Shattered Crystal Redux
Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was not what I would consider to be a good game (here’s my review). It would also be a stretch to call it bad per-se, but it was one of the most bland, uninspired games I’ve ever touched in my time as a critic. It purported to be a Sonic the Hedgehog game, yet contained almost nothing noteworthy from the Sonic franchise at large. I suppose you could say it was worse than bad: it was generic and forgettable. A game not even worth roasting.
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, the sequel to Shattered Crystal, is a do-over for Sanzaru Games. That’s not a metaphor; Fire & Ice is actually bizarrely similar to Shattered Crystal, to the point of being borderline identical in many ways. Every single gameplay system from the first game makes a return appearance, from the character-swapping side-scrolling levels to the 3D “worm tunnel” segments and brief forays into piloting a submarine as Tails. It’s all still here for some reason, as if these were stellar concepts too good to simply throw away.
Maybe they weren’t so bad after all. The biggest improvement seen in Fire & Ice is how it engages the player. The overly complicated, pseudo-Metroidvania levels of Shattered Crystal have been streamlined and optimized. The game’s sense of rhythm is now a lot closer to a side-scrolling version of Sonic Adventure’s Action Stages: puzzles and platforming punctuated by stints of scripted spectacle. It feels considerably more snappy, and a lot more like Sonic the Hedgehog, to boot.
The big new addition is the ability for Sonic and co. to flip between either “fire” or “ice” modes. Each mode affects the environment in different ways. Ice will allow Sonic to cross bodies of water by freezing them, with fire having the opposite effect. There are more applications than that, but the game largely deals with the act of either freezing water or melting ice. It’s a simple system that dovetails into another way Fire & Ice engages the player: difficulty.
I would not call Fire & Ice a hard game, just one that keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t take long for levels to start asking you to quickly flip back and forth between elemental alignments in order to melt or freeze blocks of water that block your path forward. At first, these just break your flow, but soon, having quick reflexes becomes a matter of life or death. Fire & Ice nails that sweet spot of being challenging without getting frustrating, and this is the core of what makes it fun.
The game’s checkpointing system threatens that fun, if only slightly. Fire & Ice contains traditional Sonic checkpoint “posts” that you return to should you die, but just like Shattered Crystal, if you take damage or fall down a pit, a secondary checkpointing system kicks in that will warp you back to the last safe piece of solid ground you touched. This alternate checkpointing system ends up being over aggressive, almost always teleporting you back to the beginning of a long platforming sequence. This is at odds with Sonic’s health system, where you drop collected rings upon receiving damage. Often times, taking a hit will warp you so far away that it becomes impossible to recollect dropped rings, defeating the purpose of letting you drop them at all. It’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense.
In spite of having an extra 9-12 months due to development delays, there are a lot more things about Fire & Ice that could use some work. Playing as Sonic is still where the game shines, but barring Tails, all the other playable characters feel superfluous. The “color coded keys and doors” gameplay from Shattered Crystal is still here, where each character has one specific ability tailor made to clear an obstacle, and it’s still pretty flat. Things are at their worst with any section that requires Amy Rose or Sticks, who only function as actual keys to unlock actual doors in the game’s environments. Clicking on a door to open it just doesn’t strike me as “gameplay.”
Everything outside of the side scrolling levels also feels pretty tacked on. You can sleepwalk your way through the 3D “tunnel” segments and top down shooter minigames, and the submarine levels are only difficult until you start using the radar. Rounding things out are the head-to-head races against a variety of Eggman’s robots, and this is where Fire & Ice really tests your twitch reflexes. They’re decently enjoyable, but each one of them lasts for three full laps, and often by the third lap I was getting bored watching the same scripted boost and bumper sequences on loop.
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice feels like what Sanzaru Games originally wanted to make back with Shattered Crystal in 2014. It is a considerable improvement over that game, but then, just about anything would be. It is important to remember that a product’s quality is not measured in black or white; there are many shades of gray between “bad” and “good.” Fire & Ice definitely falls somewhere on the more positive end of the spectrum, but neither is it an outstandingly excellent game. It’s got just enough challenge, with creative levels, colorful artwork, and a snappy pace that keeps things moving. That makes for an enjoyable enough game while it lasts, but it’s definitely not one worth falling in love with.