It's hard to believe that Sonic the Hedgehog is twenty-one years old this year. However, while he may be getting the keys to the door, everyone's favourite speed demon shows no sign of slowing down. Recent years have seen the Sega mascot return to his platforming roots and the success of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I back in 2010 certainly paved the way for a renaissance of the Sonic brand. Now two years later, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II brings a number of additions to the downloadable series, albeit additions that aren't entirely original.
Dr Eggman is back and this time he's teamed up with the evil Metal Sonic, last seen in Sonic CD, in an attempt to outnumber and outsmart the heroic blue hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is classic Sonic gameplay through and through. Collecting rings, bouncing off springs and rescuing the critters of Little Planet is the name of the game as Sonic traverses five stages in order to thwart the evil plans of Eggman and Metal Sonic.
The levels themselves on the whole are well crafted. In most cases, they are fast paced allowing for Sonic to reach maximum speed in order to reach the finish post. As usual, each level is littered with various power-ups to aid Sonic and Tails in their quest, such as Bonus Rings, Invincibility and the ever important Extra Life. There are cases where levels become increasingly awkward, whether thanks to difficult enemies, or annoying obstacles. This can cause the trademark high-speed gameplay to go right out the window, as you navigate tricky platforms, enemies in the worst places and spring and spring that ends up sending you round in a loop.
Each stage ends with a boss battle as is traditional with the classic Sonic format. However, whereas previous Sonic games have followed a basic rule of three jumps, the bosses in this game require a bit more skill and strategy. Generally, each boss goes through a series of stages or transformations before the end of the battle which is a great way to add to the longevity of the game. The bosses themselves are really imaginative looking, rather than simply relying on a variation of Eggman's flying machine that the old Sonic games were so fond of doing.
The big addition to this game, when compared to the previous installment, is the inclusion of Sonic's best buddy Tails, perhaps in an attempt recreate the popularity of the Mega Drive classic Sonic the Hedgehog 2. During single player outings, Tails follows Sonic on his path to stop Eggman and Metal Sonic and provides a number of special moves designed to assist Sonic out of a number of tight spots. Everyone is familiar with Tails' helicopter spin which allows him to carry Sonic to those hard to reach places, aiding in maximum exploration of each level. In a similar fashion, Tails can also swiftly carry Sonic through water caverns, particularly useful whenever there isn't an air bubble in sight. The final new move sees Sonic and Tails combine their speed and join together to create a Rolling Combo, which can be used to open new paths blocked by destructible obstacles. While this breaks up the gameplay a bit, there are times, particularly with regards to the water combo, that the controls feel broken and don't respond the way you want them to, leading Sonic and Tails to a watery grave.
The addition of Tails also means the return of classic Sonic multiplayer. For those who may not have been part of the Mega-Drive generation, this provides an experience not dissimilar to today's very own New Super Mario Brothers. Working together, player two controls Tails to provide much needed assistance to Sonic by collecting extra rings, taking care of enemies and generally coming along for the ride. However, this is probably the game's biggest flaw as, for anyone who dreaded being assigned Tails back in the nineties will remember, being player two means constantly disappearing off the edge of the screen or falling off edges in an attempt to keep up with Sonic. Tails himself can't be chosen as the main character either meaning very little variation in gameplay between single-player and multiplayer.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II consists of five zones, each made up of around three acts.Between zones, it’s up to the player where they go next for the most part of the game, but accessing a rather stunning looking map of Little Planet. Sylvania Castle zone almost mirrors the classic Green Hill zone from early Sonic games and provides its fair amount of nostalgia, whilst the Oil Desert zone is a tricky level full of obstacles and awkward ledges making it one of the tougher stages in the game. The standout level by far is the colourful and vibrant White Park zone that combines the bright lights of the fairground with the wintery themes of Christmas. If it’s one thing Sonic games do well, it is making an attract level to spin across. Overall the game will probably take between four to six hours to complete, depending upon how much exploration you wish to embark upon in each stage. Exploration doesn't give players anything particularly new to the game, with the exception of the secret red rings that seemed to have been put in place for the achievement/trophy hunters out there.
There are also a number of bonus stages that hark back to the classic "3D" approach Sonic the Hedgehog 2 gave the world with its half-pipe bonus stages. The object of these levels is to collect a specified number of rings in the time allocated in order to unlock one of the fabled chaos emeralds of which there are seven in total. In doing so, players have the opportunity to unlock the power within Sonic and transform him into the blazing yellow Super Sonic, providing invincibility and extra speed for the rest of the level. However, this power comes at a price as Sonic must collect fifty rings in order to use this secret power within. If that wasn’t enough for real Sonic enthusiasts, who've already got their hands on the first episode, there is also a bonus game included which unlocks a variation of Episode 1 through the eyes of Metal Sonic, perhaps to round off the entire experience.
Despite its return to the 2D format, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II looks brilliant in HD. Each stage is vibrant, packed with colour, and offers a rather crisp, fresh looking experience. The bosses and enemies throughout the game are all rather original and the main characters themselves are probably the best they've ever looked, which makes perfect sense when trying to keep up with modern platformers such as New Super Mario Bros or Rayman: Origins. The sound also maintains the retro feel with MIDI style music that is nostalgic to begin with but becomes rather irritating and repetitive as the game goes on.
At a time when gamers crave the retro experiences of yesteryear, platform games seem to be on the up. Nintendo success with New Super Mario Bros. has certainly reignited what little spark of rivalry was left between the moustachioed plumber and Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II is certainly comparable to the original Mega Drive titles, and looks great with a sparkly HD finish. Sadly, the game doesn't stray too far from its comfort zone and by adding very little new to the series, it seems like everyone's favourite blue hedgehog is all revved up with no place to go.