Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II for Xbox LIVE Arcade

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is SEGA’s attempt to follow up on the first episode by improving the graphics and gameplay it featured while still trying to recapture the same oldschool retro magic of the Genesis titles. But did they succeed? Did they surpass the effort made in Episode I? Or did they manage to fall short of their goals, or even what was accomplished by the first game?

The game, henceforth referred to as “Episode II for short, takes place shortly after the first episode as Sonic and his friend, Tails, take off in their Tornado biplane in pursuit of the evil Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. Little do they know that an old foe from their past, Metal Sonic, has been revived by the scientist and is in hot pursuit.

Throughout the game, you’ll engage in combat with either Eggman or Metal Sonic at different points. These are chiefly boss battles for Eggman, though Metal Sonic will antagonize you at various other points as well. It adds a neat dynamic of “two versus two,” with Sonic and Tails on the other team, though disappointingly, Eggman and Metal Sonic never quite manage to actually utilize teamwork in the same way as our heroes do until the end.

And all the while, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog CD (which I reviewed for RipTen) will notice that the Little Planet from that game appears in the background throughout the game. Clearly, Eggman has some new designs on using it to his evil ends once again.

Gameplay is very much like what it was in Sonic 4: Episode I, a 2D sidescrolling platformer where you race through various themed levels at high speeds in order to make it to the end of each level. The physics have been improved over the preceding episode, and while they aren’t quite a 1:1 match with the Genesis games, they feel more like they should, with fewer instances of oddball physics rearing their ugly head.

This time, however, there are some new additions to mix things up. Specifically, Sonic and Tails have three team-up maneuvers they can pull off… that is, once you reach the points where you’re instructed in how to use them. These include the classic “Tails helicopter” move, in which Tails carries Sonic while he flies (though only good for about six taps of the button); a swimming maneuver with no such limitation, though you’ll still have to find oxygen-replenishing bubbles; and a rolling move, where Sonic and Tails form one big wrecking ball of destruction which is far more powerful than an attack from either character alone.

There have been some complaints that these maneuvers are only useful in designated areas, each marked by a sign telling you which move to use, but I did not find this to be the case at all. While those are perhaps the only mandatory use of the moves, you can use them anywhere you wish, and they can be useful for exploring, too.

The levels you go through consist of four main zones (three acts each, plus a boss act), plus the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 halfpipe-inspired Special Stages (again) and the final zone. Much as in Episode I, these levels draw inspiration from past Sonic levels, the Genesis ones in particular, but they aren’t as literal pastiches as those were. Rather, most tend to combine different elements of past Sonic zones in different ways. For example, the opening Sylvania Castle Zone is like a blend of the Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic 2 and the Marble Garden Zone from Sonic 3.

Each level is a joy to play through, and repeatedly, at that. Depending on how you play, it may even be required; in addition to entering giant rings at the end of each level to access the Special Stages for a chance to earn a Chaos Emerald, there is one red ring (like the ones seen in Sonic Generations).

There are admittedly a few “cheap” spots, such as with some ice-forming Badniks in White Park who will block your way, leaving you no choice but to die, but this sort of thing is quite rare, even among the section full of those very enemies. Likewise, exploration can be a bit tricky at times as the stages force you ahead, making backtracking difficult, if not outright impossible at times.

Once you complete the Sylvania Castle Zone, you can choose from two of the remaining zones (White Park and Oil Desert) before you proceed on to the Sky Fortress Zone, and ultimately, the final level (whose name I’m withholding here to avoid spoilers). The downside is that the “Press Y to go to the next level” bit from Episode I has returned, which is a bit of a nuisance when you just want to play all of the acts in a Zone straight through.

Worse still is that if you’re at a point later in the game and want to replay earlier portions, pressing Y to go to the next level (as the onscreen text indicates) instead takes you to the last level you’ve not completed. It’s not a deal breaker, and may even be seen as a minor nitpick, but it’s still a bit irritating when all you want to do is play, rather than keep revisiting the map.

While the Zones themselves are a blast, the same cannot be said for this game’s bosses. Truth be told, most of them make up the low points of the game.

