This is why you pay your level designers the big bucks.
Sonic: The Lost World is a mess. From the terrible tutorial, to the idiotic lives system, to the, yes, terrible level design, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this game. While some of this is the inevitable result of attempting to incorporate a sense of speed into a 3D platformer, much more of it a product of unforced errors committed by the developers. This is one of those few scenarios where Sega’s every design decision seems to make things worse.
The trouble begins with Sonic: The Lost World’s total inability to communicate its controls. At no point does the game run the player through the basic controls or the more advanced maneuvers. Many of the moves (run, spin, jump, lock on, etc) are familiar, but some are not. Messing around in the early stages gives the player enough information to get by, but understanding the finer points of the game requires additional guidance. I was half way through the game before I realized that some enemies had to be kicked rather than spin-dashed and that only struck me when I had to kick enemies to progress. Despite having played most of the game, I’m still unaware of how some of the powerups work. The Lost World includes little tooltips, but, like the mechanics of the rest of the game, their purpose is initially unclear and the means to access them is never stated. In addition to the poor tutorial, the game never develops its own visual language. The player rarely understands the unique mechanics of each level until they happen and they’re rarely intuitive. In one case, platforms in a level are periodically destroyed by a dragon’s shout. Rather than demonstrate this first in a safer environment, The Lost World rolls the mechanic out while the player stands on a destructible platform suspended over a ravine. Mario, this isn’t.
Given the terrible communication, it should come as no surprise that The Lost World hosts a number of other questionable design decisions. Premier among them is the lives system. While most modern platformers either design the level to be completed in one shot or ditch lives altogether, Sonic: The Lost World does neither. Instead, it has progressively longer levels with a limited number of lives. The player can bank lives across levels, but should they lose them all, they start at the beginning of the level with just four. Levels get longer and longer culminating in one level which incorporates three platforming sections and three boss fights. Tackling that on just four lives is an exercise in frustration and is the reason why I’m writing this review without finishing the game. Another poor design decision of note is the requirement of animals to progress to the boss. When defeated, each enemy gives up an animal which Sonic automatically collects. The final level of each section requires that the player collect a certain number of animals to unlock the level. The end result is that I had to grind a Sonic game. That’s right, I had to replay levels to get enough animals to move on. There is no value in locking content away like this. The decision to do so is just mind-boggling.
All of these terrible choices pile on to already weak level design. Sega copies the mini planet idea from Super Mario Galaxy, yet never seems to understand that it makes Sonic’s traditional speed focused gameplay even harder. If you thought operating in 3D space was difficult, try doing it with gravity shifting. The Lost World’s 2D levels improve the controls, but the jumps and challenges aren’t particularly impressive. Nor is the decision to block flow. Sega regularly places enemies and obstacles along paths to prevent the player from gaining any speed. Just as the player gets into a flow, they run into an enemy and must start over. I could go on, but there’s really too much to cover. The level design stinks.
The common conclusion to a terrible Sonic game used to be to talk about how far the series has fallen from it’s heyday. Given the long stream of poor titles, even those memories are gone. The Sonic franchise is a worn out husk. Stay away from it and Sonic: The Lost World.