Sonic is a franchise I have talked about on 3WIREL since I started writing for the site. I love many of the series games and while it has a sour perception in the gaming landscape sometimes, I will dash alongside as the blue blur continues offering new adventures to undertake.
I wanted to celebrate the end of 2016 by talking about a few specific Sonic games I have a lot to comment on. Sonic Unleashed is a game with lofty goals to accomplish when it released; repair the brands tarnished nature after the critical failings of Sonic 06.
Sonic Team, fresh with new faces and a new person leading the team, set out to make the best Sonic game ever made. Do they accomplish this goal? Lets find out together.
Sonic Unleashed opens up with Sonic chasing down Eggman across his fleet of ships in space, finally turning into Super Sonic too end Eggman’s plans. But it is a trap! Eggman gets Sonic in some kind of machine that drains him of the Chaos Emerald power. Using this power, Eggman shatters the planet into many different pieces but the real reason for the planet splitting apart was Dark Giga awakening.
This reacts to Sonic; Dark Giga transfers dark power into Sonic in his weakened state which causes him to transform into a ‘Werehog’. Eggman proceeds to launch Sonic into space with the Chaos Emeralds. Sonic crash lands face-first into the Earth right on top of a little flying imp. He lost his memories because of this and because Sonic thinks that the loss of memories was his fault, decides to help the little imp (which he calls ‘Chip) find his memories.
The set-up here is simple but one thing shines bright here; the characterization. Sonic is perfect here as he jokes around at the right moments but the game has him acting serious more than I expected. When Sonic needs to crack a joke, have a serious conversation and show other emotions, he is allowed to do those things. These elements are done naturally through a well-written narrative with Sonic as the main focus. It is his adventure. Sonic Team knew they wanted to give Sonic his own story again and they do just that with Unleashed.
His interactions with Tails feel organic, new characters Professor Pickle add a lot of character to the story and his new partner Chip has strong character development. Eggman shines bright in this story, as many times while Sonic is off saving the world, we cut to Eggman talking with a robot and this leads to some charming moments of the good doctor.
Chip himself is a sudo-replacement for Tails in this game but I feel this works as Chip is well characterized. His voice can get grating at points but his character arc is enjoyable to follow and one moment near the end of the game I felt nailed his connection to Sonic. It was an effective moment and one I felt added to the overall story.
While I am surprised to say this, even as fan of the series, but Sonic Unleashed is one of the best stories of the entire franchise. It is the perfect blend between serious and funny, the characters are fully realized and the plot direction while similar to other games (Sonic must save the world from a god-monster) it is done really well here. I loved this story and it is a personal favorite.
Sonic Unleashed feels like Sonic Team trying to refine elements that the series struggled with in the past with some of this refinement greatly helping the game. Sonic must explore different continents around the world and must travel through hub worlds as part of this. Before people start saying they shouldn’t be here, I felt they were done quite well. Sonic’s movement speed is limited and can’t even run; he can only jog across the hub worlds. Sonic can do a little air-dash by jumping and pressing the boost button but still his movement speed it limited to offer more control when exploring in the hubs. Each one is split up into two halves; town hub and entrance stage.
The Town Hub is where Sonic can talk with NPC’s, buy items from shops and take on side missions people ask from him. This is also needed for narrative progression, as you need to talk to a specific NPC every time you restore a continent. I really enjoyed these parts of the game, as they never felt invasive and had the perfect size; they weren’t too big but not too small either.
You then have the Entrance Stage, where Sonic moves at full movement speed and access the different acts. These are fun mini-missions but Sonic’s full speed can sometimes make control a bit of a problem; they weren’t designed for Sonic to speed his way through. They are a nice little thing to do before jumping into levels.
