For those that missed the first episode of Sonic 4, this is a 2D platforming game staring everyone's favorite blue hedgehog. The plot is the same as its always been, but with a twist. Dr. Robotnik, the evil antagonist of most every Sonic game has now teamed up with Metal Sonic! The dude with 90s attitude isn't alone though, he now has Tails to go with him. With Tails, come new mechanics, such as jumping into the air, and calling Tails to lift Sonic like a helicopter. If you're on the ground and use the tag button, it summons Tails to combine the two for a super fast attack. If you need to use the helicopter ability, the game will have a little billboard to tell you. This game feels more a kin to the Game Boy Advance games than the original Genesis games which the first episode clearly drew inspiration from.
In Episode 2, you have four zones with three acts each followed by a boss fight as a fourth act. Not just that, but later into the four hour game, you unlock a playable Metal Sonic with four zones and one act each. These zones use assets from the first episode. So in all, there are 16+ levels for you to master. These levels feel a lot longer than the first episode and the Genesis games as a whole. Some levels feel like six minute marathons with no end in sight.
The levels are big and offer many paths to the exit. You'll have to avoid an array of enemies, spikes, and even death traps. You'll collect rings everywhere and these rings aren't just because dullards love shinny things, but as long as Sonic has at least one ring, he can take another hit. Even if you have 100 rings and get hit, only 30 will spray out of Sonic. When you get hit with no rings, it means death for the fuzzy blue guy. There are plenty of check points in each level if you die. A game over simply means that you'll need to start the level again. If you collect 100 rings in a level, you get an extra life. If you have 50+ rings at the end of the level, a giant ring will appear that will take you to a special bonus stage.
These bonus stages are updated versions of the old Sonic 2 bonus stages. You'll follow Sonic running down a 3D half pipe. You can boost and jump. There are a few check points that need X amount of rings to get past. So as Sonic, you'll solemn down the tube moving left and right, collecting rings and dodging obstacles that will lose you rings. At the end you'll find a chaos emerald.... that somehow isn't green. Whatever. Collect all seven to unlock a yellow Super Sonic.
New to the Sonic 4 series is local co-op and even online co-op, but since the game came out in 2011, good luck trying to find a partner. There are online leader boards for time attacks. It adds to the replayability I guess, but more than that, the game has a red star ring on each level to collect. These rings are either tough to find or tough to get. Its an extra challenge for veterans.Sonic and Metal Sonic play the same. Left and right to move, with a single button to jump. Hold down to duck and hit the jump button to start a spin dash to get momentum to go up slopes. You still need to charge it which takes time. That's why the airborne dart attack is not only a much better way to gain speed instantly, but you can also lock in on targets accurately hit them no matter what the angle. Episode 2 didn't make as much use of the homing attack as the first episode, but it does make travel easier, darting for an enemy or a springboard. The only difference between Metal Sonic and the ordinary version is lack of an ally. No helicoptering around or bowling through enemies.
Calling Tails just feels slow. Tails automatically zips right back to Sonic wherever he is, unless he just died, but it just halts the game to wait. The Sky Fortress kicks off with an airplane mission that has Sonic atop Tail's plane that gives you full control to move the plane left, right, up and down. Complete with Sonic able to jump and attack. Under normal circumstances, I'd think it diversifies gameplay having a plane dodge enemies and twirl through barricades to destroy them. This felt like a slow auto scrolling level (act). There was still a part where the 2D platforming returned, but then it was just back to being on top of a plane. It felt dull, slow and boring. Then having to fight the boss on the plane was unfun.
The real snag that I have for this game is how long and dull the boss battles are. They take traditional, classic boss battles and completely twist them around into mega bosses. See I like the twists and fighting giant bosses, I just don't like how tedious every boss was. Having to damage each boss for three minutes before the final phase of the boss fight left me clueless and dead ate up most of my 4 hours in the game. These 3 minutes on each attempt felt like 10 and I was never in any real danger. It wasn't a challenge surviving the 3 minutes, it was just a delay for the real challenge. At least the game takes full advantage of having Metal Sonic as an enemy. You get three boss fights against him.
The game has other down sides too, like a timed race against sand flooding an area. Sonic needs to go up, breaking through barriers, then down. This would separate the casual players from the hardcore. It ate up two dozen lives and was quite the difficulty spike. Then on the final two levels, when Sonic went down hill or uphill, the entire screen would shift so Sonic wasn't running downhill, he was on a horizontal plane. It was disorienting, and might cause someone motion sickness.
Water areas feel better in this game than they have in the past. Sonic jumps higher and Tails can carry him, so you have more maneuverability. Under water still slows down Sonic and he can't swim. If you're underwater too long, Sonic will need to get oxygen from big air bubbles that drift their way up.
The soundtrack feels Genesis in a good way. Percussion and synth horns. Its all upbeat happy game music. The graphics are bright and vibrant. There is a good color pallet here. A dusty yellow castle with an aquatic greenish blue moat. A winter wonderland theme park, lit up for a holiday with blue ice water. A metallic sandy red oil rig in a yellow desert. A yellow sky fortress with fans to propel Sonic into the air. Dr. Robotnik's gray and purple metal lair. As each zone progressed, the acts would change their color pallets so you'll see day turn to dusk. It all adds to making each of the three acts feel different. Having Metal Sonic's 4 different zones with 1 act each adds a lot of diversity, even if 3 acts each would have been nicer.
Even with all the bad, its still a good game. Better than most other 2D platforms out there for $15. I enjoyed the first episode better, but it felt like they took the gameplay a step in the right direction. If its on sale, take a risk.