Sonic has to go fast. This is his blessing and it is his curse.
His defining characteristic emerged when he ran circles around Mario’s established brand, and for the last twenty years Sega and Sonic Team have struggled to translate that sentiment into the third dimension. Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations demonstrated considerable improvement over 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog and a pair of generic Wii games, but a straight line has run through each iteration; Sonic has to go fast, and he can't do so without expressing a satisfying level of control. Control, or lack thereof, is Sonic's Achilles' heel.
Sonic Lost World presents another solution; a run button. A binary clarification between, "I want Sonic to go fast," and "Jeez this jump looks tough, how about we slow it down a bit?" It's more interesting than it appears because, remember, Sonic has to go fast, and Sega has finally adjusted a fundamental facet of that necessity. They’ve also complimented this new dichotomy with "parkour" abilities and top it off with a return of the Wisps from Sonic Colors. In practice this assemblage of ideas both old and new carries promise, but in execution, well, Lost World carries itself like any other Sonic game. Great ideas are squandered away with alarming and disappointing frequency.
Examine Lost World's arresting visual presentation. One quarter eternally enigmatic Sonic X-treme and three quarters Super Mario Galaxy, Lost World's playful relationship with gravity and penchant for spherical landscapes is readily apparent and incredibly attractive. The belief of affixing Sonic's world to an oval or an elongated tube is consistent with his core philosophies. Its length enables Sonic to go fast while selecting from an arrangement of paths through the same level. Lost World’s debut video where Sonic jumped around a giant Green Hill Zone styled tube simultaneously overloaded nostalgia and embraced a brand new way to play - and unfortunately it's mostly a facade concealing problems endemic to Sonic games.
The trouble with Lost World's spherical landscapes is that they function as an excuse rather than an idea. There's very little that's actually interesting, as the majority of Lost World takes place on one particular plane. The slender curvature of those surfaces looks inviting, and there are a few tricks with perspective here and there, but absent are those moments of incredible discovery found in Mario Galaxy or instances of considerable awe expressed through pure speed. Lost World gets credit for being a more involved game that some of its predecessors, despite an occasional fascination with bumpers it's anything but automated, but Lost World pulling inspiration from a masterpiece like Mario Galaxy is ultimately a pipe dream.
From the first level, Lost World has a problem with teaching the player its rules. Jumping and locking onto enemies for a homing attack is handled by two different buttons with seemingly the same actions. The lock-on attack button is also a jump button, but it's not the jump button and problems can arise if the two are confused. In addition to a lock-on, there's also a ricochet-friendly kick move assigned to another button, but despite its considerable usefulness Lost World doesn't introduce this concept until nearly halfway through the game. Going back through Lost World and collecting hidden red rings and earning S-ranks are part of the design, sure, but basic elements of control shouldn't be withheld from the player.
Sonic's undisclosed moves in Lost World are always there, you just have zero context for their effect on the world until the game decides to highlight that particular feature. Worse, when the explain icon appears on the gamepad, it either disappears before you can look at it or you have to risk getting attacked by something while you look down at the gamepad for said explanation. It sounds like such a trivial thing to complain about but time and time again Lost World would pop up some crucial fact in the middle of a difficult jump or otherwise threatening situation. It's like these instances were tossed in without care or concern for the player's actions.
It gets worse with the lack of grace behind Sonic's adjusted moveset. The core of his new parkour abilities centers on wall running. If Sonic even approaches a modicum of speed he'll flash shades of blue when running into a wall. This enables Sonic to run up a wall and, with a bit of practice, "wall kick" up vertical surfaces. Problems arise when Sonic automatically runs up walls you never intended to ascend. For example, instead of precisely jumping from a rotating gear into another rotating gear, I magnetized to the wall and then jumped off straight into a rising pool of lava. It called to mind the weird ceiling running physics system injected into Sonic 4, and while not quite as problematic, it accounted for several deaths that weren't my fault.
Learning the rules via trial and error is once again Sonic's specialty. I don't necessarily have a problem with this methodology, Super Meat Boy is one of my favorites, but the irresponsibility of Lost World's challenges leaves no room for preparation. Suddenly finding myself in a level where Sonic appeared to be flying, I died when I descended into the bottom of the level. This seemed puzzling when there was no penalty for ascending to the top. Likewise, when I was barreling down a sand slide and got caught on a railing, I had no idea there was a time limit before the railing snapped. I still have no idea how to properly time 2D rail jumps to avoid bomb carts on the second-till-last level. When you’re down to your last life and learning one of these lessons suddenly requires you to replay the entire level, it might be more appealing to leave the controller inside the wall you just threw it through.
