I thought Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I was a fun experiment, albeit not one that had much of a future. A lukewarm critical response to the first episode was indifferent to any further installments, but then Sonic Generations came into focus and seemingly completed all of Sonic 4’s goals. Generations' license to literally remake levels from Sonic's past was qualified without pretense, putting it a step ahead of Sonic 4's distressing synthesis of old and new levels. With Generations, Sega already won - they cracked the new fan/old fan code and made the best Sonic game possible for both parties. Unless major changes were in store, any more of Sonic 4 might seem like a step backward.
And yet here we are with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II. Whereas Episode I drew most of its influence from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Episode II turns the same favor for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Therein lies the central gimmick that separates both episodes; Miles "Tails" Prower. Sonic's hetero life-mate returns in a role more structured and symbiotic than his incidental appearances in the Genesis era. Tails also boasts a reasonable amount of street cred because he showed up way before all of Sonic's unbearable friends started crashing every party, so his return doesn't much intrude on the classic Sonic paradigm.
Tails is realized in two specific combination abilities; his trademark copter that lugs Sonic up and around obstacles, and a new move where Sonic and Tails combine to form a veritable super spin dash. Flight, which also works to pull Sonic upward while underwater, is only available for a short amount of time and seemingly (evidence was conflicted) extended by collecting rings. There aren't many hidden areas available exclusively through flight, but there are numerous sections were Tails elevates Sonic through obstacles or speeds him through dangerous vertical accents. The new super dash is good for ramming and destroying otherwise solid objects to clear a path, eviscerate enemies, or a good old fashioned speed boost.
On one hand Tails' presence in Sonic's travels is a neat idea. True to form, when not being employed an AI-controlled Tails still shuffles around aimlessly and kills himself every five seconds. This happened all the time in the Genesis games and it's great that Sega playfully acknowledges that aspect of his existence. Thankfully, when you need Tails and he's off committing suicide, he emerges out of the ether to do his duty at a moment's notice. In these instances time literally stops, and Sonic and Tails team up to get the job done.
Again, it's a solid idea, but sometimes it fundamentally breaks the game. This is most evident during Episode II's lengthy boss fights, where the desperation to hang on to or collect rings is interrupted by stopping time, calling Tails, and putting Sonic in a perfect position to collect rings. Flight can also completely spoil the challenge of Episode II's final boss fight, which is frustrating when you look back on Episode I's intense finale. In these cases you are thinking outside the box, which feels neat, but not in a way necessarily intended by the development team, which seems busted.
What's more disappointing is how Episode II seems to be afraid when it might not remind the player of Genesis-era Sonic. It's valuable to recognize symbols like the Tails’ biplane and Metal Sonic is welcomed back with open arms, but was it necessary to replicate levels and themes on a nearly 1:1 basis? Episode 2's Sylvania Castle is a virtual reproduction of Sonic 2's Aquatic Ruins. Oil Desert is a mix of Sonic 2's Oil Ocean and Sonic & Knuckles' Sandopolis. The traps and tribulations therein seek to employ nostalgia but don't do much to improve upon our collective memories. Factoring in common platforming tropes like wind, rising sand, or expanding/shrinking platforms is good for a little variation, and it all technically works, but it comes off as expected and unexciting.
What's better is when Episode II breaks the chains of its numerical ancestors. The boss of Sylvania Castle, for example, stomps in looking to create an exact reproduction of the Aquatic Ruin boss fight in Sonic 2. Then, out of nowhere, it consciously performs an about face and evolves into a bombastic and altogether different challenge. Similarly, White Park, which merges the traditional snow level and Sonic's fondness for carnivals and casinos, is aesthetically beautiful and inviting. Act 2 of Sky Fortress and the entirety of the final two levels also show little allegiance to nostalgia, which leads to the suspicion that if Sonic Team and Dimps were allowed to make a new 2D Sonic game without having to obey the demons of the past, we might have received a more clever and inventive installment.
With the exception of a few exciting moments, level design seems to take a step back from Episode I. The chief offender in this area is the combinations with Tails. Combinations are all sign posted, literally, suggesting that the development team wasn't skilled enough to include these instances in a manner that could instantly be recognized. Employing them when you're not supposed to, however, leads to the aforementioned instances when you can gingerly sidestep the boss encounters or other route challenges. Beyond that Episode II offers a standard and occasionally exciting mélange of familiar platforming and segements where Sonic gets to cut loose and run through loops, all of which is par for the course.
Other times Episode II seems to actively punish the player for trying to think outside the box. Trying to engage missiles being thrown at Tails' biplane doesn't fling them back at the boss, but rather pushes the plane to the edge of the screen and pits the player back at the beginning of the boss fight. Instances like that are profoundly irritating because you seem to be operating within the accepted rules of the game, and rather than account for plausible circumstances the development team just shrugged their shoulders and opted to kill the player. "Ha ha, nice try" isn't the greatest way to learn a lesson.
Sonic's movement was the topic of much debate in Episode I, and it's apparently been tweaked and improved for Episode II. I couldn't tell much of a difference between the two, but Sonic's movement remains relatively awkward and unresponsive. It's fine, really, I don't have much of a problem with it, but there is a distinct lack of control that suggests movement just isn't where it needs to be. This is painfully obvious in the final duel against Metal Sonic, but otherwise it's an accepted inadequacy one simply gets used to rather than a game ending fissure.
Episode II's presentation also represents two sides of a coin rather than a singular vision. On one hand the levels are exceptionally detailed and look great all around. Sylvania Castle's evening sun elicits a purple mountain's majesty, and aurora borealis in White Park's sky adds another layer of beauty to its wonderful pallet. Musically, while the classic 16-bit drum beats are true to form, a layer of synthesizers dominates the audible landscape and range from irritating to passable. Sonic games have always featured great music, even amidst his greatest failures, but tracks like this one apparently prove that nothing is sacred.