Sega have been guilty of multiple cases of mismanagement over the years regarding the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. From releasing clearly-unfinished games with Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 to farming out their prized asset to a third party developer with Sonic Boom, Sega have made some pretty questionable decisions over the years. This time, Sega are guilty of extremely poor timing. Not only is Sonic Forces releasing in the wake of a certain Italian plumber's Nintendo Switch debut, the game is being released mere months after the celebrated Sonic Mania - a game who's success is based on returning the series to its roots and eschewing the kind of innovations upon which Sonic Forces is built. How does the hedgehog's latest 3D entry fair in such a climate?
Taking the Mania factor out of the equation, there has a quiet, understated amount of hype for this game. Four years in the making and being the first 3D Sonic game of this generation, Sonic Forces is also the spiritual successor to both Sonic Generations and Sonic Colours (two of the more celebrated 3D outings) by including not only both modern and classic incarnations of Sonic as featured in Generations, but also the wisp mechanic that was so well received in Colours. Interest was further peaked by a plot that seemed genuinely intriguing. Sonic is defeated and locked up in a prison cell, tortured and whereabouts unknown. Eggman has taken over the world and the rest of the gang had formed a resistance against the Eggman empire. The Star Wars-inspired setting led the possibility for a darker tone that previous games.
To its credit, the plot is one of the things which this game gets right. While it never really lives up to the promise of the concept, the game still arguably has the best storytelling of any 3D Sonic game. It sometimes feels like the game was never really allowed to become as dark as the developers envisioned, but it is competent enough to keep players interested and never becomes as cringe-worthy as previous efforts. This is further aided by a competent cast of voice actors who manage to get the most out of some rather ropey scripting. Mike Pollock as Sonic's rotund nemesis is genuinely great, and the characters are a far cry from the what people endured in Sonic Adventure. One of the strongest elements of the much-maligned Sonic Boom was some rather excellent characterisation that put Sonic Team's own efforts to shame and it seems like Sega has taken a few cues from there when crafting their latest entry.
The game is divided into three core gameplay styles, focusing on 'modern Sonic', 'classic Sonic' and a new style focusing on the avatar creation system. Modern Sonic continues the formula established in Sonic Unleashed and has been a staple part of 3D Sonic games with the exception of Lost World. They somewhat resemble the Sonic and Shadow stages that featured in the Sonic Adventure series with one key innovation - the boost mechanic. This takes the 'gotta go fast' mantra to the extreme, encouraging players to fill their boost gauge until full, at which point they can boost through enemies and entire sections of the stage. These have been criticised for discouraging the kind of exploration found in earlier titles, but nonetheless remain the most entertaining element of recent Sonic games. Classic Sonic is an attempt to appeal to older fans of the series by introducing a gameplay style reminiscent of the earlier 2D Sonic games. New to this game are the avatar stages, which is somewhat similar to the modern Sonic albeit with new equable 'wispon' abilities replacing the boost mechanic. This mode allows players to create their own character using various customisation items that are unlocked during the game. These three gameplay styles give us a bewildering 40 stages, although this number includes a number of secret and 'advanced' stages and many stages are repeated across the various gameplay modes. In addition, players receive 'SOS' calls whereby Sonic must traverse previously-completed stages with often differing objectives.
All three styles are varied enough but not without their flaws. The Modern Sonic stages remain the most entertaining element of the package but also fall short compared with the game's predecessors. Stages are extremely short, usually around 3 minutes in length, and lack the intricate designed that made Sonic Generations stand out. This seems to be part of a deliberate attempt to encourage speed runs as player rank is largely determined by completion time rather than ring count or deaths, but results in each stage feeling somewhat forgettable. The Classic Sonic portion fails to fix any of the problems levelled towards the 2D stages in Generations, namely the floaty physics. This results in imprecise play that feels nothing like the original 2D games and also makes it difficult to control Sonic with any kind of precision. These are not new issues and made all the more evident in the wake of Sonic Mania. The avatar stages focus on what 'wispon' ability you have equipped. The issue with these stages is ironically that they so closely resemble the Modern Sonic stages sans the boost ability. The wispon abilities are not an adequate substitute for the boost feature and ultimately the gameplay feels stunted. This all seems unfairly negative because the game remains huge fun to play, but like Sonic Unleashed it's clear that focusing on one gameplay style and doing this well would have been better than including three arbitrary gameplay styles that please nobody. The Classic Sonic stages are arguably unnecessary given that crowd is better served by Sonic Mania, and the avatar stages try to solve a 'problem' of gameplay variety that never really existed. The Modern Sonic stages remain fun, but lacking the intricacies of previous games they feel like a step backwards. Sonic Colours demonstrated that the core 3D Sonic concept is strong enough to build a full-length game around without shoehorned gameplay styles.
The quality of the Switch port itself also bares examination. Many were disappointed with the 30fps lock when the game was first revealed, but more surprising is that this framerate lock hasn’t resulted in visual parity with other versions of the game. It still looks good overall and the framerate is never really a problem, but some of the texture work is noticeably bare and its difficult to understand why given the game doesn’t seem to push the hardware. A quick look at other versions of the game is revealing, with the Xbox One version being locked to 720p, all versions suffering from screen tearing of frame-pacing issues and even the PS4 Pro version failing to maintain 1800p across all stages. This suggest some serious optimisation issues with the engine, and thus the developers opted to go with such a low framerate cap and graphics profile with the Switch version to avoid optimisation issues. The port is functional and serves the purpose of being a playable portable version of the game, but is generally a pretty poor effort.
Sonic Forces is a flawed game with fundamental issues largely found in the uninspiring and lacklustre implementation of its many gameplay elements, a clear case of plenty of good ideas which never reach their potential. However, it remains a genuinely fun, well polished game that runs at a blistering pace. Those who enjoy the newer modern Sonic games with an emphasis on boosting through stages as Sonic at lightning speed will get a huge amount of enjoyment from this game. Expectations should be tempered by the fact that Sonic Forces fails to reach even the somewhat modest heights of its predecessors. The potential of the concept and plotline is let down by an implementation which makes you wish that Sonic Team built and expanded upon the strengths of the 3D Sonic franchise rather than becoming distracted by unnecessary gameplay styles. What we’re left with is a disjointed, but nevertheless entertaining experience. Those who have a disdain for 3D Sonic will find nothing here to change their mind, but for all its flaws there’s plenty here to enjoy for fans of the blue blur.