SEGA’s Sonic Boom initiative is the biggest push SEGA have put behind their blue blur since Yuji Naka declared 2004 the Year of Sonic. Like in 2004 SEGA is putting Sonic everywhere with new games, new toys and a new TV Show. SEGA has tried to learn its lesson from its previous mistakes, but unfortunately with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (RoL), SEGA and developer Big Red Button seem stuck in the past.
Sonic Boom, in case you didn’t know is a new take on Sonic, not replacing the modern Sonic design we’ve known since 1999 but giving us yet another take on the hedgehog. The aim of Sonic Boom is to appeal to western audiences. So RoL has been designed by western developer Big Red Button; composed of staff who have worked at Super Bot Entertainment (Playstation All Stars), Naughty Dog (Jak and Daxter, Uncharted) and Insomniac (Spyro, Resistance, Ratchet and Clank) but such an all -star pedigree isn’t always a recipe for success (see Bio Ware and Sonic Chronicles)
RoL is very obviously inspired by its western roots, there are many moments in the game that feel lifted straight from PS2 platformers, particularly Jak 1. Its general pace is much slower than a typical Sonic game with the emphasis placed more upon combat and platforming. While RoL feels slower, and this could put many Sonic fans off, the slower paced platforming and exploration heavy game play could have still supplied interesting and rewarding gameplay, but the game just doesn’t manage it. However it’s not all slow platforming; the game also includes speed sections which are most similar to the on rails sections in Sonic Unleashed and Colours, which keep some of the series’ DNA alive. Unfortunately it’s very clear that RoL just isn’t finished and its departures from the series aren’t solid enough to justify them to all but a few.
The core story of RoL follows Sonic, Tails, Amy and Knuckles as they try to tangle yet again with Eggman, and a horde of Ancient robots he’s repurposed. Along the way Sonic and Co get themselves tangled up in the rise to power of an Ancient bad guy; the titular Lyric, a snake in metal armour (now where have I seen that before? -Megadroid) who represents the forces of pollution and technology gone awry. As Eggman and Lyric enter an uneasy alliance, (which to the game’s credit is probably the best take we’ve had on the Eggman joining with/trying to control the villain of the game trope) it’s up to our 4 heroes to explore two hub worlds and 12 large Levels (which are linked together with and interspersed with the aforementioned speed sections) to gather Crystals and stop the bad guys!
The story is clearly for kids and while some people will find the humour as trying to be funny rather than actually being funny, it’s not offensive and contains a few good character moments. It’s not as light-hearted as the new TV show set in the same world, but it is a children’s game at heart and it avoids talking down to its aged 8-11 audience, but also isn’t asking too much of them. It’s a serviceable story but isn’t as good as the Sly, Ratchet and Jak games it owes its legacy to. The characterisation of our heroes have also changed a little: while Sonic is still the cocky, ego-driven, catchphrase-spouting mascot we know from other games, he is a little more grounded than in previous games; he makes mistakes, he’s called out for his terrible humour, and even has a moment of reflection on his ego at the end of the game, but other than these little moments he’s largely the same Sonic. Tails too stays pretty similar, his friendship with Sonic, his love of tech is all there too. He does however get an expansive vocabulary so everyone can tell he’s the smart one. Which we certainly can’t say about the much larger Knuckles who can’t tell his left from his right early in the games story, this stupidity could get over played but they do give him some other traits as well.
Amy is also very much changed, gone is her one-note love affair with Sonic. Instead she is a much more relatable hero, a bit of a leader, also very interested in history and archaeology. Big Red Button’s Rafei said "I want to bring more girls into gaming and have them play characters that they can associate with and not feel like they're created by just a bunch of men." This largely works, though execution can often be inconsistent; Amy both rebukes Sonic for suggesting that all girls like pearls, then later to exclaims ‘what girl doesn’t love rings?’ Also when playing as Amy in speed sections she often shouts ‘girl power’ which actually feels like it undermines, not supports her new character.
In terms of game play there is sometimes fun to be found in the levels. Platforming is tight and enjoyable (particularly in Amy Rose’s sections), the combat is simple and aside from a couple of annoying enemies later in the game, brief. While many might long for a more complex fighting system, switching between the four characters on the fly in combat increases your options as each plays differently enough. In fact Sonic’s Spin Dash and Homing Attack make him feel much faster in combat then the others, Knuckles with his punches and head spins feels like a brawler. Tails tends to stay out of direct combat; sending robots and firing weapons at his foes, and Amy Rose uses her signature Piko Piko Hammer. Like I said the combat is simple; two attack buttons that can be held to charge or used with jumps to change effects alongside the ‘Enerbeam’ each character has to lasso enemies (which felt more like a chore than a fun combat option). These fighting sections are more padding between the more fun platforming sections, the combat is never as dull as in Unleashed despite its reduced options for combat and platforming, and it’s much more fluid and fun than the Werehog (which seems the closest reference point within the series).
