Sonic Unleashed is Awesome, Actually

I have mixed feelings about Sonic Generations. On the one hand, it’s one of the best video games of all-time; a nostalgic trip through the history of a beloved franchise, with 2D and 3D levels set in the most recognizable worlds of previous Sonic games, beautiful graphics, perfectly responsive controls, excellent level design, a soundtrack that includes remixes from all over the series, including Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Battle, Sonic R and Sonic Spinball. It’s not just the best Sonic game that I’ve ever played, but a game that changed the way I look at Sonic games in general. I would gush more over it, but I’ll save it for the top of my ‘Top 10 Games I Played in 2021’ list, if I ever write one, which I almost certainly won’t. But hey, that’s still better than The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles and Little Nightmares 2.

On the other hand, since the game was so kind as to force me to re-evaluate my opinion of a franchise that I’ve played around with but never been a dedicated fan of… it meant that a whole bunch of 3D Sonic games that I was bound to get to eventually, maybe, if I had the time, have suddenly shot up a few places on my to-do list. I was hardly a stranger to the series, having beaten the original trilogy, Adventure 1 & 2, Heroes, Rush, Rivals and the Gameboy Advance trilogy, but I haven’t touched Sonic and the Secret Rings or Sonic and the Black Knight or the console version of Sonic Colours. And after how good Sonic Generations was, I’ve even accepted that at some point, I’m going to have to play Sonic 06. But that will be an article for another day. A very short, sweary article.

So I decided to pick Sonic Unleashed as the next game to play, for a simple but well-reasoned… well, reason. See, if I went from Generations to Colours, or possibly Mania, then I run the risk of playing the best Sonic games all at once, which means that if the rest of them aren’t quite as good, it might sour my newly-found appreciation for the series. But if I go straight from Generations to 06, or Sonic Boom, then what if they turn out to be so bad that I start to assume that Sonic Generations was a fluke, and lose interest in the franchise again? So I needed a Sonic game that was alright, but not great, and Sonic Unleashed seemed to fit that bill.

Everything I heard about Sonic Unleashed when it came out was that it was not great. Sonic turns into a big dumb werehog (I mean… ‘werewolf’ is a combination of man and wolf, so ‘werehog’ literally translates to ‘man-hog’, but I have to admit that it sounds a lot cooler than ‘hedgewolf’) and punches things with his big stretchy Mr. Fantastic hands. It’s still sort-of an open-world experience like Sonic 06 was, and while the daytime stages are decent, they’re not (allegedly) good enough to justify all of the sub-par bits. It’s not a bad game or anything – you wouldn’t expect to see it on any lists of the worst video games of all-time – but the impression that I got from reviewers was that it was a pretty uneventful, middle-of-the-road kind of game. The perfect thing to lower my expectations with, while still having a bit of fun here and there as I checked a title off my to-do list.

While not quite at the level of Sonic Generations, Sonic Unleashed is undoubtedly also one of the best games I’ve played this year, a truly fantastic Sonic game, and I would completely, sincerely, genuinely recommend it to everyone. Sonic Generations is the game that made me wonder if maybe all of the diehard Sonic fans who complain that people are biased against the franchise, might possibly have had a point. Sonic Unleashed is the game that tipped me over the edge into becoming one of those fans.

How could this happen? How could a game so notoriously average and disappointing turn out to actually be amazing? Well, the way I see it is that Sonic Unleashed kind of… aged badly, but in reverse. Instead of all of its flaws becoming apparent over time, it’s become clearer that all of the things that people initially complained about were actually pretty good. I can completely understand why, in the year 2008, people weren’t very excited by a Sonic game in which half of the levels are beat ‘em-ups played by a hedgewolf, the other half had to be replayed over and over to hunt for medals required to unlock the next stage, and the open-world from Sonic 06 is still here with Sonic co-existing with regular human-looking humans. But playing this game 13 years later, I can only conclude that every single element I’ve just described legitimately works really well.

So here is my explanation as to why the Sonic game that IGN gave 4.5 out of 10, EuroGamer gave 4 out of 10, and Gamespot gave 3.5 out of 10, is actually awesome and all of those websites should offer retractions, apologies, and f̣̭̜͡l̴e͕̖̼͖̙s̻̦͚͚͘ͅh͉̺͈͍̩̲ ̘̖̜͢f̠̥̮̰o̞r̘͍͙ ̼̼̟̮̬͔̖t̪̼͓̙͓͡ḫ͚̖e̗̻̰̠͡ ̞̬̗̲̬d̮̦̫͖̜̫ͅe̙͎͖͎̦a̩̫̦̜̤d̦͈̗ ͓̠͚G͡o̴̜̭̺͍̼̜d̵.̨̺ ͏̩̪͕A̲L̫͟Ḽ̺͈͍̗ ̷̣̖̳͉͈̪ͅH̞̜͡A̧̗I̙͙̠͉̩L̗ ̧͚̥̗̪̝͓̯S̷̮̪̪̟O̕ŃI͉̝̜̲̼͓͓C̞͖!̻̱̦̯̞ͅ

