For a game that was meant to rejuvenate the franchise and usher in a glorious new era for Sonic in the next generation of consoles, the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog game did a rather abysmal job of doing so. The game’s convoluted mess of a story, broken gameplay, and uninteresting presentation only buried the series into its own grave. To many gamers, this was to be the end of the series. However, there was indeed a spark of hope. Slowly but surely, Sonic was trying to dig himself out. To begin pushing him forward was the Wii spinoff Sonic and the Secret Rings. What helped to get him out of the ground was Sonic Unleashed. In comparison with Sonic ’06, this was a major improvement; a game that brought some much needed life into the series. It does have its issues that prevent it from being the absolute masterpiece that would completely revive people’s fate in the series, but in the eyes of this longtime Sonic fan this is still an enjoyable adventure.
Dr. Eggman hatches a scheme to crack Earth open in order to release the ancient entity known as Dark Gaia so that he could use its powers to build his empire. While trying to stop the mad doctor, Sonic gets caught in a trap that has him and the chaos emeralds he had on hand powering up a giant laser used to crack the planet open. The energy emitted by Dark Gaia causes an abnormal side effect on Sonic; he grows claws, fangs, muscles, more fur, and (for some reason) spiky cleats and stretchy arms. He has transformed into something known as a Werehog. Eggman opens the airlock and sends Sonic falling toward Earth. He probably would have died if it weren’t for a mysterious light that envelopes him and prevents him from falling any harder. After regaining consciousness, he finds a small creature that has amnesia. Sonic, thinking that he fell on the creature, decides to help him out. Sonic is now on a worldwide adventure to stop Eggman in addition to helping Chip (the creature’s temporary name) recover his memory.
There are a number of things that I really appreciate about the game’s presentation. For one, Sonic Team realized that needlessly complex, overly-dramatic stories do not work for Sonic the Hedgehog; they instead opted for a story that is simple, lighthearted, and is only serious when it truly needed to be. The cutscenes have a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon vibe that I really enjoy, as well as greatly improved voice acting and characters. Sonic is given actual personality again, newcomer Chip is surprisingly likable with his child-like curiosity, Dr. Eggman is an enjoyable comedic villain, and the humans that inhabit the world are no longer bland-looking emotionless robots. In fact, the entire game just looks great in terms of aesthetics. Levels have vibrant colors and inviting cartoony designs, and characters have great animations and expressions. The varied, excellently orchestrated soundtrack helps to top things off.
Gameplay is divided up into two major styles. Progression to new stages is done by collecting Sun and Moon medals scattered about each stage and hub area. First come the daytime stages, which are undoubtedly the best part of the game. It’s a mix of both 2-D and 3-D gameplay where you are blazing through stages at hypersonic speeds in order to reach the goal ring. This is made possible with the boost feature that was carried over from Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS. It’s an exhilarating experience to just see everything fly pass you so quickly. However, this incredible sense of speed comes with less emphasis on platforming. Much of your time is spent holding down the analog stick and boost button, which makes the game feel rather straight forward in its design. That isn’t to say that there isn’t any challenge to be had. There’s now a greater focus on hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and level memorization. Considering how much fun it is to simply blast through stages, it easily makes for some good replay value.
Then we come to the second, most polarizing, half of the game: the nighttime stages. At night Sonic transforms into his Werehog form (obviously) and his gameplay focus is much slower. It acts very much like a beat-’em up combined with basic platforming which involves the use of his new stretchy arms to reach ledges and poles. I could look at it objectively by saying that it doesn’t fit Sonic at all (I do agree), but I will instead view it as a stand alone gameplay style. When first starting out, the Werehog’s attributes are rather limited. You can only perform a few basic combos and can get damaged rather easily. To get the most amount of enjoyment, you would need to replay levels to destroy more enemies and gain more experience. That experience can be transferred to your health, strength, shields, moves list, and special attack power. It should be noted that you can also upgrade regular Sonic to increase his speed and boost meter. Once you upgrade the Werehog enough, it’s actually rather satisfying to plow through enemies and bosses that may have given you trouble before. Sadly, this style of gameplay is still the weakest, mainly for its moments of monotony. This is a result of having so few enemy types in the game. Certain platforming segments (especially when it involves thin walkways) can also get very frustrating thanks to having a fixed camera, and some levels also last about ten to fifteen minutes longer than necessary.
Sonic Unleashed wasn’t exactly the ideal revival of the franchise, but on the whole it was certainly a step in the right direction. The Sonic daytime stages offered plenty of room for improvement (which eventually happened) and with a few tweaks the Werehog style of gameplay could make for a decent comeback for a character more suited to combat like Knuckles the Echidna. It’s not absolutely amazing, but its a personal favorite.