Levels are often quite glitchy and while I didn’t see any of the game-breaking bugs people have mentioned, the camera was often an enemy more than a friend. The game’s hub areas often feel empty and incomplete, they are desolate, sometimes soulless places, as if waiting for a designer to go back and add life into them. It’s in the second hub area where you can’t escape that this game isn’t just a little glitchy and maybe quite rushed, but actually seems completely unfinished. The wide open hub area is empty and devoid of life, aside from 5 NPCs. This is obvious in the first hub as well, but the story makes it seem it should be full of life. Story beats are just missing; characters you are just meeting will talk as if you already completed missions for them and Sonic will reply as such (there's clearly a lot of cut or never finished content in relation to the mayoral election). Sticks the Badger just shows up but with as much fanfare as Fastidious Beaver (which is to say none) and is gone just as fast, in fact the first NPC you meet Cliff has more to say than the new core cast member.
Worse yet in a water factory level there is clearly a missing section of gameplay or a cutscene as the story makes a huge logical leap with no explanation and later does the same in the next level. Story beats at the start of the game (particularly related to Shadow, and the past imprisonment of Lyric) just never pay off, and between missions the game never quite remembers to give you a good reason to unlock the next Ancient door, or actually tell you that’s pretty much always your next objective.
The characters will often reference things the player doesn’t know about yet, like robot naming; ‘oh no, Reapers’ What are reapers? I’m still not sure which bots they are. Early in the game Sonic tells robots to ‘send his regards to Lyric’ before you’ve even met him. As you can gather much like in 2004’s Sonic Heroes the characters constantly chatter during speed sections and levels, often telling players what to do before they can discover for themselves (though this can be useful when the game design doesn’t make it obvious.)
Unfortunately the game is often pushing you forward while encouraging you to explore. This juxtaposition can be difficult when you miss a collectible that should be possible to back track and collect only to be hit with insta-death because the game has locked the area off. Similarly the speed sections while similar to the more on rails sections in Unleashed encourage exploration with multiple pathways; do you stay on the path, take a zip wire, hit a spring, or dodge them all and fall to a hidden pathway. Most of the time the choice is made for you by a lack of time to react and replaying levels isn’t always easy; there are a handful of speed sections that don’t bridge hub areas and exist within the hub zone, these can easily be replayed. Other than that speed sections and levels can’t simply be replayed easily. When you enter an area you’ve already been the game doesn’t remember and reloads cutscenes meaning replaying the whole level from scratch therefore going back for collectibles is much more of a chore then it should be.
Sonic Boom is much better as a Co-op experience than a single player game, and the game is clearly set up to be played this way, characters will often split up (for no other reason than gameplay demands it) as such areas are designed to accommodate two different character’s play styles. For example one player plays as Sonic to save Tails, while player two as Tails navigates traps while your co-op partner tries to open the door. Tails will then open the next area for Sonic by hitting switches only he can reach, it’s co-op play 101 but it works. The co-op A.I. does this if you’re on your own, and is programmed well enough that it works but there is more fun to be had playing in pairs and the game encourages this. The greatest advantage RoL brings to the co-op play is the use it makes of the game pad. One player is playing on the game pad while another uses the TV, it therefore avoid players sharing the screen as they do in the recent Mario games. Unfortunately the pop-in textures and frame rate drops that plague the game anyway are made worse by co-op play, even cut scenes seem to suffer.
Graphically it feels like a HD port of the PS2 platform games it emulates; it has a lot of interesting ideas for level themes that poor graphics never quite manage to capture. Despite the WiiU being marginally more powerful than the last gen systems this game doesn’t touch on the beauty of Sonic Unleashed, or feel like a modern game. Graphics don’t have to matter to make a good game, but the graphics really get in the way, enhancing the already blank and soulless feel. Characters and textures appear pixelated, walls are often blank and devoid of unique character. The soundtrack also takes more of a page out of the western playbook than the Japanese, with no memorable level tunes, instead relying on a more ambient soundtrack which changes as you move from area to area. They aren’t memorable jingles but they do suit the areas they represent and compliment rather than seek to enhance.
Stand-out moments include an interaction with Shadow and a portal, Mike Pollock as Eggman, and the use of Metal Sonic. Overall Sonic Boom is mediocre and unfinished; not only is it unfinished but our friends over at Sonic Stadium have some interesting information on cut content! We can’t be sure what went wrong at Big Red Button (but clearly something has gone majorly wrong), but whatever it was Sonic Boom never follows through on its promise which makes me think even its interesting ideas (Amy Rose’s gameplay is at the front of my mind here) will be ignored when Sonic Team return with the hedgehog’s next outing.
It’s a shame that the first game since Sonic ‘06 that lets us play as Sonic and Friends confirms to many why they should be left out of game play.