Saturday, November 2, 2013

3DS Review: Sonic Lost World

Sonic is back in his first ever 3D handheld adventure, Sonic Lost World.  Developed by longtime Sonic collaborator Dimps, Sonic Lost World for the 3DS is the handheld companion to the Wii U game of the same name.  It has the same gameplay, visual style, story, and basic level themes as its HD cousin, but all the level layouts themselves are unique to this version, even though many of them make use of similar gimmicks.

Our story this time is that Sonic and Tails have chased Dr. Eggman to a mysterious and Mario Galaxy-esque planet known as the Lost Hex.  Here Dr. Eggman has enslaved the Deadly Six, a group of alien creatures known as Zeti.  Unsurprisingly, the Deadly Six soon turn on Dr. Eggman, so it's up to Sonic to clean up the mess before his world gets drained of all its energy.

The story is pretty inconsequential and told in a style that should feel quite familiar to fans of Sonic Colors and Generations.  The writing does skew a bit toward the darker end of the spectrum this time around, but plenty of bad jokes are peppered throughout, as always.  Instead of relying on text-based cutscenes, as previous handheld Sonic games have, Lost World boasts full motion video pulled directly from the Wii U version.  The video is horribly compressed for some reason and, thanks to several scenes being left out, the story is rather disjointed, but it's still an improvement over previous games.

Sonic Lost World plays like no other Sonic game before it.  Sonic's ability to boost, a series staple in the modern era, is no more and instead Sonic's speed is now controlled by a three tiered system.  By default, Sonic can get up to a brisk jog, good for precision jumping.  By holding the R button Sonic will sprint, allowing more speed but resulting in slippery handling.  Finally, when it's really time to book it, Sonic can unleash a spin dash, allowing him to zoom along the ground at ludicrous speeds.

For the most part Sonic's trademark homing attack still works as it always has, allowing Sonic to home in on targets in the air and defeat badniks more easily.  This time around a couple new mechanics have also been added.  First, by holding the button, Sonic can chain together homing attacks, which sends him careening around the screen hitting targets in rapid succession.  By waiting for the reticule to charge up a bit before attacking, Sonic can also unleash a more powerful homing attack which can take out stronger enemies in fewer hits.  Sonic's double jump also returns from Sonic Colors, as does the bounce attack from Sonic Adventure 2, which allows Sonic to bounce on the ground repeatedly for some added jump height.  Sonic also gains a new kick attack of sorts that can be used to stun hard-to-beat enemies.

And then there's the parkour system.  Sonic no longer grinds to a halt when he hits a wall in Lost World.  Instead, if the wall is in front of him, he'll clamber up it and try to grab onto the ledge above.  If the wall is next to him, he'll start to run along it, allowing him to jump from wall to wall to continue moving.  Sonic can also catch himself if he slips off a ledge and pull himself back up, spin dash on a wall to keep from slipping off, and jump horizontally while climbing to get around corners.

By now, you're probably starting to notice that Sonic's moveset in this game is kind of complicated.  And, indeed, it is quite complicated.  And I haven't even mentioned yet that the Wisps from Sonic Colors also return, each bestowing Sonic with even more abilities and unique controls when activated.  The Blue Blur has a lot of different tricks up his sleeve, many of which are context sensitive, require careful timing, and need to be executed rapidly and precisely to avoid death.  Sonic Lost World is a very technical game.  That's not inherently a bad thing, but it does mean you'll probably be sending Sonic careening off the side of a few cliffs while learning how he controls.  Sonic Lost World is not a game you can just pick up and play, as previous Sonic games have been.  You have learn how to play it, and it'll punish you if you don't.  Once you master the controls the game has a good sense of flow, but it'll probably feel pretty clumsy at first.

