Remember when George Lucas gave fans exactly what they wanted by finally showing Jedi master Yoda fighting in the prime of his life? It didn’t work out that well, did it? Sonic Team could have learned a thing or two from that. Such was the small but oh-so-vocal outcry over the physics in Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I that Sonic Team held off the release of its sequel until moving Sonic around felt exactly as his fans remember.
Has the developer achieved that goal? Well it has, actually. Even in a full 3D engine, Sonic zips along and turns on a sixpence just like he’s on the Mega Drive. But at what expense? The quality of the level design in Episode II suggests that so much time was spent getting the controls and handling right that everyone forgot about good old-fashioned game design and playability. The level design in Sonic 4: Episode II is some of the most atrocious to feature in any Sonic game to date.
Far from the imagination on offer in Episode I, this collection of levels is defined by its ability to alternate between predictable autopilot rollercoaster paths, unforeseeable bottomless pits, instant death traps and frustrating underwater sections with virtually nothing resembling fun in between. But hey, at least the physics are good. Thanks, fanboys!
You do have to admire Sonic Team for trying, at least. As a tribute to Sonic The Hedgehog 2, the reintroduction of the half-pipe bonus stages is more than welcome, but the implementation of Tails doesn’t quite work as intended. In Sonic 2 he was a fairly useless, but nevertheless popular, sidekick. In Episode II, Sonic Team has tried hard to find a use for him. With a press of the team-up button he can carry Sonic upwards, or hold onto him to form a huge, devastating spiky ball, and many of the levels and bosses are designed around exploiting these abilities. Unfortunately, none of them actually make the game more fun. Most are difficult to the point of trial and error and all do their best to detract from the purity of the Sonic experience. You have to admire the developer for trying but it’s just one of those ideas that’s best left on paper.
There’s no doubt that you’ll find a lot of praise for Episode II out there, since it addresses the physics issues with the first episode so well, but games™ can’t honestly recommend a game so under-developed on quality controls alone. Sonic Team recently said that it’s unsure whether to create an Episode III or not… Perhaps that is the developer’s opportunity to marry decent physics with great level design, but after these two episodes we’re in serious danger of losing interest before that happens.