Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II
Tails spent his early Genesis days as Sonic’s co-op partner. Dedicated player twos across the world used the sidekick’s flight ability and invincibility to help the hedgehog exact revenge on Dr. Robotnik. Unfortunately, the two-tailed fox was always left choking on Sonic’s dust when things picked up speed, thus 2D Sonic co-op never felt truly balanced. For Sonic 4: Episode II, Sega attempts to create a compelling two-player experience whether you’re controlling Sonic or Tails. Thanks to the characters’ shared vitality and some egregious levels and boss fights, the end result is an awkward mess.
Episode II follows the first installment’s formula closely: Pick from one of three zones, play special stages to earn chaos emeralds, and beat them all to unlock the final stages. This time we’re treated to gorgeous castle ruins, a snowy amusement park, and a desert level filled with oil slicks. While all the Sonic 2-inspired environments look crisp and vivid, the level layouts are riddled with boring, spring-to-spring autopilot stretches and cheap shots from out of the blue. During one underwater segment, robotic enemies create impenetrable ice barriers, imprisoning Sonic and Tails while you watch them drown. The overly zoomed-in view of the action makes avoiding tricky oncoming hazards even more troublesome.
Co-op is available locally and online, but you’ll likely lose any friends you finagle into playing it with you. Episode II fails in its main goal: Make playing as Tails fun. Joining forces to fly to new heights or roll into a gigantic spin dash is rarely a satisfying exercise in discovery. The game flat out tells you when to use special team moves, and tinkering with them outside those instances is a waste of time. In the classic games, players were free to explore the lofty heights of levels for goodies, but the frantic pace of Episode II carts you along on rails to new locations before you can look around.
Trudging through the lackluster levels is bad enough, but the boss battles are the worst in the troubled series’ history. Dr. Robotnik has been beaten so many times that he’s not even trying anymore. Both players share one reserve of rings, and one hit to Sonic or Tails scatters them everywhere. Doubling the chances of getting hit means more lost rings than a jewelry store robbery. In one encounter, Sonic and Tails chase Robotnik’s gigantic scrap-metal robot up a tower while trying to coordinate aerial attacks. The constant barrage of boxes, Tails’ clumsy flying, and Sonic’s inconsistent homing attacks will likely have players reaching for their system’s power button. The rest of the showdowns with Dr. Robotnik and Metal Sonic are just as infuriating.
Ditching the second player and going solo offers brief bouts of playability. Single-handedly coordinating the duo’s flight and rolling abilities makes passing tricky spots less awful, but certainly doesn’t make them a blast. At its best, playing only as Sonic offers glimpses of Episode I’s solid platforming. After a terrible flying segment aboard Tails’ biplane, I had a good time speeding across Robotnik’s flying fortress. Floating on huge turbines and avoiding afterburners reminded me of Sonic 2’s Wing Fortress Zone, but only until it’s interrupted by another horrendous boss fight that makes me question Dr. Robotnik’s Ph.D.
The game also attacks your ears with the worst faux-Genesis musical loops I’ve ever heard. The Sonic series boasts some of the best 16-bit music ever, but Sonic Team is clearly not interested in them. Instead, we get the shortest and most grating loops I’ve heard in recent memory.
Playing Sonic 4: Episode II co-op is like returning to your favorite family vacation destination as an adult and bringing along a friend. You point at the broken attractions and try to convince them how good things used to be, but no amount of nostalgia can change the fact that the powers that be have let your beloved memory deteriorate.
Thanks to the characters’ shared vitality and some egregious levels and boss fights, the end result is an awkward mess.