“A decent game, but a huge disappointment for Sonic fans.”
Before I get this review started, I feel the need to say that I’ve never been a huge Sonic fan. I’ve enjoyed the Sonic games, but I am anything but a nostalgic fan who looks back on the past with rose tinted glasses. I enjoyed the previous Sonic games and, oddly enough, Sonic 2 on the Game Gear was my favourite. All I want to say here is that my views on this game are not clouded by nostalgia. With that out of the way, let’s begin.
It’s been sixteen years since Sonic & Knuckles, which is an awfully long time for a series to go before getting a proper sequel. Sonic’s rival, Mario, even had a rocky return to 2D platform with New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, but the Wii version was significantly better and felt like a proper Mario game. It’s expected that Sonic 4 would be a little rough around the edges, just like Mario was on the DS, but that in no way justifies the quality of this hollow husk of a Sonic game. Sonic 4 suffers from many glaring problems that keep it from being a decent platformer. Pretty much all issues I have with this game are gameplay related, so let’s dive right into what’s wrong with it.
For starters, the graphics are not terribly impressive. I can tell that the graphic artists spent a fair amount of time on them, but the fact of the matter is that the graphics in Sonic 4 lack character, personality, and soul. The graphics look fine, but they evoke no emotions from me. They are remarkably generic looking, which isn’t good for a game that is supposed to be a triumphant return for Sonic the Hedgehog.
To accompany the fairly bland graphics are overly long levels that, honestly, go on longer than they should. I found several levels to be somewhat interesting at the start, but when they drag on for several minutes at a time with no interesting changes? Well, that just gets very dull and repetitive. Some levels made me want to turn the game off because they were so long and boring, but I forced myself to carry on.
What really makes these long levels unenjoyable is the poor level design. Everything just feels really uninspired and mashed together. There’s no coherent point or purpose to anything in every level, and the same obstacles are repeated over and over again. Poor pitfall placement hampers the levels even further, as it is difficult to tell when a hole will lead to another path or to Sonic’s death. There are far too many gigantic, open gaps. Once you are out of the tight corridors, the levels just feel really barren and lifeless.
The difficulty is a bit of an interesting subject. Overall, Sonic 4 is very easy most of the time. I would rack up tons of 1-UPs only to encounter one spot in almost every level (outside of the first zone) that made me lose several of the lives I had earned. I’ve breezed through a few levels only to get through about three quarters of each before I hit some kind of bizarrely difficult spot that kills me several times. It seems unusual to have these difficulty spikes.
Working hand in hand with the difficulty spikes are the game’s enemies. They enemy placement in Sonic 4 is positively dreadful. Many enemies are placed so that you will slam into them at high speeds and lose your rings. Taking into account how fast Sonic moves at times, it’s almost impossible to dodge a lot of enemies your first play through because they literally come out of nowhere. Sonic 4 does not make itself difficult by presenting you with legit challenges that require skill, no. Instead, Sonic 4 makes itself harder by placing enemies and obstacles in unfair locations. The fourth zone is the worst offender, constantly putting things in locations that makes Sonic getting hurt an inevitability.
A few other minor things bother me as well. First is the lack of Knuckles or Tails, which is very unusual. Tails, at the very least, should have been in this game. Instead, all we get is Sonic. Second, the non-linear level select makes Sonic 4 feel like an ordinary budget game by indie developers. You can essentially play any level whenever you want, rather than being forced to play through each level one at a time like in a regular platformer.
That’s a lot of strikes against Sonic 4, and it’s probably very evident that I don’t like this game much. There are a few good things worth mentioning, however!
Boss battles are very simplistic, but I found them to be pretty enjoyable. Last boss aside, they’re not horribly difficult and are somewhat based on older Sonic bosses, so you should have a basic idea as to how to defeat them.
Equally enjoyable are the Lost Labyrinth levels. I can’t say much against them and they were really quite fun, easily standing out against the rest of the zones. The second level of Lost Labyrinth was a little bit on the long side, but overall it was pretty well made. I enjoyed the wealth of puzzles, and it was nice being able to control Sonic more than 40% of the time, since in other zones it seems that Sonic is usually always being pushed, propelled, or shot in various directions. Lost Labyrinth gives the player lots of control and feels more like the classic Sonic games.
Several levels are very replayable for speed runners. In fact, it is encouraged since there is even an achievement that requires you beat the first level in under one minute. I’m not much of a speed runner, but the game has plenty for gamers of that sort to do. That’s definitely a plus for them.
Overall, I feel that this game suffers tremendously from several glaring issues, and I’m shocked at how few innovations there are between Sonic & Knuckles (1994) and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010). If anything, it feels like Sonic 4 took a few steps back. However, there’s still a bit of fun to be hard here, and diehard Sonic fans from the 1990s should enjoy the game.