I mentioned during my words about Sonic Adventure DX that Tails’ story was basically a redundant clone of Sonic’s because, well, they spend 99% of their time together. Cue Sonic Heroes some years later, where trios of our plucky protagonists are indeed forged into functional teams in a party-based interpretation of the Sonic canon.
Needless to say, I’ve never written about Sonic Heroes in more than passing either. Shall we?
Sonic Heroes is much cleaner than Sonic Adventure. There is no awkwardness with hub worlds and minigames; every level is an action stage or a boss fight, all focused on forward motion and mastery of your team’s abilities. As a result, the stages are bigger, grander, more involved and, yes, even more breathtakingly bonkers. I’ve never played Sonic Adventure 2 to know if it was the intervening years cut all the chaff away or if Sonic Heroes was the one to blaze that trail, but either way, the result is a (mostly) rather slick experience.
Indeed, in the triple-threat team mechanics it manages to bring a lot more to the table. Rather than being limited to one character and their single ability at a time, say Sonic’s homing jump or Tails’ flight, a good six abilities are brought together. This means the stages can unfold a whole heap more challenges without straying from the core mechanics.
There might actually be more than six abilities, come to think about it. Sonic gets his homing attack and a speedy dash (or lightspeed dash if there’s a trail of rings), plus a combo to start a small tornado. Tails gets flight and shoots his team-mates as stunning missiles, but Knuckles gets gliding and punching and shooting his team-mates as fireballs.
In the same way as classic 2D Sonic levels opened up with your skill as an operator, so too the levels in Sonic Heroes have multiple paths requiring different combinations of ability use and levels of competence at each — there will always be an easy path of fairly low resistance, so the game rarely blocks you for poor play, but paths with better rewards are always gated by more demanding obstacles. Needless to say, perfect ratings require all the hard stuff and after the early easy levels I soon descended into E ranks.
Sonic Heroes also throws some simple RPG mechanics into the mix. Each hero can level up by collecting power spheres, to a maximum of 3 each, to increase the amount of damage their traditional attacks do to enemies — unlike previous Sonic games where spindashing obliterates everything in your path, even basic badniks in Sonic Heroes take multiple hits to bring down.
Indeed, there’s an element of Unreal Tournament splashed into the scoring system too. Bonus points are acquired by chaining attacks and kills together in quick succession, basically multi-kills by a more family friendly name.
On the flip side, death and respawn at a checkpoint resets your team to level 0. Power spheres aren’t exactly scarce, but they’re definitely dropped by specific enemies rather than acquired randomly, and in the rush to get through a level (it is a Sonic game after all) it’s easy to blast by and never quite get everyone to the top.
Continuing the RPG theme, the Team Chaotix story levels generally require some objects to be collected rather than level traversal, unlike the other three stories.
It sounds like a nice change of pace in theory, but in practice it can lead to endless frustration. Grand Metropolis requires you to take down 85 individual enemies spread across the level, and it took me three or four loops to find the last one that I’d missed. In situations like this the game simultaneously encourages reckless speed but demands thoroughness and, well, the two are just a little bit mutually exclusive.
Of course, Team Chaotix are the fourth story and by then you may well be sick and tired of the game. A few of the challenges are adjusted between stories and Team Rose get cut-down levels, but otherwise it’s four repeats of the same tracks. Is this where I rant about preferring longer and more involved main plots rather than extra side quests? Possibly, but you have to complete all four stories — and collect all seven Chaos Emeralds — to unlock the actual conclusion.
It’s not completely slick, either. Sonic Heroes might have papered over all the bugs that made Sonic Adventure so frustrating but it introduces its own unique behaviours.
Pressing and holding X to pull on a switch, for example, might seem like a simple mechanic, but with a very narrow activation zone depending on character facing angle, pressing X has little guarantee of actually grabbing the switch. In Speed mode, X causes that massive dash forwards, which on hitting an a wall causes you to be redirected along its edge… Potentially over the chasm on the other side of the platform.
Grinding rails appeared too, and in itself is fine if a little boring; you don’t even need to steer, you just get bounced along and hope for the best, occasiaonlly jumping between lines. Except those times when you get catapulted off the end of a rail and the slightest perturbation of the thumbstick will knock you off course — plunging you to your doom as you miss the rail you’re meant to land on. Or, in one even worse case in Bullet Station, a course correction is required but not signalled in the slightest… And it’s a long way after the last checkpoint.
Ach, I still kind of like it. The three-person-team mechanics add a lot more interactive interest to the levels, which is perhaps finally a good substitute for the more puzzly elements of the original side-scrollers. On the other hand, it never goes so far as to ask any questions about which leader is best — it always lays out signposts and hint markers and character dialogue to ensure you know which one to choose, slightly ruining the effect.
So far all the expansions it brings, as far as I’m aware the Sonic Heroes format has never been repeated. This feels like a shame; imagine if, say, Mass Effect had let you rotate your three characters in the same way?