Ever since the transition from sprites to 3D visuals where polygons and textures replaced animated pixels, Sonic the Hedgehog hasn’t had the easiest go of it. Outside of the flagship 3D Adventure outings on the Sega Dreamcast, which attempted to mix things up gameplay-wise, you’d be hard pressed to really point to the blue hedgehog as anything but a mascot in search of a game.
Or even, a relevant and important series.
Which makes sense because when you go as far back at the 16-bit Sonic games, there’s always been a feeling that it’s a style in search of nuance. A game that almost plays itself. The sense of speed and watching backgrounds scroll past you was great in the early ‘90s, but with only a sense of speed to latch onto it fell short as a traditional platformer. Especially when you bumped into an object that you had no chance of seeing and rings flew out in every direction.
Sonic Forces doesn’t so much switch up the formula as it feels content in presenting byte sized classic Sonic-style stages that can be completed in a few minutes. Stages that either play out from a 16-bit side-on perspective or the endless-runner third-person viewpoint first seen in Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast.
But, where it differs and offers a new spin on the age-old and somewhat spotty history of Sonic games is the introductions of a make-your-own Sonic character. Which, when not controlling the blue hedgehog, take centre stage. Sonic Forces immediately doubles down on this make your own Sonic approach, where in addition to getting to choose what animal you want to be you also get a choice of weapon or ability. Which in turn adds a bit of variety to the levels, but usually no more than shooting fire instead of electricity.
The short nature of each new stage means that in addition to becoming the next set piece in an overly complicated Saturday morning cartoon tale of good versus evil starring a bunch of animals and weird technology, they’re also time trials. Where speed, score, secrets, and other things all add up to give you a rank. Score an S ranking and you’re awarded with new cosmetic items for your avatar, and sometimes a new weapon.
The sheer number of cosmetic items to unlock, and we’re talking about a figure that’s at least two or three hundred, is impressive. But, it's the one aspect of the game that Sega are betting on being the thing that keeps you coming back. Not the stages, or the boss battles, or even the story - but the whole make your own Sonic deal. Which isn’t a bad thing per se, the customisation options are impressive in their abundance, but it does detract from the overall linear experience of moving form stage to stage.
This review isn’t going to factor in the quality of the story into the score, because the Sonic universe has existed as an animated series for quite some time. And this is just more of the same. Overly bright, colourful, and intense in the way that cartoons aimed at younger audiences tend to be. Or, used to be.
And outside of the whole avatar aspect, Sonic Forces is a very traditional Sonic title. One that is content to mimic the look and feel of classic Sonic releases without adding anything new to the table. And when the level design does toy with new mechanics or ideas, like switching the direction of gravity at random intervals, it’s all over fairly quick. Thanks to the three or four-minute runtime of each stage, there’s never really any sense of progression other than taking part in the next bite-sized chunk of running fast and then diving into enemies to take them out.
In that sense Sonic Forces isn’t a bad game, nor the worst Sonic title in years. In fact, it’s quite fun and keeps up the series tradition of bringing a sense of speed to the forefront. But compared to say, Super Mario Odyssey, you get the feeling that it’s just another example of a fun and shallow Sonic game in a long line of fun and shallow Sonic games.