Gotta go mobile.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 7:47 pm on Jul 6, 2015
PLAY THIS IF:
- You’re looking for a decently fun, time-wasting mobile game that happens to star Sonic the Hedgehog.
If you listen to Takashi Iizuka, Sonic Runners is a pretty big deal. Though SEGA’s Hardlight studio has led Sonic to considerable success on phones and tablets, the head of Sonic Team has longed for his studio to give the platform a whirl, and so they finally have. With so many terrible, money-hungry free-to-play games on Apple and Google’s app stores, one would hope that a seasoned development studio like Sonic Team would come in and show everyone else how it’s done. Unfortunately, though Sonic Runners is a lot of fun, it often succumbs to many of the same issues that have dogged mobile games for years, and the overall product suffers as a result.
The game’s core mechanics stem from what happens when you combine an endless runner with traditional 2D Sonic gameplay. Your character automatically runs to the right without end, so all you need to worry about is jumping, avoiding hazards, and grabbing as many collectibles as you can. As you traverse the stages and stomp on enemies, you’ll be collecting yellow rings, red rings, and some new colored gems, all of which contribute to a running combo score if you collect them fast enough. It’s not very complex – jump when you need to and grab everything in sight.
The levels themselves play out at four different speeds separated by brief “boss” encounters; clear a section, collect some rings from Eggman, and the game gets faster. The first two speed grades are almost boring in their simplicity, but the third section dials the difficulty up considerably with more obstacles and less time to react. The final section, appropriately called Top Speed, is where the real challenge sets in – at first, it’s so fast and unforgiving that you’ll likely die within seconds, but it becomes manageable with practice. To help you survive all of this madness, you can pick up various power-ups like invincibility, magnets, and shields as you play with a few Color Powers along for the ride as well; Drill, Laser, and Asteroid can all be used to liven things up and keep your run going.
For what it’s worth, the gameplay itself is really quite fun. Keeping your combo alive proves an addictive goal to chase, and challenging yourself to keep breaking your previous records has its own appeal as well. The mechanics achieve additional depth thanks to unlockable buddies you can activate to garner additional score bonuses and other in-game benefits. Much like in the Genesis platformers of yore, branching pathways offer better goodies on the higher paths and a genuine sense of vulnerability on the lower ones with pits and projectiles galore. Part of the appeal also stems from a clear sense of improvement and progress. Levels are generated semi-randomly with pre-constructed pieces strung together in no particular order, so although the flow of a level may change, you’ll see the same basic building blocks repeatedly. This allows you to start recognizing patterns and improve your play noticeably; the first time you really start to conquer Top Speed is a pretty good feeling. On a side note, these levels are strung together by cute, if meaningless, text-based cutscenes that forward the game’s very light story. Some may well complain about this, but if you really go into Sonic Runners expecting a deep or gripping storyline, I just don’t know what to tell you.
The game can also be surprisingly generous with how much it lets you play. Though the much-hated “ran-out-of-lives-paywall” still exists, completing a mission resets your life count, so if you get used to the game quickly, you can keep playing uninterrupted for a very long time. For me, this resulted in a few staggered play sessions that lasted over an hour apiece, so I essentially played until the game no longer held my attention. It wasn’t until about twenty-five missions in that I started encountering progression issues, and it was also at that point when frustration began to set in.
If you’ll indulge me here, I’ll use this as the jumping-off point to start voicing my complaints. Let’s start with the game’s rough sense of flow. There’s two ways to continue a run if you fail in the middle of it: stop and watch a video ad, or pay five red rings. If you want to make the most out of each run, you’ll need to do both, which interrupts the pace of the game and puts a drain on your resources. Once you exhaust all your revival options, you’ll usually be forced to endure yet another full-screen ad, and sitting through my ninth video for League of Angels or Game of War really only reminded me how genuinely awful most mobile games are. Between these ads and some substantial loading screens, you’ll spend a fair bit of time staring at something that’s not the actual game, and that’s not exactly something I’ll applaud.
Of course, this only happens if you’re able to launch the game at all. Since Runners went worldwide, players have encountered significant performance issues on older devices and Android gadgets of all sorts. Phones less than a year old may experience lag and stuttering, with even newer and very popular phones like the Galaxy S5 and variants of the HTC One suffering from game-breaking setbacks. To be fair, the game ran incredibly smoothly across all my play sessions on my iPhone 6, but clearly that won’t be the case for everyone. This shouldn’t deter you from at least trying to run the game on your device, but take note: your mileage will vary on this one.
At any rate, the game indulges in that nasty habit of locking its coolest collectibles away; you only have a 6% chance to get Classic Sonic off a costly roulette spin, for example. It’s that endless carrot-dangling that often makes free-to-play games insufferable, and though Sonic Runners does this less than most, it’s no less aggravating when it eventually rears its ugly head. In addition, the game straight-up begs you at certain points to spend money or give it some advertising. Buy more lives! Spin that roulette wheel! Share your progress on Facebook! Why, though? Badgering me with pop-ups won’t convince me to tell my friends about your product, but an engaging and consumer-friendly game will; it’s amazing how often companies forget this. There’s also some odd oversights in appropriateness, such as ads featuring Kate Upton naked in a tub or cutscenes where Rouge talks about being all tied up and helpless. SEGA knows kids can play this game, right?
It pains me to find so much fault here, because there’s a really fun and attractive game underneath it all. Though it cribs most of its overall aesthetic from Sonic Lost World, the game’s soft and cartoony presentation feels very natural. Plus, despite some of the music and sound effects coming straight from other games in the franchise, the original soundtrack is simply fantastic; the catchy and energetic tunes sound like something of Sonic’s traditional console offerings, not a mobile game – seriously, they’re really good. When the free-to-play crap steps aside and all the right pieces fall into place, the game really feels like something special, something that Sonic Team should be proud of and we as gamers should embrace. Unfortunately, it puts so many distractions and hurdles between you and the fun that, for some, it simply won’t be fun anymore.
It’s for that reason that I’ll be hard on this game – because it’s so easy to see how great it might have been. If you’re patient and take its shortcomings with a grain of salt, Sonic Runners will likely leave you satisfied for as long as you’re willing to meet it halfway. That said, if all you want to do is play, then its flaws and quirks may get under your skin pretty quickly. Ultimately, though, if your device supports it, I’d suggest that you give the game a chance. It’s free, after all, so you have nothing to lose – and maybe that’s the problem.