The Werehog levels are awesome, actually

Not to immediately repeat myself, but once again, I can totally see why in 2008, two years after Sonic 06, when a new Sonic game was announced and the fandom were hoping for a return to form, many of them would be disappointed to find out that half of the exciting new Sonic the Hedgehog game would actually be SEGA trying their hand at an anthropomorphic brawler. It was the antithesis of everything that previously made Sonic games so fun, and a rapid departure from what people have come to expect from the series. It would be like getting halfway through Breath of the Wild only for the game to suddenly turn into Guitar Hero, or picking a path in Sonic Adventure and finding out that it was all about fishing minigames. Even if it was brilliant, it would throw you off a little.

I found out 13 years ago that Sonic Unleashed would have Werehog levels, and in that time, I accepted it and prepared myself for the experience. I acknowledged that I would not always be travelling at breakneck speeds, only interacting with enemies to blow them up with a single homing attack or just leaving them straight in the dust. And I’m by no means a leading expert on beat ‘em-ups, and maybe it’s been a long time since I’ve played one, but I can only fairly conclude that the Werehog stages in Sonic Unleashed are in fact… actually pretty good. They were very fun. I enjoyed them a lot.

I don’t want to give the combat a backhanded compliment, because I genuinely did enjoy it, but I think that maybe the endless complaints about how terrible it was, how obviously it was a bad idea, how much the people who signed off on it should have been fired – not just from their jobs, but from a cannon, into the Sun – may have been one of the reasons why the Werehog levels came as such a pleasant surprise. I was expecting something clunky and unintuitive and boring, and instead it was… decent.

Obviously ‘decent’ is not a term that SEGA were in a rush to plaster all over the side of the box, and maybe I’m exaggerating a bit by calling it ‘awesome’, but what is the purpose of a video game if not to have to fun? That’s a very stupid question, because there are several video games that offer a significantly deeper meaning, or are even intentionally unfulfilling to play, but pretending for a second that it isn’t a really stupid question, and that the purpose of video games was solely to have fun, Sonic Unleashed most definitely passes that vibe check, and the Werehog levels are no exception.

While it might not compare to God of War, I had a good time and I certainly hope that you would too, ripping apart enemies with my big stretchy Werehog arms. You can light attack, heavy attack, jump attack, dash-attack, grab weakened enemies or take then down in quick-time events that award you bonus experience, and the attacks are fun to use; my favourite was the ‘light, light, heavy, heavy’ combo, because that turns Sonic into a small but twisty tornado who attacks multiple enemies at once. And you’ll have a great time earning experience because you can use it to level up your attack, life, shield, ‘Unleashed’ form where you move faster and deal even more damage, or unlock new moves.

If nothing about this sounds revolutionary, it’s because it emphatically isn’t, but even during the slower moments, normally when you need to walk across a narrow pipe or use your big rubber Luffy arms to climb up a building, I was having fun, and that was all I really wanted. Plus, the slower pace of the Werehog stages makes a great break from the fast-paced action of the Day stages, where you need instant reactions to avoid an incoming hazard or make sure Sonic stays on the optimal path. Not that those stages are bad either; in fact, speaking of which-

The Day stages are awesome, actually

Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience follow the trend of ending these subheadings with ‘actually’, because no-one is even in disagreement about this. Even people who hated Sonic Unleashed acknowledge that the Day stages are great – usually just as a way of putting down the Werehog stages though – and there’s an obvious reason for that. The Day stages are awesome. Actually.

Regular stages in Sonic the Hedgehog games are a mixture of fairly basic platforming, stylish speedy setpieces, multiple routes for replayability, a healthy heaping handful of collectibles, and a few bottomless pits to keep you on your toes. Sonic Unleashed merges these perfectly, and was also the first console game to implement the boost mechanic from the Sonic Rush games on Nintendo DS, meaning that as long as Sonic has rings – and every stage begins by giving you enough to get started – you can fly through the levels, demolishing enemies and obstacles and even absorbing nearby rings to keep the charge going.

I’m no Sonic series expert, but after Adventure and Heroes, this was the first time that Sonic truly felt like the fastest thing alive. Boosting is inexpensive, self-sufficient as long as you keep collecting rings, and feels great. Sure, there are a few moments where you’ll need to avoid a row of spikes or a tricky jump to avoid certain death, but rather than feeling like a cheap trick, it’s more like a fair trade-off for the ability to crash through everything with nigh-invincibility. The ability to change lanes left or right with the shoulder buttons helps you stay in control while maintaining your speed, although I never quite got the complete hang of sliding; by which I mean I consistently got an E-Rank on that one bonus level in Mazuri where sliding around at full-speed is mandatory.

