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Sonic Forces is 3D Sonic Done Weird

I got my hands on Sonic Forces a couple of days ago, and it was pretty eye-opening.  The excitement for this game had built up for a year before giving way to terror, as the game hadn’t seemed to progress beyond what we’d seen an entire year before release.  It released to average reviews, but I thought it looked pretty fun, and I was determined to keep thinking that until I’d at least played it.

I was desperate for Sonic Forces to be good, but for everything I like, it just can’t let me think of it that way.

Every time I see something in Forces i just enjoy, the game takes at least two steps back with the horrific flaws in its gameplay, its blatant lack of polish, lack of ingenuity in stage design, and abundance of pointless deaths.  So let’s break it down like a fraction.

The camera in this game is so zoomed out all the time that sometimes I couldn’t see where I was on-screen.  This is opposite to the problem I had with the original trilogy of Sonic games, but it’s still really rough not knowing where I am spatially.  The modern stages are the closest I’ve seen any Sonic game come to “hold boost to win.” In fact, you could beat the demo with one button, and the rest of the game is not as far off from that as you might hope.  Enemy placements are useless about 70% of the time because most of them are put there to be boosted through.  Even the best modern Sonic levels in the game consisted mostly of timing a series of 5-10 homing attacks or a few rail jumps precisely in 3D.  It also had 2.5D precise platforming sections, which I didn’t mind in other games, but they’re a nightmare in Forces because of its awful momentum.

The player’s momentum causes them to continually speed up when they don’t expect to.  You might be going for a running start for a jump, but then go 0 to 60 and lose all mid-air control.  This will usually result in death, frustration, or being stuck on a worse path through the level that somehow manages to be more boring than the stage already was.

Sonic Forces is a walking identity crisis.  It blends a bunch of Sonic’s mechanics from the past 10 years or so, without giving them much of a proper home in terms of level design.  Modern Sonic himself is meant to be somewhere between Colors and Unleashed in terms of control, but his boost feels less satisfying.  His double jump, which was great for air control in Colors, fails in Forces because of its unrefined momentum.  Boosting is now also tied to Wisp capsules from Colors, which return once again for no reason in greater numbers than ever before.  This hampered my sense of urgency, since most of the time these capsules were placed specifically where I needed to boost.  I always feel the need to go forward as fast as possible in modern stages, but the placement of red rings requires you to explore levels like in Colors, and so the game gives mixed messages.

The Avatar stages are similar, but I do enjoy those for the way they’re laid out.  Using different weapons unlocked through the game gives you access to different Wisps.  These Wisps give you access to different areas or shortcuts in each level, encouraging you to go back and experiment with different routes.  This could be a great feature, although sometimes these different paths overlapped in confusing ways, and it’s not always easy to tell which Wisps you’re allowed to use.  The Avatar’s weapons are often jittery, unsatisfying, and sometimes downright confusing (like the drill), and the inclusion of Wisps sometimes annoys me because the Wisps used to be very situational, but now work in such short bursts that I find myself having to constantly re-grab capsules to get the necessary items.  Avatars also have different abilities depending on speed.  For example, birds can double jump to get more height or distance.  But the same problems arise because Sonic Forces doesn’t give you adequate mid-air control or momentum.  Things like the double jump end up getting you killed or damaged about half the time.  Not to mention the fact that Avatar stages feel so linear and scripted that the game practically plays itself in places.

Speaking of the game playing itself, the classic Sonic levels in this game are some of the most unnecessary and poorly implemented stages I’ve seen since Big the Cat.  Forces ties in explicitly with Mania because they have the same maguffin, so Sonic Team decided to bring the little guy back for a second outing.  Despite being teased from day one, these levels feel like an afterthought.  Whenever classic stages try to be inventive, something about the physics or control hamper them once again to make them feel like a chore.  In the level Iron Fortress, I took over 10 minutes and a number of deaths because of a screen-scrolling segment that required defeating enemies on very small platforms using half-baked platforming physics, as well as hopping between giant spinning wheels that will literally drop you off the stage to your death if the invisible wall catches up.  This pattern of unnecessary frustration due to broken mechanics is common in the few classic Sonic stages, and I didn’t enjoy a single one, with the possible exception of Chemical Plant.

