Article By: Michael Savich
My bunny character meets Sonic. 10 year old me would have been over the moon.
Has there ever been a game as doomed as Sonic Forces? Not only does it come on the heels of long-time rival Mario’s latest great adventure, but earlier this year Sonic Mania was released to critical acclaim. Can Sonic surpass both himself and his mustachioed frenemy at the same time?
The premise of Sonic Forces is that Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Eggman, has finally succeeded in taking over the world. Indeed, in the first five minutes of the game, we are treated to a cutscene where Sonic flat out dies. Almost as soon as this sequence has ended, we are told that six months have passed, and that (don’t worry kids!) Sonic isn’t dead, he has simply been being tortured in solitary confinement. In a space prison. The story starts out like an uncomfortable fever dream and it never really lets up on that front.
But, with Sonic in space-Guantanamo, who is left to save the day? Well, that’s where you come in. Literally. Sonic Forces’ big selling point is that they let you create your own Sonic character. In case you’ve been living under a rock since the mid-aughts, there is an entire online subculture of people creating their own Sonic original characters and role playing as them. Sega apparently noticed this, and with Forces, they seek to commercialize this phenomenon.
When the game first dumped me into the character creator, I was at first unimpressed. Your options for customizing your character’s body boil down to choosing a species of animal (no foxes though) and selecting from one of a handful of head shapes. Females also must choose a “base suit” because, for reasons probably best left to a cultural psychologist, Forces perpetuates the de facto series rule that only male characters can go unclothed. That unsettling detail aside, once you’ve created your character you can begin picking out clothes for them.
It’s slim pickings at first, but as I played through the game, I started acquiring new clothes and accessories for my character, eventually numbering in the hundreds. The character customizer may be rudimentary, but there is real depth to be found in decking out your furry persona. At times it felt arbitrarily limited (e.g. you can’t wear a shirt and a backpack at the same time for some reason) but I ended up sinking a couple hours into creating characters and accessorizing them. I can’t predict whether everyone will find making characters as thoroughly entertaining as I did, but it was a high point for the game.
Actually playing as your custom character, on the other hand, was probably the low point. Gameplay mostly consists of moving forward through a stage and blasting hordes of enemies with your “Wispon”, a configurable weapon that can be anything from a flamethrower to a handheld drill. No matter your choice of Wispon, the effect is roughly the same: all enemies directly in front of you are destroyed in one shot. Each Wispon also has a secondary power, which requires you to find an appropriate power-up to use. The placing of these power-ups is remarkably boring however. For example, the lightning Wispon’s secondary ability lets you dash through long chains of rings, and lightning wisp power-ups are always, always, always found right next to a long chain of rings. It’s uninspired, to say the least.
Now feels like a good time to discuss the two Sonics. Yes, two. When playing as “Modern” Sonic, the gameplay follows the formula established in Sonic Unleashed: Sonic moves through a level at high speed, gaining energy which then allows him to use his boost, which upgrades his speed from “fast” to “stupid fast”. There’s a lot of spectacle in watching levels whiz by, but you never quite feel in control of the action. This isn’t helped by the fact that the vast majority of deaths you will encounter are the result of accidentally boosting off a platform into a bottomless pit. These problems aren’t new to the series, but Forces does little to solve them.
Returning from Sonic Generations is “Classic” Sonic, a retro-chibi version of the blue blur. Classic Sonic’s stages are all 2D side-scrollers, just like the classic Sega Genesis games. He’s a bit slower than Modern Sonic, but the result is that you feel more in control, and his stages have more intricate designs than found elsewhere in the game. In general, Classic Sonic is the only part of the game that is much fun at all to play. Even so, while the appearance of Classic Sonic in Sonic Generations was a delightful surprise back in 2011, his return now feels a bit cynical, as if a concession to the apparent fact that Sonic Team doesn’t really know how to make Modern Sonic fun to play as. It doesn’t help that Sonic Mania also played the nostalgia card earlier this year, and did it much, much better.
If you follow the main path through the game, you’ll probably be done in 3-4 hours. However, with three characters to play, you spend maybe half of that just getting used to the controls. If there was only one character or the characters controlled more similarly, 4 hours might feel cozy, but with all the controls and systems thrown into the game, the end result feels extremely cramped length-wise.
To combat this, Sonic Forces has several systems incentivizing you to replay the game’s 30 stages again and again. Every now and then an “SOS” will pop up, challenging you to replay a level with a secondary objective, such as freeing animals from a capsule or playing as an avatar created by another player online. There’s a list of “missions” as well, which are more like achievements, and completing them will unlock even more clothes for your avatar. Finally, there are also “daily” missions. These usually task you with doing extremely boring things like changing up your avatar’s clothes. The completion of a daily mission grants you a temporary score multiplier when replaying stages.
To my surprise, although my first run through the game was a miserable slog, as I replayed stages and learned their layouts, I started to have quite a bit of fun. Most of my time with the game was spent shaving seconds off my best times and hunting down the red rings scattered throughout the stages. I ended up enjoying most of the back half of my time with Sonic Forces. But I don’t really know if any of this qualifies as good design. I imagine the vast majority of people won’t replay any of the stages, ergo the vast majority will likely come away hating Forces. And who could blame them for not wanting to put up with what is ultimately a deeply flawed game?
In case you haven’t caught on, Sonic Forces is complicated. And I don’t intend that as a compliment. It feels very much like a case of having too many chefs in the kitchen, with elements from various games bolted on here and there. Sonic Team has cherry-picked all the things that reviewers praised in previous games, but they fail to demonstrate an understanding of why people liked those mechanics in the first place. Even the custom character creator seems to be an admission by Sonic Team that they are unable to tell a good story, relying instead on the psychological effect of self-insertion to carry the narrative. Sonic Forces is a bit of a tryhard, wanting to be everything to everyone. It lacks the confidence to do one thing and do it well. It’s as if Sonic Team has finally realized Sonic is a force beyond their control.