Everyone’s favourite Blue Hedgehog couldn’t have been in a clumsier spot—after the less-than-stellar Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), SEGA wanted to make sure the next entry in the series would be a standout. That game would turn out to be Sonic Unleashed, internally developed by SEGA’s Sonic Team and published by the very giant. Launching nearly 14 years ago on the 18th of November 2008, the game’s critical reception would be better than Sonic’s previous 360 title but not by much.
It’s due to said reception that I never got around to this game until very recently. so, with the game and it’s twelve-dollar downloadable content in tow, I decided to finally give the game a fair shake. I’m glad I did, because I think Sonic Unleashed has more good than bad, even if the bad strangles out the enjoyment I had towards the end of the game.
A New Beginning
In Sonic Unleashed, players take on the role of Sonic after absorbing the powers of Dark Gaia, a giant beast of darkness that awakened from the core of the planet. In the game’s really cool CGI intro movie, players watch as Dr. Eggman tricks a noble-yet-naive Sonic showing him mercy, causing our blue hedgehog to lose the Chaos Emeralds and shattering Earth into pieces, as the Doctor draws power from said Emeralds to kickstart his giant ray gun and awaken Dark Gaia. Sonic falls from outer space and right into the game’s opening level as a big, hulking Werehog, but he thankfully changes back to his regular self once the sun comes up.
This intro is short, sweet, and to the point. It sets up the premise of the game with some stellar animation, easily some of the best in gaming, and acting as a showcase for the last Sonic game that got a big budget like this. But this intro’s straightforwardness means a lot more than you think—in Unleashed (and frankly, nearly every Sonic game thereafter), players will only play as Sonic. As a matter of fact, outside of Amy and Tails, none of Sonic’s large cast of characters ever show up. The mess that Sonic 2006 left was so great that Sonic Team went straight to the drawing board: less side characters, less story, more Sonic. I think some changes were for the best, others less so (especially gameplay related changes), but I digress.
Even with the refocused vision, SEGA still loves to experiment with Sonic. And experiment they did. In Unleashed players will soon find out that alongside their typical running stages, there are also 3D brawling stages that focus more on the platforming side of things. That’s probably where most of the game’s criticism lies, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
In Sonic Unleashed, players will explore a shattered Earth and go all over to find the next level or objective they need to complete in order to continue. I thought this was a cool way to tie in the new stages with a country and its culture (and ergo, a new biome). Said countries each have their own little hub world with plenty of characters to chat with, challenges to complete, and each country feels respectful to their real-world counterparts (like Greece or Africa). Once you’re done with those, you can jump into the ‘level select’ parts of the hub world, which is where the real fun begins.
If you’ve never played a Sonic game, I could best describe them as on-rails 3D platformers with an emphasis on blazing through the level as fast as possible without taking damage. When done right, they can be incredibly fun, especially as each stage has multiple paths to take and therefore multiple ways to get to the end of the stage. Throw in high-speed, energetic rock and electronic tunes and you have a recipe that keeps players coming back for years. Unleashed’s daytime stages are exactly that and are easily the best parts of this game.
I never felt that a daytime stage overstayed its welcome. Each stage could easily be blasted through if you just wanted to get them over with, but if you take alternate pathways, you’ll find plenty of collectibles and challenges to tackle. Some of the late game levels can get a bit tricky, but I never felt that they were unfair. Even the DLC stages, which are remixed versions of the base levels in the game, never felt overly hard or obnoxious. Ohtani Tomoya and company’s upbeat rhythms only add to the satisfying feeling of blasting through spikes and Dr. Eggman’s robots with Sonic Speed.
The game runs at a full 60 frames per second on Xbox Series X too, which easily makes this the best version of the game to date.
The Beast is Unleashed
Sonic’s daytime stages are only half of the game. When the player switches to nighttime, levels become suited for Sonic the Werehog. Instead of speeding through levels, now players will fight hordes of Dark Gaia’s spawn and platform about to complete puzzles and progress through the stage. Sonic’s moveset gets a shake up to boot—he can do light and heavy attacks, block and evade, and stretch his limbs far out to reach ledges and other level functions.
This part of Sonic Unleashed, however, contributes to the worst aspects of the game. Sonic feels sluggish, which makes sense if he’s supposed to be this hulking beast that’ll spend most of his time on the ground. Except that’s not the case, because level progression involves quite a few jumps and tightropes that you’ll fall from over and over again. I eventually got used to how the Werehog played and started to enjoy some of the levels—even the combat, too—but that didn’t last as long as I’d have liked it to.
Like I mentioned earlier, Sonic has quite a few baddies he’s got to fight to progress sometimes. At first, combat isn’t too bad, and you’ll clear out the hordes relatively quickly. Players earn experience points for beating up enemies, too, which can then be allocated to different stats for the Werehog (Sonic, too, but to a less interesting extent). This can unlock new moves which can be fun to pull off, as lots of them are great for crowd control.
The problem is, as the levels go on, the combat sequences get worse. The Werehog is already barely tolerable as it is, but the game thinks this isn’t enough and starts throwing enemies that have tons of invincibility frames, block all the time, and do quite a lot of damage. The later levels start to add gimmicks to certain enemy types too, that rely on Sonic’s janky grab mechanic and the game’s lock-on system, which doesn’t work out well against many on-screen targets.
To be fair, I thought it was a decent attempt at trying to do something new with Sonic, but it also plays like the antithesis to Sonic. Some tweaks to enemy behaviour would have easily made these sections less frustrating—because nothing makes a 3D brawler more frustrating than seeing your character hit a target but not doing a lick of damage, or worse, watching your hits make contact but offer no feedback at all.
Picking Up the Pieces
Sonic Unleashed has plenty of cutscenes in-between levels, telling a serious story with more comedic undertones. It’s in stark contrast to previous Sonic games, where cartoon sound effects overlay the bumbling actions of Dr. Eggman, Sonic, and the game’s kind of ugly mascot called ‘Chip’. although the world may be in literal pieces, the lives of its people don’t seem all too affected (in fact, I don’t think anyone died after the catastrophe). Everyone’s voicework sans Chip is really solid, and even if Jason Griffith has moved on as playing Sonic, he’ll always be the blue hedgehog’s voice in my book.
The game’s finale ultimately struggles to combine both Sonic and his Werehog form. The level leading up to the final boss becomes too long, and the spectacle fights against Dark Gaia are frustrating. Which is a shame because even though the finale and its events are cool, the execution left me feeling a bit mixed in the end. Still, the game has the best Super Sonic fight in the series, and the boss fights leading up to the finale were pretty good, so in hindsight the game pulled off some of its execution a lot better than I always read about. For the cherry on top, the end credits play the game’s main vocal theme, Endless Possibility by Bowling for Soup’s Jaret Reddick, and it’s so 2000s—I simply love it.
Sonic Unleashed is also where the ‘Sonic Boost’ mechanic became a series staple. See, rather than relying on momentum to reach Sonic’s top speed, players simply pick up rings to fill the boost meter and press the ‘X’ button to go fast. You either like this feature or hate it, and while the mechanic best fits the levels in Sonic Unleashed, I do feel that it’s impacted future game entries in how their levels are designed and the challenges they provide. With Sonic Frontiers continuing the tradition, I can only hope Sonic Team finds a creative way to build interesting levels amid their open world ambitions.
Looking back at Sonic Unleashed, I see a game with a great first half, a middling second, and a frustrating finale. There’s a lot of polish and heart to the game, even if some parts of the game could have turned out a lot better. But it’s a solid game, and one I can recommend to just about anyone.