Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II impressions

In 2009 when Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced dozens of fans got excited (cautiously) for what everyone hoped would be a triumphant return of the blue-blur in all his 2D glory. In 2010 the game was met to mixed reviews. Some long-time fans were hard on the game, others chose to focus on the good instead of the mediocre and bad… I can’t say I blame the negativity, Sega was pushing the title and teasing that it was the true successor to the 1996 hit Sonic & Knuckles, a bar set very high. In late 2011 a teaser for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was released, again stirring up high hopes. A short five months later, the game is now released on the Playstation Network for the PS3 and will be released on more consoles and devices in the coming days.

As I checked twitter this morning I realized today was the release date for Sonic 4 on the PS3. My time at the office today seemed to go by slowly just to torment me. But finally when I got home I hopped on the PS3, downloaded Sonic 4, Episode 2 and sat down for a while. I wouldn’t raise from my seat (except for a quick dinner) until I beat the main storyline of the game. I give you, my impressions:

Press Start

Sonic 4 Episode I had a lot of problems, but it wasn’t really a bad game all in all. It was a starting point and I always knew that Episode II would improve upon I greatly. Thankfully this seems to be the case. To start things off right the budget for Episode II is larger and it shows. I mean, wow, does it show! From the title screen to the first introduction and stage the graphics are sharper, crisper, and all with better fluid and fun animation. The music is good as well and compliments the game, I was humming along to some songs while others didn’t tickle my fancy as much, but I can see myself getting to like them more and more. The sounds, some familiar, some new, add a heavy dose of Sonic charm that returning fans will love.

 

A Zone is a Zone

It’s easy to see that Episode II takes a lot of cues from Sonic 2, but don’t worry it’s done in good taste. The special stage is a variation of Sonic 2’s special stage, but it mixes things up with different obstacles, multiple paths, and some new tricks.┬áRed Star Rings (as seen in Sonic Generations) also make a return in this game. Think of these as extra bonus items that are challenging to get, almost like the 8 Red Coins in Super Mario 64. This adds a nice layer of replay value that was missing in Episode I.

As with the first installment in the series we have 5 main stages. Unlike the first episode where stages seemed to be almost too-closely copied from the previous Genesis games we have some interesting new lands to explore. I always felt that Episode I played it too safe. Most of the stages, obstacles, and enemies were too similar. It was more of a rehash of previous material than new levels. Thankfully Episode II changes this, to a pretty big degree. Yes we’ll have familiar areas, names and obstacles. Yes some familiar badniks will try to stop you whenever they can, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of new material. It looks like Sega decided to go all out and explore this time around, and in my opinion it works. There will be times where you’ll recognize an area or stage style from a previous game, but the experience is different overall. Which is a huge plus.

 

Tails saves the day

Sega obviously has a hard time deciding how far to push Sonic games lately, either they don’t push enough and we get a weak rehash of a game (Episode I) or they push too hard and we get an unplayable mess (Sonic Unleashed), but it seems they found a pretty good mixture this time around. There were several “Wow” moments for me during my first run through which left me with a smile on my face. The addition of Tails really makes all the difference. He’s playable in co-op mode (either online or local) as well, so that adds a lot to the replay value of this Episode. Tails gives you two special moves. The first is his signature flying technique. Like in Sonic 3 you can call upon Tails to lift you out of harms way or to reach new areas, something you’ll be required to do during the game. The second special move, which you will rely on far less, is a kind of double summersault. You combine into a big orange and blue blur and destroy the majority of obstacles in your way. It’s usually pretty obvious when you need to perform these actions, but I was caught off guard once or twice.

How you summon Tails is different from Sonic 3 however, which required a 2nd player helping you out. In the PS3 version you press the Square key to perform the special move at anytime in single player mode. The trick is to fly you need to be in mid-air, and to do the summersault you need to be standing on the ground. I won’t lie, I’ve died a few times when Tails decided to do the opposite of what I was trying to do. But it just takes a bit of practice and most of the time it works fine. The instant ability to call on Tails to fly you out of harms way saved my skin over a dozen times. If you run too fast off a bottomless pit, or realize you missed a critical platform, just be quick to tap the Square button and use your thrusts carefully and you’ll save yourself a life.

 

Some people may see these special moves this as a negative aspect. We never had special moves before, why add them now? Well I’ll tell you why, because it spices up the gameplay. Sonic needs to evolve a bit, if not it gets old too quick. These moves add some new tricks to the game and gives you a great way to explore new paths and areas. Afterall Episode II is quite challenging. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t cursing at the TV screen or grinding me teeth a few times through the game. A similar reaction to some of the tougher parts toward the end of Sonic & Knuckles. So like it or not, Tails comes in handy.

 

Metal Sonic is back and he means business!

I’ve always been a fan of Metal Sonic since my Sonic CD days. He was teased at the end of Episode I if you collected all the emeralds. I was hoping they wouldn’t mess up his return like they did in Sonic Heroes, to my surprise, they didn’t screw this up. You battle Sonic’s Metallic copy in a few stages and he’s involved in a good amount of boss battles later on in the game. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some great throwbacks to Sonic CD that gave me a big smile. And if you bought Episode I you get a special ‘Metal Episode’ to play which gives you the background on how he was revived. In this you play levels from the previous Episode as well. The Episode I stages look even better then they did in their original release, and it was a pleasure to play as Metal Sonic. He isn’t just tacked on either, he has his own set of moves, some great special sound effects and animations.

 

Has the Sonic Cycle been broken?

So a few hours after clicking ‘Buy’ on the Playstation Store I completed the main storyline to the game and collected a handful of emeralds. Overall Episode II was pretty difficult actually. I’m a veteran of the Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis series and I found this to be just as tough as Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles. The boss battles especially, some of the latter ones are pretty unforgiving, clearing out my cache of extra lives pretty quickly. You’ll definitely be giving the TV screen some dirty looks here and there, but like the classic Genesis games the levels become easier with the more practice you have.

In my opinion the Sonic Cycle is broken for this round. Episode II easily surpasses Episode I in both quality and creativity. The new badniks, zones and graphics really make this game shine. It’s easy to see all the love that went into this game, especially with fine touches like the ‘Cool!’ thumbs up banner that returns in the Special Stages. Episode II may not be perfect, but it comes pretty close. It feels much more like a classic Sonic game than Episode I and it left me eager to play Episode III.