There are few things more dispiriting than diminished expectations. That malaise that sets in when you realise there's not much point hoping and instead start bracing for the worst. It's a feeling Sonic fans have become all too familiar with over the last decade.
The reputation of Sega's one-time figurehead is now so tarnished by endless reinventions and poorly conceived new directions that it can be hard to recall just how vibrant, innovative and refreshing Sonic the Hedgehog was when it blazed onto the Megadrive back in 1991. Those first few games were good enough to stand toe to toe with Mario, and give Nintendo an accelerated run for its money.
Today, the idea of a new Sonic game even coming close to Mario Galaxy or New Super Mario Bros seems like something plucked from a madman's dream. In 2014, we come to Sonic games hoping, at best, that it will be OK. Pretty good. Not terrible. In our hearts, based on recent form, we know that's probably too high a bar to set. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is not OK. It's not pretty good. It is, sadly and perhaps inevitably, often terrible.
It is, as always, yet another soft reboot for the series, another blind fumbling attempt to reassemble decaying parts in a different order to see if life will return to the carcass. This time the new direction is tied in with a new cartoon series, but it's hard to see what the actual point of it is. The main difference seems to be that Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy all now wear bandages for some reason. Sonic has what looks like a snood. Knuckles has become a dopey idiot, because all kid's cartoons apparently need a token large, strong dummy to deliver punchlines along with punches.
The story casts this quartet of brightly coloured mammals against a new foe. Lyric is a sort of techno-snake supervillain who wants to wipe out all life using his robot army. Sonic and gang accidentally unleash Lyric from his tomb-slash-prison following an opening battle against Eggman.
In terms of functionality, both villains are pretty much interchangeable. Lyric may be more bloodthirsty in theory - Eggman certainly was never one for genocide - but in moment-by-moment gameplay terms it just means you're fighting more robot foes, which is bread and butter for the series.
And you will be fighting them, as Sonic Boom is yet another entry to make the mistake of thinking fans want to see the speedy blue hedgehog pummelling enemies in long-winded melee combat sessions. The system used is tediously flat - just mash one button and occasionally use a dodge roll when fighting bosses - and the only change of pace comes from weapons dropped by a special enemy type.
These additions to the arsenal feel like a riff on Ratchet & Clank, with whirlwind guns and tickle attacks, but their implementation is stiff and clumsy. The combat is never nuanced enough to make such an arsenal worthwhile, and you'll quickly learn that hammering the attack button works just as well.
Sonic Boom's problems cut deeper than a simple over reliance on one-note pugilism, however. The game's platforming core has been left to rot for too long, and while the four characters each boast different ways of traversing the levels, the game's structure means the distinction is functionally irrelevant.
Sonic's move set is well known. He can spin dash up ramps and around loops to progress. Tails can hover and fly for short distances, as well as releasing a miniature robot that can enter small doors to unlock the way ahead. Knuckles can climb vertical red crystal surfaces, and hang from ceilings made of the same material. Amy is the most agile of the quartet, able to triple rather than simply double jump, and she can also balance on special beams. Pink beams, naturally.
The trouble is, the core game areas are so stiflingly linear that there's no thought needed in how you use these characters. One area will be for Amy. Another for Sonic. The game does support a basic two player co-op mode, but that only means that each player is essentially following whichever route is pre-determined by their character. Only occasionally do you actually need to co-operate to get past obstacles, and even then it's unlikely to tax your brain.
Various switches are used to open the way ahead - green ones that must be struck, either with a punch or a ground pound attack, and illuminated tiles that must be followed in a pattern. These ideas get recycled over and over, and wherever confusion might intrude into these linear pathways, the characters compensate by commenting on literally everything. They'll point out every bounce pad, every boost plate. They'll comment on every switch and jump. They never shut up. At one point, Sonic says "Hey look! Ramps!" and Tails replies "We can use them as ramps!". It really is that bad.
It's almost as if the game is designed for pre-schoolers, although younger players are likely to be put off by the slippery controls and an atrocious camera which is part-automated, part-manually controlled, and makes every section of the game an exercise in seasickness.
The camera is irritating during the platforming sections, which flick from side-on 2D to crude free-roaming 3D, but is at its worst during the obligatory boost-and-bounce sprints around scripted loops which kick in sporadically. At other times, the viewpoint shifts to a rear view for brief bursts of sub-Temple Run dodging, or the characters hang from grind rails and are taken on a rollercoaster ride to the next area. When any of these things happen, the frame rate tanks, the camera jerks and spasms, and its often impossible to tell what's happening.
The camera is also an issue during the stodgy adventure sections in which the heroes must explore an overworld map, seeking out quest givers in order to move the story forwards. If the game is tiresomely didactic during the actual stages, the opposite is true here. There's nothing to tell you where to go or who to speak to, other than a vague voiceover prompt. You'll be told to speak to a certain character or activate a machine, but then have to schlep all over the place trying to work out what or who you're looking for.
Very rarely a tiny yellow arrow appears for a few seconds to point you in the right direction, but even when the game belatedly offers a map, it's still a crude guide to where you need to be. That needn't be a disaster, of course, and in a game where exploration was enjoyable, it would be a welcome invitation to engage with the world. Sometimes, you catch a glimpse of how that might work in Sonic's world.
There are various tasks you can help out with as you roam, using the mechanical currency earned by defeating enemies to build new machines and fix up towns, or talking to side characters for bonus missions, and the concept is quite charming. Trouble is, when these moments present themselves, you'll likely be cursing the game as you wander blindly as the camera lurches, twitches, swirls and sticks. It all makes these sections such a chore that you'll want to get them over with as quickly as possible.
That robot scrap currency, along with harder to find crowns, can also be spent on upgrading your characters but the skill trees on offer fail to inspire. The improvements are barely noticeable and not really worth the grind needed to unlock them all. Most annoying is the fact that the one stat you will want to increase - the number of rings you can hold, which is essentially your health bar - can only be changed by connecting with the associated 3DS game, Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal. No thanks.
Throughout, this feels like a game with no guiding vision, no clear design goal and no understanding of what makes Sonic fun. There are dozens of ideas thrown into the mix, but none of them feel fresh and they all churn together, getting in each other's way rather than combining to form a coherent game. That the whole experience is so scruffy only sours the mixture even more. This is a glitchy, unpolished title and while it only rarely results in a game breaking scenario that forces a restart, it constantly taunts you with its make-do quality.
It's that confused scattershot quality that makes Sonic Boom most depressing. There have been bad Sonic games before, of course, but at least most of those felt like honest experiments, singular ideas that failed to work. Now, it feels like anything and everything is being thrown at the series in pursuit of "refreshing the brand" or some other horrendous marketing goal, but with no clear notion of what the end result is supposed to be, or who it's supposed to be for. The recognisable elements of Sonic - the tinkle of the rings, the whizz of a spin up a ramp - are all but drowned out.
From the constant bland corny quips to the 1990s 3D camera to the muddled yet monotone gameplay, it's a game that is horrendously out of touch, not only with its heritage but its modern audience. It's not just annoying to play, but it thinks it's being cool and funny while doing it. It's embarrassing, like a dad trying to breakdance at a wedding, or a newsreader doing a rap for Comic Relief, or someone saying "to the max" without a hint of irony. It's a middle-aged executive's idea of what is hip and cool with the kids.
This lack of direction is an especially ironic failing for a character who was once defined by his single-minded forward momentum. The time is clearly long overdue for Sonic to take a well-earned rest, get his breath back and only return once Sega has worked out where he's supposed to be going. It pains me to say it, but Sonic Boom needs to be the last noise we hear from the blue hedgehog for a very long time.