Like many people, we’ve managed to download Sonic Runners early, and while we’re holding off reviewing it until there’s an official release, we’re still playing it in the meantime, so we’ll fill you in on our thoughts as we go.
Even if you don’t play Sonic games yourself, by now, you’re probably intimately familiar with everything wrong with each successive release because people love to analyze what’s wrong with Sonic. They’re too complex, too simple, too serious, too childish, too rushed, too scattershot. They’re mere shadows of the early games. They’re boring and rough and crimes against nostalgia. They take a good idea and run it into the ground.
Sonic Runners is here to right those wrongs. Well, most of them.
While it’s certainly a bummer that the game is riddled with annoying pop-ups and constant grabs for your Facebook account, the core gameplay loop of Runners is surprisingly fun and focused. It strips away all the bloat we’ve come to associate with Sonic games over the years, all the “werehogs” and generational shifts and 3D perspectives. This is a game about going fast, and then, going faster. In fact, there’s not even an option to slow down. If you hit a wall or get caught up on a ledge, even though in most Sonic games that wouldn’t be fatal, in Runners, stopping means instant death.
All you have to worry about in Runners is making sure you’re jumping at the right time. That’s it. That’s the entire crux of your interaction with the game. There are power-ups you can use that will turn you into a golden drill hopping through the ground like a dolphin through water, or a purple UFO as it destroys everything in its path, but as best we can tell after several hours of play, we can’t find an option to choose when they actually deploy — either you pick it up in a level and use it immediately, or you buy one before hopping into a level and it activates automatically right when you start. But beyond those power-ups, you are jumping, or not jumping, and that’s as far as your sense of player agency goes in Sonic Runners. And that’s great.
The game sets up all sorts of interesting and increasingly complex routes for you to go through, and it’s clear that these have all been designed to have a “perfect playthrough.” The enemies, the rings, the little score gems, everything is set up in several branching lines so that if you execute on them perfectly, you will dash and hop and bounce your way to the end with little resistance. It’s the best part of the game. Nailing one of these lines is hugely satisfying, especially because as the game speeds up, if becomes increasingly difficult to manage it all and react in time. You’ll be careening at a breakneck pace directly through enemies, obstacles, and pits like Trinity weaving through oncoming freeway traffic on a motorcycle in The Matrix Reloaded. It’s pretty exhilarating for a game you’re likely playing in the bathroom.
The game is structured in such a way that you’ll have to play its endless mode and reach a specific score threshold before you can unlock story levels and boss showdowns. You’ll speed along for 30 seconds to a minute, then face off in a quick bout against Dr. Eggman, Sonic’s most classic villain. It’s pretty much the exact same fight every time, where he’ll either drop springs to slow you down or fire drill missiles you have to dodge, then when he gets close enough, you jump at him to hit him. It doesn’t really matter how well you do, or even if you don’t hit him at all and he floats past you out of the left side of the screen, because either way he’s going to get away and then the level will speed up and increase in difficulty on your way to face him again. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it would be a lot more interesting if there was actually a way to defeat him and it became a race to stop him before he gets away and you have to fight your way back to him; speeding up would then become a fun punishment for failure.
Score is super important as a result of the story’s progression structure, and the game does a good job adding in the score gems without making them feel like a complicated addition to the existing rings. Rings will keep you alive, so they’re still totally necessary, but they’re also much more rare than score gems, which have different point values assigned to their color and size. Collecting either will increase your combo multiplier, which will reset if you haven’t collected anything in more than a few seconds, so you’ll need to collect both rings and gems to succeed and meet your score threshold. When you’re netting a really high combo, it feels stressful in the same way that it does in a game like Guitar Hero, where you’ll be hitting hundreds of notes perfectly and so worried about missing one and dropping your combo. It’s fantastic.
So Sonic Runners has a very clear gameplay loop you’ll be completing. Each level plays out like that, save for the boss showdowns, which — thus far — have all been against fights against Eggman that simply skip the “level” part. Each of these showdowns has been easy enough that they never last more than 30 seconds or so, which is weird. It takes more time to navigate through the game’s menus and load up the boss fight than it does to complete the fight itself.
But that gameplay loop is also better than anything else Sonic has done in a long time. It’s focused. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s everything Sonic should be and doesn’t layer on any of the crud that’s accumulated in his games for years. It’s not just the best Sonic game in years — a fairly dubious honor — but a fun game in its own right completely worthy of your time when it finally launches worldwide. We still haven’t finished it, though, so expect more coverage of how the rest of the game holds up.