The level designs are very much built around Sonic's new moves, consisting of lots of little bits and pieces of level to explore instead of the long linear obstacle courses of previous games.  About two-thirds of the levels are full fledged 3D affairs, but there are also some 2D side-scrolling levels sprinkled in as well.  There's a greater emphasis on careful platforming and puzzle solving than previous games in the series, but most levels still give you enough breathing room to satisfy the "gotta-go-fast" instincts that comes with playing a Sonic game.  Your performance in each level is still ranked with a letter grade to encourage finding quick and efficient routes through each level, but red star rings are also hidden away in discrete locations for those who want to slow down and explore.

When Sonic Lost World works it really works, so it's a shame that not all of the levels are especially well designed.  A number of levels simply go on for too long.  If you're sitting down with the intention of playing Sonic for a good chunk of time long levels are fine, but it's hard to jump in and and speed through a level in this game as later levels tend to be fifteen or twenty minutes long.  Furthermore, a handful of levels in this game are just bad, plain and simple.  Awkward platforming, lots of death traps, half baked gimmicks, and so on.  They just aren't well made.  Though Wisps are well integrated as ways of finding alternate paths and secrets, the levels that are designed exclusively around using them for most of the level tend to be pretty excruciating.  For the most part, the level designs never are bad enough to push Sonic Lost World into frustrating territory, but there are a number of moments throughout the game that'll make you groan.

The worst offenders here are the special stages.  Unlike the Wii U version, Lost World on the 3DS has actual special stages, accessible by completing a level with at least fifty rings, that Sonic can enter to collect the Chaos Emeralds.  In concept, these are some of the coolest special stages in the series.  Sonic is blasting around in outer space (for some reason) and multicolored orbs are strewn about the area, with a Chaos Emerald in the middle.  The goal is to guide Sonic around and snatch up all the orbs to get the emerald.

It's a cool new take on the special stage concept, but it's absolutely ruined by the fact that it forces the player to use gyro controls.  Want Sonic to go up?  You have to hold your 3DS up over your head.  Want him to turn around?  You have to turn around and face the way you want him to move.  There's virtually no way to play the special stages unless you are standing up and have plenty of room to spin around.  Gyro and tilt controls are used sporadically throughout the entire game, but the special stages in particular are by far the worst case of forcing a needlessly cumbersome method of control on the player I've ever seen.

From an audio and visual standpoint, Sonic Lost World fires on all cylinders.  Though the basic and blocky look of the game comes off as rather underwhelming in full HD on the Wii U,  it suits the smaller screen of the 3DS beautifully and actually looks quite good.  This game has a lot of visual polish, much more than previous portable Sonic titles such as Generations or Colors.  It's a very pretty game overall.  The soundtrack is also borrowed straight from the Wii U version, so that means a generous selection of high quality tunes with lots of real instruments throughout.  The music is stylistically very similar to the soundtracks of Unleashed and Colors and, while Lost World doesn't have quite as many earworms as those games did, the music is enjoyable throughout.  Windy Hill's theme in particular seems destined to join the ranks of all time catchiest Sonic level themes.

Finally, it is worth noting that the camera in Sonic Lost World does have a rather nasty habit of swinging around Sonic kind of wildly, as levels often force the player to change directions quickly and frequently.  It's functional but finicky and, with the 3D effect turned on, it's positively nauseating.  This is one game you'll be wanting to play with the depth slider turned all the way down.

So, ultimately, is Sonic Lost World for the 3DS worth playing?  Well, that depends.  Did you enjoy Sonic Adventure 2?  How about Sonic HeroesSonic UnleashedSonic Lost World for the 3DS falls into the same category as those games in that, while it's deeply flawed and has a lot of issues, it gets enough things right to still be an enjoyable game if you find the core gameplay appealing.  You're probably going to die a lot and it won't always feel like it was your fault, but you'll probably still be having enough fun to not get frustrated.

Like many previous Sonic games, Lost World isn't really a good game, but it's flaws aren't quite glaring enough or game breaking enough to classify it as a bad game.  If its more technical control scheme and precision based level design look appealing to you, you'll probably have a lot of fun with it.  If not, it'll probably come off as more of a chore to play.  As Sonic's first foray into 3D gameplay on a handheld console, Sonic Lost World manages to gain a lot of momentum, but it kind of trips over the finish line.