Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II
As part of an attempt to rejuvenate a Sonic the Hedgehog franchise that had seen much decay over the years, Sega attempted a ‘successor’ to 1994’s Sonic 3 sixteen years later. By drip feeding the game episodically, they could use the feedback to find a solution that worked. Unfortunately Sonic 4: Episode I failed to jump-start the series, rehashing classic levels and lacking Sonic’s traditional nippiness. Yet the blue hedgehog still churned out solid performances in Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations, providing a mini-revival to build on. With the series witnessing much variation in quality since its Mega Drive days, making it fit for the current era is a long-standing question Sega has faced. Whether a twenty-year-old formula is even suitable when looking past the tint of nostalgia is certainly one of them.
“Co-operative play is back”For one thing, the level structure hasn’t been a problem. Sonic 4: Episode II provides four zones inspired by the classic series, each with their own boss as Sonic aims to defeat Dr Eggman in the finale. Finding enough rings allows Sonic to access special stages, where further rings must be collected in a familiar half-pipe obstacle course to obtain a chaos emerald. In addition, a few new features have been implemented. Sonic’s flying fox sidekick Tails returns, adding the ability to carry Sonic in the air for a short time, and they can now also form a turbo-roll attack to charge through anything blocking their path. Co-operative play is also back, and collectible red stars have been placed in obscure parts of each level. As a bonus to those who also purchased Episode I on Steam, a selection of its levels can be replayed with Metal Sonic, continuing his story from Sonic CD.
As an incremental continuation, Episode II is again quite short, but the level design hosts a diverse range of original and reimagined gameplay elements. Sylvester Castle assumes the role as a grassy zone to raise the curtains, but with underwater moats and a moonlit touch. Slippery oil slides, sandstorms, and avoiding entrapment by rising sand levels make up Oil Desert, but White Mountain stands as the most interesting of the zones. One act makes Sonic and Tails roll through snow quickly before it refreezes, whilst avoiding avalanches; the next involves navigating a rollercoaster that’s intent on crushing the pair, and finally they must negotiate eel-laden water passages whose icy bubble blasts block the path. The build-up to the Death Egg zone brings with it many déjà vu moments. Sonic and Tail must guide an aeroplane through a sky laden with enemies, bombs and breakable boxes in order to enter the Doctor’s base.
“A more accomplished effort”Episode II may continue to imitate classic Sonic zones’ aspects but at least this is a more accomplished effort. The sprite based graphics from Episode I have been replaced with polygonal models allowing for more dynamic, crisper levels plus the predecessors sluggish physics have been dropped. The many new innovations and variety in levels constantly keep the game fresh as well. Tails’ presence adds a few more challenges, as he must guide Sonic through dangerous obstacles and conserve his stamina to fly Sonic over bottomless pits. Cheap death drops have now been signposted, and Tails can handily rescue Sonic from many falls. However there are still some frustrating nuances. The lock-on homing attack is often required to defeat sequences of enemies mid-air, but poor responsiveness can lead to easy falls. Clumsily placed crushing obstacles and subsiding platforms still appear with little warning, often in boss battles, needlessly adding to the otherwise healthy challenge.
As a result, Episode II is a step back from Sonic Generations but it has certainly built on the inaugural Sonic 4 episode. The levels aren’t very explorable but they’re more original and varied; the length comes close to the classic series, and the music has improved slightly. There are plenty of signature Sonic moments that veterans will relish, and the addition of Tails and his moves are welcome. However, reusing level themes under thinly veiled guises feels cheap and dampens the title’s integrity as a ‘successor’. Cheap pitfalls, a problem even in the 16-bit games, also need to be brushed out if this franchise is serious about reinventing itself. Episode II is a good quality, smooth flowing platform game filled with new and retro elements fans will enjoy. It’s going to need to become more than a sum of its parts if it wants to compete in this modern gaming era though.