Sega's once-venerable Sonic the Hedgehog series has become a bit of a punchline in the gaming industry in recent years. With entries ranging from decent to mediocre to horrible, each new release is met with trepidation and well-earned cynicism. Sonic just hasn't been fully on top since his 16-bit heyday, and while his original 3D outings, Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, were well-designed fan favourites, various modern titles in the franchise have struggled with poor controls, game design, visuals and gimmicks that seem to forget or ignore what gamers love about the blue blur — he once took on Mario and almost won, let's not forget.
Nintendo has had varying success with Sonic since the Wii, with Sonic Colours being hailed as a return to form for the series, while Sonic Lost World was reasonable but often criticised as a largely uneven experience. Unfortunately, Sonic's latest adventure, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, is yet another disappointing addition to the Sonic library, throwing out most of the familiar aspects that gamers love in favour of a watered-down, sluggish affair that often feels like a game based on a licensed property — as opposed to the next entry in one of gaming's most iconic brands.
As Sonic Boom is a new initiative by Sega to "reboot" the characters for western audiences, Rise of Lyric was not created by mainstay series developer Sonic Team, and it shows. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric was developed by newcomer developer Big Red Button, and is a tie-in to a new Cartoon Network series. The missteps begin right from the start; while the Sonic Boom cartoon series eschews deep, complex story arcs in favour of short form comedic adventures, Rise of Lyric appears to take itself a bit too seriously, with an arguably valid but heavy-handed environmental message about the importance of organic life. While the story occasionally has some fun twists and turns, most of the game will be spent listening to inane one-liners from Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and Amy.
One of Sonic Boom's main selling points, of course, is that you can play as any of the four characters at any time. Each character plays slightly differently. Sonic is light on his feet and agile; Tails can hover and use his "Buddy Bots" to deactivate machines and other obstacles; Knuckles can climb on designated walls; Amy can triple-jump and swing her hammer. Unfortunately, none of these characters are remotely fast. Sonic's signature speed is essentially removed here, never running faster than anyone else. Aside from on-rails stages that attempt to emulate classic Sonic gameplay — with loops and high jumps and awesome acrobatics — Sonic fans can forget about clever level design, bright colours and high energy. The rest of Rise of Lyric is spent exploring a mostly-empty open world, completing mindless missions for the few supporting characters, unlocking new areas, and collecting various items like rings. Self-contained stages have Sonic and friends splitting up into pairs and traversing generic laboratories and forests to collect special crystals.
The on-rails running sequences would be the most fun part of the game if they ran well. Like most of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, these sections are severely inhibited by a choppy, strained frame-rate. The entire game is poorly optimized, with constant stuttering and noticeable lag in even the most mundane, barren areas. The performance is smoothest during cut-scenes, of which there are arguably too many, but even then the framerate is never locked.
The game attempts to make up for the lack of speed with a more nuanced combat system, but it feels half-baked and frustrating. Each character fights slightly differently, and stringing combos together will give you a rank from D to S; the system feels like a kiddie version of a Devil May Cry-style brawler. There's no real reward for multiple combos, other than rings, which is pretty cheap considering rings are inexplicably capped at 100. Getting hit by an enemy results in lost rings, but characters usually only lose 10 rings after being hit and there's no recoil or feedback upon being struck, so most players will just keep fighting and recollecting rings as the battle goes on.
That lack of consequence is one of Sonic Boom's more consistent traits. There is never any real penalty for death other than some lost rings and gear. Gear is used as a currency to make upgrades to characters and fixing dilapidated areas of the game's open world, so losing it after being killed should lend a sense of urgency and danger to combat. Players will quickly learn, though, that gear is collected so frequently that there will always be enough to use for upgrades and fixes. Respawning after being defeated usually occurs at the exact place the player died, so there's really no challenge and all other collectibles are retained.
Aside from upgrades that grant novel but generally unnecessary enhancements such as more rings per enemy, completing quests for supporting characters will award the player Glyphs that can be equipped to each of the four heroes. The Glyphs are actually useful, giving players a temporary shield when they're out of rings, making them stronger or faster in combat, and other minor improvements. Again, none of these feel particularly necessary within the context of the experience, but they are welcome nonetheless.
The music and voice work in Sonic Boom is quite strong. The four main heroes are well-acted and fit the look of each. The few supporting characters are all stereotypical caricatures, but that's intentional, and the voice actors nail each one, from the high-strung French chef to the crazy old fisherman. The music will surprise anyone who's played recent Sonic games, as it forgoes rock/electronic pop in favour of moodier, appropriate melodies; thankfully, the classic sound effects are mostly accounted for, especially the classic ring effect.
For the most part, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is playable despite the constant mediocrity on display. Younger kids won't notice most of the technical hiccups, with the exception of the wonky, unstable camera. Platforming and exploring are relatively harmless besides the visual hiccups; there are also half-baked attempts at using the GamePad for finding hidden items and areas (think of a particularly dumbed-down Detective Mode from the Arkham games), but it feels tacked-on. Playing with a friend may extend the 6-8-hour quest, but don't count on wanting to spend more time in this world; it's just not that interesting.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is a worrying misstep for Sega. While we applaud the idea of refreshing the characters for newer audiences, Rise of Lyric feels like a mishmash of ideas that never got to fully develop. Big Red Button spoke enthusiastically about the development process throughout the promotion of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which makes us think that the disappointing final product is a victim of being rushed out the door to accommodate the cartoon's release. As a result, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is recommended only for those starved for a new adventure platformer and patient enough to sit through the poor technical performance.