While the verdict on Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is pretty clear at this point, not much attention has been given to its 3DS counterpart Shattered Crystal. Made by Sly Cooper developer Sanzaru Games, this title tries to add kinda-Metroid-like elements while having a hero switching mechanic similar to Sonic Heroes. Unlike the Wii U version, SEGA was confident enough to put up a demo of the game on the eShop before release. And while it wasn’t particularly impressive, the sample given was pretty decent. So the question is if the full game holds up.
So here’s the deal with this Sonic game: it’s not really much like a normal Sonic game. Rather than being about trying to take the fastest path to the finish, a lot of time is spent exploring the levels as you can collect a bunch of crystal fragments and blueprints in most of them. These also take a lot longer to finish than your usual Sonic stage, as they can easily take up to 15 minutes to complete if you’re looking around for collectables. You can also switch between four characters in these stages: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and newcomer Sticks, all of whom work very differently from past games.
All of the characters have a double jump, homing attack, energy whip thing that can be used to swing across pits and remove shields, and a run button. Each of them also has at least a couple of abilities that make them different from the rest. Sonic has an air dash, which is probably the most useful character-specific ability in the game. It can be used either upwards, downwards or sideways, and always sends Sonic in a straight line through the air until he comes to a stop after a few meters. While this sounds a bit more limiting than the air dash Sonic usually has, it still makes him the character to pick when it comes to platforming.
Need to break some big blue boxes that block the path to the next platform? Use the air dash. Need to get a bit higher than you normally can? Use the air dash. Want to go to places in ways the level designer didn’t intend to be possible? You get the idea.
Sonic’s other ability is his spin-dash, though for some reason how much you charge it up now determines how long the spin-dash is going to last rather than how fast Sonic will go. Aside from that it basically functions the same as it always has, as in that everything Sonic rolls into gets destroyed.
Tails has lost his ability to fly in favor of a less useful hovering ability, though he can still move upwards or sideways with the help of gusts of wind coming from propellers placed throughout the levels. Aside from that he can throw bombs like in Tails Adventures and he has a small submarine robot that can be used to access underwater sections in which you need to find a blueprint. These sections are really just boring filler though. You just go around shooting missiles at non-moving obstructions while looking at the map to see where the blueprint is.
Knuckles can punch stuff and dig around specific parts of the level, and when he does that he controls a lot like the Drill Wisp in Sonic Colours. Sticks has a boomerang, and that’s about it. It can be used to hit enemies, or if charged up it can be controlled through the air and hit far away switches. Most of these character specific abilities sadly share one big problem: they’re only really useful for specific obstacles. And aside from one enemy type that crawls along the ceiling, the homing attack is the best attack to use almost all of the time.
Speaking of enemies: there’s not much variety to them. They usually fall in three categories: an enemy you use you can just homing attack, an enemy of which you first need to remove the shield and then homing attack, or enemies that walk on the ceiling and shoot lasers down. That last one you can’t just homing attack and is either best destroyed with Knuckles’ punch or Tails’ bomb. Alternatively, you can often just jump or run past these enemies. They’re not really a threatening bunch as usually they just stand or walk around and can quickly be destroyed. Some of them have a bit more health, but that doesn’t make them any more difficult to take care of as all that really means is that you need to homing attack them twice. Unless you actually use Knuckles’ or Tails’ fighting abilities, which take them out in a single hit. They still need to be hit twice with Sticks’ boomerang though, making her pretty much useless compared to everyone else outside of when she specifically is needed to get past an obstacle.
The enemies that have a shield can be a bit more bothersome because you first need pull their shield off with your energy whip thing, meaning they actually have a chance to charge at you or throw a bomb. But again: you can just jump over them. There actually are quite a few different enemy designs, but it’s hard to notice because they all still kinda look the same and are so detailed that they kind of look like a mess on even the 3DS XL screen.
But even with the useless enemies, they probably wouldn’t be much of a problem if the level design is any good. And, well, it’s not. Not that it’s difficult, if anything it’s not. In fact, I never died, at least not unintentionally. But there’s almost no variety. All of the obstacles are pretty much just parts where you need to use one of the character’s abilities, with no change in how you use them. You can barely even call them obstacles as the solution to getting past them is always the same. There’s nothing fun about picking the character that’s needed and using his ability the same way you previously used it over and over again and it just gets boring. The only other couple of obstacles I remember being there were disappearing platforms you have to run on and grind rails. The levels also have a big focus on finding collectables. And while these collectables might seem optional at first, you actually do need to collect them because one of the most unnecessary and annoying things from previous Sonic games returns: collectable gates.
Much like how you had to collect medals in Sonic Unleashed or Flickies in Sonic Lost World, here you need to collect enough badges to unlock new levels. And you get these badges by collecting all the blueprints or crystal fragments in levels. And outside of the blueprints letting you unlock new abilities, there’s pretty much no point to these collectables outside of them being there to make the game last longer. Collecting all of either of the other two items does get you a final unlockable, but it’s not really worth the effort, even if at the end of the game you need to have collected most of them anyway. (Hint: one of them is a less hilarious version of this.) There are also coins you can collect by finishing levels under a certain time limit or with a certain amount of rings, which let you unlock trophies of objects, enemies and characters that you can view up close from in a model viewer. Fun fact: this is how I got to know that there are more than three enemies in the game.
