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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II has less meat than a vegetarian chili dog (review)

Sonic the Hedgehog revs up for a sidescrolling adventure in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II in another attempt to recapture those wonderful days when his games didn’t suck. While last fall’s Sonic Generations took some good strides in helping the spiky rodent reclaim his place among gaming royalty, Episode II feels like a return to the Sonic we got to know during the last 15 years…

…the one that always disappoints us.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Tails doesn’t fail
The most notable difference between Episode II and its predecessor is the return of Tails as your loyal (and strangely immortal) sidekick. Teaming up with Tails can allow you to fly to hard-to-reach places and to save yourself from a deadly fall. You can also use the two-tailed fox to better navigate the game’s annoying underwater levels (seriously, does anyone actually like water stages?) and to perform a sort of super spin dash that can blast through obstacles.

While Tails originally introduced a trend that would eventually drown the series with annoying animal sidekicks, he remains a classic and useful ally. Recent games have reduced his role to an inventor and mechanic who sits on the sidelines, but Episode II returns him to Sonic’s side, where he belongs.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

Better levels
Episode I’s levels were boring retreads of ideas from Sonic’s better days. I mean, seriously guys — we don’t need another casino-themed stage.

Some zones in Episode II still feel too familiar. Sylvania Castle Zone, for instance, is a blatant rip-off (or homage, if you prefer a kinder word) of Sonic 2’s Aquatic Ruin Zone from the Sega Genesis days. But on the whole, the levels this time around are much more interesting and uniquely themed. The second act of White Park Zone, which takes place on a wooden roller coaster, is the biggest standout thanks to branching paths that spring Sonic from background to foreground.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

A cheap imitation
When I played the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, I really didn’t understand what Sega was trying to do. After playing Episode II, I still have no idea. Is this a retro homage to its blue mascot’s awesome past? Well, then it should look like a Genesis game. Remember Mega Man 9? So many people loved it because playing it felt exactly like playing a Mega Man game on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The developers were even smart enough to program in the limitations of the NES, like slowdown and pixel flickering.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

Sonic 4 doesn’t feel like a Genesis game at all. It just makes me wish I were playing one. Sure, the 2D platforming is similar, but the graphics are made out of lifeless polygons instead of rich, vibrant pixels. Sonic and Tails both sport their modern looks, even though Sega just went to great lengths to reintroduce classic Sonic to the masses with Sonic Generations.

The identity crisis doesn’t end there. Sonic has the homing attack that was first introduced in Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. It was a clever way of making fast-paced, 3D platforming possible without falling to your death every other minute. In a 2D game it just makes the experience too easy. But it’s there, so I guess they want Sonic 4 to feel like a newer game? Then why are the sound effects straight out of a 1990s Genesis?

My point is that if Sega wanted to do a proper homage, then it should have tried to make Sonic 4 look, not just play, like an old-school title. If they wanted Sonic 4 to stand on its own as a next-generation sidescroller (like Rayman Origins or New Super Mario Bros. Wii), then it shouldn’t feel like a cheap imitation of the series’ best games.

Metal Sonic
One of Sega’s selling points for Sonic 4: Episode II was the ability to play as Metal Sonic, who fans mostly remember from the much-loved Sonic CD. The Metal Sonic levels unlock if you also own Episode I. As a big fan of Sonic CD, I was really looking forward to seeing how Metal Sonic would control. Well, he controls exactly like Sonic. Exactly.

Once again, Sega steals a page from its old playbook without understanding why it worked in the first place. Remember how locking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 onto Sonic and Knuckles allowed you play as the red echidna in the former? Well, that was cool, not just because we were Knuckles, but because he played differently than Sonic. His gliding and climbing abilities made journeying through all of Sonic 2’s zones just as exciting as it was the first time around.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

When you’re Metal Sonic, you only get to play through a few levels from Episode I with a few lame cutscenes throw in. He doesn’t shoot energy beams or glide over gaps. He’s exactly like Sonic. He even has the stupid homing attack.

Metal Sonic also shows up during the main campaign as Dr. Robotnik’s lackey. How sad it is to see one of the series’ best rivals reduced to a sidekick. There’s no good reason for him to be there other than Sega desperately trying to associate this mediocre affair with the far superior Sonic CD.

The music
The Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games graced gamers’ ears with some of the best tunes of the 16-bit era. I still often find myself humming the themes from Green Hill Zone and Star Light Zone. Those songs have inspired hundreds of remixes and beautiful orchestrations.

So why does the music in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II make me wish for deafness? It’s not just bad; it’s annoying. Seriously, listen to the boss theme from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Classic. I could play that on loop all day. Now listen to the boss theme from Sonic 4: Episode 2. Forget about waterboarding. That’s kiddy stuff. Just tie someone to a chair and force him to listen to that atrocity for a few hours. He’ll bite off his own toes just to make it end.

I wish that song was just a solitary example of lameness, but the whole soundtrack penetrates your eardrums with annoying beeps and bloops. This game is supposed to pay homage to classic Sonic titles, right? Then there’s no excuse for music like this. They couldn’t even properly replicate the distinctive tones of the Genesis sound chip.

The only thing they replicated was crap. Like, if a robot could poop, it would sound like the soundtrack for this game.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

The camera
Yes, folks. The camera in a 2D sidescroller is bad. How is that even possible, you ask? The camera has an annoying habit of zooming in. Now, while this is sometimes a neat effect, it also means you can’t see anything coming ahead of you. You’ve probably heard, but Sonic is kind of fast. So, if you can’t see five feet ahead of where’s he running, you’re going to experience some cheap deaths.

Way too easy
Episode II wants you to beat it. I don’t mean abusively (although I certainly had moments when I wished I could deliver a swift kick to the game’s rear), but it goes to great lengths to make sure you won’t fail. After just a few levels, your extra lives will reach double digits. Most stages don’t require any tricky platforming, and Tails’ flying ability often allows you to bypass the few difficult sections that do exist.

Extra life-saving rings fly at you during boss battles, meaning you could just run through most of their attacks, allow yourself to get hit, and take advantage of your second of invulnerability to hit your target and run into some new rings in the process.

I was able to zip through all four zones in a few hours using only a small percentage of my admittedly limited brain power. Even then, the experience was so easy and mundane that I had to take breaks just so I could find some sort of stimulation to keep myself awake. Yes, I needed to find entertainment before I could finish my “entertainment.”

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

CONCLUSION
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is a frustrating experience for Sonic fans. You can sense the old, creaky bones of what once made the franchise so much fun, but they’re surrounded by chewy, rancid meat. You may experience a few moments of nostalgia when playing through the short campaign, but you’ll really just wish you could bust out your Genesis, dust off your old cartridges, and play a real Sonic game.

Score: 45/100

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was released on May 15, 2012 for the PlayStation 3 and on May 16, 2012 on the Xbox 360. An Xbox 360 copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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