Better, but Still Not Great
Sega’s had a tough time with Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Episode I was released with the intention of directly building on the original trilogy and returning Sonic to his 2-D platforming roots. Critics enjoyed the game, but fans vocally expressed their dislike of the difficult physics and rehashed environments. Almost two years later, Sonic Team and Dimps have taken a second stab at reviving the blue blur’s 2-D glory days with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. While the physics and graphics have been improved, much of the rest of the game seems to have suffered as a result. The game does improve upon Episode I, but the Sonic 4 saga is still yet to reach the level of greatness many fans were hoping for.
Please note that this review was conducted based on both the newest iPad and the iPhone 4. Both devices will be compared and separate review scores will be provided for each version.
Sonic 4 has received a major graphical overhaul for Episode II, and this really was a change for the better. The plastic, too-shiny look of Episode I has been replaced with a much more natural style that has color and detail to spare. Among the highlights of Sonic’s latest romp are the snow-covered lights of White Park Zone and the final boss’s huge, threatening arena. This is a gorgeous game.
Despite running on mobile hardware, Episode II manages to provide a very rich graphical experience…for the most part. Aside from the odd jagged line and toned-down lighting effect, the iPad version of the game does an admirable job of keeping pace with its console brethren. Its environments are rich, its animations are fluid, its framerate is rock-solid, and it all looks absolutely amazing on the Retina display.
The iPhone, however, has a different story to tell. In addition to more jagged lines and less fancy effects, the game struggles to maintain its framerate even when there’s not much happening on the screen. Effects-heavy setpieces and nearly all underwater sections slow the framerate to a crawl, and this can happen several times in one level. These rampant slowdowns are enough of an issue to heavily distract from the overall experience, and it’s not a distraction many will appreciate.
Episode II’s audio is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the standard Sonic sound effects we’ve come to know and love (ring collecting, hitting Eggman, things of that nature), and the new sound effects fit in with the environments and characters nicely. On the other hand, the music doesn’t make out as well. The instrumentation has been vastly improved, though most of the tracks aren’t as catchy as most other entries in the franchise. Some tracks really hit their mark, others miss by a mile, and almost all of them loop far too frequently. When levels stretch beyond three or four minutes and the music loops every thirty seconds or so, even the most dedicated fans may find themselves at odds with their speakers. There are worse soundtracks to be found in the franchise, but there are certainly better ones as well.
Games are an interactive medium first and foremost, so the actual gameplay should have the heaviest impact on how readily consumers embrace a product. Episode II’s gameplay is curious in that it simultaneously takes one step forward and one step back.
Let’s start with the physics. If you took issue with Episode I’s multitude of physics problems, you’ll be happy to know that Episode II has corrected most of those faults. The updated physics engine feels much more natural and intuitive, and the control feels smoother as a result. Astute players may find a noticeable hiccup here and there (usually when walls and ceilings are involved), but by and large, the game feels much more fluid.
Unfortunately, Episode II’s level design does little to paint these physics in a positive light. The new gimmicks and overall creative direction do shift the game toward more of a skill-oriented platforming adventure, and this is definitely a step in the right direction. Sadly, there are still quite a few noticeably automated segments that blast Sonic through the level while forcing the player to take a backseat. There were several points during the game where speed boosters and springs allowed me to take my hands off the device for upwards of five seconds without consequence, and I didn’t find this very comforting. Additionally, the level quality seems to decline as you progress farther into the game, with automated sections and cheap deaths running rampant in the last few acts. Fortunately, the game ends with a very fun last act and a final boss that pumps in some much-needed excitement and creativity. If the rest of Episode II harnessed the greatness of its finale, it would have hit a home run.
The new Tag Actions also provide something of a mixed bag in terms of fun and usefulness. With the press of a context-sensitive button, Sonic and Tails will team up and attempt to do something more than just run and jump. If Sonic is on the ground, the two will roll into a giant ball and plow through anything in their path. Unfortunately, you cannot change the ball’s direction once it takes off, so aside from some levels that require its usage to progress, you probably won’t use it too much. If Sonic is underwater, Tails will grab him and pilot him through said water, making navigation quite a bit speedier. This action can be difficult to control on the iPad, however, and it’s nearly impossible to steer on the iPhone. If Sonic is in the air, Tails will pick him up and carry him as far as you can stretch six or seven presses of the jump button. Players will probably find this action to be the most useful, as it comes in handy for everything from saving yourself from a bottomless pit to avoiding a particularly pesky enemy.
Overall, I was surprised by how well Episode II controlled on the iPad. The digital d-pad and buttons are large, accessible, and more than able to tackle both the more precise platforming and the occasionally-demanding Special Stages. However, the iPhone frequently fails to deliver the same accessibility, with the smaller d-pad and less responsive controls leading to a much more frustrating experience.
Episode II provides plenty of opportunity for the player to stop holding right and explore a little bit. The new Tag Actions and bigger, more intricate levels offer quite a bit by way of exploration, but the game itself gives you little reason to do so. The Red Star Rings scattered throughout the levels don’t unlock anything aside from an achievement, and the levels may not provide enough fun for some players to probe deeper. After beating the game and getting the seven Chaos Emeralds, there’s honestly not a whole lot of incentive to come back for more.
Episode Metal is a small add-on to Episode II for players that purchased Episode I on the same platform. It details the backstory of what Metal Sonic has been up to since Sonic CD, and it attempts to connect that game with the Sonic 4 saga. It consists of the first act from each of the four zones in Episode I, and the stages are played in reverse, starting in Mad Gear Zone and ending in Splash Hill Zone.
As an added bonus, Episode Metal isn’t too bad. The cutscenes occasionally make subtle references to both Sonic CD and Episode I, and I did enjoy some of these throwbacks. In terms of the gameplay, the acts’ object layouts have changed significantly, and that leads to a somewhat refreshed (though cluttered) romp through Episode I’s environments. It’s fun to revisit these stages and explore their new dynamics as Metal Sonic, but it’s not worth pursuing if you don’t already have Episode I.
Sonic 4: Episode II goes from okay to good and back again several times. Its cheap deaths and occasionally bland level design may make the latter half of the game a chore for some players, but the last individual act and final boss are creative enough to provide a few surprises. On the whole, Episode II is not a bad game, and it’s a marginal improvement over Episode I. Fans may want to give the iPad version a try since it’s just as fun and half as expensive as its console counterparts. Ultimately, though, if the Sonic 4 saga keeps leaving a bitter taste in your mouth, Episode II isn’t likely to make things much sweeter.
The Gist of It: Sonic 4: Episode II is a decent game that suffers from repetitive music and largely uninteresting level design. If you’re a fan (or even just a casual player), you may want to pick it up on a new iPad. On iPhone, however, you’re better off sticking to Sonic CD.