Reception to Sonic’s recent 2D outings lately have been scattershot, to say the least. Fans were vocal with their distaste for Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I‘s physics (I thought they were alright), but the Classic Sonic segments in Sonic Generations were as close as SEGA’s come to recreating the classic 16-bit gameplay of old (even if those segments were a bit inconsistent).
For a while I thought that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II simply didn’t exist, but almost two years later it’s finally ready for release. What I played early last month at PAX East looked pretty good, and I came away excited for what was to come. Unfortunately, it seems that I’d already played the best parts.
What critics of Episode I will want to know off the bat is whether or not the physics have been as revamped as SEGA claims, and the answer is a resounding “sort of.” They’re not as tight as they were in Sonic Generations, but they’re still much closer to the 16-bit Genesis games than Episode I could ever claim to be. The footage in this video claims to be from a beta of the game, but it’s an accurate depiction of the final game.
This time around, though, it’s the level design that makes Episode II a tepid experience. There are flashes of brilliance here and there — White Park Zone Act 2’s wooden roller coaster is a treat — but they’re far outnumbered by levels plagued with cheap enemy placement or confusing layouts…sometimes both. Meanwhile, bosses range from mediocre to maddening, and no Zone exemplifies this better than the final Death Egg area. The first Act constantly rotates and shifts gravity, so I was fighting motion sickness on top of figuring out exactly how to maneuver. After that I died at the final boss several times after spending five minutes fighting Dr. Eggman, having to start all the way over. The design for the fight probably sounded pretty great on paper, but its execution is abysmal — it shouldn’t take nearly 30 minutes to beat a Sonic boss.
The most consistently fun levels are the Special Stages in which you try to earn Chaos Emeralds. They’re charming as hell, ripped straight out of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, complete with “Cool!” pop-ups when you succeed. You run down a halfpipe with Tails in tow, collecting a certain amount of rings before each checkpoint. The problem here, though, is that it quickly becomes difficult to collect the required rings if you’re playing solo. Without a partner to collect rings in other lanes, dozens of them are left behind as Tails simply follows directly behind you.
Tails is indeed playable in Episode II, reintroducing the co-op dynamic from Sonic 2. A second player can control Tails either online or locally, but this quickly becomes hectic as players are constantly running or jumping off-screen. Unless you and your partner share a creepy ESP-level connection, it’s probably best to save the co-op for the Special Stages.
Regardless of how many people are playing, though, there are three maneuvers that Sonic and Tails can execute to help them traverse levels. One is the classic “Tails carrying Sonic in flight,” executed by hitting the square button in the air. Pressing square on the ground turns the two into a fast-moving, nigh-indestructible ball that stops only when you hit a wall or the square button once more. Underwater, Tails grabs Sonic and acts as a propeller, although he doesn’t tire here as he does in the air. None of these techniques are perfect, but they’re used sparingly enough that they never feel bothersome.
The music in Episode II is once again handled by Jun Senoue, who notably did the music for Sonic 3 & Knuckles. I like Episode I’s music a lot, but here something feels off. It loops way too quickly and becomes highly repetitive — especially noticeable in Acts that are four-plus minutes long — and isn’t close to approaching his best work. But say whatever you will about the way it plays, Episode II is a damn pretty game, featuring the colorful visuals and goofy enemy designs that you’ve come to expect from a Sonic game.
Finally, there’s something called Episode Metal, a reward for those who also have Episode I on their hard drive. You get to replay four Acts from Episode I as Metal Sonic, and while it’s nothing that should sway you into buying Episode II if you’re on the fence it’s still a nice bit of gratitude.
With the release of Sonic Generations, many had hoped that SEGA was going in the right direction to return the Blue Blur to his former glory. Instead, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II feels like several steps back, behind even Episode I. Even the most stubborn Sonic fan would have trouble enjoying what’s here, and I’d recommend finding your 2D platforming fix elsewhere.
FINAL GRADE: C-