I’m beginning to wonder if Sonic games follow roughly the same rule as Star Trek movies—generally, the even numbered ones are good, while the odd ones are bad? Regardless, Sonic Team seems to have a problem making consistently good new Sonic games, and I think this because they still aren’t quite sure what makes a good Sonic game. I hate to make the Mario comparison, but as you’ll read shortly it’s pretty apt in this case. Sonic Lost World is not a bad game, and it contains a wealth of clever ideas—some original, many borrowed—but it lacks focus; a solid core concept. And for this reason it’s not necessarily a good game either, or a particularly successful one from a design standpoint.
I don’t mean to start this review off negatively because I really, really wanted to love Lost World. There were many times where I could see its brilliance shine through, but this made it all the more agonizing when the game often turned obtuse, confusing and just plain aggravating. Sonic Team copped way too many ideas from the Mario playbook this time, and while some of them work by virtue of being good game design, others just don’t fit, or weren’t implemented well at all.
Sonic Team’s prevailing design philosophy here seems to be “make Mario Galaxy, but fast and dizzy because this is a Sonic game, after all.” In this respect, they’ve succeeded; many levels consist of small islands and structures floating in thin air, like the planets and moons in Mario Galaxy. The levels that are built this way also tend to be the best in the game, with a few caveats I’ll get to later.
The issue is that Sonic isn’t Mario, and trying to apply Sonic’s standard mechanics to the same level design doesn’t work. Sonic just doesn’t “stick” to the environment the way Mario does. He has an imprecise floatiness, the weight is all wrong for the kind of precise jumps, reactions and landing sticks the game routinely asks of the player. This can make even the best, most creative levels a maddening chore. The team has apparently tried to alleviate this by implementing a new “free running” mechanic.
Sonic normally ambles around rather slowly in this game—slower than I’ve ever seen him, actually. This is useful for navigating tricky twists, turns and gaps. When you want Sonic to go faster, you hold the right trigger down and he’ll take off sprinting. He’ll also parkour over obstacles, run up walls and mantle onto ledges. This mechanic works on paper but in practice it’s really flaky. Yes, you can sprint up trees now and vault over low walls, but it’s easy to forget you’re free running and end up dying accidentally. I sent Sonic careening to a deadly drop at least as many times as I saved myself by grabbing a ledge.
The levels just don’t seem to be designed to completely take advantage of this new mechanic—the overall feel of Lost World is surprisingly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there is some amazing level design in this game. When it works, it works beautifully, and there are stages that work a whole lot better than others (the aforementioned Mario Galaxy-style levels) but it isn’t even consistently good within a single level. Ironically it’s the side-scrolling sections—the parts that Sonic Team traditionally excels at—that felt the most slipshod. Do you enjoy trying to make hard, precise platforming jumps with Sonic’s floaty physics and spastic speed? How about with a giant sand tornado chasing you? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
The problem with Lost World is that it regularly, unexpectedly changes from brilliant next-gen platforming to incredibly cheap within the span of a few seconds. I’ve played all the old Sonic games on the Genesis, and none of them were as tediously unfair as Lost World. I racked up more unintentional, cheap deaths in this game than I ever did in the cruelest of Miyamoto’s Mario gauntlets. This is due to Lost World’s drastically uneven level design, but also because Sonic Team is still holding onto some old-school Sonic game conventions that just don’t work anymore.
The first issue is that ticking timer—an option you could actually turn off in some older Sonic games, incidentally. Lost World has some truly superb, expansive levels to explore, but I found myself running down the timer in the first level just because I was poking around and admiring the scenery. I understand that getting through levels quickly is a staple of the series, but if Sonic Team wanted to keep that concept, they should’ve slapped a stopwatch timer on each level and called it a day. I don’t need one more arbitrary “you lose a life” penalty on a game that’s already so unevenly unfair, especially if it keeps me from enjoying the really good levels.
