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Sonic Boom Makes Me Want a Real Sonic Metroidvania
That modern Sonic games are so traditionally bad – or so proverbial “Sonic cycle” has reiterated time and again – is no secret to the lovers and haters of Sega’s fastest thing alive. Somewhere, somehow, games like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations kept the hedgehog’s memory alive for me. I held out hope that something would change. As soon as the Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal demo went live on the 3DS eShop, I felt like having little to lose in giving it a shot.
This year, the series seem to be taking a typically curious turn. Of the three stages available to me, the first allowed me to switch between four characters on the fly. It’s a mechanic that’s been done in Sonic games before, though a first for the 2D scape. Unfortunately, that job system can’t help but feel wasted here, though the 2D plane looks quite good in 3D.
The characters feel nearly identical to one another, the singular difference between them being the function the X button takes on when you’re playing them. For Sonic, you can air dash and spin attack. Tails can throw grenades, Knuckles can punch stuff and Sticks (the spitting image of Sonic Rush Adventure’s Marine) throws a boomerang which she can control in the air. Every now and again, the game throws an obstacle at you that you need one of these specific abilities to pass: a barrier, a large pit, a switch. Few of these hurdles are cleverly employed. At the most, the touch-screen might offer a map or a slingshot prompt that amounts to throwing your character over a loading screen.
A blue box that only Sonic can burst through doesn’t add anything to the experience; it just breaks it up and slows it down. Using Knuckles to dig through special dirt or Tails’ ability to ascend directly upwards on gusts of wind is about as engaging. The demo’s most unique character ability amounted to a brief segment where I manipulated Not-Marine’s boomerang to hit a switch, that much I learned.
The oddest thing about Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal by far is how much slower Sonic’s taking it these days. I can accept that he’s fast within the game’s fiction without needing him to prove it in gameplay, just as much that he runs about as fast as his friends when exploring the stage. It’s much harder to accept him moving about this slowly, but I get it. Sonic games have long struggled to negotiate a balance between speed and control, and for Shattered Crystal, speed is entirely given up for precision and method. Perhaps that stupid scarf is causing too much wind resistance?
Another complaint I can make is negligible, if not noteworthy. Tails can’t fly, nor can Knuckles glide, and instead the two just sort of hover about. The only move that seems to lend itself some vertical mobility is Sonic’s upward dash, so why then does Tails even bother to come along, if all he has to offer is the occasional grenade toss? Give the grenades to Sonic and stay home, man.
The stage design fairs similarly in Shattered Crystal. Instead of largely horizontal levels with hills and loops, this game has a sense of verticality and exploration to it. There are even secret items to explore in the shape of eponymous “shattered crystals” tucked away in a small labyrinth of cubby holes, Metroidvania-style. If the final product can have a nice mix of stages of both natures, I’d be able to call it a real Sonic game. Right now, it’s a rather safe platformer that happens to star Sonic, which might not be such a bad thing at all.
That leads me to my largest problem with Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal. None of the characters’ feel necessary for longer than the few seconds it takes to break through their respective obstacle. Maybe they should’ve been given more moves, their own stages, or different play-styles that complement different sections. Perhaps I’ll discover when the full game comes out, they really do.
Of the two other stages, there’s littler of note. One sees Sonic race Sticks across a high-speed race course against the clock, the other an on-rails, ring collect-’o-thon sequence dodging enemies. While the former inspires no new thought, the latter injects some degree of speed into the equation, it doesn’t seem to offer an intensity – or exciting alternative – to the amount of time I spent with scripted quick-time-events.
As a demo, Shattered Crystal seems to slap on a much needed new coat of paint onto the series by all accounts, if not a plain one beneath the surface. However untapped it is, there’s a great deal of diversity, particularly in how decently its explorative platforming melds with its signature Metroid-vania. It’s a wonder how many times I’ll be interested in going through their motions, sound as they may be. Time will have to tell if it Shattered Crystal has its head where it’s heart is.