Sonic Unleashed is the 658th Sonic title from SEGA since the franchise's inception way back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth (c. 1991). OK—I exaggerate. It's only the hundredth-and-something entry in the franchise in the last 17 years. (Wikipedia's list of Sonic titles runs a whopping seven pages! I had to get special permission from our IT department to print it out.) So if it's seemed to you that SEGA's most recognizable character is getting a bit long in the tooth, well, you don't know how right you actually are.
This time around, SEGA's hyperkinetic, neon-blue hedgehog once more confronts his dastardly nemesis, the maniacal and mustachioed malcontent known as Dr. Robotnik, aka Eggman. Actually, dastardly is hardly strong enough to describe a villain who at the outset of the game lures Sonic into a trap and misappropriates his seven Chaos Emeralds to power an orbiting über-destructo-beam. (Mwuuhhaaaa hhaaa hhaaaaa ... MWWUUHUU hhaaa hhaaa!)
Once fired, the laser fractures the crust of a vaguely Earth-like planet into seven fragments—and unleashes Dark Gaia, an evil energy-being who's been trapped in the planet's core. Eggman hopes to harness Dark Gaia to power his ... wait for it ... new theme park: Eggmanland.
Sonic, of course, must stop him.
But something is different this time around. The release of Dark Gaia affects Sonic in a most peculiar way: At night he morphs into Sonic the Werehog, a fanged and clawed beastie with a completely different set of powers—though his historically affable personality remains intact.
Night and Day
Technically, Sonic Unleashed is a platform game. In actuality, it's a bit of a hybrid. When the sun is out, Sonic zips wildly through arcade-like challenges that find him grabbing power-up rings and battling bosses in frenetic 2-D and 3-D levels. When the sun sets, however, the nature of the game is altered every bit as much as Sonic's character.
To corral Dark Gaia and repair the fractured planet, Sonic (along with his friends Chip and Tails) must travel to the seven different continents. Each city they visit has a hidden shrine which gives access to Gaia temples where Sonic recharges his Chaos Emeralds. That action, in turn, heals the corresponding continental plate and reintegrates it with the planet. Re-securing all seven plates thwarts Eggman's dark ambitions and imprisons Dark Gaia once more.
Gamers locate the shrine in each city by participating in simplistic role-playing elements that involve local citizenry. Once the entrance is unlocked, Sonic plumbs the depths of these temples in werehog form. (Apparently it's always night underground.) In the process, he's greeted by a variety of unfriendly guardians, from blob-like "nightmares," to large flying wasps, to witches. These generally mindless foes are easily—and bloodlessly—dispatched by Sonic's repertoire of melee attacks (which grows throughout the game).
Some fans may enjoy the game's juxtapositions, but I didn't. Sonic Unleashed can't decide whether it wants to be a straightforward platformer or a third-person adventure game. The result is a gameplaying experience that oscillates between lighting fast and snail slow as Sonic explores what seems like an endless number of numbingly similar subterranean mazes.
But that's hardly the game's biggest fault.
This Worldview Not Yet Rated
Sonic Unleashed earned an E10+ rating from the ESRB for "animated blood and fantasy violence." Not that there's much of the former. Frankly, I didn't see any in the game's extremely sanitized combat. When Sonic the Werehog bops a baddie with his paw enough times, for example, the foe simply vanishes in puff of zippy blue and red sparkles. Still, cinematic cutscenes do feature more realistic—and intense—confrontations between Sonic and Eggman.
What the game's rating doesn't hint at is its problematic, spiritually driven landscape. The narrative in Sonic Unleashed suggests a magical underpinning to the world, even if it's never spelled out. For example, Sonic encounters a monk-like mystic named Gregorios who says, "What is the shrine? It is a sacred place, famous among travelers." Later, a kindhearted researcher named Professor Pickle describes teachings in what seems to be this world's holy book: "According to the Gaia Manuscripts, " he says, "Dark Gaia is empowered at night."
Later we learn that Chip, who's lost his memory, is actually a much more significant being known as Light Gaia, whose presence keeps Dark Gaia in check. For millennia, Dark Gaia has broken the planet apart, and Light Gaia has subsequently restored it. Thus the game posits a balance between good and evil, and a cycle of destruction and rebirth—ideas that have a lot in common with Eastern mysticism.
Speaking of the Gaias, young players may have little idea that the name is hardly made up for video games. Indeed, the word has a long history dating back to ancient Greek mythology, where Gaia was thought of as essentially the goddess of the earth. (Some neopagan practitioners actively worship Gaia even today.)
Sonic Unleashed isn't determined to turn gamers into followers of Gaia, of course. It simply suggests this sort of spirituality as a colorful backdrop to the action. Still, the seemingly innocuous introduction of these spiritual ideas—especially in a game for children that's focused on healing the planet—is definitely worth pausing and thinking about.
And while you're at it, think again about how E, T and M game ratings only go so far when it comes to deciding which games work and which ones don't in your home. This adventure has exactly the kind of mild action combat you'd expect. But it's the unexpected that always lets loose with the mwuuhhaaaa hhaaa hhaaaaas. Who would have thought a silly game about a supersonic hedgehog would come cluttered with a werehog and a pair of Gaias?