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PSP Fanboy review: Sonic Rivals

The Sonic franchise has certainly fallen quite a bit ever since it made the transition into 3D. The Adventure games failed to capture the feel of the original 2D platformers, and other spin-off games, like Shadow the Hedgehog are considered travesties at best. It seems like Sonic does best when trapped in two dimensions, as seen by this excellent Game Boy Advance and DS entries. On the PSP, Sonic Rivals attempts to blend traditional 2D gameplay with impressive new 3D graphics. The developers, Backbone Entertainment, have done a good job executing on some of Sonic's trademark features, but some poor design choices hold back the game from being as good as it can be.

Retro Gaming in Style
When you boot up Sonic Rivals, you won't be disappointed by the sleek menu layout, quick load times, and impressive graphics. Sonic's Nintendo handheld offerings stayed strictly in 2D territory, making Rivals easily the best-looking handheld Sonic by far. The game manages to emulate the feel of the original games very well, especially in the first set of levels, as you run around green checkered levels. What's impressive is the sense of speed, and the dynamic camera angles. Sometimes, the camera will move at an angle, attempting to make Sonic's journey through the world even more dramatic. While there's still some framerate slowdown, and blocky backgrounds at times, the game's fantastic color palette and speed really make it an eye-catcher.

The graphics aren't the only thing Backbone did right: the controls themselves feel very much like old-school Sonic, and that's a good thing. The levels are designed to have multiple paths, and at the blistering speeds that your character can reach at times, decisions will have to be made in a split second. You'll see alternate paths whiz by, and it's interesting to think that you can take a completely different approach to a level. It's very rewarding when you manage to discover a whole new way of racing through a level.

One of the surprisingly nicest additions to this game are the boost areas: you press circle to dash forward, or X to jump up. It's simple, but learning to make the right choice at a moment's notice will certainly take some practice, and some memorization. The later levels come up with challenges that revolve around simply pressing the right button, and it's strangely satisfying.

Another great aspect of the game are the boss fights. Although the encounters are short, they change up the formula slightly, and usually take place within a circular arena. It's your goal to land successful hits on top of the enemy's weak point, and the obstacles that prevent you from doing this easily can be engaging.

Could've Been a Contender
Although there are many great, fun, classic Sonic elements in the game, players will find themselves frustrated at many other poorly executed designs in the game. Firstly, the story: it's absolutely ridiculous, and actually detracts from the experience more than it helps. Dr. Eggman (Robotnik was a much better name!) for one reason or another turns everyone into cards, and through sequences of awfully written dialogue, you race as one of four characters to stop Eggman. The four characters, Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow and Silver, all have their own stories, but they're absolutely painful to go through. Thankfully, the text explaining the story is very short, and can be quickly skipped.

For some reason, it appears that the character you choose has no choice but to win in a race through the levels. This is the core premise of the game, and it's where many of the game's flaws become apparent. Each level is supposed to be a race, yet it will rarely feel like you're interacting with a character. The great branching levels in the game actually make it difficult for you to ever really be near your rival. This immediately removes a sense of competitiveness, and it also gets rid of any fairness. In later levels, you will find that a significant lead that you build over a character can mysteriously disappear nigh instantly. Characters will seemingly speed past you, and there's no way for you, as the player, to know why or how. Players will learn to simply restart a race if they find themselves falling behind: there's almost no way to bridge a significant gap in the way the computer seems to catch up to you.

There are power-ups throughout the level that can be used against your foes. Theoretically, this will allow players that are trailing to catch up to the leader. However, the large, branching levels, make it somewhat unlikely for your character to get affected. Unfortunately, you'll rarely see the effects of your mischief. However, if you get hit by a power-up, prepare to be annoyed: the effects can be severely race-destroying, as they send you to a crawl, last for a fair amount of time, and interrupt your progress through the level significantly. It's certainly not fun to get hit while racing up a hill. Not only does the power-up make you lose time, but you'll find yourself unable to progress further, without backtracking a bit too gain momentum yet again. The loss of time is significant; a mistake towards the end of the level nearly guarantees a loss.

However, with enough practice and memorization, any level can become entertaining, even with the dodgy racing system in place. I was honestly very frustrated at one point in the game, ready to simply give up on it. However, repeated playthroughs do hide the game's flaws a bit more. You'll find yourself choosing better routes through levels, boosting better, attacking more efficiently, and getting higher rankings at the end as a result. The game encourages repetition quite a bit, as the four different story modes go through the same levels, with no difference in how they play. All the characters control exactly the same, and with the exception of inconsequential signature move that each character possesses, there is no difference in playing as one of the characters. Although there are collectible "cards" that players are vouching for, they provide absolutely no detail (a missed opportunity, considering how successful those kinds of features are!). With slightly over a dozen levels in the game, this game certainly won't last anyone but the most hardcore Sonic fan a very long time. There are other modes, but they offer nothing new or interesting to the single player formula.

Sonic Rivals is not a bad game. In fact, it builds potential for a great return to true Sonic form. If Sega approached the series with this engine and removed the racing aspect, Sonic fans would have a true gem of a game to celebrate. However, as is, Sonic Rivals is merely an entertaining, but also frustrating, romp that's a bit too short for its own good. Consider renting this one.

PSP Fanboy Score: 6.5

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