The first boss has a fun little bit of trickery, in that two statues rise from the ground, just as they did in the Aquatic Ruin Zone of Sonic 2. In Episode I, each boss battle was based on one from a previous Sonic game, but with a few twists; here, they lead you into thinking it will be more of the same before Eggman’s giant Egg Serpentleaf mechanoid comes out of the ground and smashes the statues to pieces.

Indeed, each boss battle here differs from what has come before. Unfortunately, the way they have done so feels like the developers said “oh yeah?” to the response to their remixed fights from Episode I, making you wish for more of the same.

In previous 2D Sonic titles, mainly the Genesis ones, you could have a lot of fun as Sonic and Tails would never stop moving. As a result, you could not only attack Eggman as he prepared for the battle, but also attack him repeatedly; a skilled player could even take him out in no time at all.

Instead, Episode II‘s bosses seem to be all about theatrics, rather than gameplay. There are times when Sonic and Tails can’t even move as the battle gets under way, and you can’t hit Eggman or Metal Sonic repeatedly; each one sets up a reaction, and they’ll do their thing while you basically wait for the cycle to reset and you can attack again. And if you miss your opening during their cycle, then you have to wait even longer before you can attack.

The first two bosses in Sylvania Castle and White Park are okay, but it just gets worse and worse from there. In fact, I haven’t even beaten the final boss of the game, as it was more frustrating than fun and more theatrics than gameplay. When you can’t even collect the rings that have just been knocked out of you because the boss has to perform his little song and dance, that’s when you know there’s a problem. And there are even points where you can’t move at all– being unable to move Sonic at any time (traps notwithstanding) is a big no-no.

If all of that wasn’t enough, the fights just take forever to do as a result. Worse still, they don’t mind throwing new elements at you mid-battle, elements which can be difficult to figure out at first glance, thus leading you to endure the whole frustrating affair once more. It’s bad when your bosses feel like they need checkpoints.

And don’t even get me started on the Sky Fortress boss, where you’re on Sonic’s plane and are forced to the left side of the screen, unlike the earlier segment where you could move freely about. That fight was just awful, with your movement hindered and getting hit all but inevitable.

On a related note: I said I didn’t finish the game, but I have read some things about the ending, and it seems that they keep one big plot point unresolved while stating they have no plans for an Episode III. Plus, collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds (which they urge you to do if you complete the game without them all) and/or the red rings reportedly don’t do anything to affect the ending; the Emeralds let you play through the stages as Super Sonic, but the rings apparently have no use at all except to provide a “collect them all” challenge for players (though that does result in an Achievement, at least). Certainly not as much fun as the unlockables they’d… er, unlock in Sonic Generations.

Another feature added to the game is “Episode Metal,” which is unlocked after completing the first Zone if you have both Episode I and Episode II on the same machine. It’s a neat little bonus in which you get to play as Metal Sonic using Episode II physics to go through one reworked act from each zone of Episode I.

In general, its purpose is to tell how Metal Sonic was resurrected, and even cuts to a newly rendered version of the Stardust Speedway Zone from Sonic CD in its opening. From there, Eggman revives him and he sets out across the four zones, discovering a new power source along the way. Sadly, he never actually uses any of these new powers while under the player’s control, only when he’s an enemy in the main game. As it is, he just plays like Sonic.

Overall, it’s not bad, but nothing to get worked up over unless you just really like Metal Sonic. Just don’t expect anything as different as playing as a Knuckles, an Amy Rose, or a Cream the Rabbit.

Another addition over the first episode is two-player co-op. As you might guess, one player controls Sonic and the other controls Tails. Unfortunately, you can’t choose Tails as your main character in the single-player mode, which is too bad. In addition to Tails fans (such as myself) getting a bit of a raw deal, he actually plays a bit differently from Sonic. Where Sonic has his Homing Attack, Tails can fly around instead, and for much longer than he can while carrying Sonic.