The alternate paths in older Sonic titles always annoyed me a little, especially when they required pinpoint accuracy and millisecond reflexes to reach them, because unless you enjoyed replaying the first few levels over and over again (or knew the level select code) then if you died in Spring Yard Zone, or even just failed to react to a path to another route in time, you wouldn’t be able to try again for a very long time, usually mandating a game over. With stages that can be replayed over and over, it’s a lot easier to remember the parts where you need to be particularly precise in order to reach an optimal route, which is encouraged by the game’s ranking system.

The soundtrack is amazing too – Rooftop Run is one of greatest songs in the entire franchise – but, much like the day stages themselves, nobody really disputes this. So I’d like to move on to something that people actually do criticize, because it’s linked to the whole ‘alternate paths, replayable stages’ thing.

The medal-collecting is awesome, actually

So straight off the bat, one of the things that really helped me get Sonic games in Sonic Generations is something that didn’t even originate in that game; it originated in Sonic Colours. In every stage, 2D or 3D, there are five hidden red rings. You can unlock songs with them and you get an achievement for finding them all, but they’re really just there to justify playing the stages again and exploring alternate routes. And while this is incredibly basic, it’s also emphatically amazing game design that finally made the series click for me. You now have a reason to explore the huge and immensely-creative levels over and over, discovering your favourite way to win – usually also the fastest way – and all those irritating other paths you missed the first time around, hey, now you have another opportunity to reach them. And probably another, because you missed it again.

Sonic Unleashed does not have red rings, but it does have medals. You need a certain number of medals to get into stages as the game progresses, but it’s never too many; there are 400 medals in total – 200 moon and 200 sun – and finishing the game requires 80 moon and 120 sun, so only half overall. The PS2/Wii versions of the game just award you medals for finishing stages, but in the HD release on Xbox 360 and PS3, the medals are hidden throughout the level, some practically unavoidable, some in plain sight, some on alternate routes and some are surprisingly well-hidden.

This should never impede your progress, but it does provide an added incentive to try levels again until you have truly seen all that they have to offer. If you don’t want to, you can still find most sufficient medals to continue by just… keeping your eyes open while you play, but like the red rings, if you want to seek them out, you’ll probably have a good time doing so, right up until you need to check online to find the last medal location because damnation, I have been through this stage like five times, where the hell is the last – it was in a friggin’ flowerpot this whole time? Ugh! This game sucks.

Medals are also hidden in the overworld hubs, providing you with an extra reason to check them out thoroughly when Sonic travels to each new destination, and a few medals are hidden in extra stages, which come in the form of traditional stages accessed by the hub that are much shorter and more difficult than the core day/night stages, and extra missions received by talking to people in hub worlds and helping them with side-quests. Generally speaking, medals are much more easily found in the slower-paced Werehog levels, where they’re usually hidden inside/behind breakable scenery, compared to the fast-paced day stages where you can miss the entire area a medal is located in, but in both types of stage, they’re fun and not too difficult to find, and gently encourage you to get to know the levels intimately enough that once you’ve found every medal, you might even feel like going for the S-Rank.

The open world is awesome, actually

Sonic 06 was a bizarre combination of bad ideas, and good ideas done badly, and no good idea was done as badly as placing the titular Sonic in an open world filled with eerily humanlike characters. Humans showed up in the Sonic series back in the Adventure titles, but they were goofy-looking, cartoonish, and would have fit in well with a generic Saturday morning children’s show. Sonic 06 on the other hand, was… uh…

I can see why people weren’t a fan of this, is what I’m saying.

Sonic Unleashed manages to comfortably avoid the uncanny valley by returning to featuring human characters that don’t try to look realistically human. And while none of them are especially deep, the plethora of side-quests available can help you to get more invested, or at least give you some more things to do. It’s not mind-blowing stuff, but you might feel more motivation to save the world after getting to know some of the people living in it.

I might not be able to remember the specific names of every non-playable character Sonic interacts with, and looking them up may give the false impression that they were that memorable, but I remember their storylines. The son of a carpet-seller in Adabat who wants to leave the family business and go to the big city to become a music producer, who you help to accomplish his dream. The old man in Chun-nan who is convinced that he can cure Sonic’s bad case of Werehog-itis, but needs you to gather a few ingredients first. The ice-cream vendor in Apotos, the kids in Spagonia who want to find the perfect birthday present for their mum, the reporter who shows up after you defeat the boss of an area and gives you a quick pop quiz on recent happenings; all of these things are awesome little touches that make it feel more like Sonic is actually on a quest to save the world, rather than a series of linear levels assembled with no real connection.

