Sonic Forces looks like a good Sonic game. Dr. Eggman has finally conquered the world and defeated his longtime “frenemy”, Sonic, with the help of Infinite, a new mysterious interloper with the ability to bend time and space with the Phantom Ruby. I mean it’s even a direct sequel to this year’s Sonic Mania, because Classic Sonic has just cleaned up his Phantom Ruby mess when he appears to help Modern Sonic and friends. It all looks great on paper, but Sonic Forces isn’t all great in practice.
It’s hard to admit that. I love Sonic. When Sonic Team introduced the Hedgehog Engine in 2008’s Sonic Unleashed, giving us high speed thrills like never before, that was the best fun with Sonic I had in years. They brought that back with Sonic Colors, and again with Sonic Generations with the added bonus of playing as Classic Sonic. Sonic Forces brings back that same Sonic gameplay, but it’s severely lacking. When you get to play as Sonic, you’ll find the levels to be surprisingly short. Most can be completed in at least three minutes; perhaps a minute and a half if you’re speedrunning the level. Each stage is visually entertaining, but limited in scope.
It’s a shame because there are some standout locales in the world of Sonic Forces that beg for more exploration and variety, despite the stages suffering from uninspired level design. Classic Sonic plays as you would imagine: a 2D platformer with some familiar Sonic elements like loop de loops, bumpers, and springs. This part of Sonic Forces is quite fun. When playing as Modern Sonic, you can boost through the stage at breakneck speed along stretches of road and winding turns. I was puzzled as to why Sonic Team removed Sonic’s ability to drift which, in previous games, was such a helpful move to navigate turns waiting at the end of a straight path. You could drift and easily continue on your speedy way. In Sonic Forces, broad and sharp turns feel so slothful to handle, making momentum feel like an educated guess rather than an assertion.
Another shortcoming Sonic Forces has is its ability to tell you when obstacles are near. I could be speeding along at a great pace to find my progress halted by a bottomless pit or a hazard I never saw coming. Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Generations had similar level design. You could miss a jump or be going too fast to see what’s coming next, but you wouldn’t be punished for it. There would be an alternative way to get your footing back and still keep your speed up. It also seemed like obstacles required skill to speed past and weren’t necessarily there to stop you dead in your tracks. I didn’t feel that with Sonic Forces, but at least the life system has been removed so you can try as many times as you need to get it right.
Classic and Modern Sonic stages are just two of three ways to play. The third is getting to play as your own custom avatar, of which can be based on hedgehogs, bears, rabbits, and more. I do have to give props to Sonic Team in how they approached the character creator aspect of Sonic Forces. The game is jam packed with all kinds of clothing options. Everything from a casual day outdoors, to a secret agent, or to a flatout insane creature. Earning an S rank on a stage can net you a dozen unique pieces of gear alone. You could even bomb the stage with a failing rank and still get something. Plus, your character retains everything you equip in cutscenes so it’s really neat to see your identity interact with Sonic and his friends.
The avatar plays most similar to Modern Sonic and inherits his flaws in detecting hazards and stage length. Although they can’t run as fast as Sonic, the avatar makes up for this limitation with a variety of Wispon abilities. Wispon abilities include flamethrowers, electric whips, or drills that let you dig underground. Think Sonic Colors’ wisps but in weaponized form. Stay away from the whip, though, as it has a dash mechanic built in that was more troublesome than it was worth.
In fact, the avatar’s stages will have methods of traversal where only a certain Wispon ability can work. For instance, you can reach higher areas by using the flamethrower to boost upwards, or dash along a trail of rings with the electric whip similar to Sonic Adventure’s lightspeed dash. It gives each stage some replay value to find hidden red rings, if you’re the completionist type.
The majority of boss battles have you running on an endless rail, dodging the boss’s attacks and obstacles in your path until you’re close enough for the targeting reticle to lock-on for your attack. You hit them and it’s rinse and repeat. They’re visually appealing but don’t add much to the imagination in terms of a satisfying fight. The fight with Zavok and the final battle with Infinite mix it up a bit, but it feels so by-the-books. Heck, Chaos is one of the characters that makes a comeback early in the game, but he never acts as a boss. That was a wasted opportunity.
I wish Sonic Forces wasn’t such a mixed bag, because when it has elements that work, it does them quite well. Green Hill Zone is a too familiar sight that slightly feels new as it begins to lose its color, evidence of Eggman’s rule over the world. There’s a stage where the avatar has to navigate its way through a city, but Infinite keeps warping reality to change things up. These are hints of brilliance in Sonic Forces, and I sorely wish Sonic Team kept that idea going.
I can’t help but feel Sonic Forces’ longevity would have gotten a boost had there been more worthwhile level design. There’s about 30 levels total, including boss fights but, considering how short the levels are, you’ll be speeding through the game in four or five hours. Sure, you “gotta go fast”, but it’s got to be worthwhile and adventurous. You can still revisit the game to beat your best times and high scores, answer S.O.S. messages to rescue other player-created avatars, and complete challenge missions, all for more equipment, but even that feels tacked-on.
Finally, I played on Nintendo Switch and I noticed a slight haze and blur in the game’s cutscenes. Additionally, the Switch version features 30 fps while other versions support 60 fps. If you’re looking for polish, stick with PS4 or Xbox One. Music in Sonic Forces has some nostalgic throwbacks to the 16-bit era, and Modern Sonic and the avatar’s stages feature good-natured power ballads that harken back to Sonic’s early days in 3D adventures.
Sonic Forces is the series’ demonstration to seemingly take a few steps forward and a few steps back. It has some great ideas going for it, but why limit what it’s proven to do so well in the past? I enjoyed modifying my avatar more than I thought I would, and the Sonic stages can be some good fun once you learn how to navigate the level and evade traps. In the end, Sonic Forces is an okay experience. Here’s hoping we get that 3D Sonic game that blows us away like a sonic boom, rather than coast to the finish line.