Sonic the Hedgehog is a mascot still loved by many, but which is continually fighting to hit top form once again. The Sonic Boom spin-off franchise is an interesting case and point - despite a successful animated series and a reasonable 3DS platformer, in the eyes of some it'll remain tainted by a shoddy Wii U game. That's not entirely fair, but now Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice arrives on 3DS with the aim of raising the temperature and reputation of the show's video game spin-offs.
Just like Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal this platformer has been developed by Sanzaru Games, a studio with some respected and high-profile projects on its record. As a result it keeps the same feel of that original, which is an action platformer that also allows for some exploration and experimentation. The cast plays into this, with Sonic and Tails joined by Amy, Knuckles and Sticks. These are the buffed up, sports tape wearing varieties of the characters, of course, but with each having different abilities it's a smart way to give players the sense of utilising the full team.
In addition to each having a special ability - Sonic has a jump dash, Tails can hover or shoot a laser, Knuckles burrows underground and more besides - there's plenty for players to consider as they jump into this one. Due to the nature of the tie-in this game is more than directional control with a couple of buttons, with most of the 3DS inputs put to work. There are buttons used to dash and swing across gaps with a beam, and you can switch between unlocked characters on the touchscreen. Beyond that the shoulder button changes a character's 'element', between Fire & Ice.
Naturally that's the key gimmick this time, as a mixture of visible and semi-visible blocks must be frozen or melted at key times. It's an idea with limited scope but is often used well, occasionally requiring rapid switches in order to get through a tricky spot. As a concept it does run out of steam, though, as there are only so many variations on the puzzles that are possible.
Considering the fact that this is a game that may tempt young fans of the show, that may sound like quite a lot to deal with; as we say, a lot of inputs are used for what is still primarily a platformer. Thankfully early stages are carefully designed to introduce mechanics at a steady pace, to the point that you'll be instinctively executing impressive dashes and jumps in no time. Design decisions driven by the need to tie-in to the show - such as the extended cast - have ultimately been worked around rather well, and the end result is a solid, enjoyable experience.
It's certainly the case that the extended time spent on this project appears to have reaped some benefits. Stages are impressively complex in their construction, with each having multiple collectables to track down. They definitely reward curious players and those with the 'go left first' mentality, and though the pay-off for the collected items is modest it adds an enjoyable twist. It's unlikely - in some cases impossible - that you'll get all items on a first playthrough, either, so repeat runs are expected for completionists that want to get all items and also dash through for the quickest possible times.
Some curveballs are also thrown in to add some variety to proceedings. In addition to standard levels each of the main areas also has some alternative stages - one type has Sonic dashing forwards in the classic 'on rails' style of 3D Sonic games, as you simply switch lanes, jump and occasionally change elements. In addition Tails tackles some stages in his vehicular gadgets - there are clever submarine stages in which you tap the touchscreen to see your radar, and less impressive hoverboat levels in which you blast away at icebergs as you progress. There are also occasional boss encounters that spread across both screens; they're not particularly remarkable, but are another fun diversion that put different tactics into play. Overall these variations help to shake up the formula a little.
Race stages are also key, too, where speed and momentum are everything. Though some aspects of these levels amount to the player being a spectator to some impressive automated dashing, the quickfire nature of these challenges is a nice fit. There's also an option for some 1 vs 1 local multiplayer races, with in-game unlocks providing more tracks and 'bot racers'. These races are certainly enjoyable, though unfortunately a late single player stage has an intolerable difficulty spike rooted in bad design - it necessitates a near-impossible double jump and boost that even the AI opponent struggles to complete. This could be a genuine choke-point for the majority of players - it's a rare but frustrating design error.
That issue aside, overall there's a decent mix of stages and gameplay styles to tackle. Normal stages often hit the right marks, too, blending speed and exploration rather well. For those that want a 'Sonic' tempo there's scope for that here, as there are some lovely sequences during which you dash, swing and boost along your routes while barely missing a step. It can be satisfying to spin-dash foes for momentum or extra height, and at times this game does bring some feelings of 'good old Sonic', even doing a respectable job when it forces a slowdown in tempo to solve an environmental puzzle.
That said, with progress the campaign does lose a little of its momentum, with ideas getting thin in later worlds. Perhaps more a consequence of the TV show and development brief, this game struggles to truly assert an identity for itself, with some generic worlds like 'Gothic Gardens' and 'Cutthroat Cove' doing little for the imagination. We never got bored, as such, and can envisage a time in the future where we'll feel the urge to jump back in and replay stages to set fast times or track collectables, but at times the settings fell flat.
The plot is a mixed bag too, which is a pity as it's given a prominent role. Cutscenes sacrifice visual fidelity in order to use the game engine, a clever way to promote the sense you're playing through an episode of the TV show, but the story starts to meander after a good start, with a slightly disappointing pay-off. This won't matter for plenty of gamers, but for fans of the show the positive start may make way for some minor disappointment after a while.
In fact, various elements of this game sway from being solid and slick, to sloppy and slightly off-key. The core gameplay is smooth and enjoyable, but aspects such as a rather ugly user interface and overworld let it down. Presentation includes some decent visuals for the 3DS, but art design is a dull and unimaginative at times. The music is also rather unmemorable, but again this may partly have the TV source material to blame.
These negatives are a shame, as it is evident that Sanzaru Games has worked hard to ensure this title is well-optimised and putting its best foot forward. Notably it is, overall, an enjoyable game and thoroughly competent platformer. The problem it has is the legacy of good and bad predecessors that bear the Sonic name, all weighing on expectations.
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is - rather like its predecessor - a solid effort and worth consideration on 3DS. The core campaign blends a variety of styles, with the main stages employing an enjoyable mix of exploration and puzzle solving with moments of satisfying momentum and speed. There are some slightly disappointing downsides, and it's a game that occasionally feels constrained rather than supported by its source material. Overall, however, it deserves credit for what it does well, and should certainly be tempting to fans of the show and also broader Sonic enthusiasts willing to accept its limitations.