There’s a little blue hedgehog that’s been winning gamers’ hearts for over two decades, and he’s back again in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. We can’t get into Episode II’s pros and cons without touching on how it compares to Episode I, largely because Episode I was a bit of a disappointment for many long-time Sonic fans. When a video game character has a trademark play style that’s been around as long as our little ‘hog hero’s, finding the game’s physics have gone foul is not going to please fans.
If your hedgehog hero-worship is still faltering after Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I’s sluggish, slippery, slo-mo interpretation of Sonic, you’ll be very pleased to hear that Episode II gets it right, along with a substantial improvement in the graphics department with Retina display support. Now that we’ve eased those fears, let’s delve a little more deeply into what makes Episode II great — and what doesn’t.
The premise, as with all Sonic games, is not a backstory that’s going to tax you with either details or realism. Episode II is clearly meant as an homage to Sonic 2, and Sonic is once more facing off against Dr. Eggman, who is accompanied again by the hedgehog’s nemesis, Metal Sonic.
This bad guy tag team is bad news, with another Death Egg in the works, but the good guy has backup as well. Welcome back Sonic’s reliable fox friend, Tails. He provides more than novel window dressing in Episode II; there’s a co-op mode (via Bluetooth), where Tails can be controlled by a second player. Perhaps more importantly, in single player mode Tails plays a vital role in the single-player mode’s game mechanics.
Interface & Functionality
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II has a well-designed control system, which is nicely responsive and works well with the game’s physics to restore some of that breakneck speedy Sonic fans sought and failed to find in Episode I. Of course, a virtual d-pad is not a console controller — but it shouldn’t be.
Touchscreen Sonic controls are a different experience, but not a less addictive one. Solid classic-Sonic physics, plus the additional moves provided by Tails’ teamwork breathe some life into game mechanics that could otherwise feel a little too old school, even for nostalgia addicts.
Design & Performance
As for the game’s structure, Episode II parallels the first episode in Sonic 4 while improving upon its presentation dramatically. There are four zones, each themed in a classic Sonic style, consisting of three stages and a boss battle. The gameplay isn’t necessarily linear — you can choose which order you’d like to tackle the zones, but the boss battle won’t be unlocked for each zone until all three acts within it have been completed.
There’s Sylvania Castle, White Park, Oil Desert, Sky Fortress and the Death Egg Zone, and each has been beautifully rendered by the new graphics engine utilized in this episode. Gorgeous lighting, plenty of detail, and a very satisfying 2.5-D style of animation come together to make one of the most visually pleasing Sonic titles of all time. Episode II plays like a 2D game in the best possible way, but provides a lush 3D aesthetic that gives our 16 bit hero new life.
In another direct homage to Sonic 2, you’ll find your way into bonus half-pipe levels, collecting rings to capture the Chaos Emerald — one of my favorite parts of the game. The variety of environments provided across each of Episode II’s zones is a perfect setting for the Tag Actions that make teaming up with Tails so satisfying. In addition to the flying fox’s helpful classic ‘copter ability, Tails can now make Sonic’s submarining much more enjoyable.
Employing his talented tail like a sub’s propeller, Tails can now “fly” Sonic underwater, but the best new move the duo has to show off is their team spin. Instead of spinning separately, Tails and Sonic can now lock together in one double-trouble tornado of dervish-y delight.
While Episode II gains this gamer’s approval in nearly every way, from its (finally!) Retina-optimized HD deliciousness to fantastic physics, the audio falls flat. It’s almost a parody of 16-bit soundtracks, except instead of trying to design the most catchy, enjoyable 40-second loop possible, the devs chose one that would wear your nerves to shreds. But that’s a small ding against an overall excellent Sonic title, the first in years to do the ‘hog justice.
And if you got Episode I on iOS and felt burned? Pairing it up with Episode II unlocks some extra level goodness in the form of Episode Metal, so it wasn’t a total loss. Final judgment: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is worth the price of admission.