The Sonic series is built on a foundation of speedy precision platforming. Given that pacing is so crucial to Sonic games, any interruption or poorly considered mechanic has an amplified negative impact that detracts from the overall experience.
Unfortunately, Sonic games often have at least one such hair-pulling moment that makes you want to quit in frustration. The original Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog is great fun up until the Labyrinth Zone, which dunks Sonic underwater for an agonizingly slow series of drowning deaths. Likewise, Sonic Adventure hooked early Dreamcast adopters right up until the introduction of Big the Cat and his fishing mini-game. Despite these sorts of problems, though, many Sonic games have been consistently entertaining enough to make up for their weaker elements.
Sonic: Lost World upholds an unfortunate series tradition by offering a joyful platforming experience that falters in its latter half. Unlike other Sonic games, however, Lost World never fully recovers from its missteps. What starts off as a fresh, fun adventure soon gives way to disappointment as Sonic falls back into his old habits and Sega matches him with ill-fitting gameplay mechanics. Sonic Colors, which many fans regarded as a return to form for the series. While Colors iterated upon established series conventions, Sonic: Lost World takes a different approach with its new Super Mario Galaxy-inspired 3D segments. During these sequences, Sonic races along cylindrical levels, rotating along their axes and springboarding across land, sea, and air to reach faraway checkpoints. These levels are interspersed with enemy battles and simple environmental puzzles that take place atop small planetoids, along with 2D side-scrolling challenges that recall earlier Sonic games.
To accommodate Sonic: Lost World's new approach to level design, Sonic does not move at full speed by default; instead, players must hold the Wii U GamePad's right trigger in order to engage Sonic's trademark run. It's a jarring change for the series, and the run button introduces a learning curve not present in previous Sonic games. The mechanic's necessity becomes apparent, however, as levels favor precision platforming, rather than flat-out speed. Without a skilled touch and conservative use of the run button, Sonic will lose many lives to bottomless pits and deviously placed enemies.
Sonic: Lost World makes a strong first impression. The initial Windy Hill zones are a solid compilation of what makes the Sonic series great, mixing turbo-boosted leaps over yawning chasms with brief but satisfying platforming sequences. The Desert Ruins afterward pair creative level layouts with unique enemies, culminating in an over-the-top trip through a land made entirely out of candy. It's great stuff, and it's bound to evoke fond memories of Sonic's past.
Soon after, Lost World's levels become much more linear and focused on platforming. Players will need to master Sonic's new parkour-inspired moves, which allow him to run along walls and climb vertical surfaces to a limited extent. The wall-climbing ability is especially tough to grasp, and Sonic will slide to his death many times before you get a sense of how far he can run up a surface before falling.
Sonic also has access to a variety of Wisp power-ups, originally introduced in Sonic Colors. Wisps allow Sonic to zip through specific level segments using light-speed dashes and underwater tunnels, among other shortcuts. Some of these powers force you to use the Wii U GamePad's touchscreen for input, breaking the flow of the action and detracting from the sense of speed. The Rhythm Wisp, for instance, pauses the action and demands you look down at the GamePad to tap a sequence of musical notes that are invisible on the television screen. After completing the sequence, the action pauses again, and requires another button press to get Sonic moving again. Rather than feeling like a creative use of the GamePad's capabilities, Wisp abilities and bonus levels essentially turn Nintendo's unique controller into an oversized DS touch screen.
A stage in the Silent Forest zone requires you to complete several precise jumps while controlling a wavering, unstoppable drill (one of the Wisp power-ups). Missing any of these jumps leads to certain death, and the camera is so tightly zoomed in that it makes progress impossible without a generous cache of extra lives. During sequences like these, you'll soon notice that Sonic: Lost World gives you the ability to skip to the next checkpoint after losing several lives to a single obstacle – a welcome addition that nevertheless feels like a clumsy workaround for deep-seated level design issues. Oh, and there's also a stealth section ... in a Sonic game.
Lost World likewise goes overboard with its villains, replacing Sonic's longtime nemesis Dr. Robotnik with a gang of six oddball alien creatures, none of whom are particularly memorable. Even worse, the boss fights themselves frequently conclude abruptly and with little sense of resolution. Most battles consist of dodging a telegraphed attack, then countering with a homing strike. After landing a couple of hits, you'd then expect the boss to adopt a new and more difficult attack pattern, but often the battle simply ends. Few fights outside of the final areas offer any sort of challenge, contrasting the brutal levels leading up to them.
On top of all these problems is the most baffling change of all: Collecting 100 rings no longer grants Sonic an extra life. The only way you'll get extra lives is by finding them and, for all of Lost World's instant-kill traps and bottomless pits, the game is surprisingly stingy with its hand-outs. Without the ability to earn extra lives, there's little incentive for players to explore levels for rings, since they now serve only to increase your score and protect Sonic from a single hit.
Sonic Colors showcased a keen understanding of what made Sonic great, and successfully expanded on the series' formula with the introduction of Wisp power-ups. It's admirable that Sonic: Lost World tries to shift the series in a new direction, and the results meet with limited success, especially in earlier levels. Its gameplay variety is appreciated up to a point, but Sonic: Lost World misses the mark more often than it succeeds, as frustrating level design and unimaginative boss encounters are enough to overshadow its fleeting moments of brilliance.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Wii U version of Sonic: Lost World, provided by Sega.
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