I didn’t get to spend as much time with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric as I would’ve liked, but the taste I got was promising. The Sonic series has been on shaky ground for a while now, managing maybe one genuinely good game for every two or three mediocre ones. As I stated in my review, last year’s Sonic Lost World was basically half of a good game brought down by poor execution and lack of focus. Sega’s venerable Sonic Team is taking a step back from the franchise, letting American developer Big Red Button try their luck. This may seem like blasphemy to some longtime fans, but after sampling Big Red Button’s work, I have to say this might be exactly what the Sonic series needs.
The problem with Sonic, at least in 3D, is that the series never knew exactly what it wanted to be. Is it a platformer? An action game? An adventure? Games like Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast copped ideas from Spyro and Banjo Kazooie, but their camera system couldn’t keep up with Sonic when he needed to speed up. Lost World stole a lot of great ideas from Mario Galaxy, but the controls were cumbersome. And Sonic 2006…well that was an unholy mess.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric takes a hybrid approach, breaking up the gameplay into manageable chunks that do things differently but work well together. I played the E3 demo at the airstream, and while my concerns haven’t been completely dispelled, there is promise here. The basic free-roaming adventure gameplay resembles a brawler, with Sonic and his allies exploring closed-off levels and beating robots into scrap. The combat is pretty basic stuff, but at least it’s a tangible element; past games have used enemies as cheap speedbumps, or as platforms in and of themselves for Sonic to auto-target and bounce across. Sonic can also pick up standalone weapons, such as a giant extendo-hand for slapstick attacks.
These levels have boost pads and other features that require Sonic to spin-dash to reach new areas, but the gameplay stays tight and focused; you won’t be dropping the controller for 30 seconds as Sonic speeds through a loop completely on his own. As Sonic Boom is a co-op ready experience, Sonic will usually have a partner you can swap to at any time. In this level he was accompanied by Amy Rose. I know longtime fans hate Sonic’s cluttered roster of sidekicks, but the developers are actually giving them something useful to do this time, and thankfully it isn’t fishing.
Amy had her own distinct attack style—using her signature megaton hammer—but she could also get to places Sonic couldn’t. While Sonic is fast, Amy has some parkour abilities so she can balance on pipes and other structures to reach new areas. Beating a level actually requires that you swap between characters fairly often, so I’m interested to see what Tails, Sticks and Knuckles are capable of.
In previous games the ”fast” gameplay sections were usually separated from other levels or worse, dropped haphazardly in the middle of one. To a certain degree that’s still true here but it’s handled much better. Toward the middle of the stage I was chased down a winding tunnel by a giant robot spider, and this sequence was clearly all about speed. Grabbing rings was a lot easier, and once I managed to outrun the spider, the level continued normally. These speed sections might be scripted, but at least they’re well integrated into the main gameplay and they certainly don’t play themselves the way Sonic Adventure did.
The controls were a bit stiff and the camera got hung up on the scenery a bit, but that’s to be expected of an E3 demo. Hopefully those issues will be resolved in the final game, as a third person camera has been Sonic’s true nemesis for years now. The most optimistic thing I can say about Sonic Boom is that it’s different. I felt like for years Sonic Team kept going back to the same well, polishing and re-arranging the same variables in the ancient formula they built for Sonic Adventure. Sometimes this worked surprisingly well—as in Sonic Colors—but other times it was disastrous, as in 2006. But often it was just underwhelming, like in Lost World. A fresh perspective is what’s needed to give Sonic the decent game he’s deserved for over a decade now.