All of this wouldn't be such a pain in the ass if Lost World didn't rely on a set number of lives which, when extinguished, kick the player out of the level. What results, especially in Lost World's closing levels, is a constant series of trial and error based on repeating checkpoints until perfection is obtained. If Sonic dies five or so times on a particular checkpoint a pair of checkpoint-advancing wings appear, but that's a band-aid on a gaping wound. It doesn't solve the problem. There was a distinct feeling of satisfaction upon finally completing a level, but it was more out of putting that section behind me forever rather than the intended endorphin of accomplishment.
This is especially disappointing considering the showcase of good ideas Lost World is apt to present in some of its level. Employing menacing robotic serpents as moveable and disappearing platforms and combining them with laser dodging sequences make Zone 2 of Sky Road is one of the most enjoyable in Sonic's history. Likewise, Zone 4 of Sky Road, a 2D level, plays with perspective in making Sonic exit and enter different sides of the screen. The latter is been done in platformers before, but fusing it with Sonic's brand of speed-first-questions-later makes it feel fresh and new. Frozen Factory's vicious snowball sequence channels Super Monkey Ball, Silent Forest boasts intense spotlight dodging from a creepy owl robot, and Tropical Coast features a Temple of Doom-esque chase from a giant apple – and are all standout sequences. It's just too difficult to escape a level without some sort of nagging incompetency getting in the way.
Lost World's 2D levels come off much better than their 3D counterparts. Comprising maybe half the game, they’re packed with disappearing platforms, more manageable rail sequences, and more direct enemy encounters. The 2D sections are still subject to familiar wall-running mishaps, but at least there's a clear idea of how to handle the road ahead. Lost World also boasts a number of bonus levels outside each areas standard zones. Most are just Touchscreen-101 minigames meant to earn large quantities of level-unlocking animals, but a few are sequences free of context and composed of pure gameplay. These bonus levels feel like a home for ideas that couldn't work as full level or part of a the plot, and their carefree nature (and generally fewer distracting assets) render them just as or more engaging than their counterparts.
Another showcase of Lost World's better ideas lies with its boss fights. The Deadly Six, a colorful cartoon cast of villainous stereotypes, usually exhibit some sort of particular gimmick unique to Lost World's brand of spherical hijinks. The problem is these battles end right at the moment they become interesting. For example, running around on a sphere presents ample opportunity to dodge Zeena's rotating attack, but only after the suffering two hits does she phase into a vertical double-dutch of laser jumping. After one more hit, it's completely over. This trend carries over to almost every boss encounter; the complete idea is only expressed for a brief instance. You could make the argument that Lost World is aimed at a younger and less refined crowd, and I would say you might be on to something - but then there's the difficulty (some intended, often otherwise) of its platforming sequences.
And then there are those Wisps. I have no idea why Wisps are in Lost World. Introduced in Sonic Colors as temporary super powers, Wisps were a means to add flavor to an otherwise routine Sonic adventure. In Lost World, the Cyan Wisp transforms Sonic into a laser and, via the touchpad, aim at another crystal for a brief teleport move. The Orange Wisp transforms Sonic into a rocket to blast off to one other sphere in the distance. The Magenta Wisp turns Sonic a musical note and allows brief ascension via tapping a few other musical notes on the touchpad. Do you see where I'm going here? None of this is essential, and especially in the case of Crimson (flying eagle) and Green (hovercraft), they either bypass seemingly essential areas or position Sonic at a significant disadvantage when the Wisp power ends. Wisps feel like an afterthought, a back-of-the-box feature tossed into Lost World when touchpad integration seemed like a necessity. Thankfully, almost all of the Wisps can be safely ignored.
At the very least, Lost World usually looks and always sounds quite lovely. Placing it side by side with 2011's Sonic Generations, it's clear that 60 frames-per-second is a more fitting home than Generation's 30. Lost World doesn't feel as fast as some of its predecessors, but it's so damn smooth it’s difficult to notice. Sound effects are right on cue as well, sounding modern without the usual tackiness of obliging nostalgia. Special mention goes to Tomoya Ohtani's soundtrack, which is as eclectic and smartly composed as any in the series. In fact, Lost World might have my favorite soundtrack from a Sonic Team game since Nights: Intro Dreams. The first zone of Silent Forest, in particular, is a track I could listen to all day.
Lost World's art department also does an exceptional job at juxtaposing essential references with original ideas. Crawltons, for example, make a brief appearance, as does that snake thing from Sonic 2's Chemical Plant Zone. Other cameos from days of Sonic's past are in no short supply. While Generations literally split the difference between old and new Sonic fans, Lost World offers a more harmonious solution. With an deliberate division of 2D and 3D stages, each with the requisite tricks in perspective, Lost World is probably the most well realized Sonic game in the modern era. It's also (probably) the best playing game, though Sonic still has ways to go before he's in a game one might have the best time playing.