Fans of Sega's iconic hedgehog will likely know of the Sonic Cycle phenomenon; an oft-referenced flow-chart of doom beginning with excitement at the promise of a new Sonic game and ending with dejection when realising that Sega has unquestionably ruined it.
Over the past few years, however, the Sonic Cycle itself has become increasingly irrelevant. Sonic Unleashed was the first glimmer of hope, its horrible werewolf levels not quite bad enough to mask the real potential offered by its 'proper' Sonic stages.
Wii exclusive Sonic Colours delivered a follow-up blow that, while also not perfect, further convinced Sonic fans that maybe things were starting to look up after all. And retro love-in Sonic Generations furthered this feeling with a glorious mix of 2D and 3D Sonic, albeit one lightly seasoned with frame rate issues.
Sonic: Lost World is the latest in Sega's plan to bring the series out of its meteoric 16-Bit shadow, and once again the result is a positive one, though not emphatically so.
The plot is typical tomfoolery. This time Dr Eggman is working in cahoots with the Deadly Six, a new (don't worry) group of nasties who live in a hidden world known as Lost Hex.
Eggman plans to use the powers of these nasty sods in an attempt to control the world, but when Sonic inadvertently messes things up by destroying his control device, the Deadly Six are set free and decide to destroy the universe themselves by extracting all its energy.
This results in an intriguing impromptu alliance of Sonic, Tails and Dr Eggman, as the three reluctantly join forces for the greater good to defeat the Deadly Six. It isn't the first time Sonic and his arch rival have joined forces, as DS title Sonic Chronicles offered similar shenanigans, but given that sold less than a million copies worldwide it's a plot device that will seem new to most Sonic aficionados.
Two things strike the player upon starting Lost World. The first is how stunning it looks - this is undoubtedly the best-looking Sonic game to date - but the second is perhaps even more noteworthy; This is Sonic Galaxy.
It may be the obvious thing to say (not least because it's a comparison that's been bandied about ever since the first gameplay footage of Lost World emerged) but there's just no escaping that moustachioed, overall-wearing elephant in the room. Sonic: Lost World is inspired by Super Mario Galaxy in much the same way as Oasis were inspired by the Beatles.
Sometimes it's subtle - the orchestral soundtrack, the familiar power-ups that emulate mechanics in Mario's Wii adventures (more on those later) - but most of the time it's fairly blatant. Some stages are made up of circular planetoids that are traversed by blasting from one to the other. Another has Sonic roll into a giant ball, gathering rings as he rolls along an obstacle course, just like in Galaxy's Rolling Green Galaxy stage. Then there's the ice stage, complete with an ice-skating and jumping pirouette animation lifted wholesale from the Freezeflame Galaxy.
Still, if you're going to borrow you may as well aim for the stars, and Sega is clearly delivering what its fans want. Levels are bold, colourful affairs with detailed character models. Highlights include a cake-themed stage in which Sonic runs along giant liquorice strips and Oreo cookies.Elsewhere there's the most visually impressive casino-themed stage we've seen in a Sonic game to date, with Tron-style light barriers drawing themselves out in front of you and even a comeback by the pinball table from Sonic 2's Casino Night Zone.
All this takes place with a 60fps frame rate that remains silky smooth for the majority of the time (though the exceptions are extreme, with the frame rate becoming so juddery on one or two occasions that you fear the game will crash).
The audio is wonderful too, offering a wide range of musical styles and catchy tunes for each stage. The diluted punk nonsense from other Sonic 3D games has thankfully been punted (sorry Crush 40 fans, both of you) in favour of orchestral and electronic music that perfectly suits the game's shifts between epic and quirky moments.
It's beautifully presented, then, but this has rarely been an issue with Sonic games. It's the controls that always divide the fanbase, and Lost World will be no less contentious upon its release.
Sonic's standard running speed has been dramatically slowed, to the extent that he'll only run quickly when the player holds down the right trigger. It's clear the introduction of this sprint button was designed to make Sonic more controllable during more fiddly sections, but for a while you'll find yourself under-jumping some gaps because Sonic's run-up is so slow.
Things will click eventually, but be prepared for a couple of frustrating hours as you get used to this new, treacly Sonic. He no longer feels like the floaty light Sonic of the Adventure days: this is a more platform-focused hero with additional weight.
"To say the power-ups are a mixed bag would be generous - if they were a box of chocolates they'd mostly be coffee"
Another bone of contention among Sonic fans, the homing attack, also makes a return in Lost World. In fairness, it's all but necessary in the 3D exploration stages of the game, where accurate jumps are somehow even harder to judge than in previous titles. Considering that players are rewarded at the end of stages for how accurately they jumped at the finish line, it becomes clear the homing attack is essential in day-to-day duties.
The main issue is that it can be temperamental, with Sonic sometimes not locking onto enemies or losing the lock before the jump button is pressed. This wouldn't be a problem were it not for the fact that the command, in a different context, brings Sonic out of his ball and makes him vulnerable to attack. Often you won't blame yourself for mistakes, you'll blame the game, and deservedly so.
Level design is by and large impressive. Most stages have plenty of alternative paths and hidden routes, encouraging multiple playthroughs to gather the five red stars hidden in each stage. The fixed camera can be unreliable at times, but when Sonic is obscured by scenery the player will get a spotlight effect where part of the scenery is cut away so they can see him. This, annoyingly, doesn't always happen.
There are also sign-posting issues in some of the 3D stages, particularly those in which the path to the exit isn't linear. While most will eventually figure out what to do, younger gamers may be frustrated at hitting dead-ends from time to time.
The above complaints are not deal-breakers, merely niggles, albeit ones that happen regularly enough to be noticeable. These concerns all become less of a problem when the game switches to side-scrolling platforming, which it does frequently. Jumps are far easier to judge and the demands on the camera fade away. Even better are the third-person on-rails stages which allow Sonic to bolt across platforms and through cylindrical corridors at blistering pace: this is where the most fun will be had. With more straightforward and less perilous stages, players are encouraged to throw caution to the wind and burst through the levels no matter what lies ahead.
Its minor issues aside, there's only really one major element of Lost World that is mostly detrimental to the gameplay: the Wisps. These little aliens return from Sonic Colours and let Sonic transform into different objects with special powers. To say these are a mixed bag would be generous - if they were a box of chocolates they'd mostly be coffee.
The only real stand-out among these power-ups is the yellow Wisp, which turns Sonic into a drill and lets him burrow through dirt at high speed. The others - transforming Sonic into the likes of a laser beam, a bird, a UFO and a hurricane - range from dull to bordering on the uncontrollable, with most trying to shoehorn in GamePad motion controls and doing so badly.
Mercifully, these are optional and can be completely avoided for the most part. They are needed to get all the game's red stars though, so completists will have to struggle with them at some point.
It should be clear from the above that Sonic's latest adventure doesn't represent a brave new (3D) world, but by no means is it a terrible game. Indeed, when it all comes together, it's arguably the most satisfying of Sonic's modern adventures. There's nothing else out there that manages to capture the thrill of speeding through lush landscapes with hearty orchestral music in the background. Often it manages to press all the right buttons.
It's a shame, then, that there are just too many niggly bits, control flaws and frustrating moments to simply pass off as flukes, meaning Lost World will ultimately go down as merely a good Sonic game rather than the exceptional one it constantly threatens to be.
A notable addition to the Sonic catalogue, but be prepared to turn the air blue from time to time.
- Lush, alluring visuals
- 2D stages remain the highlight
- Impressive audio work
- Frequently frustrating flaws
- Power-ups are a waste of time
- Slower Sonic takes some adjusting to