It's been years in the making; does it satisfy the hardcore audience, or does it just fall flat on its face?
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is the long awaited true sequel to Sonic The Hedgehog 3. It's the game that the "true" fans of this franchise have been waiting for after 16 years of disappointment in the form of cancelled Saturn games, lackluster generation 6 games (hey, some people just didn't like Sonic Adventure 1 and 2) and the godawful piece of shit that is Sonic 06... so why not return the little blue hedgehog to his roots on a console - to be exact, all of the seventh generation consoles (except PC... for some peculiar reason). Does it work? Well, it depends on your perspective; are you an elitist who thinks anything related to Sonic that's released nowadays is terrible, or are you somebody who likes to enjoy themselves while playing video games? As I am in the latter category, I'm able to ignore some of the flaws, and just go in there to have a good time with it, and I'm sure you will, too.
Taking place after Sonic The Hedgehog 3, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 has Sonic exploring the world. Unbeknownst to him, Dr Eggman had survived their last encounter, and he's about to stop Sonic with his older machines. That's about all there is, and that's what I expect out of a Sonic game, especially after the 3D games... seriously, regardless of the quality of gameplay, the stories always end up melodramatic and, well, bad, and it's nice to see them go for something very basic.
If you've played any of the classic Sonic games on the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, you'll have a really good idea of how it plays here. Sonic is able to blaze through levels at supersonic speeds while curling up into a ball and using his spikes to kill Eggman's robots or "Badniks". Dimps also decided to bring in the homing attack from the 3D games, which is quite helpful in reaching some platform and killing airborne enemies at the same time, like killing two birds with one stone.
Unfortunately, that's about it. There are no different shield power ups that you'd have used in Sonic 3, and Knuckles and Tails aren't tagging with Sonic. Many would bemoan this and call it regression, and while I'd certainly agree, it doesn't hurt the game very much. It just lessens the impact a little, mostly because you'd expect there to be shields with different power ups and some assistance, especially via tacked on multiplayer (face it, Sonic 2's co-op multiplayer was pretty tacked on).
Good god, though, level three can just cave itself in for all I care, particularly the second act. Dimps decided to insert some half assed trial and error based portions that, while I admire their attempts at trying to give us some challenge, are more frustrating than anything else. One part has you lighting up some torches, and to proceed, you have to do it in a specific order. This isn't quite as bad as what you'd run into in Sonic Rush where you can't set the level ablaze with furious speeds due to some precision platforming, but given that you're on a timer, and there's a lot of precision jumping to do after that torch puzzle... let's just say that moments like that feel more interruptions than anything else, and wrecks the flow as a result. Thankfully, it's only a few choice bits within the three acts of one level, or I'd be popping blood vessels.
But this leads into a niggling little issue – the difficulty, or lack thereof. Sonic 4 is pretty dang easy. There isn't much that sticks out as a challenge (and if it tries, it's just tedium, the arch enemy of legitimate challenge). The bosses seem just a little too easy now that we have the homing attack on us – guaranteed, you'll have the first boss beaten without getting touched because you can jump up, target it (it targets automatically, don't worry) and go in for the homing attack. Not to mention, all three acts of level two are very, very generous with its free lives. Thankfully, the last boss poses some sort of threat, so at least we can end on some kind of satisfying note.
Then we hit rock bottom – the special stages. Finish an act with 50+ rings, and you'll enter purgatory. In these stages, you'll be spinning against blocks, navigating your way to the flashing crystal blocks to get to one of the seven Chaos Emeralds. You have no control over Sonic himself here; instead, you're controlling the maze, rotating it so that Sonic can move around and get to the Chaos Emerald before he hits the Goal spaces, ejecting him out of the stage with no reward. It might seem like a fun little feature if you're just reading this, but trust me, even when you get used to it, you'll be swearing up a storm trying to get these things!
It sounds like I hate the game so far, but really, it's the little things that bring this game down when looking inside the game. As a whole, this game is good. The level designs are like what you'd find in the Sonic Genesis trilogy (maybe to a fault if you're an old school Sonic fan expecting something different) – a path from left to right with loop-de-loops and a few jumps here and there, along with some vines/ropes to swing across from, and slopes for speed increase/decrease (depending on its direction) unless you're already going a million miles a second.
Despite what I just said, there are some notable differences in design. There are some little shortcuts to look for and take advantage of for speed runs. But, aside from some parts of level three, just about everything you see here has been done before in the Genesis trilogy... and I have to say that it does itself right. Seriously, the level of nostalgia within each of the acts is enough to make any old school Sonic fan gush over it. Your inner old school Sonic fan will be jumping for joy at just about every moment as he/she goes through almost exact remakes of old acts with some tweaks (some good and some bad) to make it all seem new.
It's not just nostalgic; it's also quite fun, just running really fast through levels, with some platforming segments here and there, and some enemies to kill, all just to take down one of Eggman's machines. Standing at 17 acts tall, Sonic 4 isn't all that long of a game, and even with the achievements/trophies (for 360/PS3 players), it's still not going to last long if you're going through mountains of video games at a time (mind you, this is just the first episode in a series that hopefully concludes satisfyingly and ends up being sold as a whole later on), but whatever little time you do spend with it is just... well, you get the picture by now. It just has that family friendly good times atmosphere, with barely any frustrating points (the puzzles... ehh) and a lot to just sit back and enjoy with your controller... remember when games were all about that, instead of that over the top cinematic drivel that plagues the industry today, especially ones requiring you to push buttons during cutscenes (ugh, be right back, giving Resident Evil 4 a hiding)... not that I have anything against that, but it's just when you're playing games like Sonic 4 and have grown up with the classics, you tend to think this way...
The graphics are pretty good. There are a lot of bright and colorful landscapes, even where it's supposed to be dank and dark (level three – the caves), and each of the objects and backgrounds have a great amount of detail present. The characters might look a little jagged, but that's a very minor nitpick that other reviewers make a big deal out of - and besides, they look good, anyway. Crispy clear is the name of the game here, especially with HD support.
As far as the audio goes, ehh, I'm pretty mixed on this. On one hand, there are some sound effects that gives old schoolers quite the nostalgia trip, as they're ripped right out of the Genesis trilogy. That, and the music sounds pretty good. Simplistic by nature, but really nice to listen to regardless. On the other hand, none of it is really catchy or memorable. It just feels more ambient than anything else. Least there's no voice acting to whinge about.
One thing I will admit is that Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is far from the perfect successor to Sonic The Hedgehog 3, but this doesn't stop the game from being good. Whatever flaws are present are minor; they're either nothing to be all hot and bothered about, or they're a one off thing, but none of them truly hurt the game; they just make the good parts seem even better, and make victory more satisfying in the end. Let's all hold hands and pray that Episode 2 is even better...