The collectables also bring out another major flaw in the game’s level design: it’s impossible to backtrack through the levels after certain points. In every level there’s at least one dash panel that will send Sonic or one of his pals through a nice looking scripted sequence where he (or she if you’re playing as Sticks) will go through loop de loops, corkscrews, and other crazy pathways. But however nice these may look, they make it hard or even impossible to backtrack without killing yourself to get to the last checkpoint, as there’s often no path to bring you back. Besides those, there are also slingshots that will send you to another part of the level, and there’s no way to know if there will be a slingshot in that part of the level that will bring you back. And because these slingshots can have more blueprints or crystal fragments for you to collect, there’s no way to know if you should use it or not without going playing through the level at least one time.
Some levels do give you the option to backtrack through alternate paths, but even those stop at a certain point and it’s impossible to know if a level has these paths without playing it first. It also is impossible to get all of the collectables in the first few levels the first time you play them, because at the start of the game you can only play as Sonic. All of the other characters are gradually unlocked after a new stage. And because you need to use these character’s abilities to get to the collectables, you’ll have to replay one or two of them at least once to get past a collectable gate. Besides that, it being impossible to backtrack through stages means you’ll likely miss a few collectables the first time you play them, even if you try to get all of them.
The map system doesn’t really help much either. When you first start a level, the map only shows a blue space with white borders. More details are added to this map as you play through the level, with each area you go through being added to it and a percentage meter on the top right showing you how much of the level you’ve explored. The areas you explore are added as white structures though, which can be hard to distinguish from the white borders. Besides that, it only shows you the map of the part of the level you’re in. So you can’t see if you’ve already explored a different part of the level, making it hard to know if you’ve already used a slingshot or not. You can make the locations of blueprints and crystals show on the map with a couple of upgrades you can get by collecting blueprints, but even then they only show up if you’ve already been near the collectable.
There are a couple of other different kind of levels that pop up on the world map. There are several levels inspired by Sonic Rivals in which Sonic has to race against a different character. These are very simplistic though; you mostly just go right with sometimes an obstacle or an alternate path popping up. And every single one of these levels is the same aside from the setting. Then there are the worm tunnel levels, in which you view Sonic from a behind-the-back view. In these, there are several lanes you can run on, with each being on a different side of the tunnel. So Sonic will often run alongside the sides or even the ceiling. On each lane obstructions will pop up, so you need to be switching lanes constantly. Also there’s a huge robotic worm that pops up throughout these levels. It doesn’t really do much against Sonic, but it does look cool and it’s neat to see Sonic destroy it the first time you finish the level. That being said, each of these levels are very much the same, only getting slightly more difficult every time and unlike the rival races the setting never changes. Still, both kinds of levels are short and a nice break from the usually boring exploration levels.
Presentation-wise, the game doesn’t look bad. I didn’t run into any framerate issues and graphically the game looks fine for the 3DS. Most of the locations don’t deviate much from tropes seen in previous Sonic games though. We’ve already seen tropical levels or Eggman’s base several times, and at this point they’re just kind of boring and the game doesn’t really do a good job of making them look interesting. The music this time is supposedly done by Richard Jacques, who did a decent job this time around. While the music isn’t as good as other Sonic games, it’s at least a nice sounding game. There are also a few decently produced CG cutscenes. They’re not nearly as impressive as the CG in Sonic Team’s games, but still look all right.
The worst aspect of the game might just be the writing. Ken Pontiac and Warren Graff return for this game, and while I’m not a fan of the writing in the Sonic games they contributed to, it almost seems like they didn’t even bother with this game. The story is pretty simple: Lyric kidnaps Amy and Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Sticks have to save her. And if any of you care about continuity in a Sonic game (and if so, I’d be genuinely curious why), you might be confused by how none of them have ever met Lyric in both this game and Rise of Lyric. There’s no explanation for it, making it kind of weird.
Anyway, the game’s story is mostly presented through cutscenes in which the 3D characters stand in front of a static background, with what they’re saying being shown through text in dialogue boxes that look like thought bubbles for some reason. There are also a few CG cutscenes thrown in, particularly for the game’s opening and ending. The dialogue mainly consists of badly written and drawn out jokes. For example, Sticks asks how the team can see if there’s no I in team, making the others confused. Then one of the worst crimes in comedic writing is committed: the joke gets explained. It feels like the game was written for four year olds (which may very well be the case), but the jokes fail so hard at being funny that they would probably even bore toddlers. And despite the bad writing, the ending still manages to be disappointing. So disappointing that Sticks makes a speech about how disappointing it was, which just made me assume that the writers knew that it was a bad ending and that they thought they could get away with it by joking about it.
In conclusion: this game is just plain boring. It’s clearly made for kids, but that doesn’t excuse how low effort this title was. It deserves to be put alongside licensed games based on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network shows. It’s also a very short game, even with the collectable gates. I collected everything aside from all the coins and it took me about 5 to 6 hours, and collecting the rest of the coins would probably add a half-hour to that. After playing this game, I started playing the much criticized Rise of Lyric, and while it’s far from good at least the developers tried to add new ideas throughout the game. Still, in pretty much every other aspect Shattered Crystal is somewhat better executed. While it doesn’t mean much seeing how we’re comparing this to one of the worst Wii U games, this is the first Sonic 3DS game that’s better than its console counterpart. So it has that going for it I guess.*
[Thanks to Coldman for the image]
(Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was purchased by the reviewer for this review.)
*Originally I concluded this review by saying that Shattered Crystal is worse than Rise of Lyric. Having played more of the latter now, yeah, no.