[Games] Review: Sonic Colors

It’s been a long time since a decent Sonic game graced a console. Some would argue that, joint Olympic-themed outings with Mario aside, there hasn’t been an enjoyable title featuring the blue hedgehog since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast. 2010, though, saw things looking up. First Sonic 4 Episode 1 was released for the iPhone and on the home consoles’ download services, and represented a long overdue return to 2D platforming success for the franchise. Now step forward Sonic Colors on the DS and (as reviewed here) on the Wii. To save you the suspense, I’ll cut to the chase – this is undoubtedly the best true next-gen Sonic game.

The plot, insofar as these things actually matter, concerns Sonic’s long-time nemesis Eggman. He’s created a kind of interstellar funfair, linking several different planets together as part of an entirely overblown front for a nefarious plot that involves kidnapping loveable aliens. Said aliens, or Wisps, are in fact sources of tremendous energy, capable of imbuing their possessor with a variety of skills for a short time. Needless to say, Sonic must enlist the help of the Wisps and harness these skills – each identified by a colour, hence the title – to defeat Eggman and leave the galaxy safe for small, cute extra-terrestrials everywhere. It’s all very Saturday-morning cartoon fare, as are the cutscenes featuring Sonic, his annoying sidekick Tails and Eggman’s bumbling, incompetent robot minions. It has to be said that Sonic was far less irritating before he developed the ability to speak, unlike Mario.

One of the into-the-screen sections

One of the into-the-screen sections

The setting makes little logical sense, but it does provide a (literal) playground for Sonic’s skills, littered with crazy amusement park rides and massive, intricate bits of Eggman-designed machinery. Indeed the levels are not only some of the most beautifully crafted and lovingly thought out in the Sonic series since the demise of the Mega Drive, they’re undoubtedly the best platforming levels this side of Super Mario Galaxy.

The action takes place primarily in one of two planes. A side-on 2.5D view with traditional platforming sensibilities, and an into-the-screen race-style perspective that tracks behind Sonic as he flashes through stages. At various points within levels the action swings from one to another, often via prolonged rail-grinds that see the camera swooping and swishing around to make the most of the 3D setting without making the same camera angle and control method mistakes of almost every other polygonal Sonic title.

As with all the best Sonic games the action is fast and furious, always feeling close to being out of control, but never descending into genuine mayhem. The game makes great use of the now-familiar lock-on mechanic, that sees enemies and switches encircled in red once Sonic is in mid-air. Tapping jump again then sends our hero hurtling toward said target. It’s a system that removes a lot of the frustration of platforming in the third dimension, and stops the game being slowed down while players line up again and again to hit targets moving in a 3D space.

On occasion the camera gets all spooky and control of Sonic is taken from the player

On occasion the camera gets all spooky and control of Sonic is taken from the player

On top of that simple platforming mechanic, the Wisps offer a range of new powers that allow Sonic to explore the game world in refreshing ways. The simplest Wisp gives Sonic a boost that allows him to whizz through flatter sections of levels in a few seconds, automatically attracting rings as he goes. Later power-ups include a rocket pack, a bouncing laser form and even a drill that lets Sonic burrow underneath obstacles toward the ends of levels.

Speaking of levels, there’s little emphasis here on exploration, but then that was never a staple of the Sonic series anyway. Instead the onus is entirely on speed. At the end of each act your performance is graded, with A’s earning an extra life. The score is based on a number of factors, including the number of rings collected, but is weighted toward time. It’s a compelling addition that adds replay value to earlier worlds both for the score-attack die-hards and for completists looking to bag top marks wherever possible. It’s also a vital way of topping up Sonic’s lives before tackling some of the harder sections.

Those harder sections, one would imagine, would generally be reserved for later levels and bosses. Sadly, that’s not the case. There are several points where difficulty spikes rear their ugly head. For a game that eschews life-sapping difficulty in favour of speed, thrills and replayability it’s incredibly annoying to be able to race through five acts with no loss of life only to throw an entire continue’s worth of lives away on a single section of platforming. Sometimes poor design is to blame for the problem, more worryingly on other occasions the games controls seem too imprecise for the perfect timing demanded, with button presses not registering in time, sending Sonic plummeting to his doom. You will eventually get past the odd troublesome stage but, rather than presenting a worthwhile challenge, these moments of frustration seem only to highlight the fact that perfect level design is not a given in the world of platform gaming, something genre converts reared on Nintendo’s own triple-a franchises might not appreciate.

Spikes aside, Colors is more than a welcome addition to the Wii’s platforming stable. At its worst it’s an occasionally frustrating, enjoyable, fast-paced romp through a variety of interesting and generally well-designed levels with the added bonus of a fun two-player co-op mode. At its best it captures the essence of what made Sonic so great in the days of the Mega Drive and suggests that, despite recent evidence to the contrary, the good men and women at Sonic Team haven’t lost their magic.

8/10

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