While the last ten years of Sonic the Hedgehog games have had many detours of varying quality, there had been a constant that, for the most part, had been welcomed by players. That constant were the games developed in the Hedgehog Engine.
The games built on this engine were Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, and now, Sonic Forces. While not perfect, I believe that the games that came before Forces allowed players to experience a great sense of exhilaration and speed.
If separated into two, one half of these games were these straightforward, almost on-rails segments that Sonic pushed through with a jet like burst of speed through colorful locales and backdrops. The other half were platforming levels in a 2.5D perspective, for lack of a better term, that attempted to replicate the feeling of early Sonic games. The former, simulated a speed that caused architecture and nature to blur into simple colors. When this was first introduced, it was an experience that translated into what felt like honest speed that carried a feeling of wonder.
That first outing, Sonic Unleashed, created a new stable foundation, one which the series could not only create new passable Sonic games, but one that could support experimentation. Now, after a long break from this formula, a new Hedgehog Engine game has released in the form of Sonic Forces, but unfortunately that spirit of excitement and possibility is nowhere to be found.
Going through it’s bizarrely short levels that play out the story of Eggman finally beating Sonic and a new hero—your own original created character—now needing to fight back, never has a Sonic game felt so much like the creative minds behind it have maybe lost inspiration. The locations you blast through vary from places that look like older Sonic levels, except without any reverence for that history, to them typical mechanical factories with Eggman’s branding plastered all over. The Sonic series doesn’t always need to hold on to this nostalgia or passion for the past, but dismissing it entirely just comes across as the series being tired with itself.
In the past, some players have lobbied the argument that Sonic games often have so little input from the player that they feel as if the game plays itself. While I think there has always been some merit to this argument, I would also argue that the moments where the game takes away that agency from the player are done purposefully to serve that feeling of grandness and speed that work in tandem with the set dressing around Sonic. In Sonic Forces though, levels are short and designed with a lack of agency that feels cheap on top of that set dressing feeling uninspired.
One of the more interesting levels in Sonic Forces is a city area that is in complete ruins and on fire. It’s a level that actually realizes that sense of chaos and also gives weight to the game’s theme of resistance. That same level took me a minute and twenty seconds to finish. I was finished with it before I knew it, and it never had a chance to really build momentum. A lot of Sonic Forces’ levels are like this, and it leads to a lack of energy that comes from a feeling of no cohesion and weak design.
Of course there is that major new addition, that for the first time in the series, players would be able to create their own colorful anthropomorphic character to join Sonic and his friends on this would be adventure. For the Sonic the Hedgehog community, this was an exciting idea that held more weight than some would think. Outside of the games, online communities focused on the series have been aplenty with art of original characters complete with names and their own stories written by fans. People want to be a part of Sonic, but the actual tools provided to create your character and the implementation of them into the story doesn’t fully deliver on the promise. The models you can select from aren’t flexible enough to create something unique or fun, and the uniqueness of your character really hinges on if you have the right accessories to work with.
That character is then thrown into a narrative that is mostly told through Sonic’s friends shouting exposition at you as you go through levels, and it’s exposition that’s pretty flimsy considering that the game has a surprising and bizzare set-up with the presumed defeat and or death of Sonic the Hedgehog, which apart from its doubling down on the goofy vocaized rock tracks the series is known for, it’s the biggest thing that stands out as interesting in Sonic Forces.
I never had expectations for Sonic Forces and it somehow still managed to disappoint me with just how unitresting of a Sonic game it is on top of being a mediocre video game. Say what you will about 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog, but it’s interesting and maybe even fascinating that Sonic Team made a game with Shadow the Hedgehog where he rides a motorcycle, uses real world guns, and at one point hunts down the President of the United States. It’s interesting that at the series’ lowest pont, Sonic Team reinvented what a 3D Sonic game was with Sonic Unleashed, but then turned Sonic into a werewolf hybrid with levels that played like a bad God of War clone.
I enjoy the Sonic the Hedgehog series because I have in the past enjoyed how the series translates speed into a character platformer and because I’m fascinated by the creative decisions Sonic Team makes with their beloved mascot, but Sonic Forces has nothing here for me. In a lot of ways it’s a step backwards from even Sonic Unleashed, and that came out in 2008. The skeleton of the thing that I like is there, but it’s here without any flair or new ideas. It’s a mediocre game that even a Sonic apologist like myself can’t find much positive things to say about.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer and played on a retail PlayStation 4 Pro.