Let's talk about Sonic's future

SEGA fumbled with Sonic Forces, but it still contains the seeds of a better direction for the series.

I played (and reviewed) Sonic Forces over the weekend, and I found the game to be… well, let's say "checkered." It turned out to be one of those games that starts reasonably well, but becomes slowly and steadily unhinged the longer you play. Minor irritations in the early going double down and become glaring flaws, even as repetition and a lack of fresh ideas settle over the entire thing like a homicidal pillow. It's something of a mercy that you can complete the entire Forces story mode in less than five hours, because it honestly doesn't contain enough ideas to flesh out even that brief space.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm out to dog pile on Forces, because that's hardly the case. I went into my review session with optimistic expectations for how it would turn out. I admittedly haven't played a Sonic game to completion since Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure (both of which I reviewed, loved, and rated highly for the late and lamented 1UP.com), but I've heard good things about several of Sonic Team's recent efforts with their core franchise, especially Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors. I absolutely loved Sonic Team's first Switch release, Puyo Puyo Vs. Tetris. And Sonic Mania is fantastic. By every indication, Sonic Forces should have been a knockout.

Frankly, I'm at a loss to explain how it turned out so poorly, but this definitely isn't the way for Sonic to go. Maybe part of the problem is that I expected something more along the lines of Super Mario Odyssey (which I deliberately avoided invoking in the Sonic Forces review; that rivalry's been flogged long enough to Sonic's detriment, even if it was SEGA's idea in the first place). Odyssey does a great job of taking Mario's early 3D outings and modernizing them, and there's definitely an audience who would love to see Sonic Team to do something similar with a contemporary take on Sonic Adventure. Forces, however, is not that game.

Sonic Forces covers a lot of the same ground as Sonic Mania, literally, but with less panache.

Instead, Forces doubles down on the gotta-go-fast aspect of Sonic, which to me speaks of a fundamental misunderstanding of the series. Sonic may be best-known for breakneck speed, sure. Yet there was always much more to the Genesis games than just screaming through loop-de-loops: Navigating automated platform puzzles, swimming through narrow underground passages, bouncing around vibrant casinos, and even climbing to out-of-the-way places once Knuckles entered the picture. On the rare occasions Forces bothers to explore these more methodical play concepts, it does so through short, optional side missions rather than as part of the main game. 

The core levels consist almost entirely of high-speed dashing with so little interactivity — so little substance to the level design — that sometimes the only difference between the playable sequences and the flashy non-interactive portions of stages is that you can potentially die in the former (if you really try). There's no real enemy A.I. to speak of, and very little variety within the platforming beyond the camera alternating between side-on perspectives and behind-the-character viewpoints. The visuals are cluttered and busy; while I never died due to clever enemy tactics, I lost quite a few lives to confusing foreground/background visual ambiguity.

What really kills me is that Sonic Forces' decision to be little more than a flashy 2D platformer makes it redundant. Sonic Mania already does that, and does it a whole lot better than Forces… despite the lack of dynamic camera programming. While SEGA didn't develop Mania internally, it's an official product that the company green-lit and released as an official Sonic product, and it renders Forces completely moot. Why rehash the same territory? Forces has a more modern look, but it lacks the thoughtfulness and creativity of Mania, so why should anyone bother with it? 

Forces' boring robot enemies are literally just there to stand around and lifelessly give you something to auto-dash into.

This is where I'd hoped Sonic Team would take a similar approach to Nintendo's Mario teams. The Mario franchise does a great job of exploring many different expressions of the platforming concept: You have the strict 2D action of New Super Mario Bros. games at one extreme, the open 3D sandbox of Odyssey at the other, and games like Super Mario 3D World to explore the middle ground. Sonic appears to have gravitated entirely toward 2D in recent years — which, I suppose, could be a case of Sonic Team reacting to the criticism it received for misfires like Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic ’06, and all the other limp 3D games that dragged down the franchise prior to Generations' rejuvenation. The developers seem to have taken away the idea that Sonic can't work in 3D, which I don't think is true; I feel like they just need to focus on making core mechanics work in 3D rather than throwing in nonsense like Sonic turning into a werewolf (well, werehog).

Lackluster as Forces turned out to be — especially in light of Mania — I did find one great element of hope for the series. The "avatar" aspect of the game, which allows players to create their own custom character to play as alongside Sonic, really and truly appears to be the one area in which Sonic Team understands the series' core appeal and what fans want: Namely, to take part in the Sonic universe. Forces' avatar element needed more time in the oven, much like the rest of the game, but it has promise. You can pick one of half a dozen character species to play as, swap around a couple dozen anatomical options, then deck out your character with a wardrobe culled from thousands of pieces. The game's network features allow you to passively share your avatar with others, or to rent theirs for play, reminiscent of the Pawn mechanic in Dragon's Dogma. I loved Pawn-shopping in Dogma, and I enjoyed playing as other people's weirdo Sonic fanfic characters in Forces.

Between the power-of-friendship speech and the self-insertion character, this is possibly the most Sonic-ass thing that ever Sonicked — it's the one thing Forces nails perfectly.

SEGA will surely continue creating new Sonic games — as reactions to my review of the game have demonstrated, the series has an unflaggingly loyal core fanbase — and with those future games, I'd like to see the devs push the "real" (i.e., not-retro) games back in the direction of the ideas they've abandoned. Let Mania sequels provide a vintage baseline to keep the old-school purists happy, and get back to coming up with new ideas for the 3D Sonics. Except replace nonsense like werewolfing and dual-wielding handguns with mechanics that explore the avatar concept. People complained about the emphasis on Sonic's stupid friends when secondary cast members like Big and Rouge were playable, but I suspect the idea of controlling non-Sonic characters would go over better if players' own avatars filled those roles instead. Could the franchise support a game that sidelined Sonic entirely in favor of fan creations? Forces teased the idea, but for all its weirdly grim talk of Sonic maybe being dead and definitely being tortured for months on end, it did very little with the concept, and the avatar has no real agency in the game.

After more than 25 years of Sonic games, there's still genuine appeal to the games and concept. But the only fresh thing to be found in Sonic Forces is its character design and trading system, and that's where I feel the future of the series lies. Put avatars front and center. Build in more active sharing features. Incorporate better social media mechanics. Bench Sonic for a while. Let fans take control. 

Despite what a handful of sullen forumgoers would like to have you believe, I genuinely want to see both SEGA and Sonic succeed — there's a reason a quarter of the podcasts I've produced this year have been glowing retrospectives about SEGA games and music — and for that to happen, I feel like getting the core Sonic games back on track will be a critical step. Granted, between the fan-avatar concept and the fact that fan passion and talent were what made Sonic Mania so great, this might amount to a whole lot of letting the inmates run the asylum. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, though. Sonic Team seems a little lost right now. Sometimes, a fresh perspective is in order.