Two and a half years after its initial release, Sonic Team’s missed opportunity remains haphazard and stylistically weary
Sonic Forces is bad. It is unfortunate — at points, the title seems rather self-aware, with dialogue that is hilarious and parodying (possibly intentionally) and a character creator that allows the player to create mercilessly ridiculous costumed spins on the series’ cartoony models. With this, it is as though Sonic Team said “screw it,” and threw whatever concept ideas they had, in the best possible way, at the 2017 release. However, the creepings of genius self-parody are fully kneecapped by gameplay that is often nauseating and a story rushed beyond the point of ironic enjoyment. All in all, it creates a package that never comes close to hitting the inward irony as much as it seems it will from the first half-hour or so, nor earns the player’s respect enough to be taken majorly seriously.
I did not buy this game when it released (I’m only playing it now thanks to PlayStation Plus), not least after Sonic Boom and particularly considering my high ambivalence towards mainline Sonic titles. Hell, I don’t even like Generations all that much. I appreciate the aesthetic change-up that each release brings — observing the visual or thematic tendencies of each game across the years is satisfying — but they rarely warrant my attention or time; I do not typically find the gameplay to be appealing, nor the story compelling. Sonic Colours (Wii) is authentically great, though, and a realisation of the character in a modern style which I thoroughly enjoyed — but this was back in 2010. The self-contained, aware and actually well-designed experience that Colours brought to the table has not be emulated by Sonic Team since.
In general, Sonic Forces does not take its ideas far enough, though its issues extend beyond just this. Notably, the story feels, as mentioned, very messy, with the game’s thirty stages feeling like forced diversions from a main goal. Take for instance, stage 7, in which the player must destroy an Eggman military base. As is typical throughout the game, you run through an alternating-3D/2D level that feels like it plays itself, nondescriptly killing enemies until the end of the stage where Knuckles chimes in over an intercom to tell the player they’ve been successful via some back-end plot tie-up. It would not be so bad if the stages felt this narratively pointless if they were interestingly designed, fun or at least longer than three minutes, but they’re not (with the exception of a few cool set-pieces on the game’s back-half) — something decidedly not helped by controls that are clunky, stiff and difficult to handle. Even the boss fights, periodically one of the better parts of modern Sonic titles, mostly boil down to monotonous formula. It is boring, annoying and a shame.
The untapped potential of the game is rife. Forces‘ story centers on Eggman’s breeding of a Mewtwo-esque creature too powerful for Sonic to take on, leading to his defeat and capture — with his main obstacle out of the way, Eggman births a global empire. Amongst this, the series’ notable heroes band together as a resistance group to recapture what was taken, and remove the various installs of the antagonist’s totalitarian regime. Immediately, from this synopsis, there is a great deal to milk. The military aesthetic is interesting and as yet unseen for the series, and mostly the title reflects this, with blocky menus and a globe level-select screen that pastiches espionage effectively. This stops here, though, with the game falling short of taking this much further.
I wish, for example, that Eggman was made into a comical parody of dictator-style character stereotypes (take the aesthetic further!), and that the title’s team-up missions were emphasised more and prolonged in length to create a fresh sense of gameplay that is unique to this iteration’s character creation gimmick, as well as resonant to the idea of teamwork that is so central to the story. More than anything, having Sonic of all series riff on forceful authoritarianism and political resistance groups would be a deeply compelling, hilarious venture, and fit snugly into the veritable meme that SEGA’s series has become at this point. I think it would be brilliantly amusing to see a war-hardened group of mainline characters caricatured in the story, or propaganda-inspired iconography to advertise Eggman’s political regime integrated into the visual level design. I know it’s ridiculous, but ridiculous is what I want more of in these (undeniably silly) games. The series’ identity is so self-referential and geared towards comedy — and with at least fifty releases under its belt; who cares by now? — that it seems a logical and convincing route to take. Forces seems to reach towards this, particularly in the story’s set-up, but never quite grasps it.
I think that if the narrative and stages had harnessed more absurd and self-aware ideas, and spent more time to create a focused narrative as well as much more compelling level design, we could have had a genuinely fun series title on our hands. Unfortunately, we are left with a very empty package. Sure, an adult evaluating a kids’ game here speaks on a certain kind of futility, and this is all far easier said than done, but SEGA could be crossing generations with the identity and execution of this game and the series in general. The potential remains untapped and tangled. Next time, maybe.