Review: Sega Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II
Though it's been suggested that Sega has spent years in a no-win situation with its Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, incapable of satisfying fans with anything it does, we've long believed that it just needed some truly great games to restart the troubled series. Sega tried to go back to Sonic's roots with the late 2010 Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I, which rewarmed the series' famous Genesis/Mega Drive title Sonic 2 with updated graphics, and then successfully ported one of the franchise's best titles in late 2011's Sonic CD. Today, Sega has released Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II ($7), and though the iOS virtual controls still have the expected issues, the underlying game is one of the best 2.5-D Sonic titles in years -- beautifully rendered, fully universal with iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support, and full of stages that have just enough new and old touches to satisfy even jaded Sonic fans.
Thanks to some cool level and boss designs, Episode II starts out on a really high note and just keeps going throughout its 16 stages—four zones and four acts, plus third-person 3-D tunnel bonus levels. From moment one, a fully 3-D rendered Sonic is joined by the two-tailed fox Tails, blissfully bereft of the high-pitched voice he has possessed throughout more story-laden Sonic games, and the characters take off together throughout expansive levels filled with all of the corkscrews, jumps, and robotic enemies series fans would expect, as well as hidden paths and multiple routes to most levels’ spinning signpost endings. Backtrack a little and you may find an extra life or power-up hidden behind or above the area you were just exploring; fall down to low platforms and you can be assured there is a higher, more interesting route above you waiting to be discovered on a revisit of the level.
Episode II can be played as a single-player title, or collaboratively over Bluetooth with two people in the same room, one controlling Sonic and the other handling Tails. As a one-player game, the player primarily controls Sonic, occasionally tapping a team-up button to make Tails use a special power: helicopter tail flight to lift Sonic over obstacles, speedier swimming, or collaborative power rolling, each unlocked during play and activated based on the situation you’re in when you hit the team-up button. Signposts generally signal what you’re supposed to be doing, eliminating “I’m trapped” frustrations that have been found in earlier Sonic titles, and the collaboration works better here than in prior Sega games such as Knuckles Chaotix, where there was at least a little too much push and pull as a result of teamwork, rather than continued forward progress.
Though the artwork isn’t third-generation iPad Retina Display-ready, it still looks spectacular on each of Apple’s devices: crisper on the iPhone and iPod touch, with console-rivaling sharpness on iPads. The critical difference with Episode II isn’t just the resolution, but what Sega’s done with it this time out. While the first act of Sylvania Castle Zone has echoes of the many Green Hill Zone variations we’ve seen in prior Sonic games, they’re darker, and quickly mix in both water and ruin elements that feel more like homages to earlier titles than straight rip-offs of their designs. Background art is multi-layered and accented with cool polygonal and lighting touches, casting shadows, and there’s foreground art, too, providing a nice sense of depth. The first time you see a completely three-dimensional bridge to run on, you won’t be sure whether to stop and gawk or keep moving, something that’s not often the case with side-scrolling Sonic titles. Sega also zooms the camera out at times, letting you see more of the action where necessary—a touch that feels like a gently-applied, appropriate evolution of the 2-D engines of old Sonic games.
Similarly, though we’ve clearly seen elements from the White Park and Oil Desert Zones before—runs down the sides of mountains and jumping onto snowboards in the former, sand-whipped industrial stages in the latter—the little details and energy in Episode II’s stages make all the difference. When Sonic and Tails run against the wind together in the Oil Desert Zone, and sand particles are flying all over the place, you actually feel like you need to struggle to make the normally agile characters run or fly. Sega plays fast and loose with the stages, as well, devoting the first act of White Park Zone to snow, then the next to roller coasters, then the third to a mix of both with underwater scenes. Similarly, boss encounters actually have a real sense of peril and excitement; the first snake-inspired scene is one of the best-looking ever in a side-scrolling Sonic game.
Another very cool touch is in the Metal Sonic stages, which are unlocked solely if you have installed Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I. Clicking on a Link Up button in Episode II’s map screen brings you to a cinematic sequence showing Dr. Eggman (aka Robotnik) bringing the evil, robotic Metal Sonic back to life after Sonic CD—you get to control Metal Sonic through three very Sonic CD-styled industrial stages plus a boss encounter. Even better news: there’s no need for iPad owners to separately purchase the unnecessarily separate “HD” version of Episode I to unlock these stages; the non-HD version works as a key for iPhones, iPods, and iPads alike.
If there are any bummers in Episode II, they’re the music, which is seriously retreaded chiptune stuff that—apart from the Metal Sonic levels—doesn’t come close to the epic score in Sonic CD, and the controls, which are good enough but not great, with too few options; you can only choose touch or tilt controls, and then, you can’t position or resize the virtual joypad. Consequently, we found our fingers slipping off the pad far too often, and finding it unusually difficult to just get Sonic to crouch down, issues that could and hopefully will be fixed in a post-release update. Games with floating, “appear wherever you touch the screen” D-pads have issues of their own, but having that option here might make Sonic a little more precisely controllable.
All in all, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II isn’t just a “not bad” game; it’s actually a truly great side-scrolling action game by iOS standards, with excellent graphics, memorable stages, and reasonable (though less than ideal) controls—the Metal Sonic stages are similarly a very nice reward for continued patronage of the series. Though the virtual D-pad could use a little extra work, and the retro-styled music will impress some people more than others, there’s unquestionably enough high-quality gaming here to justify the $7 asking price. Thanks as much to its universal iOS device support as the improved quality of the levels within this game, Sega has delivered an experience that will thrill most Sonic fans, and quite possibly even win the franchise new admirers for the first time in recent memory. It’s worthy of our high recommendation.