When it comes to Sonic, most fans tend to fall into one of two camps. There are those who think the original 2-D Sonic is the only "true" Sonic. Then there are those who think Sonic needs to get with the program and drop any designs on old-school action. The 2-D fans often point to the 2005 Nintendo DS game Sonic Rush as proof they are correct, while current-generation Sonic fans tend to trot out the 2010 Wii release of Sonic Colors.
The same year Colors was released also saw the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. Ostensibly a true sequel to the original Genesis franchise, the game was met with mixed reactions from both fans and critics. While it certainly had the look of the 16-bit games, Episode I didn't have the speed or the fluidity. When Sonic Generations dropped in late 2011, it seemed that SEGA's developers had finally nailed that classic 2-D feel. As a result, hype for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II increased. Alas, it was not to be, as Episode II is just as bland as Episode I.
Much as Episode I pulled its inspiration from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Episode II pulls inspiration from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sonic's sidekick Tails is a constant companion for this outing. Co-op play is an option. Even the special stage is a HD redux of the special stage from the second Sonic. The thing is, just because it has the look doesn't mean it captures the magic.
Instead of adding depth to Episode II, the inclusion of Tails manages to make the game feel even less like classic Sonic. The biggest problem is that using Tails isn't optional. The game more or less forces you to use Sonic's furry friend because there isn't a path through the level without him. Why is this an issue? For the most part, Tails is slow.
Switching to Tails is usually done because you need to move vertically. Rather than have multiple ways to do so, your options are limited to grabbing Tails and flying upward. Underwater, you can grab Tails and use him to swim. A third maneuver involves the pair combining forces on the ground and turning into one big, spinning, wrecking ball. This is the only time you'll see any real speed with Tails.
Breaking up the flow of a level by forcing players to have Sonic partner with Tails (and the game isn't subtle when it wants you to do so; there's an in-game billboard telling you to partner at these points) is annoying in its own right, but Episode II also misses the mark in a few other places. One of these is in its implementation of the auto-targeting system.
Sonic's homing attack has been seen before, but it's also been implemented better in earlier games. Here, the window of opportunity is extremely precise — so much so that you can't really trust the targeting cursor when moving through a densely packed group of enemies. It's not uncommon for the target placement to automatically move from the enemy (or bounce pad) you wanted to hit to another, adjacent target in the time between a button press and the time it registers. Working around this requires memorizing enemy placement and timing in advance. Then, when moving into the area, you simply tap the attack button the appropriate amount of times. It's more Simon than Sonic.
In addition to the Simon bits, there were also times when the homing attack would seemingly end early for no reason. Sonic would jump, the target would highlight, the attack button would be pressed, and Sonic would spin toward the target. When he reached the target, he wouldn't be spinning anymore, resulting in taking damage rather than dealing it. This seemed to happen most often when the homing attack was used at the edge of its range.
Memorization also comes into play in some areas where Sonic is threatened by off-screen hazards. You can die at the hands of an enemy because you messed up, but dying because a spiked wall suddenly appeared from the edge of the screen while you were standing on a moving platform just feels cheap. Putting in obstacles that are impossible to avoid unless you know they are there in advance is poor level design.
Finally, there are the boss battles. Boss battles are supposed to be a hallmark element of a Sonic game. Here, they feel completely uninspired. You slowly chip away at a boss, without much of a challenge, for most of the fights. Then, when their health is low, they suddenly get challenging. It's at this point that the fights get fun, but the boss is also down to a single hit point. So, if you know what to do, the fight is instantly over. If it's your first time facing off, you're likely to die and then replay the boring part just to get to the good part.
Players who own Episode I will automatically unlock a bonus world in the game featuring a playable Metal Sonic. It tells the story of how Metal Sonic was revived after the end of Sonic CD. The Metal Sonic levels are pulled from the Episode I game and will be familiar to players who have already mastered those worlds. Metal Sonic looks different than Sonic but doesn't feel much different in play style, which means the extra levels are only going to appeal to the most hardcore of fans.
Ultimately, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is Sonic in name only. Rather than being a revival of classic gameplay, it feels more like a fan project that didn't quite get everything right. Rip away the Sonic sprites, and you're left with nothing more than an average platformer. If you have a hankering for old-school Sonic, snag Sonic Generations instead.
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