Let me begin this review with a bit of pretext. I hated 2010’s Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. It looked wrong, felt wrong, everything about it was just wrong. Enter 2011’s Sonic Generations – a game I loved and praised as the best Sonic game in over a decade. It looked great, played well (even in most of the Modern Sonic stages), featured great level design, and mostly great music. In my mind, Generations represented hope for a new beginning for the ailing blue hedgehog.
Now we’ve got Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2. Having heeded criticism leveled against Episode 1, Sonic Team and DIMPS went and overhauled the graphics and physics for Episode 2, adding in Tails and some new gameplay elements along the way as well. But are these changes enough to lift Episode 2 above its fatally flawed predecessor?
The short answer here? “No.” But I’ll get to the reasons why soon enough. First let’s look at what Episode 2 does better than its predecessor.
The most immediately obvious upgrade is in the game’s visual presentation. Whereas Episode 1’s environments were largely static and uninteresting, Episode 2’s feature tons of moving parts, lots of background activity, and much more aesthetically pleasing levels in general. One level features a snowy amusement park, complete with roller coaster tracks, carousels, and the like. Another takes place on a huge, mechanical fortress in the sky, while yet another it set in the midst of jungle ruins. No matter the setting, everything is sharper and more interesting to look at than they were in Episode 1.
The game’s physics have also received an overhaul since the previous game. In Episode 1, controlling Sonic just felt…wrong. He could casually saunter right up even the steepest inclines without needing to build momentum first, the spin dash was largely useless, and noticeable input latency made timing your jumps far more difficult than it should have been. So I’m happy to report that, overall, Episode 2 feels much better to play than Episode 1 did, as most of those issues have been corrected.
Also new to Episode 2 is the ability to team up with Tails, Sonic’s old two-tailed fox pal. There are a few basic interactions between the two, the most important of which is his ability to pick Sonic up and fly with him for a limited time. You can use this to avoid obstacles, reach alternate routes, etc., and in general, it works well. Sonic and Tails can also team up for a sort of wrecking ball attack – basically a spin dash that can barrel through pretty much anything and generates its own momentum while sacrificing precision controls.
Unfortunately, that’s about all Sonic 4: Episode 2 does right. What good is improved gameplay if the levels themselves are poorly designed and full of lame gimmicks? In the old Sonic games (which Episode 1 and 2 have desperately attempted to emulate) levels were built to accommodate speed, platforming, and exploration. In Episode 2, all of those things feel like chores. As soon as you start to build any kind of decent speed, BAM – pitfall. Or wall. Or unforeseen enemy. So many of the game’s obstacles are things you can’t even see until they’ve already killed you, resulting in cheap death after cheap death. Trial and error is more vital for success in Episode 2 than skill is.
Each level also relies upon, and overuses, one gimmick or another instead of being well designed or fun. Whether it’s being chased downhill by snowballs, snowboarding on top of an avalanche, navigating through disruptive sandstorms, or standing on the wing of a biplane, you can rest assured you won’t be having much fun. It doesn’t help that most alternate routes, rather than requiring player skill to reach, you have only to fly there with Tails.
Exacerbating things further is the fact that each level goes on for far too long. A stage in a Sonic game ought to last for no more than a couple of minutes. Any longer and it starts to become tedious. Episode 2 throws this rule out the window, with most stages lasting upwards of four or five minutes. By the time I’d completed the third world, I just wanted the game to be over already. Much to my disappointment, a fourth world appeared. Combine that with the constant trial and error gimmickry, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
This is especially true for the boss fights. Whereas in the old Sonic games, most bosses could be defeated with three hits, and quickly if you were skilled enough, the boss fights in Episode 2 drag on for what feels like an eternity. Not only do they last long, but the bosses themselves employ cheap tactics, often killing you instantly and without warning. Since there are no checkpoints during these fights, don’t be surprised when you find yourself repeating the previous five minutes over again. In a display of cheap boss tactics that was so stunningly bad as to almost be impressive, the final boss decides to say “NOPE!” and toss you right to your death after four agonizing minutes for daring to employ the same tactic that worked on him previously.
As if to add insult to injury, not only are the boss fights overly long, but the game features some of the most shockingly awful music ever put into a Sonic game. Fights against Robotnik, in particular, utilize a 15 second audio loop. If the fights only lasted a minute or so, or if you weren’t repeatedly foiled be cheap tactics and forced to replay the fight multiple times, this wouldn’t be so bad. As it stands, I actually had to turn the music off during Robotnik fights – it is that grating and horrible. The rest of the music falls between barely tolerable and ear-splittingly bad, with the only notable standout being the Metal Sonic theme.
Episode 2 also features multiplayer, either locally or online, but playing with a friend doesn’t make the game any more fun. You’re still playing through the same set of poorly designed stages, only now there are two of you suffering instead of one. In most cases, whoever is playing as Tails is simply able to fly over most obstacles, with Sonic floating along behind him. It somehow manages to be even less compelling than playing the game by yourself.
In the end, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 manages to be better than Episode 1, but only by the slimmest of possible margins. It’s a short, expensive game (clocking in at under 3 hours at a cost of $15 or 1200MS Points), and for every one aspect that is improved, there are two or three other negative qualities there to negate any improvement. If you want to relive Sonic’s glory days, go play Sonic 1, 2, or 3, all of which are available, cheaply, on Xbox Live and PSN. Not only are they better games, they are better values. Don’t make the same mistake I did – save your money, your patience, and your time. It’s clear that Sega actually hates Sonic fans and wants us all to suffer.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 was released on May 15th, 2012 for PS3, and May 15th, 2012 for Xbox 360. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.