There was a sequence near the end of Sonic Forces that I had to retry at least five times. Each time I died, the checkpoint system would toss me back to the beginning of an extended 2D platforming sequence, after which the game would rocket me forward (in 3D) towards what seemed, clearly, to be a jump. Every time I jumped, I fell. Every time I fell, I had to play through that same platforming sequence again, only to jump where the game signaled me to jump, only to die again. Eventually I just decided to see what would happen if, after the game propelled me towards that jump, I just didn’t. You know what happened? I beat the level. My mistake was not jumping at the wrong moment or misreading the timing on a platform. My mistake was playing the game.
This is not a sentence that I should ever have to say about a game. The thing that makes a game a game is interactivity. Remove that, and you have a movie. Some games, admittedly, are not gameplay centric. Some prioritize story, some atmosphere. Bioshock Infinite had passable gameplay that gave you an excuse to spend some time in the stunningly realized city of Columbia. Firewatch essentially eliminated gameplay outside of dialogue selection and simple object interactions in favor of building a beautiful world for you to live in.
I mention all of these titles to paint a picture: games can emphasize gameplay, story, or any combination therein, but it needs to feel purposeful. Sonic Forces feels like the antithesis of purpose. Every single element of the game feels like an idea half-formed, half-completed, and half-communicated.
On paper, most of those ideas actually sound pretty good. In practice, however, things are a lot less so. Everybody, even Sonic Team, knows that Sonic and his pals are essentially fanfic fodder, so with Forces they tried to lean into that by including a character creator. The problem here is that not only is the creator itself is surprisingly shallow, but you only get to actually play as your avatar in a handful of stages. There are a number of unlockable outfits you can use to further customize your fur-sona, and some are almost self aware in their goofiness, but the charm quickly wears off after you’ve collected dozens of variants (a fair number of which are duplicates with different colors).
Similarly, Forces attempts to combine old-school 2D and new-school 3D Sonic gameplay, to exceedingly dull effect. The game introduces you to classic Sonic (who is here from another dimension because reasons), whom you play as in a number of stages, all of which are 2D. You also play through stages as modern Sonic, either in 2D or 3D. The result is confusion.
If Sonic Team wanted to include old Sonic, why not give him all of the 2D stages and new Sonic all of the 3D stages? By giving modern Sonic and your avatar both 2D and 3D stages, it completely removes the necessity of including 2D sonic as a character at all, and in fact only serves to frustrate as you now have to constantly remember which character you’re playing as, and mentally adjust between powers and control schemes.
In terms of the levels themselves, they are short, predictable, and repetitive. Stages always fall into one of three categories: 2D platforming, 3D Sonic Run-esque sequences, or boss fights. In 2D sections, hazards are poorly telegraphed, and the ways around them are just as hard to see. Furthermore, the controls (at least on Switch, I cant speak for other platforms, but it doesn’t seem like a hardware issue) seem to have an infuriating amount of input lag. The jumping feels sluggish, and it killed me more than a few times. This was not a problem for Nintendo in the 1980’s, how is a problem for Sonic Team over thirty years later?
The 3D running sections fare the best, and have a decent sense of speed to them. The problems with hazards are still very much present, but at least the jumping controls feel more responsive. That having been said, trying to move side to side on the path is a slow, irritating process. This is most likely meant to encourage you to use the shoulder buttons to switch between the three “lanes,” but said lanes are not visually represented, and damage-causing obstacles are commonly found on the lines between these suggested boundaries. This causes frequent momentum-crushing stops, and a fair number of frustrating deaths.
The boss fights are boring and simple, but still manage to be aggravating. Most find you running along a path (or in one curious case, along a snake) towards your enemy, attempting to make up enough ground to hit him with your spin jump. These stages are competent, but issues arise whenever the developers try to change things up. My favorite example is a fight against one particular boss, wherein I needed to repeatedly hit him with my wispon (which I guess is a way not to say weapon even though the thing is clearly a gun). The problem was that my wispon released a whip of electricity, and did very little damage. So this boss fight was about five minutes of a yellow rabbit slapping a floating masked thing with a flaccid string. If that sounds funny, it definitely started out that way but all humor left the situation after minute three of mashing ZR.
There are a number of collectibles to find in each level, and you are awarded a rank based on how well you performed. The biggest difference between collectibles in Sonic Forces and Mario Odyssey is that in Mario every single collectable is included to reward the player for creativity, curiosity, and skill. Here, they’re just sort of included because that’s a thing that games do. Between these obligatory collectables and the SOS missions (lazy excuses to keep you playing after you’ve beaten the game by randomly assigning bonuses to stages you’ve already beaten), there’s very little reason to revisit this world after the credits roll. I completely lost interest in all of it by the end of mission fifteen out of thirty.
If thirty stages sounds like a lot, consider that most are beatable in well under three minutes. The longest I ever spent in a level was thirteen and a half minutes, and that was because I quite literally died forty-five times. I died forty-five times because A) the platforming is unresponsive, and B) because I was meant to be holding the X button to dash through rings, and the icon instructing me to do so was constantly flashing. I could be the idiot here, but I always assumed that flashing meant press repeatedly, not hold down. As it turns out, even if you do hold down the correct button and press the control stick in the direction that you intend to dash, there is what feels like a 30% chance that your character will just rocket off in the wrong direction anyway. Neat.
Even the world map is a mess. It is laid out as a globe, but the levels do not appear in any sort of linear manner, so I usually had absolutely no idea where I was meant to be looking for my next mission if I ever moved to another point on the map. Mercifully, the developers did program an option to look at a traditional list of the stages, which made navigating tremendously more pleasant.
I honestly feel like it would be a waste of time to spend more than a few sentences talking about the story, because, well, it’s a story in a Sonic game. Eggman is up to something, and the usual cast of characters has to stop him again. What he’s doing barely matters, and nothing you do to combat his evil plan is even close to memorable or significant. Characters deliver painfully cheesy lines about the power of friendship, then fist bump and run away to the sweet sounds of the all butt-rock soundtrack.
The story moves at a breakneck pace, and is always in such a hurry to get to the next half-formed idea that it frequently forgets to clue the audience in to what is actually happening. Sonic “died” at the end of one mission, and we go back to playing as him two missions later, which ads up to about five minutes. McGuffins are introduced, characters appear with no context, and despite the fact that world domination/destruction is on the line, it all feels entirely without stakes. Sonic games are not known for having particularly well thought out or even coherent stories, and Forces is more of the same.
In fact, More of the Same would actually be a better title than Forces. If the game had been called Sonic More of the Same, I might actually be more inclined to believe that Sonic Team has any idea that by this point the franchise is basically the longest running joke in gaming. I wish that I could say that this game has even moments of hope, something to show the promise of a well-made 3D Sonic title, but alas, I cannot. Sonic Forces peaks at mediocrity, and frequently finds itself much worse off.
The game is mostly pleasant to look at, and it has far fewer bugs than the infamous Sonic Boom, but being pretty and not Sonic Boom does not automatically make a game worth your $40. Rather than refreshing a series with more duds than the DCEU, Sonic Forces instead serves as yet another example of why 3D Sonic games just don’t work.