferences in Sonic gameplay, and whether it's the cerebral attention to detail you seek, or whether you're more interested in the visceral thrill of a speed sensation. I suppose I'm lucky in that I appreciate both, and in my opinion there's plenty of room for slower, more considered experiences like this. They each have their advantages over the other though. A platform-heavy Sonic game is more free to experiment with interesting ideas, creating a richer first play through that lasts a bit longer too. However, once you've beaten it, it becomes less fun to return to on a regular basis to play again. The opposite is true of a Sonic adventure that you simply blast through. It has less room for variety but the intense thrill of getting a perfect, record-breaking run through a level, without slowing down or getting hit, is all the incentive you need to play over and over again. The visceral pleasure just gets more and more intense compared to your initial play through, which is liable to be clumsy and less satisfying.
Vexingly, Lost World actually has everything it needs to combine the two experiences quite well, because the couple of occasions in the game in which Sonic builds up a prolonged burst of speed are really enjoyable. A well implemented system to switch seamlessly from a conservative platformer to a thrilling dash, in which Sonic runs by himself and invites you to dodge obstacles, is already in place in this game as if it featured as frequently as every other stage. The honeycomb zone from Desert Ruin is the obvious example, but there's also a series of great runs in Sky Road Zone 1 that have you darting across the surface of those long tube structures, chaining enemies, jumping daringly over gaps and dodging massive Caterkillers erupting from the ground, and it's brilliant!
Though this game itself is not at all perfect, the ideas it brings to the table are enough to make me wonder; maybe we hadn't necessarily reached the ideal way of doing 3D Sonic. Perhaps there are still new ways of looking at things that aren't necessarily better, but different. Perhaps they can be combined more evenly to create a game that not only makes for a very rewarding first play, but is also one that keeps you yearning for just one more go again, over and over. At first I was sceptical as to why they would want to fix what isn't broken and take a whole new path in developing a game so different from what has proved successful - but now I understand a little better. It's not just for the sake of keeping Sonic from going stale, the thinking man's Sonic game was getting overlooked, but now the sides have become more even, and whole new avenues can be explored. This game, in a way, needed to exist as it does, and I genuinely look forward to seeing where it takes us from here.