It wasn’t too long ago that Sega gave us Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I, a new 2D Sonic game that aped the original Genesis games. It wasn’t amazing, but wasn’t exactly the grand betrayal many made it out to be, either. Nevertheless, it was defecated on by the gaming public for many reasons ranging from the valid to the insane. Sega apparently acknowledged the vitriol and spent a couple of years producing Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II, redoing the graphics, adding a couple of new features, and addressing the myriad of quirks that only added to Sonic 4′s bad reception. The result is a game that neutralizes virtually all of the bullshit that stood out in its predecessor, though on the whole, it carries a tradition that probably still won’t sit well with Sonic purists.
The set-up is about as pure as can be, though: as usual, Dr. Eggman is up to no good, so Sonic, joined this time by trusty pal Tails, dashes through a handful of different worlds to defeat Eggman and Metal Sonic, the sub-antagonist from Sonic CD. Sega’s earlier insistence that Episode II had anything to do with Sonic CD was tenuous at best, as it basically begins and ends with the presence of Metal Sonic, and Episode II’s stages are more a melange of references to Sonic 2 and 3. But that was just marketing, and regardless, those stages look pretty good. Whereas Episode I had a decidedly plastic pre-rendered look to it, Episode II’s stages, like the lush Sylvania Castle or the rolling dunes of the Oil Desert zone, don’t rely on 2D assets and look downright gorgeous at times instead of looking cheap and pasted-in. In that sense, it’s a different game for sure.
Both Sonic 4 games are made by Dimps, who have spent a decade making handheld Sonic games, all of which had stages possessing a sick fascination with humongous bottomless chasms that made speed-happy Sonic games seem more like tortuous platformers on Flash game sites. I’m glad to report that the occurrence of the pits is greatly reduced in Sonic 4 Episode II, and when you do come across them, they don’t stretch over a third of the stage, and they’re properly indicated by big red warning signs (as in Sonic Generations) to inform you that solid ground isn’t below.
One of the biggest points of contention with Sonic 4 Episode I was its physics. Sure, if you just ran and jumped through the stages as best as possible, you wouldn’t run into any wonkiness, but it was at its worst when Sonic was on curves, where he could literally stop in the middle and defy gravity, among other laughable glitches. In Episode II, you’ll have to try extra hard to break it — try as I might, I couldn’t force Sonic to get stuck on a curve, ramp, or other piece of the environment that would be ripe for that sort of thing if it was Episode I, so I’m willing to call the physics problems taken care of, or at best minimized to where it won’t turn the game into a laughing stock.
I did expect plenty of problems getting around, though, thanks to the inclusion of Tails tagging along, but to my pleasant surprise, it wasn’t so bad. Way back in Sonic 2, the AI-controlled Tails was a certified doofus, blindly getting himself killed, and in Special Stages would actually hinder your progress when he collected rings and inevitably hit a spike ball. In Sonic 4 Episode II, Tails is pretty much harmless decoration in single-player. Yeah, you’ll leave him behind often, but he won’t lose your rings for you, not even in the game’s Sonic 2-style Special Stages (hallelujah!). Tails’ actual purpose in the game is to function as an at-will power-up, letting you, as Sonic, immediately summon him to your side to give you a hand by flying to hard-to-reach spots or a powerful spin dash where the two heroes appear to embrace (make your own crass jokes) and zoom along in a wall-busting super move. Basically, Tails is pretty handy in Episode II, but on the other hand, the ability to use the partner powers so quickly and efficiently — a tap of the X button on Xbox 360 — tends to nullify some of the challenge. About to fall to your death? Get Tails to grab you quick enough and you can probably fly back up to the nearest ledge. Want to catch up to a boss so you can get an extra hit in? Again, you can probably fly right up to its weak point or use the super dash to zoom right up to it. Keep in mind that with the game’s co-op multiplayer mode, Tails’ responsibilities rest on the fallible human friends you’ll be playing with.
My biggest problem with Episode II is it’s still too much of a throwback. As mentioned, it’s more of a jumble of elements of Sonic 2 and 3 than something more original and befitting of the name “Sonic the Hedgehog 4.” That’s not to say the stages are all carbon copies, at least not compared to Episode I (though Oil Desert and Eggman’s air carrier are pretty close), but there remains the stigma of the game not feeling like a true improved sequel; only a sequel because they went up one number.
That aside, Sonic 4 Episode II is good enough to make you forget about Episode I. Almost literally, because Episode II just feels even more like half a game in comparison. Regardless of how often you use Tails’ abilities or not, it can be finished in a sitting, and the biggest challenge comes in keeping enough rings to get to the Special Stages and collect Chaos Emeralds, on top of finding special red rings to unlock achievements. Sega has already said they don’t plan to make any more Sonic 4 episodes, which seems like a waste of potential considering Episode II signifies an upswing in quality. But on a certain level, I’m more than glad this whole episode of Sonic’s life ends on a relatively high note.