After a line of games that it would be altogether generous to label a “rough patch”, poor old Sonic is back on his speedy feet. Thanks to the combo of Sonic Unleashed (well, its daytime stages), Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, SEGA's mascot is finally leaning back towards the positive side of the quality spectrum, and it seems that the franchise has finally settled into a satisfying halfway house between 2D and 3D.
Sonic Lost World sees SEGA taking advantage of this new-found confidence, experimenting with the series yet further, cherry picking the parts that have worked from recent titles and testing out some new elements. The result is a Wii U / 3DS exclusive that takes a large dose of inspiration from Super Mario Galaxy, tips in the essence of Sonic Colors and mixes it up with lessons learnt from the shortlived Wii storybook spin-off series. Add a garnish of retro nods that sees several visual touches and enemy types return from the 16-bit era, and this has potential to be a massive treat to sate the appetite of any Sonic fan.
We played the Wii U version at Nintendo UK's post-E3 showcase, but before we get down to the levels, it's important to address the biggest shift from the rest of the series – the controls. Sonic now has a much slower standard running speed, and he only bumps up to his usual crazy pace when you hold down the ZR button, his legs animated in a brilliant figure of eight. As a result you have much defter control over the blue one's movements; you can slow things down to duck around tricky obstacles or amp up when the path ahead is clear.
Sonic also deals with certain hazards differently. Whereas bumping into something in a previous game would have stopped him dead, now you can run up certain pieces of the environment – if you charge full pelt at a tree, Sonic will leg it up the trunk and burst out of the top, slowing you down slightly without destroying your momentum. He can also run sideways along walls if you have enough pace built up.
The homing attack, a mainstay of 3D Sonic titles, is still present. When moving at the standard speed you might not need it so much, but when you're zipping forward at maximum velocity it's a necessity – you just wouldn't be able to get the sufficient accuracy without it. The Spin Dash move also makes its long-awaited return; by holding ZL you can coil up on the spot, and releasing the button sends the 'hog wheeling off dangerously.
There were three stages in the demo. The first was the one that's probably garnered the most attention since the début trailer emerged, and the one that warrants the most explanation, the Green Hill Zone-like level that does little to hide its plumber-in-space inspirations. The initial segment is tubular, a mid-air cylinder decorated in the familiar brown checked pattern. Trees, hedges, enemies and hazards are placed all around it on every side – you can run all the way around it, on its sides and underside, the camera rotating simultaneously so that you always appear upright.
It's Mario Galaxy's anti-gravity gimmick borrowed wholesale and, perhaps surprisingly given the series' obvious differences, it works wonderfully for Sonic too. Wherever you move there's a new route – the level design is dense in parts, with at least three or four different paths over a relatively small piece of terrain, and you can mix and match your direction, slipping seamlessly between them as you zoom about. It's actually hard to imagine two gamers taking the exact same approach, such is the number of options.
This stage was sub-divided into several smaller parts, interlinked by gigantic springs that launched Sonic to the next area – again, much like Mario's planetoid navigation. More traditional flat platforms and crumbling bridges cropped up later, fitting in with the more abstract elements of the area without seeming odd, and Sonic Colors' Wisps even made an appearance; a blue one let you zig-zag through a tunnel. Problems with Sonic's 3D platforming, still seen as recently as Sonic Generations, were largely absent; jumps feel accurate and there were few needless falls. All our fingers are crossed that Sonic Team has finally nailed this down, though we did notice a tendency for some sections to practically play themselves without much input, particularly when speed boosters are involved.
The second level was a confectionary-based wonderland very much in the vein of Sonic Colors. 2D for the most part, it appeared sparse but featured a couple of alternate paths and some extremely sneakily hidden secrets – a cannon and a cache of rings down an apparent death pit, for instance. It was far more straightforward than the first demo level for sure – all loop-de-loops, tilting Oreo platforms and flurries of structures to hop up, so if you've played the 2D sections in recent Sonic titles you'll know roughly what to expect.
The final effort took yet another direction, more akin to Sonic and the Secret Rings. The level was set up similarly to the Super Sonic Galaxy stage, only here Sonic runs endlessly into the screen through the 3D world. Without any control over forward movement, it's the player's job to dodge side to side, avoiding obstacles and joining new paths, while attacking enemies and leaping over pits. Though a very similar approach to the first Storybook title, it felt more freeform – despite the continual run forward, there were still multiple paths to take. We did notice some glitches – Sonic was able to run through certain enemies without incurring damage, for example – though this could be down to this being a demo build. The sprinting is broken up by freefall sections in which Sonic skydives through hordes of enemies, grabbing rings and speeding up towards safety where appropriate.
The visuals are certainly simpler than games such as Sonic Unleashed; backgrounds are pared down, block colours are used more regularly and so on. This gives Lost World both a lovely look that feels more like the older titles and ensures that it runs smoothly at 60 frames-per-second – we never noticed any slowdown. The style ties in well with an emphasis on retro. Pleasingly Badniks are back, with many returning from the Mega Drive titles, and when they're smashed animals hop out to their freedom. To complete a level you hop on the button of a capsule to release a bunch of imprisoned animals.
It's strange to see all these different gameplay styles alongside each other, and it remains to be seen if SEGA can get the balance right and stitch them together into a cohesive game. Taken individually, however, each level shown was enjoyable and the potential shone out of the demo. If it's done right and comes together for the final product, Sonic Lost World could be an essential purchase for platforming fans when it's released later this year.