Backbone Entertainment’s racing take on the franchise offers some colourful enjoyment that far too quickly falls fowl of frustrating mechanics.
World-building & Story
Sonic Rivals is incredibly sparse on plot, with the only story told by brief talking head scenes in between levels. The gist is that Dr Eggman (or is it Robotnik?) has developed a camera that can turn living objects into cards and plans to use this on Sonic and his friends and eventually the whole world. There’s a little more to it than this involving time travel and extra character, but it’s the kind of silly, nonsensical idea that merely serves to push the adventure along and little else, doing little to make me laugh or keep me engaged.
If you’re expecting any character development then you’re out of luck too. You’ll need prior knowledge of the series to recognize any of these characters, which is easy enough for series icons like Knuckles but more difficult for someone like Silver (I still don’t quite understand who he is). Although platformers often rely on broad, colourful stereotypes in their games, it’s a shame that Rivals does absolutely nothing beyond this – each character races each other to get to Eggman first then teams up for the final encounter in predictable fashion.
Sonic’s world is one of twisting pathways in a number of locations, ranging from theme parks to chemical plants and even into outer space. No effort is made to explain why these are used, but at least they’re pretty enough corridors to run down.
Presentation & Sound
Opting for a 3D presentation on a 2D plane, Sonic Rivals might not be PSP’s most technically impressive game but a vivid use of colour manages to stop things from ever looking drab, even if certain elements could have seen some improvement.
Character models are probably the worst aspect of the presentation, having blocky features and jerky animation. There’s some nice jank to things like Knuckles’ wave in the final level that makes the game feel like a somewhat cheap product, which is a shame. With that said, special attacks during levels are generally flashier and nicer, with things like Sonic’s Boom dash looking better than his average running frames.
Environments are better, with a number of different settings providing variety – there are rolling green hills; fireworks-laden rollercoasters and dank factories and each pops with things happening in the background while racing, something I appreciated. Additionally, they’re littered with objects to interact with from jump pads to grind rails and – in a nice touch – also include a couple of ‘set piece’ moments like jumping onto a zip line or riding a giant boulder, which manage to look quite impressive.
Sound is nothing special – music is never more than background noise and there’s little voice acting aside from the odd exclamation from characters during levels. Racing sound effects are more vibrant from the clatter of rings when being attacked to the whoosh of hitting boost pads, providing at least a little audio respite.
Gameplay & Content
The Sonic titles have always baffled me as I’ve never been sure whether they’re supposed to be played as ‘gotta-go-fast’ racing games or more slow, methodical collection platformers. Rivals answers this by making the decision for you – each level is a race to reach Eggman as fast as possible and so the goal is always to make it to the finish line before your rival (hence the title!)
Upon booting up you’re given a number of choices of how to play, ranging from a free play mode (challenge – you choose the character and your rival and are set certain goals) to story mode, which pits you through a set number of stages – but the core gameplay always stays the same. You’ll be running from left to right as your chosen character, picking up power ups and avoiding obstacles in order to reach the finish line faster than whoever you’re racing against.
To add nuance to what would otherwise be a very straightforward game, Backbone added various challenges to each level. There are often multiple paths forward, some which require straight forward running; some which have enemies which must be attacked and others have blocks which must be jumped over or pushed. You’re also prone to taking damage which will cause you to lose any rings you’re carrying – if you have no rings you’ll respawn, making collecting them essential.
Aside from this, there are also powerups in each zone that can be used to slow your opponent’s progression such as by dropping an ice block or setting them on fire. Other environmental quirks exist, ranging from jump pads that need to be charged up to weighted ledges, meaning while you’re barreling forward you will have to have some consideration regarding the path ahead. In practice, this means a lot of trial-and-error gameplay in learning the layout of each area.
The problem is that in practice all this just isn’t much fun. Going forward with such speed only to encounter a block that slowly has to be pushed out of the way kills all feeling of momentum; as does being hit by a control inversion power up from your rival that makes you run backwards. Without collectibles to encourage exploration there’s little incentive to play levels more than once unless you’re desperate to chase high scores and often your first time through will just be guesswork on whether you’re going on a route that won’t just get you killed.
In addition, AI is rubber banded to the extreme to ensure any gap you’ve created from carefully planning your way through a level is rapidly closed. You’d better hope that if you mess up it’ll be in the first three-quarters of a level, because if it’s in the home stretch you haven’t got a hope of catching up no matter how well you play. It creates a frustrating dynamic of restarting as soon as you mess up since you know that’s it.
Aside from racing, Sonic Rivals does mix things up a little with its boss fights. Taking place in a circle around the boss in the middle, you’re competing with your rival to this time take down the enemy – which comes down to pattern recognition and striking the right part at the right time. These range from sort-of enjoyable to downright frustrating – an early boss with randomly spawning platforms is an annoyance, but the final boss is an exercise in frustration as you have to not only dodge your rival but also a barrage of turrets and barriers, with a time limit added to boot. I will say that they’re mostly pretty inventive, but that doesn’t make them fun to play against.
In terms of content, Rivals doesn’t fare much better in this department. You can beat the game in one sitting, but you’re encouraged to go back to collect the cards of various characters or play as someone else (there are five characters each with their own campaigns) – something I wasn’t really fussed on doing. There is an ad-hoc mode which I wasn’t able to test but I’d imagine does add some nice value – although with that said, the discount price on the store makes it easy to take a gamble on if you have any interest.
Backbone clearly understand the basics of what makes Sonic fun, but distilling it down and stripping away many of the more nuanced elements leaves Rivals feeling a little hollow and empty. The short length combined with some of the more frustrating elements of design make the whole package a bit disappointing, but there’s still some enjoyment to be found in the colourful worlds and fast-paced gameplay.