Sonic Forces Review

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Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the biggest names in the video game industry. Back in the 90s when SEGA still made consoles, the Blue Blur was a rival to Super Mario. It’s unfortunate that quite a few of his later games were mediocre. Secret Rings, Unleashed, and more recently Boom, all helped to sour the name of Sonic when it came to quality platforming. This year looked to reverse the trend. Sonic Mania, a throwback to classic Sonic side-scrolling, released to positive reviews. Of course, the time was right for a new 3D installment as well. Sonic Forces released this past week and is the first “big” game in awhile. It brought back familiar faces and was to feature a grand storyline. Combine that with fast-paced 3D and 2D gameplay, and we have what should be a platformer resurgence for the franchise. Sadly, the concept of Forces is better than the actual product. It’s a fun game, but lacks in some key areas.

The story begins when Sonic is called in to stop Dr. Eggman once again. The hero races through Green Hill and arrives in the city. Unfortunately, Eggman seems to have recruited Chaos, Zavok, Metal Sonic and Shadow. There’s also a new villain called Infinite working alongside the doctor. Sonic is defeated, and fast forward 6 months, Dr. Eggman has taken over the world. The resistance, led by Knuckles, has to somehow win the day. Though with Sonic seemingly gone, this could get hard.

Let’s discuss the story, arguably one of the game’s primary selling points. The concept of Dr. Eggman finally winning and taking over sounds awesome. The opening scene is filled with tension as Sonic is struck by his old enemies, and also a new powerful villain that Tails says is even faster. After this, the screen goes black with the text, “With Sonic defeated, Eggman’s army quickly took over. Within months, all but a few isolated areas in the world were under their control.” …What? Instead of telling me that happened, show me. The game is incredibly short, only a little over three hours long. This is due in part to the story taking shortcuts. According to the dialogue, Sonic was captured and tortured for months. Once again, don’t tell me, show me. Later in the game, Infinite traps Sonic and the Avatar in “Null Space.” Some time should have been spent in there, but the two heroes escape a few seconds later!

As one can see, the story seems to rush itself for no reason. Back in the early 2000s, the Sonic games had excellent, well-paced stories. Adventure 2 still stands above the rest when it comes to quality storytelling with actual emotion. Forces often lacks that emotional punch (Sonic was tortured for months, but when we find him, he has no bruises and gives no indication that he endured hardship) and has rushed pacing. Also, Sonic’s old enemies returning ended up being a massive disappointment – almost false advertising even. The story is still fun, but it’s a shame to think about what could have been. Infinite gets quality dialogue and is an interesting character. His last scene was anti-climatic sadly; he should have come back and be the true final boss.

The gameplay is another primary reason why one would pick up this game. The main Sonic gameplay uses a refined engine from Sonic Unleashed. This is sometimes a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s fun to blast through levels, but I can’t say there’s quality level design at work here when it comes to the main Sonic’s gameplay. The problem isn’t really in the levels themselves: the problem is the length. Just about every level you can beat in under two minutes. So, it’s hard to enjoy a level because it’s over incredibly quick. Ironically, the boost mechanic ends up almost being a negative, because it speeds up already short levels. (You can almost blast through Mystic Jungle completely with boost.) Why were the levels so short? It’s baffling.

Classic Sonic returns for retro gameplay. Again, the levels are too short. It’s a shame, because there is some quality design here. Iron Fortress late in the game was genuinely challenging, and even featured a nice auto-scrolling section. Just when I’m really enjoying the platforming, the level ends. This could have been better if each level had a second act, but that isn’t the case. There is a third type of gameplay, and that’s the “Avatar’s.” For some reason, Sonic Team thought fans would want to create their own character. To be fair, the Avatar’s gameplay isn’t bad. Personally, I would have rather been playing as Sonic but the Avatar’s levels were solid. (They are also sadly short as well.) The ability to customize Avatar’s weapon is a nice feature.

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Sonic Adventure 2 still features the best platforming of all the 3D Sonic games, and that came out over 15 years ago. The gameplay was fast, but not too fast where you’re zooming through the entire stage. The stages were of great length and memorable. (We all still remember City Escape and Metal Harbor.) You won’t be remembering many, if any, stages in Forces because they’re over before they get really good. Also, the gameplay mechanics didn’t seem very tight at times. Classic Sonic and Avatar in his/her 2D sections seemed loose, thus making some simple jumps seem almost risky.

One consistently strong aspect of the game is the soundtrack. From the heroic ‘Fist Bump’ to the villainous theme of Infinite, the music is one of the best in the franchise. That’s another reason why it’s too bad the levels are short: the music ends along with them. I wanted to keep listening to the amazing ‘Guardian Rock’ and ‘Aqua Road’ songs. The boss battles are solid. The Death Crab battle is well done and intense. It was lazy, however, for the big Infinite battle to be a re-skin of the earlier fight with Metal Sonic.

Overall, Sonic Forces is a missed opportunity for something truly great. I had fun playing through it – the gameplay and music is a pleasure. Some of the levels have thematic quality (the Death Egg robots in the background of Ghost Town is one such example) and surprisingly the Avatar’s gameplay is interesting. Sadly, the levels are too short to enjoy. The game is probably the shortest Sonic 3D game, clocking in at a little over 3 hours, which is criminally short. Even the story is disappointing. There’s some great cutscenes, but too much untapped potential and often lack of emotion to be invested if you don’t care about the characters. One can mock Sonic 06’s romance, but the plot there was engaging and well paced. Forces comes off as a rushed gameplay experience.

