XBLA review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II picks up, naturally, where Episode I left off. Sonic and Tails are still in pursuit of Dr. Robotnik, chasing him across four new zones, each with three stages and one boss fight a piece. Aside from his new mechanical weapons, Robotnik has a surprise in store for the game's heroes - Metal Sonic has been revived, and is eager for revenge.

Whereas Sonic 4: Episode I was intended to be a general throwback to the Genesis-era Sonic games, Episode II pays homage to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and (to a lesser extent) Sonic CD. The inclusion of Tails allows for cooperative online play as well as some new combo attacks. These combos allow Sonic and Tails to avoid giant pits by flying over them and crushing obstacles by spinning forward in a giant wheel attack. The combo attacks are only used every so often, so it doesn't feel like the duo relies too heavily on them. That said, when they are in use it makes the gameplay a bit more dynamic. Sonic 4: Episode II is one of the few instances in recent years where Tails' inclusion actually feels worthwhile.

The look of Episode II is a massive improvement over Episode I. Everything is rendered with 3D models, and there is plenty of detail and color worked into every level. The lighting and water effects are nice, and the level designs feel far more original than in Episode I. The soundtrack isn't exactly full of standout tunes, but does not rank among the series worst either. Many of the songs in-game are repetitive, catchy, but not overly memorable. Metal Sonic's new theme is one of the more enjoyable listens.

The boss fights do well to incorporate the environment in creative and fun ways that present a significant challenge, but never to the degree where you want to pull your hair out in frustration. There is certainly an element of trial-and-error, and old-school Sonic fans will probably be quick to catch on to the strategy for taking down each boss. Still, climbing boxes as Robotnik scales a mineshaft in a crawling mech or looping around rings as you make your way toward a central control pod present memorable boss encounters. In the past, boss fights against Metal Sonic have often been among the best in the entire Sonic the Hedgehog series. Episode II pits Sonic against Metal Sonic three times, and while none of these face-offs are as impressive as the race in Sonic CD or Sonic Generations, they are still pretty well planned out.

There are a very few moments where the game hiccups and the lock-on attack does not seem to want to cooperate. It only happened to me in a few specific points late in the game, but at points where said attack was entirely necessary to advance through a level. For the most part, though, Sonic controls perhaps the best in Episode II when compared to any of the other side-scrolling games in the series, due to both the responsiveness of the Xbox 360 controller and the fluid motions of Sonic's character model.

The bonus stages take on what is essentially the same style they had in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - a race down a track to collect a set number of rings before passing through a checkpoint. It's not the most exciting process in the world, but it's more intuitive and faster-paced than the bonus stage mini-game from Sonic 4: Episode I. The final stage completely does away with the "greatest hits" style of repeating all of the boss fights in rapid succession, and instead has two boss fights - one against against Metal Sonic and the other against Dr. Robotnik. The end of Sonic 4: Episode II is built up well and feels like the climactic conclusion the game deserves.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is not perfect. In the same fashion as Episode I, it only lasts a little over an hour. But nearly everything Episode II manages to do correctly acts as a vast improvement over Episode I. It controls wonderfully, there's a nice variety presented in the gameplay, and the design is far more original than Episode I's copy-and-paste approach. It may still fall short of the legacy of the original two Genesis Sonic games, but Sonic 4: Episode II is a fun trip back to simpler days of side-scrolling action.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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