It's been said you should never judge a book by its cover - and it seems the same is true for a preview demo, too. When we first went hands-on with Sonic Lost World, the latest platforming attempt from the blue hedgehog himself, there was a lot to like in the few levels we played. With a new gimmick (cylindrical levels - kind of like a Sonic take on Mario Galaxy), a few extra features, and a steadier speed for the world's fastest hedgehog, things were looking pretty hopeful for Sonic Lost World. Plus, it was so colourful! Sure, the bad guys may look like they've been based on a five year old's crayon heavy drawing of their family, but it was bright, it was cheerful, and had blue skies in abundance - but sadly, underneath the skin, Sonic trips and stumbles.
Sonic Lost World, a Wii U exclusive, is the biggest game so far revealed as part of a partnership between Nintendo and SEGA, which saw three games become Wii U exclusives. Releasing just before Nintendo's own platforming giant, Super Mario 3D World, and with Nintendo on board as a publisher, Sonic Lost World looked set to be a great second album in the wake of the Wii's Sonic Colours, which finally got a 3D Sonic platformer right. But Lost World seems to take everything Colours taught it, rip it up, and throw it out the window, starting from scratch with a concept that doesn't work as well as it really should.
The biggest new feature here is arguably the new, cylindrical levels, which are, er, better rounded than before (sorry). Rather than giving you a race from A to B across a fairly linear stage, Sonic Lost World turns things on its side, and instead presents levels that take place on a giant cylinder, or a spherical planet, that you can run around the outside of. Forgetting any potential gravity bending scenarios here, the new level shape is an idea that sounds great as a concept, but one that doesn't work as well in practice as you'd hope. Although it does provide more opportunity for exploration, moving left and right even slightly is enough to make the entire level spin around quite rapidly, which can be disorienting to say the least, with floors becoming walls, and Sonic being generally left with a bit of a headache.
To take advantage of the new, more open levels, Sonic's previously blistering speed has been toned down to a more manageable trot, which is a big step in the right direction - but although he's now slower, Sonic still doesn't seem to control as well as he really should. Instead of being slower but smooth, Sonic feels a bit twitchy in response to your fumbling on the analogue stick, and has a tendency to randomly fall off things, as it's still tricky to make minor adjustments to your course. Perhaps more baffling though, is that although SEGA have slowed Sonic down to give more of an emphasis on exploration, giving you chance to smell the daises, as it were - and scout out hidden items, or secret paths - they've then gone and paired it with a time limit.
Timers on levels can be frustrating at the best of times - but Sonic Lost Worlds takes things to another level, as the developers have chosen to actively hide the timer from you. Rather than having the clock on screen at all times, ticking down so you can see how long you've got left, the timer will instead disappear from the screen when you're moving (which is 99% of the time). If you come to a stop, the timer will fade back in - but the only time it'll ever be shown on screen when you're moving otherwise is when it's about to run out. Admittedly, the timer's displayed on the GamePad at all times - but when you're playing a game like Sonic, you never really have chance to look down at a screen that serves practically no purpose. Instead, the only time you'll actually be aware you're running out of time is when it's far too late to do anything about it - leaving you to lose a life for your trouble.
And it's this confusion that lies at the heart of Sonic Lost World, as there are so many contradictions and ideas thrown together, it feels like there hasn't been anywhere near enough time spent making them work. Some levels ditch the cylindrical perspective for a more traditional side on view, which work better, but still have their fair share of bugs, inconsistencies, and problems that mar what should be an enjoyable game. As an example, plenty of levels in the game feature water, but while in some you'll be able to run along/through it, in others you'll just fall straight through it and instantly die.
Few things in the game seem to work, reliably, as they should. The enemies you meet can mostly be defeated by using a homing attack, where you press A to make Sonic leap into the air and curl up into a ball, before the game locks on to as many enemies as it can nearby, leaving you to press A again to crash into them all and smash Robotnik's baddies up. The only problem is, even this is hit and miss. Some enemies take two hits to kill - so the first time you attack them, you'll simply stun them, and be thrown back up into the air again, ready to attack them again on your way down. But it's really hit and miss whether the game will actually let you do what you have to. More often than not, the target lock won't work, and you'll end up landing on the enemy itself, bouncing off and losing all your rings in the process, because you weren't doing a homing attack at the time.
Some levels take a different approach altogether, and see you grinding along rails automatically, switching from track to track to dodge enemies or obstacles as you go - but while this was fairly easy in Sonic Colours, SEGA have actually decided to make this harder for Sonic Lost World, for no real reason. Where you used to be able to flick the stick left or right to instantly transfer between rails, now you're left to jump, and then try to land your hedgehog on a tiny rail as you're whizzing along at a ridiculous speed - which is about as simple as it sounds.
And all of this seems to tie in to a general feeling that the developers have set out to make Sonic Lost World harder, like a "classic" Sonic game, without really being all that sure how to do it. So instead of providing a challenge, the levels have been ramped up through awkwardness and bolted on "features" alone. Some of the "on rails" levels feature doors that will instantly kill you if you touch them, regardless of how many rings you have. Another world sees giant fruit rolling around the level. Some will roll away from you, some will roll towards you, but any of them you touch will make you lose all your rings, regardless of whether you were attacking them, or simply clipped them while jumping. Certain enemies are even indestructible, while the robotic crabs require you to jump, and then press a different button to kick them over rather than homing attack them - but nothing tells you to what you need to do, until after you've gone past the first batch. Sonic's new, much vaunted "free running" ability is a nice nod to making the game more accessible, as it means if you miscalculate a jump, Sonic can run up the wall, grab on, and pull himself up - but it's still rather dodgy, especially, sadly, in the sections that have been designed so you have to use it. There is also a bolted on co-op mode here, which lets a second player control a remote controlled vehicle alongside Sonic, and occasionally drop bombs on enemies - but it's so utterly useless, and incredibly hard to control that you're left wondering whether it was simply added because the next Mario game has full four player co-op, and they didn't want Sonic feeling left out.
In all, Sonic Lost World feels like something of a mish mash too far. Luring you in with its deceptively bright and friendly looks, and surprisingly enjoyable first few levels, it quickly ramps the difficulty up, mixes it in with dodgy controls and more than a few glitches to create a game that it's genuinely hard to enjoy. And after Sonic Colours went so well, that's a hard pill to swallow. For those looking for a platforming fix on the Wii U this Christmas, it looks like it'll be up to Mario to save the day, as Sonic falters once again.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U