Not just another fangame; 'Sonic After the Sequel' takes it to the tenth degree
A fan game review? That’s not something you see every day. It’s not something I write every day, either. Let’s face it, our society likes canon. There isn’t much money in fandom, or derivative works; and since they’re free, there’s little need for good reviewers. Besides, fan games are typically hit and miss— well, okay, mostly miss.
Only a completely hard-up fan with nothing better to do will constantly look for fan content to play. When they do, they’re mostly disappointed. As a result, more moderate fans may miss some really cool content; some of which proves far superior to its inspiration.
To say Sonic AtS is one such superior work would be one of the greatest understatements one could possible utter. As a youth who was more fond of the hedgehog than the plumber, this work did something no recent official Sonic title has been able to do: surprise me.
Franchise works made by the same set of creators tend to get a bit stale. They try to freshen it up: give a character a sword, throw in new characters here or there; but in the end the game doesn’t feel all that different to prior iterations. On top of that, if they don’t keep the parts that were actually good, fans will feel that the creators lost touch with the original titles. Unfortunately, Sonic Team has faced both issues in various combinations, and continues to try and claw back from the dark times.
This fan-made creation takes the best of both worlds: solid knowledge of what made the original content good, combined with a dash of their own essence to make it more than just another indistinguishable Sonic game.
The story is kept relatively short and to the point: you’re on a journey to take out a massive ring shaped mechanical base on a mountain at a point in time between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3. You’ll have to travel through many unique locales. Along the way you’ll see some set up to Robotnik’s plot involving Angel Island that sets up Sonic 3’s story. That’s all there is to it, really; isn’t that nice? Cutscenes are action-based; they show what they need to show, and get out of the way. No needless exposition – there's no dialog – and they don’t interfere with gameplay.
In-game, there seems to be a story for why you take the chosen route, but it’s not spelled out for you. As in the old games, it’s up to your imagination as to why Sonic is in this locale, and why Mighty is in this forest where there’s a furnace factory, helping the hedgehog through. You’ll also have to come up with a reason for Robotnik to attack this metropolis, or for building such an elaborate base on the mountain.
Sonic After the Sequel adds many unique gameplay features
With nine levels, it’s not easy to make unique environments for each of them, let alone avoid copying past Sonic tropes. The developers certainly deliver on this front, showing far more creativity than I would have. Not only that, most times each act has its own distinguishing sub-theme, just as Sonic 3 & Knuckles did with levels such as Angel Island or Sandopolis. The levels were designed with platforming in mind, and also depth, so that Tails has unique places to explore.
What made me go “I have to write a review for this” was Cyan City Act 2, in which an odd power-up cloaks your character in a jester costume, giving Sonic and Tails unique powers. There are likewise unique barriers that one hero can go through but the other can’t, using their respective abilities. Like Knuckles’ rock barriers in Sonic 3, this forces you onto a different path depending on who you’re playing as. This is the first time I’ve enjoyed a character-specific fork in a Sonic level since Sonic 3 and Knuckles (Sonic Advance 3 had some, but they didn’t feel as distinct for me).
Each of these unique act mechanics are easy enough to understand, and are hinted at in a comprehensible way; no red barrel moments here. The game also doesn’t hold your hand and stop the action to explain them. For example, one level has trains that will run on tracks along the level periodically. To indicate a train is coming, a panel will flash green and red before it arrives. They introduce this by having you run on a platform with these warning lights above a train, but out of harms way. Obviously later in the level, when you see these lights, you’re going to have to move out of the way before it’s too late.
Some of these mechanics came as a pleasant surprise to me and were implemented well. From having a UFO in the background of the Technology Tree Zone (which for some odd reason reminded me of the Doomsday machines from Sonic SatAM) taking shots at you in the foreground, to a kind of fire water you can enter if you have a fire shield on without taking damage.
I’ll leave some of the surprises for you to find yourself, but these fun and unique gameplay features kept the game interesting. I didn’t feel I was playing the same gimmicks from a prior Sonic game all over again with a new coat of paint.
Better yet, the UFO taking pot-shots at you halfway through the game is training you for a much harder encounter down the road which uses the same methodology. Being so late in the game, they didn’t want to train you there, so they did it earlier so you’d ‘remember’ without realizing you were being taught. This way they can go all-out with the attack frequency in the later encounter. Did I mention the gameplay design is good? There’s a purpose for everything, and sometimes they’re crafty and subtle.