6/10

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Thor: Ragnarok Review

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On August of 1962, Journey Into Mystery #83 released on the newsstands. That issue is legendary because, according to the cover, it stars “the most exciting super-hero of all time!” That hero is the mighty Thor. From that issue, Thor would become one of Marvel’s biggest characters, appearing in his own ongoing series and as a founding member of the Avengers. Thor was well known to comic fans, but not very well known with the general public, as with other Marvel characters that weren’t Spider-Man or Hulk. That changed when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, making Iron Man a household name and eventually Thor as well in 2011.

The God of Thunder now joins Iron Man and Captain America with a third film. The Thor films are fun, but not examples of quality storytelling. (I’m still wondering what the thought process was with Erik Selvig in The Dark World.) So it wouldn’t be hard for Ragnarok to pass its predecessors. It goes far beyond that however: Ragnarok is an immensely entertaining film. Director Taika Waititi delivers one of the best Marvel movies to date.

The film opens up with narration from the God of Thunder himself as he’s tied up. It turns out he let himself be captured so he can get to the fire demon known as Surtur. This opening sequence defines the MCU in a nutshell: good fun. That can be a negative thing when taken to the extreme. (That was the case in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.) But Ragnarok rarely takes its lighthearted nature too far. The opening scene felt like something straight out of a comic book. It’s a treat to see Thor do battle with Surtur, the demon’s minions, and eventually a dragon. The story continues when Thor finds out Loki has been impersonating Odin. It turns out Odin is on Earth, and with a little help from Dr. Strange (the entire sequence with Strange was short, but very memorable) the brothers find their father. Sadly, Hela, the Goddess of Death, emerges soon after.

Hela’s arrival was exciting, and that’s mainly thanks to the atmosphere, costume design, and of course Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the character. Hela’s much marketed scene of her breaking Mjolnir was a game changer and cemented her as a menace like no other. Loki calls for a bridge escape and Hela follows, causing things to go out of whack. Thor lands on a planet named Sakaar while Hela looks to take over Asgard.

Let’s talk about Thor’s time at Sakaar, which comprises the middle act of the film. The gladiator setting was unique and had quite a few memorable characters. Valkyrie’s plotline was one of the most engaging. It’s an interesting development when Thor realizes she’s Asgardian, and later when Loki forces her to remember her past of Hela killing her comrades. Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of the Grandmaster has charismatic flare, such as in the scene when he vaporized his own cousin. (As gross as it was, Thor’s reaction was a little hard to believe however.) Finally, Korg was fun, and he thankfully got to appear in the climax.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has come a long way since 2011. In this film he talks about being a hero quite often. I wasn’t sold on Hemsworth in previous films, but here he’s excellent. What’s interesting is that a major part of his development is how he fights without his hammer in the climax. It’s always an interesting concept when a character’s primary weapon is destroyed/taken away. Next, as seen heavily in the marketing, the Hulk is featured as a major character. Mark Ruffalo took on the role starting in The Avengers, where he was excellent. Since then, Marvel has pushed a character arc on Bruce Banner/the Hulk, starting in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hasn’t worked.

Bruce Banner was a man sure of himself and in control of the Hulk in The Avengers. Then for some unexplained reason in the sequel, that development went away and Hulk was back to being uncontrollable. In Ragnarok, Banner isn’t in control when Hulk appears. Hulk’s mind is small compared to Banner’s, and as a result, Hulk comes off as childlike. This leads to some funny scenes, but Hulk isn’t too engaging as a character. (It would have been more interesting to see a Hulk more like from the show Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.) This is not to say the Hulk wasn’t fun to have around. The gladiator battle sequence against Thor was one of the film’s highlights. Bruce Banner also appears, and has a few humorous scenes. But like in Age of Ultron, he isn’t as engaging as his appearance in the first Avengers.

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The Marvel films are typically good, but the antagonists can sometimes be mediocre. Examples include Darren Cross from Ant-Man, Malekith from The Dark World, among others. Hela is one of the Marvel villains that can thankfully be called “great.” As already stated earlier, her emergence is genuinely menacing. Cate Blanchett brings grandeur to her portrayal as she tells Thor and Loki to kneel before their queen. Hela continues to be a highlight, as she arrives in Asgard and begins to take over. Her backstory is fascinating. In fact, it’s so fascinating, that it was a missed opportunity to not show some of it in flashback. This could have been useful in the late middle act. There’s this long stretch with Thor on Sakaar with no scenes of Hela that could have benefited with a flashback showing her time with Odin.

As for other characters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is once again a lot of fun. One never 100% knows which side he’s on. He and Thor work really well together, such as when they team up late in the middle act. Odin doesn’t appear too much, but when he does, one can expect a scene of authority. Viewers learn intriguing backstory about Odin’s past with Hela, giving more dimension to his character. (It’s truly a shame there wasn’t a big flashback sequence.) Skurge goes through a character arc as he becomes the reluctant Executioner for Hela. It’s easy to see what the film was going for, but Scurge never came off as sympathetic or engaging.

One of the best aspects of this film is its pacing. The film never hits a boring moment, which is thanks to the excellent action and fun characters. From the opening sequence to the showdown with Hela, the film has quite a few exciting action pieces. I’ve already mentioned Hulk versus Thor in the ring, but it deserves a second shout out for being a particularly fun sequence. The soundtrack is Marvel’s strongest since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok’s music is stylistic and makes excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies to date. It never slows down and the storyline is engaging. This is thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela. The Goddess of Death commands the scene every time she’s on screen. Thor is also great. His mission is to get back to Asgard, but he’s stranded on an unknown planet. This makes for an interesting middle act. Hulk is a fun inclusion that never steals the show away from the title character. As a whole, most of the characters bring something to the table. Ragnarok is an exciting film.

9/10