The sound design in Sonic Forces is odd and somewhat disappointing.  In some places the music is catchy and great, but in others like Classic Sonic’s, the music feels generic and low-effort, which doesn’t do much to cover up the gameplay.  And it’s sad, because soundtrack is something Sonic has always done well.  Sound effects don’t feel as punchy either.  I found myself really missing the satisfying thunderclap of Sonic’s boost.

I don’t really even want to mention the game’s story because it’s so blatantly stupid and the dialogue so insultingly bad that it clearly took no priority.  The only thing I will really criticize is the fact that with all these old characters brought back, and with all of the mission-oriented narratives behind the stages, and with all the cinematic QTEs (which totally need to be there), it would’ve been cool if the characters interacted with the stages.  For example, I would’ve liked a Sonic level where Silver was defeating enemies in the background the whole time, and then helped me get through a normally impassable part of the level.  This would’ve been a creative move.

All this being said, I actually didn’t hate playing Forces that much.

The better stages feel fun to go back and earn S-ranks on, and the game’s mission system gives you tons of new gear to customize your avatar.  While I admit most of it is really ridiculous, some of the equipment is pretty cool and I genuinely had fun decking out my “OC” with the new stuff I got.  The game gets a little better with replays, and some alternate paths make the levels feel deeper and more variable.  A few bosses also stood out as having decent design.  For example, I like some of the fights against Infinite because getting hit by his illusions puts you in a more dangerous situation temporarily, creating a nice push-and-pull.

The game is also drop-dead gorgeous, but this might be a potential short-fall itself.  Despite being the same length as GenerationsForces feels like half a game to me.

If I had to suggest some ways to fix Forces, I’d say its biggest downfall was ambition.  Instead of having 30 short, low-effort stages to accommodate Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, AND the player avatar, I would rather have seen a few longer stages with more focus given on one or two playstyles instead of having three.  It was like they introduced multiple playstyles to generate hype, but forgot to deliver on satisfying gameplay in the long run.

Developing ports for Xbox, PS4, Switch, and PC was also a huge ask.  I realize Sonic Team was put between a rock and hard place with the finicky fanbase, but anyone can distinguish between a polished game and an unpolished one, and I think a polished one would’ve fared better.  I think Sonic Team’s method of making modern games has is beginning to fail them.  Its standard of creating huge, detailed 3D backgrounds leads to some really beautiful stages, but gives way to linear gameplay that’s over in 2 minutes.  All that work is wasted on visuals that impress the player for a fleeting moment.

Sega needs to do something, somehow, to make sure that Sonic delivers on the meat of the gameplay.  If you’re going to give the player visual spectacle, it has to be worth it for the gameplay.  This is why Mania is one of the most highly-praised Sonic games of all time.  Granted, it worked with much, much simpler assets, but its simplistic formula gave it room to explore dozens of unusual mechanics.  It also made a smart, tactical use of rings either as a reward for a small mechanical challenge or as a way to indicate secrets or alternate paths.  I think most of us would rather have this than the Forces approach of giant, empty backgrounds and levels overstuffed with hundreds of pointless rings that make the player feel like a speck of dust floating around in a boring vacuum.

I think the Mania is important because despite being a fanmade project, it appealed to a massive audience.  It showed that even with a series as inconsistent as this one, charming visuals, tight level design, consistent gameplay tones, and good pacing win the day.  In a sense, the amount of tropes Mania abandoned gave it room to become something spectacular.  I’ve always admired Sonic as a series because even though it fails constantly, it insists on trying different things.  I still think it should do so, but it needs to be careful about what it invents and what it recycles.  Otherwise it turns out Sonic Forces, a game that tries to please everyone but doesn’t know how.