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Sonic and The Secret Rings - Review
Written by James Hobbs

Sonic hasn't ever really adjusted properly to the challenges involved with existing in a 3D universe. Ever since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, Sonic's first 'proper' foray into fully 3D gaming, there has been something utterly crucial missing. Sonic and The Secret Rings is Sonic Team's attempt at returning to the fundamental dynamics and principles that made the 2D games so obscenely fun, and it's clear from the moment you get into the game properly that they have revisited the earlier games and drawn inspiration from them - that's definitely a good thing.

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That's quite some grip
Initially, Sonic and The Secret Rings appears to be an incredibly straight-forward, updated homage to the original 2D platform games. Convoluted, cluttered, and badly-realised hub environments have been replaced by a series of fast and often rather brief linear levels, and the plethora of playable characters has been reduced to one - Sonic. A lot of the irritating detritus that seemed to populate Sonic Adventure and it's sequels has been removed, and it's certainly a step forward, providing a far more instantly gratifying experience. However, there is a depth to this game that is not immediately obvious.

Upon beginning the main adventure mode, you find out that an evil spirit, dwelling within the book of the Arabian Nights, is systematically destroying the tales and their inhabitants, in an attempt to break free from his fictional world and into the 'real' world. The real world populated with smart-arse, wise-cracking hedgehogs, of course. The story itself could be described as 'imaginative,' or even 'epic,' but perhaps a more fitting description would be 'absolute cack.' Thankfully, it's largely irrelevant to the main game itself - whilst most of the missions do require you to complete tasks relevant to the story, they are linked only in a seemingly arbitrary way, and don't get in the way of the high-speed frenetic madness. However, the incessant cut-scenes, illustrated in a 'graphic novel on a budget' way reminiscent of Red Steel, do become rather intrusive and annoying as you get further into the game. It is wholly unclear why many game developers seem to opt for stylised graphic art-style cutscenes, but they really don't look good, especially when the images are far too compressed.

The game is divided up into several worlds, ranging from dinosaur-laden forests to pirate ships, each of which has a multitude of missions. The strange way in which the game works means that many of the missions will remain locked until you progress much further into the game, meaning that you do have to go back and revisit earlier worlds if you want to be able to unlock everything possible. The missions themselves could be described as expanded mini-games - each has a purpose, ranging from merely reaching the end goal to destroying a set number of enemies. Again, there doesn't seem to be a defining purpose for this diversity - it does help to keep the missions interesting, but some of the tasks that you are set become rather tedious. For example, one of the missions requires you to navigate to the goal without breaking any vases - vases rather craftily positioned around corners and in blind spots. It's almost impossible to complete the mission straight away, and as such you have to keep struggling progressively through the level, learning where the vases are. It's a definite nod to the absurdly difficult games of yore, and anyone who grew up playing them will no doubt be right at home. It's immensely frustrating, and at times almost uncessarily so, but for the most part it's very rewarding when you finally manage to scrape your way to the end.

Initially, and rather strangely, Sonic and The Secret Rings feels rather slow. It takes time for Sonic to build up speed, and jumping in the air has the effect of massively reducing your speed upon landing, requiring you to build it up again. Thankfully, this isn't permanent - it's due to the skills system that Sonic Team have chosen to implement into the game. Simply put, as you progress through missions you can unlock various new abilities that skills, that ( in general ) have the effect of increasing Sonic's agility and speed. Some skills increase acceleration, some allow you to manuever backwards more easily, some allow you to jump higher and not lose speed upon landing, and many more have entirely different effects. This could easily be entirely pointless and redundant, but due to the slow pace of the game initially and Sonic's lack of manueverability the skills do actually come in handy. It's interesting to find out which skills you have unlocked after a mission, and there is a strategic element to their implementation - you only have a certain amount of 'slots' with which to use your skills, so being selective is paramount to being able to dash through levels quickly. It does become more important as you progress through the game, and whilst it's not entirely necessary for a game like this, the implementation is nothing short of admirable. Be prepared to be frustrated early on in the game, however - rest assured that the game does pick up pace quite considerably the further you play through it.

Two key skills that you unlock are the speed break and the time break - the former allowing you to accelerate to ridiculously high speed, and the latter slowing down time massively, injecting some much-needed precision into the proceedings. The speed break really is fast - uncontrollably slow. It's only really useful on straight, long sections, and comes in handy for achieving fast times on levels. The time break is somewhat more useful - it allows you to collect rings and items that might be difficult to grab otherwise. It's accompanied by a dodgy-looking black and white effect - another unnecessary piece of visual tosh that could have been done away with. A bit of motion blur would have done quite nicely.



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