Sonic has two forms and each one has a leveling up system. You earn EXP Orbs from eating food, destroying enemies and smashing objects. They can help Sonic level up his base form (top speed and boost meter) and his Werehog form (mirroring action games like God of War or Devil May Cry offering you upgrades to combos, attack power and more). But I cannot talk about Unleashed’s gameplay before mentioning one of my major criticisms of the games; the sun and moon metals. These are the ‘power stars’ of the title, where you collect them to ‘level up’ a special meter. Once they hit a specific level, you can play more stages. This is a level-progression blocker, as by the end of the game if you didn’t get enough of them, you have to backtrack through completed levels.
This is a problem, as they make long levels even more annoying to go though. If they functioned like the Wii/PS2 version where they only unlocked special side acts/missions to complete, I would welcome there inclusion. But otherwise these are a major problem in Unleashed. Granted I personally didn’t have issues with this, as during my playtime with the game, I was able to collect most of the needed metals and I enjoyed backtracking. So overall, the core design is fine but being forced to replay levels to progress is a major problem that I cannot overlook.
Gameplay – The Werehog
You would think I would discuss Sonic’s day form first but nope, going to tackle the most divisive part of Unleashed; the Werehog. Sonic in this form turns the game into a brawler and one not unlike the God of War series. Through using various melee attacks in a lengthy combo poll, Sonic can bash things with stretchy arms that are quite strong. But this comes at the expensive of his super speed; he cannot run fast as the Werehog.
So levels at night feel similar to the basic 3D platformer. That isn’t much of a problem as the Werehog’s controls feel great and combat is quite enjoyable as you use EXP orbs to unlock moves for Sonic. Sonic can grab foes, chuck objects around and through using a special ‘Unleashed’ mode you can preform even stronger attacks!
I really enjoyed these parts of Unleashed when Sonic focused more on combat and the basic platforming in these levels are okay. They have some odd quarks (lock on system for grabbing polls and handholds) but it is fun to swing around levels. But these stages have major issues sadly that hold them back a bit.
They are quite long, hitting over the half-hour mark and take up an alarming high amount of game content. That is a problem and mirrors issues I have with other Sonic titles like Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic 06 where the main gameplay (speed-focused gameplay) is pushed aside for other gameplay styles. But I personally feel that the Werehog is the most polished secondary gameplay style Sonic has ever had. From the mostly well designed levels blending fun combat system with decent controls, they are far less offensive then most would expect.
But when you play as this style for a large chunk of the game, I can easily see people not enjoying the Werehog. Combat is a problem though, as you are limited with your moves making combat stale fast. You level up to unlock more moves but you should have a more open library of combos to pull off out of the gate.
The Werehog isn’t the worst thing in the world and can be a lot of fun, but it does take up a high amount of gameplay time and due to the nature of the sun/moon metal system, you will spend a long time in these levels for forced exploration.
Gameplay – Day Stages
Sonic is known for running super fast and Sonic Unleashed pushes this further than any other 3D game in the series before it. These stages feel like a greatest hits of abilities and gameplay Sonic has played with since Sonic Adventure, offering one of the most polished main gameplay styles in the series.
The day levels focus on Sonic running at high speeds, with levels designed to tunnel you down linear race-track like designs. But there are special side paths you can take to the stage’s goal ring even faster. Sonic has a large moveset and every button on the control is used in some way. In the PS3 version for example; X is to jump while Circle is to slide or stomp on the ground. Sonic can jump across walls, dash across trails of rings and even run at top speed using his Sonic Boost to charge through objects and robots.
Sonic feels amazing to control and the sense of speed is so rewarding to nail down. Getting through a stage not taking a hit, having over 500 rings and beating it within 4 minutes feels so great. In some ways, you can call this gameplay style less of a platformer and more of an arcade game to a degree. But the level designs still have a lot of platforming.
This is where this style of gameplay crumbles a bit though. Sonic can jump and do basic platforming, but his controls feel heavy and stiff, making moving around harder than it needs to be. Also having the homing attack mapped to the boost button is a problem, as pressing the button when a target icon is on the screen causes you to home-in on the object. But when you lose that target icon, you just air boost instead. That is a problem and makes things needlessly difficult when the homing attack should have been mapped to the X button instead.
