It's tough being Sonic. Every new release starring the mascot comes with a significant weight of expectancy, and the evolution from his 16-bit 2D heights to a current-day franchise hasn't always been straight-forward or successful. His home console exploits have been showing positive trends, however, with Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations helping deflate the cynical outlook many have had for the direction of SEGA's best known series. Sonic Lost World attempts a further evolution of its own, ignoring the option to rinse and repeat recent formulae ad nauseum; the results are mixed.
In terms of setting its tone via storytelling, Sonic Lost World undoubtedly targets a new, younger audience as opposed to older gamers with misty-eyed recollections of days gone by. The yarn spun here isn't a simple "bad guy has stolen this / kidnapped X", but attempts to weave in relationships, humour and the occasional twist. It's not exceptional or fascinating to our jaded sensibilities, but to young gamers it'll likely play out rather like a decent cartoon plot, and the fact that Sonic and Dr Eggman (give it up, Robotnik fans) have to work together sets up some good lines. With reasonable CG cutscenes and enthusiastic voice acting, this is a solid effort from SEGA in playing up the cheeky Sonic, innocent and clever Tails and the slightly exasperated genius of Eggman, with cameos from the likes of Knuckles; the Deadly Six villains do a job, but they're generic enough to be unmemorable in comparison to the main stars.
The well thought-out presentation extends to the main game itself, too, with bright, colourful visuals that enable the development team to — importantly — extract smooth gameplay and a mostly immaculate framerate. This isn't an engine that showcases the capabilities of the Wii U, to be blunt, but art style does trump polygon counts; it's all bright colours and chunky designs, which are pleasing in motion albeit likely to disappoint tech-heads. As the setting is a floating planet called Lost Hex, the license to step away from the art style of Generations was taken with relish, even if we have the usual batch of frozen, tropical areas and so on. Cheerily blazing away we also have a reasonable soundtrack albeit one, again, unlikely to stay in mind for long.
These are positives for Sonic Lost World, but ultimately — like any Sonic game — the question of gameplay balance rears its head. Some of the standards remain, with a dash, spin attack and homing attack all making their expected returns. And while much hype has surrounded the circular environments in this title, there's a batch of the expected level designs that'll be familiar to veterans; we have a host of 2D stages and some on-rails 3D levels. The 2D stages are generally well executed, while the dashing on-rails equivalents — either entire levels or sometimes interspersed within other levels — are some of the most visually appealing and exciting to play. The latter style may not be universally loved, but they place the player's fate in their own hands with a reliance on twitch reactions, all while bombarding the senses with some cinematic flair.
The circular stages that have dominated attention come in various forms; the principle is that, in certain areas, you can run around a 360 degree area and explore. These levels will be a particular treat for those that love to collect every red coin, for example, as on an initial play through it's possible to miss the vast majority. While that's an option, it's often the case that after a fairly brief bout of exploration you find yourself ploughing on at high speed, especially when you hit a key spring and the game takes over, with Sonic dashing forwards and acrobatically flying through the air without, sometimes, any input from the player.
As an idea, however, these new stages are reasonably well applied and add welcome diversity to the level design, with a number of occasions when you can choose from a variety of options such as platform hopping, attempting to reach a wisp — special powers first seen in Sonic Colours — or wall running to the next platform. These moments of flexibility aren't as common as may be expected, but are fun when they arrive and add spice to proceedings. The Wisp powers play their part, too, but are very rarely mandatory, often passing a level by; powers that enable you to fly and chain musical notes, for example, do deserve credit for utilising the GamePad motion controls and touch screen reasonably well.
These elements — 2D, 3D on rails and the new circular 3D levels — appear in a mix of individual levels and longer stages, sometimes over 10 minutes in length, that incorporate a mixture of styles. With the exception of tunnel-driven rail sections, the parkour aspects of wall running and occasional ledge clinging stretch across 2D and 3D, and provide the most telling example of a reasonable idea not quite hitting all of its marks. Adding greater scale and variety to level designs shows ambition, but removes the simplicity demanded for a game that the masses can enjoy. We've mentioned that the storyline and presentation seem planned to target potential new and young fans, but this is a demanding, difficult game to play, and not in a positive sense.
Difficulty in games shouldn't be a complaint in its own right, and it's not an issue with the entirety of this title. But it is a frequent problem, and it's driven not by deliberate challenge and clever levels, but by fundamental flaws in the design. The 3D environments are most troubling, as Sonic moves relatively quickly — even when not dashing — and lacks the precision and balance of a certain chubby moustachioed rival. Lining up a dash for a wall climb, making precision jumps and any moves that require accurately hitting a specific spot are fiddly to execute. When levels are high speed and in the moments where they flow beautifully this isn't an issue — but then those moments don't often make notable use of the circular level designs that serve as Lost World's primary new feature.
