Friday, May 18, 2012

Sonic 4: Episode 2 goes a long way towards making up for the mess that was Episode 1. A fun title that still should have been more but definitely could have been less.

As a long-time Sonic fan, it was an exciting day for me when Sega first teased that a new 2D Sonic title was in development. I was even happier when they later announced their intention to boldly title the game Sonic the Hedgehog 4, deeming it the continuation to a series that played a major role in my video gaming as a kid. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, however, disappointed on an almost catastrophic level. All but outsourced to DIMPS, the studio responsible for the decent but pretty underwhelming Sonic Rush games, it played like a low-budget rehash of the first Sonic the Hedgehog instead of a full-on sequel, with some terrible controls to boot.

I had lost much of my hope in the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 project at that point, and downloaded Episode 2 with my expectations vastly lowered, and maybe that was what it took. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 certainly doesn't have the energy or the clever platforming seen in the recently-released Sonic Generations (DIMPS is simply no SonicTeam, there's no getting around that fact) but in improving the controls, in designing a game that feels new and not like a homage, and in upping the production values substantially, DIMPS has successfully created a fun platformer that at times really does feel like the Sonic 4 that we were promised years ago.

Visually speaking, Episode 2 is leaps and bounds above its predecessor. These are some beautiful levels, ones posessing a great sense of scale and detail. The art direction is very much in the spirit of Sonic but at the same time feels like something entirely new, and short and charming cutscenes before and after certain acts feel like a true step up from where this type of storytelling left off in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. The music's done in the style of the Genesis Sonic games, and while it provides a bit of nostalgia at times, the songs generally loop far too quickly almost to the point of annoyance.

As far as the gameplay's concerned, Episode 2 sees the return of Tails, though his role's been expanded far beyond what it ever was in past Sonic the Hedgehog games. With the press of a button, Tails will fly you on command, an action which you have full control over. There are other moves, including an admittedly ill-advised team spindash, that the two characters can pull off together. The addition of Tails and his increased importance is the exact type of risk that I felt Episode I should have taken. The role of a sequel is to expand upon where its predecessors left off, not to simply copy them, and I give Episode 2 credit for having the guts to bring something entirely new to a franchise as sacred to some as Sonic the Hedgehog. One of Episode 1's few new features, the homing attack, returns here, but this time the game fully embraces its presence instead of tepidly introducing it, and it's all the better for it.

Bosses too are all new and they're the type of crazily elaborate fights that we just didn't see too much of in the Genesis era, or of course in Episode 1. They may be a little too long (as dying results in you having to restart them) but that's really my only complaint. Once again, this is what Episode 1 should have done to begin with.

It's important to note though that this isn't a game without its flaws, mostly involving the special stages. As with Episode 1, you gain access to a special stage by completing a Zone with 50 rings or more. Episode 2's special stages are reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 2's in appearance but play quite a bit differently. I'm neutral on them in and of themselves; Sonic's movement definitely feels a bit stiff, but they're fun to play and feature appealing visuals. The big issue, however, is that they were designed with co-op in mind, and to say that the AI-controlled Tails will not pull his own weight is almost an understatement; he will do almost nothing whatsoever to collect rings for you. This isn't such a big deal at first but as the stages become more and more demanding, you'll truly be at a loss without his help. I'm not currently paying for Xbox Live and I'll admit, finding someone my age who will sit down and play Sonic with me isn't looking very likely. It may not have been such an issue if you could select failed special stages from the main menu and try them again, but instead the game requires you to go back through the level to re-access them, which alone makes it not feel worth the effort. The lackluster reward for completing all of the special stages isn't going to compel many solo Sonic 4 players to bother.

Though this issue doesn't hurt the game much in theory, it's a problem because it takes away much of the value from the product. Like with Episode 1, this is only 4 Zones we're talking about here, and though the 3 acts (plus a boss) of each are long and varied, it's impossible to ignore the fact that you can complete this game in 1 sitting, and even at $15 I'm not entirely sure that it's worth the money in this day and age for the main story alone. If you have somebody to play co-op with or are interested in collecting the red coins or clearing the special stages you'll get a good deal more value out of the product, but it's a short game, no doubt about it.
Verdict: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 goes a long way towards saving what had been such a mess. With far better controls and physics, beautiful graphics, levels that feel much more original, new enemies, and a cool Sonic/Tails element to the platforming, Episode 2 is a fun game that at times even feels worthy of the Sonic the Hedgehog title; with a little more content, it could have been a true home run. And that's where I shake my head and wish that this had all been done differently. If Sonic the Hedgehog 4 had originally been conceived as a 60-level retail game like, say, Rayman Origins, and had it featured Episode 2's physics and creative levels to begin with, we could have been looking at the true platforming epic that this deserved to be. Instead, handicapped by its digital medium and with the weight of Episode 1 on its back, we have a fun title that will satisfy your craving for more 2D Sonic before ending far too quickly and leaving you wanting more. I'd be eager to play an Episode 3, but would I be happy to pay $15 again for yet another bite-sized adventure? Honestly, I'm not so sure.

Presentation: The menu and structure from Episode 1 returns, though increased story elements and a Sonic/Tails dynamic add some much-needed charm to the proceedings. Special stages though could have been integrated better.

Graphics: Gorgeous visuals with true scope and a great sense of detail. Game looks great and enemy and boss designs are awesome.

 Gameplay: Improvements all around. Tails is not just a visual prop but actually plays a crucial role in the platforming. Levels, while fairly linear and definitely not up to the standards set by Sonic Generations' 2D zones, are still almost all fun to play. Great bosses. Special stages...meh.

Sound: Sonic's sound effects will always be here and they'll always be awesome. Some tracks are great musically (White Park Zone Act 2) while others loop so quickly that they quickly become grating.

Replay Value: There's additional stuff to experience if you want to get the most out of your $15, though I wouldn't even bother with the special stages unless you can play them co-op. The main game itself, though, is still too short.

Overall: 7.5/10 (Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale. This is a review of the Xbox 360 version.)


  1. Nice review, i disagree about the special stages, I think they are harder with co-op. Tails doesn't really do much. xD if you stay in front of him you can get all the rings.

  2. Thanks dude. But I dunno man. Tails only collecting around 12 rings while Sonic collects like...100+ feels wayyyy out of wack to me. If I veer off to one side to collect some rings, CPU tails should take the other. A human would, lol.

  3. I wish they hand't chopped it up into episodes