Sonic Gloom: The quiet disaster of Sonic Forces
As I escape from the city for what must be the 10th time, various woodland creatures yammer in my ear about nonsense. There’s a war going on out there, says Knuckles, an echidna who loves to fight and dig for treasure. I believe this, not just because explosions occasionally rattle the gilded corridors that make up the thirty-odd levels of Sonic Forces, but because I like Knuckles. I like Tails, too, and Shadow, and Rouge the Bat, and the host of other animal-ballast that Sonic has managed to accumulate as he rolled down the hill over the past 20 years. But even though I grew up with the likes of Charmy the Bee, I can’t say I’m too happy to see him, because the people who designed him can’t seem to figure out what the hell they’re doing with him, or Knuckles, or anybody else in the grand Sonicverse.
But who can blame them? As the bloom of the ‘90s faded and the collective miasma of nostalgia washed over us like the vibrant hues of Green Hill, Mario’s true trump card revealed itself: he could simply put on a different hat and jaunt into the next paradigm, a whole new set of powers at his disposal. For Sonic the Hedgehog, however, the transition to 3D proved to be more trying than his creators could have ever imagined. Faced with a character created by fusing a marketing gimmick with the design impulses of schoolchildren, they were forced to consider a curious dilemma for the first time: just who exactly is Sonic the Hedgehog?
Yet as the decades mounted and the titles piled up -- Adventure, Heroes, Colors; each a spirited stab at a fresh identity and lexicon for the Blue Blur to try on like a fresh pair of Soaps -- it seemed that Sega could find no definitive answer beyond the lure of sheer speed. Though these games found a willing audience - mostly wide-eyed schoolchildren, such as myself - for those who grew up on the Genesis, nothing could quite recapture the simple charms of three jump buttons, with loop-de-loop after loop-de-loop sprawling off into the horizon.
Like 2011’s Generations before it -- one of the better-regarded 3D entries - Forces splits its campaign into several forks in order to please all comers. You have the stocky “Classic Sonic,” stripped down to the Spin Dash and a jump, cast into the two-dimensional fray again by dimensional malfeasance; you have “Modern Sonic,” brash and full of ‘tude, who shimmies between 2D and 3D a little too easily; and, in perhaps the game’s most brazen twist, you have your monstrosity of an “original character,” an Avatar you craft out of clothing and body parts found in the deepest, darkest crevices of Sonic Team’s musty basement.
While playing as the Avatar often feels like you’re working with mechanics that fell out of the oven just a little short of well done, both Sonics at least make for pleasant, if less-than-thrilling fare. Classic Sonic’s levels come across as pale imitations of Sonic Mania’s rejiggered stages, while Modern Sonic’s levels lean heavily on hard-won lessons from 10 years of grappling with 3D cameras, resulting in a series of hyperlinear rat races and grind sequences that leave little room for challenge or player expression beyond tapping the shoulder buttons and mashing boost again and again. Attempting to leave the irresistible orbit of the level’s central path to grab boring collectables usually results in immediate death as the gears gnash together and you miss a scripted spring, or pulley, or rail. Simply put, the game just isn’t equipped to handle the sort of exploration that formed the core of old-school Sonic.
Given Sonic’s two decades of misapplied mechanics, unheeded warnings, and outright hubris, factored in with the above, it’s tempting to call Sonic Forces an unmitigated disaster worthy of neither your time nor your money. But to dismiss Forces in such terms would be too simple, too gracious. Yes, by the once-lofty standards of its parent franchise - especially this year’s excellent throwback Sonic Mania, which perhaps raised the expectations for Forces, much to its detriment - this iteration is entirely less-than-stellar, a threadbare amalgam of half-formed ideas brazenly lifted from developers that have learned the lessons of the past twenty years far better than the likes of Sonic Team.
But, despite its obvious shortcomings, no matter what the legions of haters might say, Forces is far from a terrible game. Its utter mediocrity is instructive, indicative of a hopelessly-divided fanbase -- a fanbase that Sonic Team would rather twist their eponymous hedgehog in knots to please rather than articulating a clear vision for the franchise beyond striking at the depleted veins of nostalgia they’ve been aiming for since 1999.
As an ardent apologist of Sonic Adventure 2 -- at least the parts that were actually recognizable as a Sonic game -- I still find myself half-in-love with the “3D Sonic” aesthetic, the soft, pulsing breakbeats, the too-earnest patter between my beloved bipedal forest creatures, the endless fist-bumps and high-fives for impossible bravery and badassery. Still, once that initial jolt of nostalgia fades away, games like Sonic Forces have nothing left to offer me, other than the hollow memories of what could be. More than anything, Forces is a capitulation to mediocrity, a colossal failure of taste, imagination, and ambition that demonstrates just how little both Sega and Sonic Team have shifted in the twenty-plus years since the Blue Blur’s peak as a cultural icon. And while a generation reared on the likes of Colors and Unleashed may know nothing other than “Boost Sonic,” Sega has pandered a hell of a lot better than this in the past, and the likes of Generations and Mania prove that they can do it again.
As our illustrious heroes’ face-off against the archvillain’s forces in the game’s final moments, we see the Resistance in profile, all dozen or so of them introduced in game after game, each one an attempt to revitalize the franchise’s failing fortunes, some more vigorous than others. Forget Green Hill Zone and the tinkle of rings; to me and a hell of a lot of other people, this extended cast of characters are Sonic the Hedgehog -- Silver and Shadow and Vector and, yes, even Charmy the Bee. For better and for worse, they’re the ridiculous, marble heart of a series that continues steadfast in the face of all possible adversity, the slings and arrows of disdainful critics, disappointing sales figures, and even disgruntled fans. Make no mistake, Sonic will soldier on through the obstacles, rings in hand, too stubborn to quit. Let’s just hope that those who lead him manage to catch up to an industry that’s largely left them in the dust.