Games Review: Sonic Forces (Xbox One X, 2017): Fan service meets bad design

Hello there, fellow Sonic fan. Remember that period of unalloyed joy during the launch of Sonic Mania this year? The feeling of burgeoning hope that, after 20 years of Sega openly ignoring what made their mascot great, the ol’ blue blur might finally be back on track? Well, forget all that because Sonic Forces is here to make you despair for the franchise once again.

Alright look, that intro par isn’t totally fair. There’s actually quite a bit that Sonic Forces does right, and most of that is purely conceptual. From a design perspective there’s isn’t much about Sonic Forces that makes me think the dev team was handed a mandate beyond “Just get it done.” There’s very little about it that’s especially different from previous 3D entries in the series. When it tries to throw a  “Classic” 2D-styled level at you, it can’t hold a candle to Sonic Mania‘s iron grip on the formula. And, once again, all of the most awesome events happen in non-interactive cutscenes instead of being a part of regular gameplay.

Sonic Forces, like most 3D Sonic titles, only seems to have a surface level understanding of how a Sonic game actually works. “You push right and jump occasionally. And he’s fast, I guess?” This approach leads to levels where the player is asked to do nothing more than what is outlined above, often at a pace too fast to properly control. It’s just about getting to the end of the level at a sprint and nothing more. This is certainly expedient, but it’s definitely not fun.

Design like this goes against that of every classic Sonic title ever made, something Sonic Mania really spotlights. Those games weren’t afraid to pump the brakes, let you explore each level at your leisure, uncovering different paths and hidden special stages. Sonic Forces has a handful of levels in which exploration is the focus, but all of them are put on a hard and fast timer which instantly obliterates any fun you might have had poking around and getting to know the world. Even when it does back off its relentless pace somewhat, it’s rushing you.

Indeed, Sonic Forces seems to spend most of its time trying to hurry you through to the end — of the level, of the story, of the game — as though it knows how unhappy you’re going to be with it and has resolved to make its total play time as short as possible. Completing any given level results in a score screen that really only bases its results on how long it took you to finish. I know Sonic’s catchphrase these days is “Gotta go fast” but the corollary to that should’nt be “to the exclusion of everything else.”

Boost bosses are another area where it feels like Sonic Forces misses the point of what Classic Sonic was trying to do. “You just run at them and jump at the right time, yeah?” I mean, sure, that’s probably how it looks if you only take a surface level view. The idea of these boss sequences is to use Sonic’s speed boost at the right moment to get in close, open up a big old target and land big hits on your tanky enemies. But that’s all they ever are, and you can only land these big hits at specific times which turns every boss fight into something between a grind and a waiting game. They aren’t fun.

There are moments when Sonic Forces does fall into something that could almost be called a groove, where its insistence on speed and its level design find a balance and it sings in the same chiptune key as Sonic Mania. These moments last about 30 seconds before the game remembers itself and the Nu-Sonic bullshit begins anew. It keeps trying to challenge the player but really the only challenge lies in not giving up on the game entirely. I was frequently waylaid by levels at the intersection of Too Fast and Terribly Telegraphed Obstacles. Things appear on screen about .14 of a second before you collide with them at Mach 10 or they simply blend into the background as it whirls by. Perhaps as a function of this, most of the game’s enemies don’t have any real strategy for attacking you beyond standing still wherever you’re most likely to run into them. This isn’t fun either.

Those little 30 second moments where it sings are the only real signs that, somewhere, at some point, Sonic Team really did have a vision for what they wanted this thing to be. In these moments, the game looks and feels its best, every inch the representation of what we always thought a 3D Sonic game might look like, the backgrounds filled with little animations and flourishes that hint at a bigger drama going on just out of frame. Maybe that’s overselling it, these effects are little more than window dressing after all, but it adds something to an experience without much of anything else. The vision, predictably at this point, never comes together despite a handful of good conceptual ideas.

Where it really shines is in its wholesale acknowledgement of the dedicated, fanatical online Sonic fan community. Sonic Forces introduces a character creation mechanic that embraces the crazier aspects of a fandom that has been excitedly creating in-universe versions of themselves for years. “We see you, we hear you,” the game says, “and we’re making all of your creations canon.”

Even the game’s story feels as though it has been pulled from an especially grimdark mess of community fanfic. Sonic is almost beaten to death by a team comprised of some of his greatest foes. Eggman then promptly throws him in prison and oversees a months-long torture regimen. His absence then allows for your self-insert hero or heroine to step into the story. Depending on which creature you decide on — hedgehogs, echidnas, foxes, cats, bears, birds — you’ll pick up a species specific skillset. Apparently Sonic’s ability to hoard and drop rings as a defence mechanism when hit by an enemy is what Dungeons & Dragons would call a racial trait. Cats drop rings too but hold onto one rather than losing the lot.

It’s pretty clear that the avatar creation module was one of Sonic Team’s primary focuses in Forces. You’ve got a surprising amount of cosmetics to work with and every level you complete unlocks more clothes and cosmetics for you to play with. You can also borrow other players’ avatars if you’d prefer. The game lets you “rent” a pre-made avi made by other players before each level if you want. It’s another way that Sonic Team is signalling to the fan community that they’ve been heard and that the team understands what they want.

In total, Sonic Forces is clumsy and stilted in its design and general execution, but sincere and heartfelt in its desire to give something back to the community that continues to support the series. I love classic Sonic, I’ve always loved classic Sonic and these modern takes make me deeply unhappy. Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to be mad at Sonic Forces because it cares very deeply about the people it knows are going to play it no matter what and it tries to give those people something it knows they’ll like.

Score: 5.0 out of 10
Higlights: Character creation
Lowlights: Almost everything else
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: SEGA
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One X.