Sonic is about the primal joy of speed. Scenery collapses into a blur as the blue hedgehog reaches maximum velocity, pinging across a network of springs and ramps. It’s an endearing experience. Going this fast is fun. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II invites players to surrender to the game’s frenetic level design, to let it wade in the spectacle of going really fast.
A discussion about a Sonic game these days inevitably includes allusions to Sonic’s former glories and recent failings. Sonic 4: Episode 1 was berated by many (including myself) for making the titular character feel sluggish and heavy, for taking the defining element of speed and agility from the series. For a game that promised to be a true sequel to the peerless Sonic 3, it disappointed, and not because the game didn’t pay enough respect to its heritage, but rather because it seemed to forget what makes a Sonic game a Sonic game.
Sonic 4: Episode II doesn’t precisely match its Genesis forefathers in Sonic’s handling, though it comes close and keeps speed at the heart of play. Levels draw a thematic influence from those of Sonic 2, as Episode I drew from Sonic 1. Their construction wisely relies on the character’s momentum, slowing down occasionally but always toeing a satisfying line between speed and light platforming.
If Sonic Generations didn’t spell out Sega’s longing to relive the glory days of old then Sonic 4: Episode I made it obvious. Bosses in the first episode were ripped from past games, as were most of the enemies, and the result was a game masquerading as its aged self. Token aesthetic link aside, Episode II feels like it is its own game. During the setup for one boss battle I thought I was in for another recycled fight. Coyly, Sega pulls the rug out from under my assumption with an entirely new challenge. Sega, it seems, has learned from the mistakes of Episode I.
Sonic 4: Episode II feels like a legitimate advancement. Tails once again joins Sonic’s side and his presence serves a tangible purpose. The duo can perform a dual spin dash to increase velocity further, or they can link and up and fly for a short time. Like Sonic’s homing attack, the addition is integrated naturally into the levels, adding another layer of tactile challenge.
Episode II eschews the first’s bold color for a more subdued palette, a choice that helps underlines Episode II’s positive progression. Color and whimsy is still here in spades, but a layer of polish separates them.
It may not escape the trappings of convention, but Sonic 4: Episode II offers modest innovation for the series without relying too greatly on its inherited strength. The game keeps its own identity. I could ponder over whether the game manages to mimic its retro elders, but this would ultimately be unhelpful. This is a subtle new direction for Sonic: simplistic platforming bolstered with the heady thrill of speed. Blitzing through its colorful backdrops is fun, but as I dash into the credits I find that I’m unsatisfied, that I’m left wanting more. Such is the nature of episodic games. Even by those standards, though, Sonic 4: Episode II feels like a preview for future platforming adventures – a preview with promise and polish.
Review based on Xbox 360 release.