Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II should be great. After all, its launch comes hot on the heels of Sonic Generations, a retrospective title that proved Sega and Sonic Team’s competence in understanding the finer aspects of the platformer genre. Yet, somehow, it isn’t great. To that effect, it isn’t even very good; it’s a simple concept dragged out across an uneven experience that I could only generously refer to as slightly above average.
I feel the need to clarify that, despite the inherent disappointment that accompanies the opening paragraph of this review, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II isn’t bad. The blue blur’s return to the second dimension is much more refined than his last downloadable effort; the game is smooth, beautiful, and much better laid out than many of Sonic Team’s recent excursions. Most of this can be attributed to the level design, a feature that has seen much improvement since Episode I. In that premiere effort, stages were ripped directly from the original Sonic the Hedgehog and glossed over with pseudo current-generation visuals. Every zone in Episode II is completely, undeniably new, and some even go as far as to introduce interesting new mechanics to the franchise, such as the ability to control Sonic as he runs on a vertical surface, that proved to be a welcome addition to the typical formula of running and jumping across vibrant terrain.
Though they demonstrate a marked improvement over the game’s predecessor, the stages found in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II depict an astonishing lack of imagination within Sega’s creative framework; instead of directly copying old designs, Sonic Team has copied old ideas and simply pasted them over a new canvas. Perhaps the most disturbing example is in the game’s third level, Oil Desert Zone, which proceeds to shamelessly emulate Oil Ocean Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Each of the title’s four zones will seem familiar to fans of the franchise, but, unlike the inspirations under which they were made, they lack the character and charm to stand out after completion.
Even more dire is the fact that each zone is littered with a selection of three independent sections that alternate between being incredibly fun and insufferably dull; this is where the uneven nature of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II comes into play. There are times throughout the game in which, as the player, you will think that Sonic Team has righted its course and has once again set its sights on perfecting the core experience. Those times are followed only by dread as, during the very next level, you are forced to sit through an overwrought series of traps designed for the sole purpose of screwing over the user and not at all meant to propagate the idea of fun. An experience that stands out most in my mind came on my last evening with the game as I finished up the incredibly short campaign. Having finished and enjoyed a large majority of the Oil Desert Zone, I prepared myself for the last world, a stage paying homage to Sky Fortress Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with its placement of Sonic atop the plane of Miles “Tails” Prower. What followed was the longest five minutes of my life, a period of time that saw me slowly moving across a homogeneous background lazily moving up and down to avoid the sluggish obstacles that laid before the title’s protagonists. This, I can say with the utmost certainty, is not how Sonic the Hedgehog is meant to be played.
Sonic the Hedgehog is meant to be played with Tails, though, and this is a fact that is well emphasized in Episode II. As he has in previous installments, Tails runs where Sonic runs, jumps where Sonic jumps, and attacks whomever Sonic attacks. New to this game is the ability of a single player to utilize the special qualities belonging to Tails with the simple press of a button. This mechanic comes into play through two new abilities: flying and dashing. Flying is, to anyone that has ever set foot into Green Hill Zone, a self-explanatory use of Tails to hover above the ground for a short time to ascend towards out of reach heights and other areas of importance. On the other hand, dashing presents an entirely new way to traverse the environment and tackle its many foes; players can, by activating the same button used for flying, combine with Tails to form a wheel that bulldozes through the terrain at a speed faster than Sonic’s regular trot. Neither skill is particularly groundbreaking, but both serve as a reasonable means of pacing the typically-hectic experience.
Tag-team powers aren’t all that feels new about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II; plenty of modern ideas have found their way into Sonic Team’s latest downloadable title. Sonic’s homing jump, a helpful tool that locks players onto an item or opponent before launching into them, makes its return to the franchise to exceptional results. It may not be the most popular inclusion, but so much work has been done to refine the ability that it now helps levels flow as they wouldn’t be able to under the typical Sonic formula. Accompanying that modern concept is another one in the aesthetics, a collection of appealing visuals that ring true to the current generation without separating themselves entirely from the nostalgia of the past. While it may be easy to criticize the current generation of Sonic for the failings of this throwback, it would be, in my opinion, completely out of place to do so.
A slight touch of the modern style would have went a long ways in helping out the soundtrack of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. The game’s music attempts to reinvigorate the 16-bit passion of the past and, in doing so, produces a distorted, repetitive electronic buzz that will send players running to the iTunes dashboard. Both new and old Sonic titles are revered for their auditory prowess and yet, somehow, this installment into the series completely missed the mark.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II should have been great, but it isn’t; good would even be an adjective too far. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is a game that provides for numerous enjoyable moments that are sadly outweighed by those made up of sheer frustration, a dilemma that makes the $15 (1200 Microsoft Points) price tag seem like far too hard of a bargain for any reasonable consumer to buy into. It’s a shame that Sega and Sonic Team are bowing out of the episodic model now when certain elements of the game are moving in the right direction, but perhaps it’s a good thing that they set their sights elsewhere; at least their doing so means that we won’t have to see a poorly altered, modern version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 levels in the near future.
Final Score: 3 out of 5