In film and literature, stories about werewolves tend to be tragic affairs. The afflicted protagonist is inevitably torn between their true side, which is good and pure, and an unrefined and destructive alter ego. Inevitably, the latter ruins the former.
It’s a fitting analogy given Sonic Unleashed’s premise of a split personality Sonic, with our blue hero regularly turning into a brutish Werehog. But it also reflects the problems inherent in the game itself.
Unlike previous Sonic mobile games, which were (admittedly decent) ports of classic Mega Drive games, Sonic Unleashed is built from the ground up for the mobile phone. Although it takes a number of cues from the console game of the same name, Gameloft has very much crafted a bespoke mobile Sonic experience, which pays off with a sympathetic control system.
You alternate control between Sonic and his Werehog alter-ego, with our hero kicking things off. It’s an excellent start, with Sonic moving swiftly and smoothly through some beautifully twisting environments via the thumb-pad or numerical keys. Up/’2’ makes you jump, while OK/’5’ activates your Sonic Boost attack move – which is extremely useful when you encounter an enemy at high speed and don’t have time to jump.
Sonic’s trademark Spin Dash move (here called Sonic Ball) has also been improved for the mobile platform, with the previously awkward method of holding Down/’8’ and tapping another key simplified by omitting the tapping stage.
Other concessions to mobile include a Time Attack mode, which lets you select any stage and tasks you with running through as quickly as possible. A leaderboard keeps tabs of your fastest times.
Otherwise it’s pretty much Sonic as we know and love it. There’s the usual ring-collecting mechanic which, as always, doubles as your health. In time-honoured tradition, when you take a hit you spill all your rings, leading to a mad dash to scoop as many back up as possible.
As hinted at before, Gameloft has nailed the defining aspect of Sonic – the speed. There are some excellent diversions, secret areas and alternative routes to discover, but if you want to you can tear through each stage at a terrific rate, with only the odd (forgivable) technical stutter when you really put your foot down.
The problems really arise when you reach the first Werehog stage. Suddenly you find yourself in control of a lumbering oaf, who replaces Sonic’s agility with the ability to clobber enemies and a kind of grappling hook to reach certain elevated spots.
Enemy encounters here boil down to hammering OK/’5’ to set off a flurry of combination attacks, or jumping and hitting the same key to initiate a powerful ground-pound manoeuvre. Occasionally the screen will freeze in place and you’ll have to wade through a predefined number of spawning baddies before you can progress.
Make no mistake, these sections are far from sub-standard. They’re just, well, standard. Pocket gamers will no doubt have seen or experienced a dozen or so games that play out pretty similarly to the Werehog sections over the past year or so. And while it looks good and plays adequately, it’s just not Sonic.
It could be argued that the Werehog sections add a dose of variety to the constant speed of Sonic, but such a change of pace really isn’t necessary. As we’ve already mentioned, you can approach the classic Sonic levels in a number of ways, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore when you tire of the ’30-second dash’ approach.
Ultimately, when you spend a good chunk of the game wishing you were playing a different section, you know something isn’t working.
We feel slightly sorry for Gameloft, as it clearly had their hands tied with the whole Sonic Unleashed concept. But the team can take comfort from the knowledge it has created a very good Sonic game with some passable Werehog sections – which is far more than the console game achieved.
Fans of Sonic and of platformers in general should still check Sonic Unleashed out, as it’s undoubtedly a very accomplished game. If nothing else, the skill with which the developer has rendered the classic Sonic levels leads us to hope Sega lets it off the leash with a dedicated mobile Sonic game of its own in the near future.