Though not chronic, Lost World also suffers from exasperating death pits and cruel tricks, complaints common in many Sonic titles. It's the dilemma of giving the player control, while encouraging moving at great speed, while throwing up hazards to keep proceedings interesting. It's a square pegs and round holes issue that's arguably never been perfected by the Sonic Team, and it's not nailed it here either; we consider ourselves reasonably skilled gamers — though not exceptional — and we saw Game Over many times, relying on the batch of four new lives on a regular basis; collecting 100 rings, cruelly, doesn't award an extra life.
We once had over 20 lives, but one excruciatingly poor stage — which stood out against a number that are far better — was riddled with incredibly difficult manoeuvres while in the form of a snowball with the handling of a shopping cart; within 10 minutes a lot of careful life accumulation was lost. Even with assist power-ups that enable you to skip a section, some areas are a battle of attrition.
There can be conversely frustrating and over-simplified moments with Boss stages, as well. In some cases the Deadly Six are polished off with ease, with the encounter over within seconds, and on at least one occasion the attacking hook was so poorly designed that even when knowing what to do, actually executing the move was ponderous. Around half of these battles find a nice balance, however, teasing us with flashes of excellence.
With difficult moments and the overall complexity of the various mechanics, however, we struggle to imagine young gamers battling through more than the early levels. Experienced gamers will likely be comfortable adopting the variety of attacks and manoeuvres, and when Sonic is blasting along naturally Lost World is undoubtedly a delight — homing attacks and acrobatics look and feel fantastic at times. Often, however, the technicalities fall over, with the aforementioned awkward movements of Sonic and occasions when mechanics such as the homing attacks simply don't work. With a reliance on auto-lock-on, there are times where Sonic will zoom to an enemy you don't want to or can't hit, or won't lock at all. It happens often enough to turn the air blue.
That's the single player experience, with the 30-or-so levels likely to keep most busy for a decent amount of time, especially those that want to collect all red coins; naturally SEGA has added extra options to keep players interested beyond the core game. Time Trials of beaten levels are self explanatory, with online leaderboards sure to keep competitive die-hards happy. While those are a simple inclusion the co-op element feels tacked on. Player two flies an RC vehicle that moves alongside Sonic while dropping bombs or firing missiles, but it feels redundant, with the assisting player often being rather pointless. It's possible to hook up with Tail's Lab on a 3DS copy or Miiverse to improve RC vehicles, but it's not a particularly entertaining diversion.
Two player racing is also included, with courses unlocked with progression in the single player campaign. Speed Race and Expert Race give two players four tracks to blast through, with one player on the TV using a Pro Controller, Wii Remote and Nunchuk or Classic Controller, while player one uses the GamePad and its screen. It's the ideal setup for a race and works nicely, though there are noticeable framerate issues that mar the experience slightly. Ring Race has a time limit and, rather than being focused on pure speed, the goal is to accumulate more rings that your opponent before time runs out. This mode feels a little flawed, with the time allowed being excessively long, while accumulating a few hundred rings only to lose them on one hit from an enemy is unduly harsh. It's functional, but not as effective as the racing mode.
Beyond these options, Sonic Lost World shows excellent intentions to utilise and enhance the Wii U experience. Miiverse and leaderboards are integrated nicely; off-TV also looks excellent, with the bright and relatively simplistic visual style looking attractive on the smaller screen. In-game use of the GamePad is limited, but that Miiverse connectivity — and the item swapping that's also possible — demonstrate that the Sonic Team has worked hard to bring together its gaming community and add important touches to the core game.
It's important to note that, while we've highlighted some issues and problems with this title, they rarely stop a relatively experienced gamer from enjoying most of what it has to offer — there's a ludicrous difficulty spike late on. There are low points, but also plenty of decent moments alongside some exceptional stages, with emotions occasionally swaying from extreme disappointment to unbridled delight. It's a reflection of the number of moves and level styles incorporated that the standard sways so drastically, but the highs make the overall experience worthwhile; we do envisage problems for young gamers, however.
Sonic Lost World shows flashes of brilliance, where clever design, bright visuals and a daring sense of fun align perfectly. There are a few significant lows, however, and a raft of content that is passable but easily forgotten. That leaves us with an uneven experience that we recommend to keen Sonic fans without hesitation, but suggest that the less committed should think carefully. If dealing with frustration to reach high points is an acceptable sacrifice of your gaming time then this is worth strong consideration, but be under no illusions — this isn't the definitive Sonic experience we may have desired.