Frame rate is another issue I had with these stages, as in two specific zones later in the game, it can go down to the 15 FPS making control even harder to work with. Thankfully you can adjust to this but the frame rate does impact gameplay in some day levels. Most of them are perfectly fine (and even some run close to 60FPS, like Cool Edge Day Act 1 on PS3) but it is a problem.
The interesting thing, is that all of these issues get ironed out as Sonic Team made more titles using this gameplay style. If you read my review on Sonic Generations, you can see the formula birthed here heavily refined. But as it stands within Sonic Unleashed, it is a blast to play many of the day levels and they are some of the best designed Sonic gameplay in the series.
Sonic Unleashed is quite a long game, clocking in at over 10 hours if you just dash through the story but you have a lot of side missions to complete and extra acts which can add another 5 hours. Special Hot Dog Challenges will take a lot of time to complete. The one for the games final zone is quite the challenge to complete.
Fully maxing out the stats for Sonic and his Werehog form will take some time too and finding all the collectibles (movie tapes, records, concept art, sun/moon metals) might take a while as well. Sonic Unleashed even has downloadable content which adds new acts for both forms of Sonic.
The day ones are quite challenging while the night ones benefit from the feedback Sonic Team got post launch (the platforming is fun but the combat might be annoying), so they focus far more on platforming than combat….most of them anyway.
Overall Unleashed is a Sonic game with quite a lot of content to dig your way through.
Games with cartoony visuals shined on HD hardware but Sonic Unleashed is one of the best games of the PS3 and 360 generation visually. Running on the Hedgehog Engine that a former Square Enix employee worked on, the game has outstanding lighting that makes every location feel so alive. Every place Sonic visits on his grand adventure takes real-life inspiration from worldly locations and offers a mostly authentic experience.
Visiting the games version of Italy or China is great, as both locations feel ‘real’ despite a cartoon Hedgehog running around with Pixar-like NPC’s. Speaking of the NPC’s, a lot of care and heart was put into them, as they visually look quite different from one another. Textures are high quality as well, helping every location shine.
Sadly the frame rate of Unleashed is not the most stable. On the Xbox 360, the game runs at a capped 30FPS so while you get drops at some points, it is mostly stable. The PS3 version on the other hand (the one played for this review) is unlocked and tries hard to hit 60 FPS every chance it can get. But this causes the drops to feel worse.
But the music is one of the best parts of Unleashed. Due to the worldly nature of the game, Unleashed forgoes the more rock-heavy nature of the series 3D soundtracks but focuses more on atmospheric pieces and instrumental variety. This leads to the soundtrack not only being diverse but matching the different locations you visit perfectly. I loved running around Rooftop Run with iconic Sonic rock blended with orchestral violins but you also have the streets of Shamar having a funky beat as Sonic walks around the hub area.
One of my favorite tracks was Jungle Joyride Night, as Sonic explores the shores and beaches of the act while haunting music plays that adds a thick layer of atmosphere to the stage. My only complaint with the music is the over-usage of the Werehog battle theme. It sounds great…..but you hear it so many times, you become sick of it.
Overall: 4 out of 5
Sonic Unleashed is a game I personally really love. It has some of the brightest moments in the entire Sonic series through it’s amazing day levels that inspired future titles like Sonic Colors and Generations. Even the games lesser aspects are enjoyable and combined with amazing production values, Unleashed is a very enjoyable game. But the issues the game has with a high focus on the Werehog and some odd design choices drag the game down quality wise. If you want a high quality adventure with some small holes here and there, you will have a great time with Unleashed.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 platform with a copy I physically own. Sonic Unleashed is out now for the Xbox 360 and has unique versions for the Nintendo Wii/PlayStation 2 but those versions are completely different from the PS3/360 versions.