[Note: This review refers to the Nintendo Wii/PlayStation 2 version of Sonic Unleashed, which differs slightly from the Xbox 360/PS3 version.]
I’ll admit, when I first heard about Sonic Unleashed I thought it sounded… well, kind of weird. It sort of reminds me of my experience with Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. There I essentially wrote the game off because of its art style and figured I’d never even bother playing it. Of course, “It’s a Zelda game!!!” eventually kicked in, so I ended up giving it a chance… and having my mind blown.
A lot of casual fans of Sonic the Hedgehog have noted that the concepts of a lot of the recent Sonic games (pre-Sonic IV: Episode I and Sonic Generations) have sounded rather odd. You have Sonic shoved into Arabian Nights and Arthurian Legend. I will admit, I haven’t played either game, but my unabashed nerdiness has gradually been chipping away at my initial reluctance. I’m sure playthroughs of both are in my immediate future.
But as far as Sonic Unleashed goes, there are so many things going on in the game that no one ever talks about, and even the parts people do talk about proved dramatically different than uninformed expectations.
From the opening cutscene (which is actually what inspired me to give the game a chance in the first place), it was pretty clear that this was not the game I expected it to be. We’re given an action-packed cutscene that hashes out the traditional battle between Sonic and Robotnik that we’ve been seeing for decades. Sonic races through Robotnik’s robot army in a fierce battle, and eventually transforms into Super Sonic. Honestly? It really made me think a Sonic the Hedgehog movie is viable.
Toward the end of this scene, Robotnik tricks Sonic and uses a machine to rip the power of the Chaos Emeralds out of him, draining them of their power and, in the process, causing Sonic to undergo a painful transformation into a Werehog. My uninformed objections about the whole “werewolf” thing? Gone. Far from being some really weird concept forced into the Sonic continuity, the Werehog form is a pretty sensible consequence of Sonic having the Chaos Emeralds literally ripped out of him and used to unleash Dark Gaia. It fits the universe perfectly, and that’s really all there is to say about it.
Sonic has a new partner on his journey, Chip, a small winged Mobian with a bright and energetic personality. At first, I was rather annoyed that they produced this new character rather than having Tails be Sonic’s sidekick… but where this character’s story ends up going really surprised me, and the game really doesn’t work otherwise, so I was forced to (reluctantly) drop this objection. I will, however, maintain that Amy Rose really didn’t need to be in the game (or exist at all), and that Professor Pickle didn’t need to exist and easily could’ve been replaced by Tails (who appears in the game, but in a very limited role.)
Finally, one of the things about this game that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is what it does to the Sonic universe. Mobius (yeah, I’m still calling it that) is divided into seven continents, each of which has a very distinct culture which seems to resemble cultures on earth. The game is actually called Sonic World Adventure in Japan, giving this aspect greater emphasis. If it had also been titled that in America, perhaps it wouldn’t be written off as “the one where Sonic turns into a werewolf.” This international flavor adds so much to the Sonic universe, and I’d really like to see future games making use of it. That being said, I really wish these supporting characters (or at least many of them) had been Mobians. I really don’t see why humans need to be the majority in the Sonic universe. It’s a minor gripe, though, and not one that’s even especially objective, so it doesn’t really affect my review of the game. And make no mistake: the diversity portrayed here was fantastic and added a tremendous amount of depth to both the game and the Sonic universe at large.
Far from being the weakness it seems to be if all you know about Unleashed is that it’s “that one where Sonic turns into a werewolf,” the story and world of this game are actually one of its biggest strengths. 5/5.
Sonic Unleashed has fantastic graphics both in gameplay and in cutscenes. It’s visually spectacular without being distracting. It also has fantastic sound effects which augment the fantastic graphics. The animation (and accompanying sound) of Sonic’s new abilities, as well as his old ones, are as impressive as they ought to be (another first for this series). The best way I can describe it is, this is the first game where his speed seems physically, viscerally real, and has impact. His speed really seems powerful, thanks to the impressive visual and sound effects. Unlike many recent Sonic games, Unleashed doesn’t have a theme song with vocals, but the in-game scoring is spectacular and really does add to the experience. All of the non-gameplay elements of this game, in addition to being excellent individually, really combined to make it fantastically fun to play. 5/5.
Sonic Unleashed has the best controls of any 3D Sonic game I’ve played. It integrates new powers seamlessly, and generally is just a lot of fun to play. The gimmick of having the huge difference between the Day/Night stages does mostly serve to keep the game fresh, though I have to admit after a while the Night stages get much more repetitive than the Day stages. Oddly, they actually seem to get more linear as the game goes on, with fewer puzzles and more fights. The fights themselves are not especially difficult, but are generally fairly fun.
Though I generally prefer the gameplay in the Day stages (and find more variety in the Day stages), the big payoff for the Night gameplay is the boss fights. The Day boss fights are decent enough, especially since this game thankfully uses the concept of “running” bosses (Sonic is running the whole time), unlike other Sonic games that rather counterintuitively decide, “Kay, we’re going to stand still and jump a lot here.” But the Night bosses are fantastic.
The level design is the best of any 3D Sonic game other than Generations (note: I have not yet played the Wii version of Colors.) There are a few places where the level will frustratingly kill you, and getting around those parts does detract from the overall experience a bit, but not as much as it has in previous games. Still, it is enough to stop me from quite giving this aspect of the game a perfect score. 4/5.
I think my initial comparison to Wind Waker is pretty apt. Like many who haven’t played this game, I wrote it off as silly and embarrassing to the franchise, and didn’t have any designs on playing it. When I finally did play it, it defied my expectations entirely, delivering hours of fun gameplay and even making a few fairly significant contributions to the larger Sonic franchise. What is fairly universally declared (by people who haven’t played it) to be one of the worst Sonic games is, in fact, one of the best. 5/5.