And the hub worlds themselves are fun to explore! It’s fun to chat to everyone, and even unimportant minor characters can say amusing things, like the student in Spagonia who is really concerned that Professor Pickle – yeah, there’s a character named Professor Pickle now – has been kidnapped, but also asks “So, uh… this means I don’t have to go to class anymore, right?” And as mentioned before, the hub worlds also have medals to find in both their daytime and night-time versions, which gives you the benefit of seeing how characters react to both Sonic and the Werehog. None of this is groundbreaking, but it is still unequivocally good.

Would Sonic Unleashed have still been a good game if the hubs were taken out and the world was just a series of disconnected levels? Almost certainly! But I’m still glad they were included, because it added some personal stakes to the cutscene before the final boss where you see people across the world panicking over their impending doom at the hands of Dark Gaia, because I recognized them, and hey, I didn’t go through all the effort of getting that kid a record contract in Empire City only for some big Lovecraftian abomination out of nowhere to ruin all my hard work by destroying the Earth.

For a manufactured sense of balance, here are some non-awesome things

I debated back and forth on whether or not to include a section titled ‘Eggmanland is awesome, actually’. Eggmanland is the final level of the game – the only level to include the mechanic of switching between Sonic and the Werehog – and oh, what a level it is. All of the main levels in the game, day and night, have time trials that you can complete afterwards. Most of them are harsh but fair, five or six minutes at first and then lowering to three or four once you’ve unlocked higher difficulties. The time trial for Eggmanland is seventy-five minutes. The level isn’t even remotely that long, but it’s certainly noticeably longer – and harder – than everything else in the game. It’s also full of Werehog sections where you need to walk on thin platforms above certain death, and no matter how much I love this game, those were always rubbish.

Eggmanland in general also suffered one of the biggest flaws in the game’s many challenges; as said 105 words ago, every level has time trials, given to you by a friendly hotdog vendor who appears once Day/Night stages are complete. They also offer you other challenges, like beating a certain number of enemies or collecting a certain number of rings in the day, or beating a stage with reduced health during the night. The issue is that none of these challenges have checkpoints, and in later stages, completing the stage without dying is much more difficult than retaining a lousy hundred rings. You also have to do every one of these hotdog missions three times if you want to beat them all, even if you already fulfilled the criteria on a previous run. You might finish Rooftop Run with eight hundred rings while beating the ‘finish with at least a hundred rings’ task, and then have to beat the next target, two hundred rings, despite having already done that. Just to be clear, I still beat every one of these missions in the game and also went for S-ranks, so I played every day stage in the game a minimum of ten times. That’s just how much I was enjoying it.

What I didn’t enjoy so much were the disappointing DLC levels. This game has a lot of surprisingly reasonably-priced downloadable content with several bonus level packs in every world. Like the non-DLC bonus stages, these are often shorter and more difficult, but what I wasn’t expecting was for them to literally be reskins of the existing stages, only with more traps added for extra annoyance. I didn’t play a great deal of these, but from what I played, it certainly didn’t feel like I was missing much. It felt less like bonus content and more like an amateur Super Mario World ROM-hack by someone who thinks the height of challenge is by putting spikes and bottomless pits everywhere. To be fair, I’m sure some of them are still good, but this was after getting every hotdog/S-rank in the game, so I was ready to move on to something else anyway.

Overall verdict: Awesome

I understand that you might think that I’m being a little too kind here; to name this article named ‘Sonic Unleashed still has plenty of problems but overall is thoroughly decent and a worthy part of the franchise’s legacy’ would be long and unwieldy. But one thing that I emphatically want to impart is that I sincerely mean it. I was not expecting to have as great a time with Sonic Unleashed as I did; hell, I specifically chose to play it after Generations in order to lower my expectations so as not to leave them unreasonably high for the rest of the series. And yet… I loved it. It’s an easy 8/10 for me.

Sonic the Hedgehog as a series has undeniably had its ups and downs – I very much doubt that when I finally get around to Sonic 06 and Sonic Boom, I will be writing as charitable a send-up as this – but Sonic Unleashed was just… good. I had fun with the Werehog stages, the Day stages are some of the best in the entire franchise, the soundtrack is amazing, I had fun helping out all of the characters I met, and ultimately it would have landed in the top ten games I played last year, if I could be bothered to write one of those. I genuinely enjoyed Sonic Unleashed a great deal, and while that could possibly have been due to its negative reputation lowering my expectations, I have a feeling they would have been exceeded anyway. Because Sonic Unleashed is awesome. Actually.

-Dopefish

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