The whole lives mechanic is another big issue. The problem is that in the modern era of memory cards, flash storage and internal hard drives, the concept of extra lives is kind of redundant. Back when you couldn’t save your game, say, on the NES or Genesis, extra lives were a way of marking your progress, keeping you going without giving you too much reward or punishment. They were an incentive to play better, because if you ran out you had to start from the beginning.
But today? Extra lives are at best archaic and at worst downright broken, when you should just be able to restart from the last checkpoint with no penalty. The Mario series rather ham-handedly sidesteps this issue by just giving you scads of the things—the New Super series practically dumps extra lives on you, and the Mario Galaxy games eventually just handed you like 20 lives every time you booted up the game. I bet Nintendo would’ve gotten rid of the mechanic by now, if not for the nostalgia of that little green 1-up mushroom and all the Hot Topic merch it moves.
Lost World sadly doesn’t give you that many lives to start with and it’s not terribly easy to accumulate a large amount, so you’ll be restarting levels—a lot—at the beginning of the game. This is unfortunate, because at that point you’ll still be stumbling around learning the mechanics. The game offers pop-up tutorial messages on the GamePad, but you have to look down and tap the tutorial icon to read them. The GamePad also contains your entire HUD, so you have to glance down to check your ring count, your remaining lives and the time left on the clock. As you might imagine, glancing away from the screen can be hazardous in a very fast-paced game.
Lost World has a few other interesting ideas, but they aren’t implemented as cleanly as they could be. The Wisp powers from Sonic Colors make a return, but they’re a lot more scripted this time and kind of clunky to use. Sonic can once again blink between crystals with the laser powerup, roll around as a giant black hole with the Astroid ability, and burrow down into levels with the drill. The drill was probably the most fun because it’s the most straightforward to control, but the others are difficult to understand from the text-only tutorials and the risky, shaky nature of the gameplay sometimes makes them more trouble than they’re worth.
There are also some multiplayer options. The 2-player race is a staple feature for friends wanting to beat each other to the level’s finish line, but there’s also a light co-op mode. It lets player 2 control a small airplane or helicopter, following Sonic to provide air support against enemies, but it seems like mostly an afterthought.
It’s a real shame that the gameplay is so clunky at times because Lost World is a truly gorgeous game. At first I thought all the cutscenes were pre-rendered CG but I’m pretty sure they’re all running on the in-game engine in real time. The gameplay itself is lush, colorful and incredibly fast, with some jaw-dropping level architecture. There’s a roller coaster made of candy and licorice, huge tubes and half-pipes reminiscent of Green Hill Zone, and small spherical worlds that dice up giant fruit and jet geysers of juice into the air. Conceptually a lot is ripped off from Mario Galaxy, but Sonic Team’s heart was clearly in the right place.
The music and sound design are also top notch. Every piece of music is fully orchestral and very bombastic, eschewing the sappy pop style that some other Sonic games have been burdened with. It’s hard not to feel triumphant, hearing that orchestra swell and crash at the end of a level , especially if you’ve just burned through seven lives to get there. In fact it made me lament the quality of the gameplay even more; the production values are spectacular, why can’t the actual game be worthy of them?
Sonic Lost World isn’t a terrible game but it could have been so, so much better. It’s not a case of lacking polish either—it feels like Sonic Team just couldn’t decide what they wanted the game to be. It feels equal parts old-school 2D Sonic, Mario Galaxy and leftovers from Sonic Colors. The Galaxy-style elements work the best, but they run up against the parts that don’t work so often and so unevenly that you’re ultimately left with an experience that is positively jarring. Sonic Team has maybe half of an amazing game here, but they need to focus on one or two things that work. The Sonic series needs to go back to the drawing board, and only return when it’s confident in what it is.
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* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Sonic Lost World has a great game hiding inside somewhere but is really held back by uneven game design. The game looks and sounds incredible and there are some really good ideas, but they aren't implemented cleanly enough to make a consistently great game. Lots of cheap deaths, questionable mechanics and a lack of focus keep this one from meeting its true potential.
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