It’s been a good year for platformers. Consistently I’ve been filled with that kinetic joy that only smartly composed platforming can give, that immediate gratification from clearing every little jump and obstacle that builds to a rich rewarding experience. And yet here’s Sonic Forces, which just happens to exist. It breezes past you, not being bluntly agitating like many of its 3D predecessors but not containing any committed attempt at an ambitious hook either. After the clever and effervescent and genuinely cool Sonic Mania earlier this year it’s fair to say I wasn’t the only one hoping that Sonic Team could deliver something special, but thankfully I didn’t set my expectations on that. Sonic Forces is a modern Sonic game. Not one of the best, not one of the worst, just one that exists and takes you through its motions.
AS A PREFACE I PLAYED THE SWITCH VERSION BECAUSE I WANTED IT PORTABLE AND NO I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE FRAMERATES OR LIGHTING DON’T @ ME.
The underlying narrative of Sonic Forces hints at ambition, bringing together all the past Sonic heroes and villains to fill in the backdrop of a big epic war. Unfortunately they mostly just occupy the background. Sonic Forces isn’t a premium game in scale, and even though that’s not inherently the mark of a bad game it’s a source of bother given the periodic teasing at something grander. I wanted to battle Chaos, I wanted to see Metal Sonic do something, heck I would’ve been happy with a throwaway Knuckles level. But you only get to see those characters pop up in a few cutscenes and as talking heads for perpetual level intruding dialogue. The story itself is painfully self-serious, cutting out much of the goofy humour that made recent Sonic games endearing in exchange for kid gloves grit (but at least we still get zingers like Modern Sonic telling Classic Sonic “It’s been generations since I’ve seen you”).
Like in Sonic Generations you get the Modern Sonic levels and the Classic Sonic levels – a welcome return to what made that previous game work – along with the brand new custom character levels. Despite the hellish possibilities having custom characters in a Sonic game brings I was pleasantly surprised by the features. Although there isn’t a dynamic range of options Sonic Forces hits a satisfying minimum of customisation, leaving you with plenty of options for cool and cute and absolutely horrifying concoctions that blend seamlessly into the Sonic universe. Taking my break dancing bespectacled red kitty through the main story offered plenty of joy and charm to the game. Also there’s a snapback with the word ‘GAMER’ printed on it. ‘Nuff fucking said.
The majority of levels are mildly pleasing, letting you casually drift through many of them even on the purported ‘hard mode’ with minimal effort. The Modern Sonic levels are the usual fare; offering some fun and flashy but fairly mundane 3D sections to dash button your way through, interspersed with some 2D sections that are respectable but often break the momentum. The Classic Sonic levels have the unfortunate position of having to compete against Sonic Mania in the same year, and while they’re visibly inferior in gameplay and flow and aesthetic they’re generally quite satisfying and perhaps the tightest portions of Sonic Forces. The custom character levels allow you some variety in weapon choices that can give you different options to clear a stage, but they generally amount to breezy action platforming no matter what direction you take. As far as the nuts and bolts are concerned there really isn’t much to talk about with this game, things just kinda happen without leaving much of a lasting impression.
Its ranking system is incredibly generous, even offering bonuses for fairly simple daily challenges like “perform a dash as Modern Sonic in stage 10”. I spoke in my Sonic Adventure 2 review about how I found that previous game’s grading system didn’t encourage you to improve at the game, taunting you every time you have to struggle to finish a level. By contrast many modern Sonic games place no weight in the grading system, watering down the sense of achievement this franchise is generally meant to give to players who can be both fast and tactical. As unkind as Adventure 2 was in that respect there was at least sizeable bonuses for getting good at the game’s obstacles. Much like the rest of the game the grading scale in Sonic Forces lacks the grounding to leave an impression.
Make no mistake, there are challenging levels in the later portions of this game. Unfortunately… they’re all bad. Sonic Forces still makes many of the same mistakes that Sonic Adventure did a near two decades ago when it came to challenging players, prolonging your play time with difficult to the discern obstacles and perpetual insta-kill pitfalls. It’s cheap and deceptive but most importantly it’s just plan annoying and not fun. Especially the later Classic Sonic levels. They make even Marble Zone blush with their intrusive sluggishness. The inability to make a challenging level engaging or rewarding is the mark of a platformer visibly lacking in craft, a disappointing truth that I’ve come to see the hard way in so many 3D Sonic titles.
On the whole, though, those levels are only 30 minutes or so of a 4-5 hour game. The rest of the game is fairly simple and breezy, serviceable but not memorable. The daily missions and bonus levels might add an extra hour or two to your play time if you really stretch it, plus there’s the free Shadow The Hedgehog DLC which will add the most agonising half hour you’ll have with the entire game. But all in all Sonic Forces is the kind of game you’ll get through in one or two sittings and get all the enjoyment you’ll ever have with it. If you’re a Sonic fan and you find it on the cheap it’s worth a shot, but otherwise stick to Sonic Mania for your 2017 blue hedgehog fix.