When the demo for Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was released on the 5th, I was keen to write about it, having been pleasantly surprised by its quality. Things got a little out of hand, however, when I decided to split my thoughts into parts: Part 1, about what I think made the classic Sonic games so special; Part 2, about why I think none of Sega’s Sonic games have quite lived up to them since (2D or 3D); and now Part 3, in which I will finally review the game itself.
A lot has happened in the past two weeks, though – the full version of the 3DS game was released on the 11th, as was the Wii U game, Rise of Lyric. The Sonic Boom TV series has also since premiered on the Cartoon Network. I wound up playing Shattered Crystal through to the end, trying the first few episodes of the cartoon, and watching an LP of Rise of Lyric just so that I’d have the big picture when writing this article. Having now done all that, I have to say that in my own estimation, the grand cross-media experiment of Sonic Boom would have been a total failure if not for this little 3DS game. It’s the only silver lining for me in the whole deal, with the cartoon being profoundly dumb and the Wii U game being a complete embarrassment.
It’s frustrating, because I’ve been looking forward to Sonic Boom ever since it was announced, excited to see someone else’s take on the franchise after Sega’s recent efforts had felt increasingly stale and misguided. Unfortunately, just like with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, what was ultimately delivered didn’t live up to the dream, or even, in many ways, what was promised. But something nice, however small, has come from it, so let’s focus on that.
Shattered Crystal is, at heart, a sidescrolling action platformer based around exploration. The player switches between the four characters on the fly with the D-pad, using their unique abilities to collect everything hidden in the levels. The level of complexity is not high, and retraversal is not emphasised – all of the characters are unlocked for play so early in the game that you’ll only need to revisit the first couple of areas.
Levels are accessed via a world map, and must be unlocked with a certain number of the badges that are awarded for playing previous levels thoroughly. This structure is a familiar one, being used in Super Mario 3D Land amongst countless others. I found it possible to earn enough badges while playing leisurely that I didn’t feel like I was forced to go back and grind through previous levels just to progress, which was something that marred Sonic Rush Adventure. Your mileage may vary, however, because I tend to be a “100% it as I go” kind of player; if you just rush through collecting nothing you’ll find your progress hampered.
In addition to the standard exploration levels, there are two other kinds of levels, both of them Sonic-only: Races and Worm Tunnels.
The Races are built on the same engine as the standard levels, but are much quicker and don’t contain any of the special hidden collectibles. They basically functions as the “bosses” of the game, with the final one pausing a couple times for Sonic to directly battle Lyric. Apart from that, though, there aren’t any traditional boss fights to be had.
The Worm Tunnels can be thought of like Special Stages from other Sonic games. Sonic runs forward, collecting rings and avoiding hazards, but can also boost through barriers and use the Enerbeam to connect to rails temporarily. They’re really fun – probably the best version of this concept in quite some time – and the Enerbeam rail sections are much better than the ones in the Wii U game because Sonic only moves between three positions to collect rings rather than swinging around wildly.
If you are expecting anything approaching classic Sonic gameplay, you will certainly find Shattered Crystal jarring. There’s no real momentum; Sonic and friends move at a languid pace by default, like Ristar or Kirby. Curves, slopes, and complicated moving platforms are all but absent, with the only loops and corkscrews being automatic speed sections like Sonic 3D Blast.
So, Shattered Crystal basically throws everything out from previous Sonic games. Instead it focuses on a few simple actions, one for each of the four face buttons on the 3DS.
- Pressing Y does the Sprint, allowing the player to dash quickly, useful for traversing disappearing platforms.
- Pressing B will jump, and also do a double-jump in the air. If an enemy or other target is nearby, B will perform a homing attack. Jumping and attacking are the same for each character now, so Sonic isn’t the only one who can home to enemies anymore. Unlike classic Sonic games, the player is not protected merely by jumping, and only a direct attack will destroy enemies.
- Pressing A activates the Enerbeam. Primarily useful for swinging on dedicated grapple points, but can also rip shields off of enemies.
- Pressing X does a character-specific ability. For Sonic, it allows him to Spin Dash (on the ground) or Air Dash (in the air); Knuckles can dig at certain context-sensitive points; Sticks throws her Boomerang to collect items or hit switches; Tails throws sticky bombs by default, but at specific points he can send his toy submarine, the SeaFox, into mini-mazes to collect blueprint fragments (I love that they reference Tails Adventure in this way).