Enemy placement and design are also purposeful. They’re hindering but not placed in a manner that would be considered cheap. Each enemy has a purpose in the stage they are in. They either work with a level’s mechanic or even the environment itself. Yes, bubbles are even in the game; however, they only appear in one level as their own gimmick. I love how the artists made them look derpy and broken, explaining their tendency to stay in a line, just waiting to be hit.
The music is excellent, pretty much on par with that of an official Sonic game. There’s a good mix of techno, rock, and other compositions, including one with Indian qualities. I’m certainly not qualified to talk about or even pretend I can critique music with any sense of gravity. What I can tell you is there’s a lot of good music here. Each track feels like it belongs in a Sonic game – though I found some of the styles ironic for a game that story-wise is supposed to take place between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3. Dubstep hadn't been invented in the 90s.
Each act has its own rendition of the overall theme, in keeping with the tradition established by Sonic 3. The deviations from the main theme are drastic in some cases, which works since (as mentioned above) each act is very much it’s own distinct environment in most levels. A prominent example is the level Foliage Furnace, which starts as a forest level, goes through a foundry base, and exits to a train system back in the forest. The music works with the levels and complements the visuals.
This game ranks highly on my favorite Sonic games. In fact, I dare say it comes in second under Sonic 3 & Knuckles (I’m biased towards 2D titles). However, if I’m going to treat it on par with the big boys, I need to point out flaws as one would with the studio titles.
There are some bugs here and there. In Tails’ jester form, be sure not to get hit while doing the curl ‘X’ technique (where he splits into two and destroys enemies in a straight line) or you may get stuck. Tails also seems not to have a swim animation; odd, but forgiveable.
A wide variety of levels await in Sonic AtS
The game was a bit long; an odd complaint, but it could impact someone who isn’t expecting it. I foolishly treated this like most Sonic 2D titles and tried – and failed – to sit down and play it through in one shot. It is the longest 2D Sonic game that I'm aware of.
To compare, let me give you a quick estimation of lengths:
- Sonic 2 - 22 acts (short - medium length)
- Sonic 3 & Knuckles - 18 acts (medium - large length)
- Sonic Advance 3 - 21 acts (medium length)
- Sonic After the Sequel - 29 acts (medium - large length)
So don’t do anything foolish like try and play through it all in one go. It’ll save automatically at the beginning of each act. Go in knowing this, and take a break before fatigue sets in, and you’ll probably have a better time. In my second play through, I noted that there seemed to be three “acts” among the overall levels. At the end of each third level was a major plot point, and an ‘epic’ boss battle before cooling back down with an environment-based level. Therefore I recommend playing three levels and taking a break; keep doing that until the end. It’ll keep you from going on autopilot, and you'll enjoy the ride much more.
The 29-act count does not include nine hidden acts that you can obtain via a hidden star token in each level. The hidden act presents an overall challenge that you play on its own, which uses all the mechanics from the respective level, accompanied by it’s own version of the level’s theme.
While you can play Tails, the story mode was obviously made with Sonic in mind as the protagonist. During the first level game-play Sonic is flying the biplane, but in the subsequent cut-scene Tails and Sonic switch roles. In one level, Mighty the Armadillo makes a cameo and drops an item to help you pass a large cliff. That makes sense playing as Sonic, but as the fox you go... “Um, thanks, but I could have just flown, you goof.”
Only one level was designed in such a way where I felt its gimmick was overstaying its welcome: Cyan City Act 3. Most of the level is comprised of being pushed up by fans and avoiding spiked balls, which happened a bit too frequently, wasn’t all that challenging, and was a bit slow. Luckily the music is awesome for that level, which kind of numbs the annoyance of waiting to get to the top.
The lightning traps in Storm Station were also too harsh. To the best of my knowledge, it’s impossible to know when lightning will strike and charge the metal rods, making jumping past them a breath-holding experience. Luck-based traps are annoying, especially when they’re such a prominent part of the level.
These negatives are minuscule for a fan game, they’d be minor for an official title, and certainly don’t take away from core gameplay.
If you’re a member of Sonic Team, I’d also recommend playing it, so you can take some notes on what works and why it works. You don’t need to limit it to Sonic; you don’t need to make it super fast. I’m not saying you’re terrible, you’re getting better. It’s just seems like this team is where your team really ought to be. In the words of Sonic: “C’mon, step it up.”