Be careful what you wish for
Though we still don’t have an official release date as of yet, Sonic Team’s next big 3D game, Sonic Forces, could be as few as two or three months away. That’s soon. Not quite as soon as the retro-2D Sonic Mania, granted, but soon enough that you should know where you stand on the game. My stance? I’m worried about Sonic Forces. Those of you who know me know that I’m usually pretty cautious of new Sonic games anyways, for the fairly obvious reasons, but this is different. On paper, Sonic Forces sounds like the kind of game that shouldn’t necessarily warrant the same knee-jerk dismissal that so much of Sonic’s oeuvre can demand. But even from the very first gameplay teaser, something about the game has felt a little “off.” As that feeling continues to intensify, I have been trying to nail down what exactly is wrong.
The Return of Boost Gameplay
This seems like it’s potentially the most exciting, right? I love Sonic’s boost gameplay, and I was a vocal opponent of Sonic Team moving away from it. But that’s the thing: Sonic Team committed to ditching boost. Sega’s Takashi Iizuka went on record to say that Sonic Generations was “the end of that period”, and that the Sonic games to follow it would be the start of a new era. There were to be no more boost games. It was time to move on. The “new era” opened with Sonic Lost World and ended with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, games that put Sonic right back into the gutter he was just starting to scrape his way out of. Returning to the Generations-style boost gameplay NOW feels like Sonic Team backpedaling to save face. In doing so, they’ve also cast a long shadow on the new game: what we’ve seen of Sonic’s “Park Avenue” level in Forces looks like it could have been ripped straight out of Sonic Generations. Where’s the evolution? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess, but you could probably recreate Park Avenue in Generations (now a six year old game!) and I doubt most would know the difference. Is that the best they can muster after all this time?
The Return of Classic Sonic
In spite of claims that Sonic Forces is not “Sonic Generations 2,” the existence of Classic Sonic really says otherwise. Sonic Team claims Forces has been in development for nearly four years, with murmurs that it was even originally intended to release last year, for Sonic’s 25th Anniversary (I’m skeptical). If Forces was intended to be a celebratory anniversary game like Generations, Classic Sonic’s appearance would definitely be a little less weird, but it’s 2017 and that window has closed. There’s simply no reason for Classic Sonic to team up with Modern Sonic again, especially not with the release of Sonic Mania hitting so soon. We’ve already seen footage that Sonic Team still can’t (or won’t) properly implement Classic Sonic’s momentum-based Sega Genesis physics in Forces. They’re content to cheat by using more boost pads and scripting to fake the effect, just like in Sonic 4: Episode 1. Except Sonic Mania does all this stuff right, just without having to resort to cheating. If Sonic Team themselves refuse to do Classic Sonic justice, it seems a little insulting to keep bringing him back like this.
The Return of Shun Nakamura
Shun Nakamura is a veteran from Sonic Team’s Gamecube era, having worked on Billy Hatcher & the Giant Egg. You may also know him as the director behind the legendary embarrassment of Sonic 2006. After Sonic 2006, Nakamura-san (understandably) laid low for a few years, only to resurface as a producer on Rhythm Thief for the 3DS, a game that, as I understand it, was somewhat well-received. Now, you can’t lay all of the blame for Sonic 2006 squarely on Shun Nakamura’s shoulders, but neither should the success of Rhythm Thief be exclusively attributed to him, either. Game development is a team effort, the result of many voices speaking in unison, but there’s also no denying that the moment Shun Nakamura comes back, suddenly we’re being shown burning cities, told that Sonic has lost to Dr. Eggman, and we get introduced to a new, super teen-edgy villain. Some of this feels depressingly familiar, and makes me wonder why they’d let this guy anywhere near Sonic ever again. Did nobody better show up to work that day?
The Return of Warren Graff (and possibly Ken Pontac)
Together, this duo have helped pen the scripts to Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, Sonic Lost World, and even a couple of the Sonic Boom games. They’re both old Saturday Morning Cartoon folk, something that definitely comes through in what they’ve contributed to Sonic. Here’s the deal: at least personally speaking, I don’t know if they’re very good at telling stories. The writing in Sonic Colors was kinda cute in a way that made me nostalgic for the mid-90’s Sonic cartoons, but everything else since then has had a lot of rough edges. Sonic Generations barely even had a story and what WAS there was pretty weak. Their attempts to dig in deeper for the narrative of Sonic Lost World left us with more plot holes than answers, with clichéd villains that had no motives, and misplaced melodrama. As far as setting up simple one-scene gags go they’re decent, but anything more complex than that seems to fall apart. After Lost World, I was hoping we’d seen the last of them. So far only Warren Graff has spoken up about writing for Sonic Forces, so it’s possible things will be different — but one name usually means the other isn’t far behind.
The Return of Literally Everything Else
Hey, remember the old Genesis games, when Sonic used to be good? I don’t see how you could forget, given Sonic Forces features what will be at least the ninth time Green Hill Zone (or something like it) will be returning as a feature presentation. Or what about digging up Silver the Hedgehog again, or Zavok from the Deadly Six? You know, those timeless characters from beloved games like Sonic 2006 and Lost World? Constantly reheating Sonic’s leftovers has been an established trend for more than a decade now, but it became especially egregious after Sonic 4: Episode 1. Now it feels like we can hardly go even one game without somebody at Sega breathlessly wagging Sonic 1’s Motobug at the screen shouting “REMEMBER THIS??” It all seems particularly ironic in the face of lyrics for what used to be Sonic’s theme song: “Well I don’t look back, I don’t need to; Time won’t wait and I got so much to do.” Good thing they brought back Egg Dragoon from Sonic Unleashed again, right?
Of course, something to keep in mind is just how little we’ve actually seen of Sonic Forces. In spite of being revealed almost a full year ago, we’ve still only seen a grand total of two levels. Sonic Team is keeping the game very close to their chest, making it hard to accurately get a picture of what the completed product will look like. While some may say that could be grounds to avoid passing judgment, it’s also important to keep in mind that the entire reason companies like Sega put out trailers and demonstrate the game at trade shows is to entice you to into pre-ordering. That, in itself, is a form of judgement, and one Sega is deliberately encouraging.
Preview material is simply made to be judged, or it wouldn’t exist at all. What Sega has chosen to preview of Sonic Forces unfortunately hasn’t been interesting. Sonic Lost World was like throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it was a collection of bizarre, sloppy mistakes. Though Sonic Forces side steps those mistakes, what it replaces them with is a game that looks safe and wholly bland, with nary a risk to be seen. In terms of gameplay, it seems to be exactly what I wanted to a fault, the monkey’s paw twisting in my hands.
Unless Sonic Team happens to be hiding something incredible, Sonic Forces, at this point in time, looks tired. Maybe not entirely awful, but at the very least cynical. To circle back around to so much of this stuff, be it characters, levels, or even staff members themselves, regardless of whether or not they’re good enough to warrant a return appearance, just makes it look more like Sonic the Hedgehog itself is circling the drain.
With only two or three months to go, we’ll find out soon enough.