The gameplay is rather slow-paced and deliberate, which seems antithetical to the Sonic series, but it’s actually quite enjoyable on its own due to how generous the controls are. For example, Sonic can jump, double jump, Air Dash in one direction, do another double jump, and Air Dash in another direction, all without touching the ground. Attacking an enemy, hitting a spring, or swinging with the Enerbeam all allow even more actions to be chained together, and it can be quite fun to keep a run of dozens of actions going without stopping. It’s not the traditional Sonic speed at all, but it’s its own kind of flow. I’d almost call it a rhythm-platformer.
Because of the leeway for using actions, it’s easy to catch the opportunities the levels provide without having to memorise them. Instead of flying off of a spring and missing a chance to Air Dash because everything’s happening too quickly, the player can still succeed even if they double-jump first to give themselves more time, or Air Dash in a different direction.
In some of Sonic’s recent 2D outings, it’s felt like he’s just impelled by springs and boosters and the player’s only input is to react correctly in time or Sonic falls to a lower path, gets hurt, or dies. Shattered Crystal improves on this greatly by expanding the number of reactions and giving the player more freedom of choice in how to use them. It’s slower, but it feels like you’re actually doing something because you’re more in charge of the bouncing and dashing around.
Unlike Rise of Lyric, Shattered Crystal lets you collect as many rings as you want without capping out at 100, and they work just like classic Sonic. You lose them all when you are hit (unless you activate a certain upgrade), and having only one protects you from death.
Gone are instant deaths – there are no crushing deaths, and pits only throw you back a ways and make you lose your rings. With so many Dimps games being marred by a preponderance of death pits, this is quite refreshing.
In fact, the game may be too easy. I didn’t die even once on my way through the normal levels or races, not even in the final boss. I ran into a few barriers in the Worm Tunnels, which immediately restarts the level, because I missed a ring and wanted to try again. There’s no lives system, so even that doesn’t feel like an actual death.
In order to progress, it’s necessary to collect badges to unlock the next levels. One badge is earned per level for simply reaching the goal, and two more are earned for finding all the crystal shards and blueprint fragments. Thus some amount of replay is required just to reach the end of the game.
But there are also tokens, separate from badges. While tokens can be farmed by working out with Knuckles every 24 hours in his Scrapyard home, they are also awarded for clearing level times and reaching goals with a certain number of rings. Tokens can then be spent to unlock cute 3D trophies of enemies, characters, and other objects in the game.
Personally I found the gameplay kind of soothing and addictive, so I went through levels more than I needed to as I went, obsessively getting both tokens in the Worm Tunnels before moving on.
The music, composed by Richard Jacques, is not a brilliant, instant-classic soundtrack like Sonic CD or Sonic Rush, but it’s very good. It’s got more of an adventure cartoon vibe than a traditional Sonic game vibe, but there are definitely a handful of stand out tracks.
One of the biggest problems with Rise of Lyric is the abhorrent use of voice clips all throughout the levels, with the characters commenting on everything from bounce pads to collecting rings, often a second or two late. Thankfully, this is wholly absent in Shattered Crystal, with absolutely no voice clips other than simple grunts during gameplay. Even the bulk of the cutscenes aren’t voice acted, opting for Zelda style vocalisations instead.
That said, the vocal grunts can get a little grating, especially when Sonic is Air Dashing and attacking. It’s not horrible, but it’s a small thing preventing the aural experience from being totally comfortable.
The graphics are not outstanding, and are easily out-competed by Donkey Kong Country Returns or Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, but they are not bad by any stretch. Some levels, like the ancient ruins and sky city are quite pretty, recalling classic environments like Marble Garden or Sky Sanctuary.
I was worried that the game’s writing would be really bad, preventing me from enjoying the experience, because I heard that Pontac and Graff were writing it. Fortunately the cutscenes are brief and mostly inoffensive. The writing is still mostly hokey jokes, but at least the mean-spirited sniping from Rise of Lyric isn’t present and some of it verges on cute.
Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is not the second coming of Sonic, but nor is it an abject mess like its Wii U cousin. It would be a shame if it were overshadowed and ignored just because the other parts of Sonic Boom didn’t turn out so well. It’s polished, above-average, and full of content, so if you enjoy slower paced platformers and have a 3DS, give it a chance. After all, the demo’s free!
All around I think Sanzaru Games did well for their first Sonic effort, and I’d be glad to see them return for a sequel, or perhaps a Sonic game outside of the Boom universe.