First Impressions: Taking Sonic Boom for a Spin on Wii U and 3DS
Posted by Morgan Sleeper
Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)
Back in May 2013 Nintendo announced that it had entered into a partnership with Sega to bring a series of three Sonic games exclusively to its systems. Sonic Lost World and Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games were the first products of that arrangement, and the upcoming Sonic Boom games — one on Wii U and one on 3DS — are set to round out the trio. Sega has an ambitious multimodal strategy for Sonic Boom, including a TV series on Cartoon Network, a line of TOMY toys and, of course, the two separate Nintendo-exclusive games: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U, and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for the 3DS.
There’s been a recent trend for console and handheld versions of the same Sonic games to have different levels, features, and individual emphases — as with Sonic Generations and Sonic Lost World — but the two Sonic Boom titles we saw at E3 take that idea even further. In reality, these are entirely separate games — a fact reflected in their subtitles and emphasized repeatedly by members of both development teams. After spending time with both games on the show floor, we definitely agree; while they’re connected by story, setting, and the Sonic Boom moniker, Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal represent two exciting and decidedly different directions for Sega’s evergreen Blue Blur.
We first got to try out Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, developed by Big Red Button for the Wii U. The demo we played was split into four sections, each designed to showcase a different aspect of the gameplay: exploration, combat, boss battles, and speed. We began with the exploration area, and right off the bat it was clear that this is a very different experience from past Sonic outings — our play session even started with a gentle reminder that Rise of Lyric is “not a traditional Sonic game, and that’s key”.
The level we played featured two playable characters — Sonic and Knuckles — which we could switch between with a press of the D-Pad. We were told that each exploration stage will focus on a team of two of the game’s four heroes — Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and Amy — and the level designs will emphasize two-player cooperative play. Each character also has different strengths and abilities; Sonic is predictably speedy and can spin-dash, Knuckles is unusually strong and can climb, Tails can hover and use tools, and Amy can triple-jump, cross balance beams, and smash in enemies with her hammer.
A Big Red Button rep told us that “from the beginning, the desire was to create an experience that people could sit down and play together”, and though we weren’t able to try it on the show floor, the full game will feature two-player dual-screen co-op: one player will use the GamePad as both controller and screen, while the other will use a separate controller and watch the TV in order to capitalize on the “sense of surprise” that comes from two people exploring the same level independently. Co-op will also be drop-in and drop-out, so that if one player needs to leave the AI will take over.
Our experience with the demo was of the single-player mode, with the computer controlling our ever-present sidekick, and the gameplay reminded us more of GameCube-era 3D action-adventure games than anything else; in the Sonic universe, the slower-paced exploration portions of Sonic Adventure would be the closest parallel. We took Sonic and Knuckles through several different areas in a jungle-like outdoor base, hitting switches to open doors, taking out enemies, and solving simple puzzles to advance. Many of these puzzles involved using a new element in the series called the ‘Enerbeam’ — a laser-like electric force that serves as both lasso and grappling hook — to drag things around, trigger distant switches, or pull platforms towards you.
The level design also took advantage of the two-character dynamic; Knuckles activated his end of two-part switches when required, and split off each time we reached one of the stage’s many branching paths. One section, for instance, featured a fork with spin-dash pads (which only Sonic could use) on the left, and a sheer wall (which only Knuckles could climb) on the right; we were free to decide which path we wanted to take by switching between the two characters, and each choice offered up different collectables and secrets.
Perhaps the biggest change of pace in Rise of Lyric from traditional Sonic gameplay comes from the combat. In place of Sonic’s usual hop-and-bop hit-and-run, Rise of Lyric features much more involved melees, with plenty of different ways to whop your foes. Along with homing attacks, players can use combos, charge moves, ground pounds, and evade rolls to deal with enemies, many of whom take several hits to finish off. The Enerbeam also plays a large role here — we used it to pick up and toss baddies into both the environment and each other, as well as remove shields from more powerful enemies before they could be damaged.
The conventional ring-based hit-point system of the Sonic series has been revamped as well; instead of operating on a rings-or-no-rings basis, Sonic and his friends now use the golden loops as health. Each character starts with a certain number of rings — represented in a visual health bar — and you’ll loose them as you take damage, with stronger enemies and harder hits resulting in bigger losses. Running out of rings won’t send you to a Game Over screen, either; as long as your partner is still standing, you’ll come back after a brief countdown, and if both characters fall at once you’ll simply restart from the last checkpoint.
Between the emphasis on combat and the decidedly slower pace, the gameplay in the exploration section of the Rise of Lyric demo felt very little like what we’ve come to expect from a Sonic game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however; what we played was an enjoyable slice of a 3D adventure game, and — perhaps crucially for the game’s primarily young intended audience — full of character. Plenty of banter between Sonic and pals — fully voiced by the voice actors from the upcoming TV show — kept things lively with wholesome humour, and in a nice touch we caught glimpses of Amy and Tails at several points throughout the level, busy working on their own mission independently.
