Sonic was my childhood hero, and yet even I can readily admit that he’s fallen from grace in recent years. Sonic ‘06 made me want to hurl. Sonic Unleashed also made me want to hurl, although only during two thirds of the game. Colors and Generations were definitely steps in the right direction, though they still had some frustrating aspects, and it was hard to shake the feeling that Sonic Team could do better.
I’m extremely proud, then, to report that Sonic: Lost World is the most tolerable Sonic game I’ve played in years. In fact, during my hands-on time with it at E3, I’d even go as far to say that it’s…
…ACTUALLY KIND OF FUN.
I know, right? The apocalypse must be nigh.
Part of what alleviates the pain is the fact that Sonic actually controls decently for once. This time around, there’s actually a dedicated run button, activated by holding the right trigger. Simply nudging the control stick, meanwhile, makes our blue hedgehog run smoothly at the speed of the average platformer protagonist. In this mode, he can practically turn on a dime, and he’s even outfitted with a double-jump to make platforming more forgivable.
I can’t stress enough how welcome this feature is. This means you effectively get the best of both worlds, able to run through stages with Sonic’s trademark speediness while also being able to slow down and become more precise whenever you need to grab an item or perform a delicate jump. I’d say I’m amazed it took this long to experiment with the concept of a run button, but then this is Sonic Team we’re talking about.
The stages have been made a lot simpler and more coherent, but also a bit more complex and open-ended, if that makes any sense. During the three stages I was offered, most of level design took on a ‘cylindrical’ format. Sonic ran up or down long hexagonal paths, shifting from left to right to avoid gaps, collect rings, and dispatch enemies. It sounds simple (and it is), but it allows the player to maintain a consistent speed and focus on the obstacles ahead rather than worrying about obtuse and unpredictable level design.
That’s not to say the level design hasn’t retained some its fancy-pantedness, just that it feels a lot less broken now. Environments periodically open up, offering a lot of branching paths that Sonic can take via roads, platforms or those red trampoline things with stars on them. These will take him to shortcuts, alternate paths or hidden islands floating throughout the world, some of which house secrets and collectibles such as red rings. It’s during these parts where the game felt like Super Mario Galaxy, though certainly not in a bad way. In fact, after completing a level my mind raced back (pun intended) to all the alternative pathways I could’ve taken but didn’t (a fitting metaphor for my life), so there’s certainly a lot of potential for replayability.
The second stage I played, which looked like some kind of demented Candy Land, was the only one that featured 2D gameplay. This section felt a lot slower and had incorporated more elevation in its layout, more akin to stages from classis sidescrolling Sonic games. I honestly didn’t mind this though, since the more traditional platforming provided a nice break from the high-speed thrills.
Environments and enemies were colorful and varied, not that Sonic games have ever had problems in those areas. The first stage was decorated with the browns and, well, greens of Green Hill Zone, meaning someone didn’t forget to pack the nostalgia. Most levels even end with Sonic breaking open a metal capsule containing cutesy animals. Meanwhile, the rogues gallery ranged from flying caterpillars to mechanical insect-tractors to whatever else Sonic Team dreamt up while smoking their usual substances.
Thankfully, said substances were a lot less potent this time around, because they finally ditched their outdated lives system! No longer will dying too many times force you to start the entire level all over again. Now the sensibly placed checkpoints can be used as many times as you want. Of course, replaying the level and completing it in one flawless run will still net you a much higher score, so levels still have longevity while no longer being punishing.
With all that being said, this is still a 3D Sonic game made in the 21st century, so there was still a minimum amount of frustration that had to be implemented. I inevitably ran into several cheap deaths, some of which resulted from an enemy walking over a breakable tile and me subsequently plummeting to my doom. Secondly, the brand new double-jump is performed by pressing the A button twice while the homing attack is – you guessed it! – also done by pressing A twice. I don’t think I need to explain the potential problems this could cause. Also, unleashing the homing attack on some enemies, such as the caterpillar, will cause Sonic to continually swirl around the enemy and hit all of its weak points, during which you’re locked in place and can’t move.
Lastly, there are still segments of the game when Sonic will go on auto-pilot for 30 seconds, bouncing off a succession of springs or barreling down a loop-de-loop while you get to simply stand there and admire him. Yes, I suppose they look cool and all, but RRRAAAAARRRGGGGHHHH LET ME ACTUALLY PLAY THE GAME SAHNIC TEEM!
Sonic: Lost World is by no means perfect, and it sure as hell won’t be enough to make me run out and buy a Wii U (though to be fair, nothing short of Half-life 3 exclusivity would accomplish that at this point). However, I can’t stress enough how surprised I was by it. Thanks to highly improved controls, simplified yet tightened level design, better pacing and the ditching of the lives system, this is easily the most playable and frustration-free game to have graced the series in years. I still didn’t get any exposure to the story, so who knows? It might be the same convoluted garbage found in games prior. However, at least where gameplay is concerned, this is one Lost World you might want to discover this fall. You know, if you actually have a Wii U.