When you say 'Sonic Boom' to a Wii U owner that wants the best for SEGA's veteran mascot, they may react in any number of ways - they could turn red and embark on an explosive rant, they may quietly cry in a corner, or potentially just stare vacantly into the distance, their gaze devoid of all hope.
That's the fault of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, but it's easy to unfairly lump the whole brand in with that failure. In actual fact Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal on 3DS was a reasonable game - not Game of the Year material, no, but decent. The animated show has proven to be a success too - the fact it's still running is an achievement of its own.
It's with that in mind that we've approached Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice with some optimism. Like Shattered Crystal it's been developed by Sanzaru Games, and it even had its release pushed back a little to ensure it's in good nick rather than rushed into stores. The end result is a title that we've enjoyed playing so far; it may qualify as a 'decent' Sonic game when all is said and done - there are more of them than popular opinion admits.
As a full disclosure, this writer has only heard and read multiple accounts of Shattered Crystal and played the demo, so is coming into this one with relatively fresh eyes. In any case, a typical evening is often spent playing 3D Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to relive childhood years while playing an amazing game, and the dream of a truly perfect Sonic game for this generation is near the top of a very personal gaming wishlist. Your humble previewer was booting up Fire & Ice hoping for the best, despite the Blue Blur's flaws and questionable use of white tape as a fashion statement; even Sonic of the Boom variety deserves some love.
There are two key takeaways from our early time with this one, before getting into specifics. Fans of the animated show get a series of decent cutscenes (in 2D) that nicely blend the show's visual style with the in-game engine. On an objective level that means rather modest visuals, but it's a thoughtful move as it helps with the immersive sense of 'playing' through the show. The second key point is that it seems to be more of the basic formula established in Shattered Crystal. You control not only Sonic but his buddies from the show, and with various moves and variations you'll find yourself using all of the face buttons and even a shoulder button. Oh, and the touch screen. To be fair to the game, however, it all works and feels instinctive in no time, and the hint at complexity also opens up some interesting variations in gameplay.
Starting off with Sonic in the earliest stages you grasp the basics of dashing, jumping, double jumping and using your grapple beam at key points. The X button is used for each character's special move - Sonic's is a dash attack, Tails has a laser gun (sure, why not), Amy has a hammer, steroid-abuse-Knuckles can burrow underground and Sticks has a boomerang.
The nice touch is that each is distinct in purpose and is well polished; Sonic can not only destroy certain blocks but can reach new heights, while Knuckles can circle enemies underground to bomb them. Tails can also glide a little too. Though their core moves and running speed are about the same, each team member brings something distinct to the table. It's not too long before they're all unlocked, either, and you can swap between them at will by using the touch screen.
The key new feature is the Fire & Ice mechanic - your character is always imbued with one of these elements, and you can switch between them with a shoulder button. The elemental puzzles are basic early on - evaporate some blocks with fire, or turn others into ice to create a path - but nevertheless add a welcome twist.
All of these moves and mechanics come together nicely in the first few World's level designs. Each stage has multiple collectibles and one challenge room to clear, and finding these requires a fair bit of exploration and occasionally patience. It's extremely likely that you'll miss at least one collectible first time around in each level, and early on some areas need you to go back with freshly unlocked characters. As it's rather fun to play, however, we're not against the idea of going on a treasure hunt for missed extras later on, though they've not been needed for progress.
Levels do have puzzle and exploration elements, but there's also some welcome speed at times. Some of these sections are automatic and flashy, serving as high-speed transitions between areas, but it's possible to generate your own momentum too. Dashing forwards and combining grapples with targeted spin attacks (now a staple of various Sonic games) keeps you moving at a decent clip when you want to. There's a good balance between these pacey sections and some exploration elements.
Some stages throw extra variety into the reckoning, with slightly mixed results. There are 'race' stages that are enjoyable, and also some on-rails levels where the camera switches behind Sonic for some 3D perspective (a 3D Sonic staple). There are even clever submarine levels where you bring up the radar with a tap of the touchscreen, and less impressive hoverboat challenges. Though some are more fun than others, they add a little extra flavour to the standard fare.
There are lot of positives, then, though we do have a handful of early complaints. For one thing the Boom license means that the visuals lack the colour and pop that we'd hope for in a Sonic title - Sonic Mania is in HD, yes, but shows how far modern techniques can take retro-style visuals. Visually the game also looks nice with the 3D effect, but the cutscenes are in 2D and suffer from the low resolution of the system's screen. The music is simply ok as well - it's rather generic fluff that suits kid's TV fine, but only has a middling impact when playing a game.
The overall user interface is also scruffy and excessively fiddly, which may frustrate young gamers. This is a game where you seem to have unlimited lives, yet it expects children to understand that some of the workshops and locations where you cash in collectibles for goodies will randomly pop up in the overworld of World 2, rather than in their own easily-accessed area. It's slightly obtuse design in that respect - especially as hints keep telling you to visit friends before it's even possible - and that's a pity as the core of the game itself is full of promise and positive features.
Those quibbles aside, though, we've enjoyed our time with this one so far. It doesn't feel like Sonic at his best, but that's a harsh metric to use - for what it sets out to achieve Fire & Ice is a fun, well constructed game. For fans of the TV show or Sonic enthusiasts that are willing to accept it's not likely to be an elite series entry, it's certainly worth having on the radar.