Sonic Forces has found itself in a rather tricky position at launch; some of the build-up to the game’s release suggested a potential flop in the making. Early impressions from the game’s demo and previews told a story of apprehension, and the fact that most review codes were sent out so incredibly late suggested that even SEGA had concerns about its reception. As such, we went into this with modest expectations, hoping that it could somehow prove everyone wrong. Has it managed to do that, though? Let’s find out.
The game has been developed by Sonic Team - a division within SEGA that is, perhaps unsurprisingly, responsible for creating the vast majority of Sonic titles. Whilst the studio has created the occasional impressive 3D Sonic adventure in (semi) recent times, such as Sonic Colours, fans of the blue blur have been rather unimpressed by some of the modern titles in the series. The side-scrolling Sonic Mania changed things earlier this year, receiving universally positive reviews and a very happy fan-base when it released – but, of course, that title wasn’t developed by the Sonic overlords, instead being created by (essentially) incredibly talented fans. Unfortunately, it would seem that Sonic Team hasn’t fully learned - or had the opportunity to do so - the valuable lesson on offer here.
In a sentence, Sonic Forces is a mixed bag; there are times when it feels like the scope and ambition for the title must have been rather large at some point during development but, ultimately, these ambitions were never fully realised to create the game that it could have been. The game’s 30 stages are a mix of 3D levels featuring the modern Sonic design, 2D side-scrolling levels featuring the cute, podgy, classic Sonic, and slightly different levels that make use of an Avatar created by the player. The blend between these different stage types is decent for the most part, although there were aspects from each that we didn’t particularly enjoy; we never felt the desire to go back and explore them fully.
To explain this further, let us first talk about the plot. Doctor Eggman is planning to take over the planet and Sonic is called upon to save the day. Unfortunately, Sonic underestimates the power of Infinite (a mysterious newcomer to Eggman’s team) who defeats him with ease. Six months pass by, in which time Knuckles and a whole cast of Sonic’s friends team up to form the Resistance but, with no sign of Sonic, the team are disheartened. That is until you show up – yes, you. The player is tasked with creating their own Avatar (this can be the shape of a cat, wolf, dog, and bear amongst others) and this character joins the team to start fighting back against Eggman and Infinite.
The Avatar creation system and general use of the character throughout the game are clear signs that Sonic Forces is aimed at a younger audience. The options for your Avatar are pleasingly generous, with numerous items of clothing such as gloves, shoes and outfits being unlocked as you progress through the game. Seeing your character alongside Sonic and friends in the game’s numerous cutscenes will be great for kids; the way in which Sonic keeps referring to you as his ‘buddy’ is almost cringeworthy, but it’s easy to imagine youngsters getting a kick out of it.
The Avatar character plays differently to both of the Sonics, too – seeing as you can’t run quite as fast as the famous hedgehog, you have different powers that you can utilise instead. Firstly, you have a weapon that can be used by pressing ‘ZR’ which allows you to use fire or lightning to breeze through enemies and, secondly, you make use of a grappling hook-style mechanic (that actually feels like it should be in a Spider-Man game) to travel around the 3D environments. There are also times where you will need to combine modern Sonic with your Avatar in the same level, resulting in gameplay that swaps from the blistering pace of Sonic, to the slightly more intricate platforming of the Avatar.
Going back to our earlier point about having issues with each of the different play-styles – the 3D environments that house Sonic and the Avatar are usually let down by the fact that you hardly ever feel particularly in control. The majority of the time is spent holding your control stick forward or to the right, hoping that you don’t crash into anything (not that you can usually see when an obstacle is approaching) and trying not to fly off the edge. When using the grappling hook, it is usually just a case of either button mashing, or reacting to on-screen prompts to fly around the course – you’ll either make every jump without any truly satisfying feeling of accomplishment, or fall to your doom in a way that can feel completely unfair. This is a shame, because there are moments where simply bursting as Sonic can feel fun - it just doesn't happen often enough and the Avatar levels feel a little underwhelming in comparison.
The 2D sections (which still use 3D visuals) can feel a little undercooked at times, too. You’ll feel much more in control in these stages, and there are times – just like there can be in the 3D levels – where everything is running very smoothly indeed, but the change in control method and ways in which you can attack make these sections feel rather limited. It has no doubt been designed in this way to stay true to the original concepts of both 2D and 3D Sonic games, and whilst changing things up would have no doubt caused more upset than it is worth, it sadly doesn’t quite manage to pull off the blend as successfully as it could have. The gameplay isn't broken or poor, it just feels like there is a lack of imagination or creative flair behind it.
The game’s visuals further cement the idea of Sonic Forces as a hit and miss experience. The Switch version of the game is seemingly the inferior choice when it comes to performance (720p/30fps compared to 1080p/60fps on PS4, for example) and lack of definition in the scenery and blurry edges on the character models are rather apparent, especially when viewed on the TV rather than the smaller screen in Handheld mode. It isn’t offensive – certain areas in the game could have looked absolutely gorgeous with a little more graphical ‘oomph’ – it just isn’t as impressive as you might have hoped. The game runs just fine, though – we didn’t notice any substantial drops in framerate or performance that affected gameplay – so it likely comes down to a preference of graphical power versus handheld capabilities if you’re wondering which version to buy.
To answer our initial question, Sonic Forces hasn’t managed to convince us that it is a must-play title in the series, but has at least alleviated some of our initial fears. A relatively short five-hour or so campaign, a lack of difficulty that ramps up unexpectedly on the final boss, and the non-coherent blend of 3D sequences, 2D sections and cutscenes make Sonic Forces a mixed experience, with positive moments undone by weaker areas.
It isn’t poor as many feared, and for children it could well be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. For the ‘hardcore’ (and likely slightly older) generation of Sonic fans, though, perhaps it’s best to accept that - for better or worse - Sonic isn’t what it used to be. Stick with Sonic Mania for classic Sonic fun, and let Forces attract a new, younger audience.