Trying this portion out is why this review took so long for me to produce (note to self: next time, just add it later), as it took a while for me to get someone to play it with. But that’s my failing, and not the game’s; while you can play co-op with someone on Xbox LIVE Gold, I don’t have that service, and needed to wait to get someone to play with me locally.

That said… well, it’s an experience. To get the most out of it, you really need two players who are in synch with one-another. As it is, we played and wound up taking different paths a lot, which would draw the player who was “behind” to the “lead” player. This wound up happening a lot, with the other player just sort of following the lead until they pressed a button to join back in. It’s sort of like the bubbles and such you see in New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Rayman Origins, except you wind up in them without meaning to or without dying so much.

On the upside, we did better at Special Stages than I did alone. On the downside, you can’t join in on an in-progress single-player save file. So while I was hoping to see if we could take on the final boss together better than I could alone, we never got that chance, as the game had us start from the very beginning. Suffice to say, after all this time just getting a co-op session going, the epic final showdown never happened.

I’m generally not one to go on and on about the graphics of a game, unless they’re really good or really bad, but I have to say that I absolutely love the art design of this game. The first episode had a sort of plastic-like look to it, trying to emulate the strangeness of the 16-bit games in some way, and it wasn’t bad.

But to me, this just blows it away. Visually, Episode II is one of my favorite games in recent memory, and combined with all the stages which are just plain fun to play through, I find the graphics to be one of this game’s saving graces. Plus, I’ve made no secret of my love for backdrops with nighttime and sunset-type visuals, and this game has plenty of that.

In fact, the Mario fan in me is just a little bit jealous; it almost feels like the old days, with Sonic bringing more elaborate backgrounds than Mario. Hopefully New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Mario Bros. 2 have a few extra tricks up their sleeves.

The music, on the other hand, is where Mario has little to worry about. Episode I seemed to try to go for a “retro” sound with some rather synthesizer-esque tunes, and Episode II does that even more so. Some tunes, such as the boss theme, do return, but others feel like they’re trying just a bit too hard to sound “old.”

The short, repetitive nature of several of the tunes doesn’t help matters much, either. This is especially true when you have to retry bosses or Special Stages.

The fact of the matter is, the Genesis Sonic tunes sounded great despite the limitations of the hardware they were on, not because of it. This seems like this was lost on the developers, however, and while not all of the music is bad, a lot of it fails to surpass even Episode I. And after hearing the remixes of Sonic Generations, that just makes it all the more disappointing.

In the end, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is very middle-of-the-road where recommendations go. It seems for every good point, there’s a bad one, and it almost balances out. That is, depending on what sort of weight you give to different areas. For me, the beautiful graphics and fun stages are enough to make up for the lackluster music and grating boss fights.

Even that has its limits, though, and is perhaps doesn’t make up for the pointlessness of the red rings and Chaos Emeralds (Super Sonic notwithstanding) and the ending which doesn’t even resolve the story when there aren’t even plans for a third episode. Come on, we want Knuckles back!

Then again, maybe they’d rather do that in a Sonic the Hedgehog 5 that answers things instead? If that’s the case, they aren’t saying as much, so people are assuming the worst… hopefully prematurely.

Anyway, I do like Episode II… just not all of it. In fact, as of this writing at 4:06am in the morning, I should be getting to bed. Instead, writing all this has given me the urge to play a bit of the game first. As a result, I have a difficult time outright recommending for or against the game (especially with its price tag), but instead encourage you to weigh the factors discussed here and draw your own conclusion.

Then again, that’s what reviews are for, right?

One final thing: There is one particular downside to the levels, though, specifically the last one. Without giving too much away, the last level features stages which rotate around Sonic, much like the Special Stages of Episode I. As a result, these might be unpleasant or even unbearable for those who tend to experience motion sickness, and is definitely something to consider before purchasing if you don’t handle those things well.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was released for the PlayStation Network, Xbox LIVE Arcade, iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, and Microsoft Windows during a period spanning May 15th to July, 2012, with pricing varying by platform. A review copy of the Xbox LIVE Arcade version (priced at 1,200 Microsoft Points, or $15) was provided by SEGA.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.