When critiquing a game it’s really important for the reviewer to know the developer’s target audience. Not far into Sonic: Lost World, there comes a scene in which Sonic confronts Eggman for the first time, face to face. After a volley of challenges, verbal threats, and snarky riposts, Sonic lets loose with a seriously scathing insult, flippantly calling Eggman “Baldy McNosehair.” It’s at this moment that I realized I am no longer Sonic Team’s target audience. As Sonic’s original fans grow older it’s not surprising that Sonic Team would seek to court a new generation of gamers. And that’s okay!
Sonic’s following is massive. With one of the widest and most eclectic audiences of any gaming icon, it’s no wonder that feelings about any individual game run the gamut from blissful elation to overzealous rage. If the people at Sonic Team change Sonic’s eye color there’s a chance we’ll riot, and if they keep everything the same there’s an equally good chance… we’ll riot!
Now Sonic Team has released its latest console offering, Sonic: Lost World, a Wii U console exclusive platforming game that sees the titular hero once again battling it out with the nefarious Dr. Eggman, and it seems with this release they don’t give a damn what they change or who gets mad about it! Sure, the main character is blue, and spikey, and fast, but as far as recognizable Sonic tropes that’s about the end of it. The gameplay here is so remarkably different from the last few Sonic games that at times it doesn’t feel like a Sonic game at all, which is both good and bad. Luckily for Sonic Team, it’s mostly good.
Lost World follows the typical Sonic storyline. For the uninitiated (is this possible?), Eggman is a rather inept, psycho-genius scientist bent on controlling the world through the force of his army, which he built up by way of the “robofication” of woodland creatures. Sonic is an anthropomorphic, talking, blue hedgehog who wears red sneakers and can run blisteringly fast. He frowns upon Eggman’s plans and thwarts them at every turn. In Lost World, Eggman has enlisted the help of a mysterious group of miscreants known as the Deadly Six. Things naturally get a bit out of hand, Eggman loses control of the Six, and the Blue Blur is left to save the day.
Aside from the rather generic plot, Lost World strays wildly from the Sonic games of the past. Almost everything here is different, the biggest changes coming in level design and in the way that Sonic is controlled by the player. Here, Sonic doesn’t gather speed like he has in previous games. Instead he walks forward at a leisurely clip when you move the analog stick in any given direction. This is great for controlling him in tight spaces or for precise platforming. When you want Sonic to run you press and hold the ZR button. This takes some getting used to, but given some practice it actually makes for a much more manageable experience. Years ago, when Sonic Team brought their mascot into the world of 3D games they tended to focus solely on going fast, and the lack of control that this pursuit of speed brought was pretty damaging to the overall experience, so it’s good to see the developer’s slowing things down a bit.
Continuing the changes, Lost World uses a stage selection system that’s far removed from previous Sonic games. Featuring a 3D hub similar to many other platformers, stages are selected via an overworld that the main character freely explores. An interesting touch is that as special red coins are gained and certain numbers of animals are saved in each zone different events and mini-games begin to populate the overworld. These minigames try to use the Wii U controller’s touch screen as much as they can, and do a good job overall. Additionally, Omochao pops up randomly to administer quests, essentially asking you to fulfill certain requirements such as collecting 1,000 rings, or earning a bunch of power ups. Admittedly these bits are just a small part of the overall game, but they do a great job of fleshing out the overworld and allowing diversionary breaks between full-blown zones.
Level design creates another big departure from previous Sonic games. Instead of the classic 2D sidescrolling of the Genesis games or the semi-classic 3D speedruns of the Dreamcast, Lost World favors stages that are almost Mario-like in their structure. Obstacles and enemies meander about on spherical platforms connected by springboards, loops, and floating platforms. At times the perspective changes to a more traditional 2D view, but Sonic’s new moves, such as wall-running and triple-bounce, are different enough to keep things feeling fresh and unfamiliar. Interesting and challenging physics-based mechanisms make you really work at traversing certain areas, and these are interspersed with speedier segments of spring-jumping, wall-running and enemy linking. The game is decidedly not as quick as previous Sonic games, where adrenaline, reflexes and straight-ahead speed was the name of the game.
The new gameplay is a bit jarring and can be off-putting in the first few stages. At first, I found myself thinking, “If Sonic is supposed to be the fastest thing alive, why’s he so slow?” But then about halfway through the game something pretty radical happened. I was controlling Sonic as he corkscrewed through a giant underground passage as fast as he could run. Maniacal rams charged at him, boulders hurdled back and forth, spikes lurched out from all sides and diabolical bats swooped in from the ceiling. Things got hectic, and I was on the edge of losing control when something crazy happened. I didn’t lose control. I dashed, jumped and attacked all at the right moments. And it hit me. This game is about flow. Like some of the best Sonic games in the past, it’s about picking up speed, finding your route and then nailing that route perfectly. Hitting every spring at exactly the right moment, timing your homing attacks perfectly to not lose momentum and landing precisely where you need to to continue carrying speed. You can play the game at a leisurely pace, or if you’re skillful and don’t blink you can go as fast as you want! It’s certainly interesting, and it keeps those moments of speed feeling unique and rewarding.
Not everything here is foreign. One of the few carryovers from previous Sonic games is the return of the Wisps from Sonic Colors. These little aliens give Sonic special powers at certain points in each act ranging from the well-known Lazer power-up to the new Asteroid power-up, in which Sonic turns into some kind of glowing gravity well, sucking objects into his core like a black hole. It’s a cool effect that really shows off the game’s high-end graphics and great design. It’s not all good though, as controlling Sonic during these power-up moments can be a challenge. A bit too often I found myself plummeting down a few bottomless pits as a result of sloppy or confusing controls. These moments are frustrating, but with practice they become more manageable.
There’s a multiplayer mode consisting of races, in which one player uses the Wii U controller and the other uses the TV with a separate controller, and the typical leaderboards and Miiverse functionality are here as well. These features work fine and seem to neither add nor detract from the experience.
When all is said and done, Sonic: Lost World continues the momentum of the most recent Sonic games and is a fantastic platformer for the Wii U. The plot carries the action well, and cutscenes are rather gorgeous. The graphics are beautiful, creating a brilliant world full of vibrant colors that smack you in the face like a fat man with a swirly-spiral lollipop. The music is lively and atmospheric, and the level design and art style are captivating and charming. The controls are solid but definitely not perfect and could be frustrating for some players. I suspect the target audience buys their videogames with saved up lunch money, so dialogue and characters can be a bit childish. If you’re looking for that classic Sonic experience of yesteryear and aren’t afraid to accept a few new facets and learn some new moves, Sonic: Lost World is a must-buy.