We ended our time with Rise of Lyric by taking a look at the speed section of the demo, which featured a short beach-themed course for Sonic & Co. to blast through. This portion felt the most familiar from past Sonic games: we guided our four heroes along an on-rails trail full of boost pads and loops, sidestepping between three different lanes, activating railroad-style switches to trigger alternate paths, and making lots of last-minute jumps. One big change from the Sonic norm is that there were no bottomless pits; when we missed a zipline and feared the worst, we simply touched down rather unceremoniously into a lower area, and were able to work our way back up again, slowly but surely. The Big Red Button rep told us that this was part of an intentional plan to minimize frustration, and that the punishment for missteps in these sections would be slowing down, rather than starting over — definitely a plus for a younger audience and those not enamoured with the jump-or-die design of earlier Sonic games. We enjoyed the sunny speed course we tried, and though it was over quickly and rather basic, we were told they become more elaborate in both setting and level design as the game progresses, and that speed sections will be found within levels, as paths between hubs and individual levels and within hub worlds themselves.
After running around in Rise of Lyric, we switched gears to try out Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal on the 3DS, and speak with Tim Guerrero, Vice President & Creative Director of Sanzaru Games, developer for the handheld title. Shattered Crystal, Tim explained, has an entirely different gameplay focus from its console counterpart: it’s rooted in old-school side-scrolling Sonic, with an added element of exploration that comes from both the level design and its four playable characters.
While both Sonic Boom games feature teams of four, the roster is a bit different in Shattered Crystal; you’ll still be able to play as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, but since Amy’s been kidnapped you’ll instead take control of Sticks, a feral jungle badger and Amy’s best friend. You can switch between all four on the fly — even in the air — and though they all control alike, with a basic homing attack and dash, each character has different special abilities: Sonic can air-dash during jumps, Knuckles can punch and burrow, Tails can hover and toss grenades, and Sticks can throw a steerable boomerang.
In the Seaside Jungle stage we played, all of these abilities were used to reach new and otherwise out-of-reach areas, and switching quickly between characters for each situation felt great. In the course of our ten-minute run through the stage we air-dashed across wide gaps as Sonic, used Tails’ hover ability to ride breezes and his mechanical skills to pilot a submarine (named The Sea Fox, in a nod to Sonic Triple Trouble and Tails Adventure), tunnelled through special soft ground as Knuckles — calling to mind the Yellow Drill Wisp sections of Sonic Colours — and activated switches, took out faraway foes, and peeked around corners with Sticks’ surprisingly versatile boomerang.
It’s worth pointing out that while using the four heroes’ abilities to the fullest was the only way to find every secret in the stage, all of the areas we accessed through character-specific moves were completely optional. Sanzaru specifically avoided putting any multi-character ‘roadblocks’ between the player and the goal, in hopes that switching characters would feel fun rather than forced, and in our playtest that was certainly the case. It’s also a mechanic that could draw players back to earlier stages; while we were able to use all four characters in the E3 demo, normally only two would be unlocked by the time players reach Seaside Jungle, and some areas would remain off-limits until the team is completely assembled.
Just like the side-scrolling gameplay, the combat in Shattered Crystal recalls Sonic’s roots, with familiar hop-and-bop mechanics that make it quick, precise, and more about movement than pausing to eliminate foes. As in classic Sonic level design, enemies are “part of the flow” of a stage; they protect platforms, help you cross gaps, and feed into branching paths — we homing-attacked our way up several baddie-staircases, for instance, and were often well-rewarded for doing so. The Enerbeam is also used in Shattered Crystal, both for removing shields from enemies and for manoeuvring around the environment. Swinging across chasms via Enerbeam-enabled grappling points was particularly fun, and felt like a natural extension of the ‘flow’ of the game.
Along with the main platforming stage, we were also able to try out two other level types which will pop up from time to time on the game’s six island world maps. The first was a race stage, where we played as Sonic and tried to beat Sticks in an all-out dash to the finish line. It reminded us of the classic showdown with Metal Sonic from Sonic CD — in fact, we were told that you’ll even race Metal Sonic in the full game — and winning was all about quick decisions, split paths, and perfect timing. It was a close race from start to finish — though we narrowly squeaked in to victory — and lots of frantic fun.
The second side-stage we experienced was a 3D Worm Tunnel level, where Sonic races into the screen at top speed along a set path, avoiding obstacles and grabbing overhead rails with the Enerbeam in a one-shot attempt to make it to the end. This stage felt a bit like a much faster and more immediately treacherous version of Sonic 2’s special stages, and the combination of quick lane-switches, QTE-like jumps and Enerbeam-activation made for good twitchy fun.
Finally, while there won’t be any multiplayer in the handheld Sonic Boom, Shattered Crystal does feature StreetPass functionality. Each time you pass another player you’ll earn a special coin, and these can be exchanged for collectable ‘toys’ — 3D models and figures of characters and items — at shops on the world map. If you don’t have much luck with StreetPass, you’ll also be able to earn coins by playing a punching-bag mini-game with Knuckles, so players from less populated areas will be able to stock up on the in-game mementos as well.
After spending time with both Rise of Lyric and Shattered Crystal, it’s clear that Sonic Boom is best thought of as a Sonic ‘series’, rather than a game itself. Aside from the characters, gameplay, and narratives unique to each platform, each title had an entirely different feel; from our early impressions, it seems like the Wii U game could be a fun co-op experience for friends and families — especially those with younger children — while the 3DS title may hold more appeal for platforming and old-school Sonic fans. No matter your platform or play style of choice, Sonic won’t keep you waiting for long — both titles are set to be released in 2014, alongside the animated TV series, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing the rest of what this new Sonic universe has to offer when they do.
Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3: