It's been nearly two years since Sonic Boom hit the Wii U and 3DS - although that probably hasn't been long enough to erase the pain from many a Sonic fan's mind. While at one time, the speedy blue hedgehog may have been one of gaming's most famous mascots, the poor guy just doesn't seem to be able to catch a break as of late, with both Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal bombing so badly they almost took the hedgehog with it.
Never ones to give in without a fight, SEGA and Nintendo seemingly decided that salvaging the reputation of one of the most famous characters in the world was worth another try, and tapped the developers of the last 3DS Sonic Boom game, Sanzaru Games - also known for the amazing Mystery Case Files: The Malgrave Incident and PS Vita adventure Secret Agent Clank - to get to work on a new instalment. And it was well worth the effort.
Timed to tie-in with the new season of the Sonic animated series of the same name, Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice is a 2D, side-scrolling platform adventure with a bit of a twist. While most other Sonic games have always been about speed (specifically - about going through each level as quickly as possible), Sonic Boom (ironically) slows things down a lot, to create a game that feels much more like an adventure.
As a great case in point, in Fire and Ice, you're never limited in the ways you can get from A to B. Although levels in Sonic games have always featured multiple paths, the stages found in Fire and Ice are larger, more sprawling, and more crammed full of secrets than those that have come before, creating levels that practically scream replay value, as it's nearly impossible to see everything on your first run through. If you imagine a network of tunnels in a cave - only rather than a cave, you're talking a series of rooms connected using platforms, jumps, springs and corridors - you'd be on the right sort of track. Your goal may be to get from A to B, but with so many branching paths, you have a huge amount of choice about how you get there - and there are secrets at every turn.
There's a choice of five playable characters here, each with their own special ability, which can be used to either open, or reach secret areas. Sonic can dash, to give him an extra burst of speed, whilst his orange fox buddy Tails can not only hover (which comes in very handy), but also wields a bazooka, letting him blow up handily labelled bits of rock. On/off girlfriend Amy whacks things with her giant mallet, handy for levelling the towering stone columns that often block your way; newly musclebound Knuckles not only looks like he can bench press a family car, but can drill underground, letting you access secret areas; while Sticks is the slightly crazy, boomerang flinging jungle girl, who's apparently somehow a badger. Although if you can see the likeness (here's a badger, here's Sticks), let us know...
Like Captain Planet, it's how the character's powers combine that makes the game so good - and in a great move for kids, you can change between the characters at any time, so you can always play as your favourite. Going through the levels, we'd constantly find ourselves spotting something that might lead somewhere - a symbol saying we needed to use a power; a platform that's just out of reach; a spring that doesn't seem to lead anywhere, or a trail of coins that led just off screen, and go off exploring.
As each character's special ability can often be used mid-gameplay, rather than only in special areas, you can find a character that best suits your style of play, too. For beginner players, you'll probably want to stick as Tails, as his hover ability is a real lifesaver when it comes to make some of the trickier jumps. However, perhaps the biggest surprise here is Sticks, whose special power is a boomerang that you can actually steer. Letting you take out distant enemies, or even collect collectibles you can't figure out how to reach, the boomerang may only be fly-able for a limited time, but it's handy while it lasts.
No matter which character you're playing as, though, all can make use of Sonic Boom's main headline ability - the power to switch between being either fire, or ice on the fly. Basically letting you either set your character on fire, or sparkle with ice, this power actually plays a key part in the gameplay, as you'll need to switch between the two to interact with the various water sources you find in the game.
Sometimes, you'll find water in the form of fountains (switch to ice and you can slide down it), but mostly, it'll either provide you with a way to bypass an obstacle - or become the obstacle you have to get past. Thin, horizontal sheets of water can be frozen if you turn to ice, letting you use it as a makeshift platform, while you can melt your way through the larger blocks by switching to fire. Sometimes, you'll have to switch from fire to ice mid-jump, too - if you bounce off a spring and want to go through a block of water, before freezing it and landing on it to turn it into a makeshift platform, you'll have to take off as fire, wait until you pass through its watery form, and then switch back to ice to freeze it.
There are some really nice mini-games here, too. One sees you piloting a submarine around a cave, in a throwback to games like Steel Diver, only here you have to keep tapping the Touch Screen to send out a sonar scan, which shows you where the hidden collectibles you're seeking out lie. Another puts you in a hovercraft, in a race to the finish - you'll need to get to the end in under a certain amount of time, but your path's littered with icebergs and other obstacles.
However, while it may get a lot of things right, Sonic Boom isn't perfect, and it does have a few issues that hold it back. The story here, particularly, is weak at best, and is told through so few cutscenes, it's very hard to follow - something that's even more of a shame when you consider Sonic Colours was actually genuinely funny.
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is the controls. Sonic Boom makes use of every single button on your 3DS - and as you might guess, that leads to a control scheme that can often become that little bit too confusing in the heat of the moment. With L and R used for switching between fire and ice, Y letting your character run, and X (as Sonic) performing a dash, you'll sometimes have to twist your fingers into a veritable pretzel to make the trickiest jumps. It's really not that easy having to hold Y to run, pressing A (while holding Y so you don't lose any speed) to jump, switching between fire and ice in mid air to pass through an obstacle, before finally making a last second dash to a distant platform. The silly thing is, if the game would auto-run, but let you hold Y to walk, it'd be a lot easier.
Still, despite its few flaws, there's a heck of a lot of stuff to like here. It may not be as fast paced as previous Sonic games, but that certainly doesn't make it any less fun - and with an array of powers, great, sprawling levels full of collectibles to be found and secret passages to be discovered, this is a game you'll want to keep coming back to - even if it is a little bit on the short side. Either way, this is the best Sonic platformer since Sonic Colours hit the Wii, and a game that salvages the Sonic Boom series.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS