It all seemed so hopeful to begin with. When Nintendo announced a partnership with SEGA to bring not one, not two, but three exclusive Sonic games to the Wii U, we all hoped this might be the news that could turn the troubled console's fortunes around. Three solid platformers might just have been enough to bring in the audience Nintendo so desperately needs - not to mention plugging the gaps in oft the barren release schedule. As with all best laid plans, however, things haven't quite gone according to plan for the match made in gaming heaven. While the first game in the partnership, Sonic and Mario at the Sochi Winter Olympics was another decent mini game collection, the more traditional platformer Sonic Lost World was a somewhat buggy misstep - and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric does nothing to put things right.
The first Sonic platforming game to be developed by someone other than SEGA's internal Sonic Team, Sonic Boom has been pushed from the start as a "reboot" - a chance to put right the transgressions of Sonic's recent past (which has been marred by buggy releases and less than fantastic games - bar the Wii's Sonic Colours), and start afresh. What that's meant in practice is that we have a slightly slower game this time around, with the most obvious difference being the makeover the Sonic squad have received - Tails now has a pair of steampunk goggles, Sonic's sporting a chic hobo scarf, and Knuckles looks like someone's stuck a bike pump up his backside and tried to inflate him, so ridiculous are his muscles.
Taking a bit of a break from the usual, fast paced Sonic fun, Sonic Boom instead has a slightly gentler pace. Less breakneck platformer with loops and rails, and more slow and steady, adventure/beat 'em up, it's a game that isn't afraid to try something different. As a pleasant change, driven in part by its kind of squad based approach, Sonic Boom comes with support for two player co-op, with one player playing on the TV, and the other using the GamePad as their own private screen. It's a nice touch, even if it does leave the frame rate juddering more than usual - and takes a bit of getting used to, as it doesn't bother telling you to look at the GamePad rather than the TV, leaving you to wonder why the camera keeps "losing you" (because it's not actually tracking you any more).
Telling the story of Lyric, an evil snake (with perhaps the least intimidating name we've ever heard) who just so happens to have a bone to pick with Sonic, the plot in Sonic Boom is a love in of Sonic characters, with Metal Sonic making an appearance in the first few minutes, and perennial bad guy Shadow also showing his evil face. There's robots, time travelling, and side-characters galore - the only problem is, it's all told so incredibly poorly, it's hard to follow, and even harder to care about. It almost feels as though some cutscenes have been cut from the game during development, as characters randomly start talking about things that sound incredibly important, as though they've just happened, even though they haven't actually happened in the game...
Taking advantage of the sort of co-op nature, the game regularly splits the team of four off into groups, where you'll have to take advantage of each character's special abilities, and work together, in order to reach your goal. Knuckles can climb walls that are covered in a strange red gemstone; Amy can balance on pink balance beams; Tails can use his titular tails to hover, and his mechanic skills to deploy tiny robots; and Sonic... Well, Sonic's fast.
Thanks to game's new slower pace, you'll actually get the chance to use these new abilities, too, during the game's (very basic) puzzle sections. Spending less time zipping around courses at the speed of light, and more time flipping switches, climbing walls, and chopping and changing between characters to take advantage of your special moves, the levels are divided into combat, and puzzle sections, with you facing off in an enclosed space against wave after wave of enemies in one room, before moving onto something a bit more exploration based in the next, as you try and figure out what you have to do (and which switches you have to flip) to reach the goal. And it's actually not that bad.
If you're playing in single player, surprisingly, there's a lot you'll be missing out on here, as in these puzzley sections, each character often has their own individual sections. With Knuckles heading one way, and Amy in the other, only to regroup at the end of the section, there's a whole other world for player two to explore - even if it does often teleport you straight to the end if the other player gets there first.
The game's other big "innovation" are known as enerbeams - a kind of special power that lets Sonic and co fire lasers from their wrists, which can be used to grab onto rails, drag enemies in closer, or even simply whirl them around before chucking them off a cliff. While they sound like a pretty cool invention, they're sadly not all that much use, as they're rarely really used in puzzles. It's also often hard to see when you're supposed to use the beams, as the points you grappling points you use them to hook on to are so small. While there is a little picture of a button that pops up when you get near, it too is very small, and sometimes hard to notice.
But while it may do a lot of things differently, the big issue here is that there's nothing Sonic Boom does incredibly well. The gameplay is marred by glitches, awkward jumps, and a general lack of polish that makes everything you do feel awkward. The levels you'll explore seem sparse, with little in the way of variety, yet alone interesting areas to roam, and the writing is, in a word, terrible. Seriously, the amount these characters chunter to each other while you're playing will have you wanting to mute the TV - or shoot the lot of them. Whichever's quickest. It's not even as if they're saying anything useful, either - trying to make your way through one of the game's many maze style puzzles while playing as Tails will see him - repeatedly - talk to himself about how poorly constructed the walls are. Gripping, we're sure. Other such incredibly interesting titbits include young Miles sharing with us his favourite direction - turns out, it's "up". Bleeding edge stuff. We're more of a down and slightly to the left type, ourselves, but hey. Whatever floats your boat.
While it never reaches Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 levels (the disastrous reboot), and there's some fun to be had, it's hard to see Sonic Boom as being anything other than a disappointment. Perhaps it aimed too high, perhaps it was rushed out for Christmas when it wasn't ready, or perhaps Sonic just simply will never work properly in 3D - but for those looking for a must buy Sonic game, the Sonic Cycle continues once more.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U