Alright, let’s get something out of the way first. I’m not an idiot. I know exactly what people are expecting – perhaps even wanting – to see when they read a review of a Sonic the Hedgehog title. So allow me to make something very clear right off the bat. Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice is not a bad game.
It is in many respects a very good game. It is not an excellent game. It’s not going to make amends for the past 15 years or so. But it is a good game. And that is the theme the rest of this review is going to sustain. If that disappoints you, you can safely hop off now and form your own opinion on Fire & Ice. For those curious about exactly how SEGA and Sanzaru Games have pulled this off, read on.
The improvements begin with the story. Whereas 2014’s Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal, also for 3DS, tried to be far more grandiose and epic than a game about a talking blue hedgehog wearing sports tape should allow, with a lot of nonsense about ancient runes and prophecies, Fire and Ice keeps things suitably lighthearted and goofy.
The basic premise is – strap yourselves in for this one – Dr. Eggman wants to beat Sonic. At the thing the blue blur is best at, in fact: running. So he’s organised a race which he more or less forces Sonic and co. to participate in; but, as is his wont, he cheats, augmenting all his race vehicles with ‘Ragnium’, an element he’s been harvesting from odd fissures sprouting up all over the place. The plot doesn’t go much deeper than this, which is a very, very good thing, but there are a few neat twists and turns towards the end regarding the cause of the fissures and the involvement of one of Eggman’s rejected robots, D-Fekt.
The bouncy, playful tone of the narrative is accentuated by some genuinely amusing and witty writing (Amy makes a snide remark fairly early on about the inevitability of the game getting a merchandising tie-in, for instance) and although the cutscenes are disappointingly low-res and blocky, they’re charmingly animated, capturing the wry energy of the Boom TV show well. All the show’s voice actors return, too, and deliver typically upbeat performances; as does the peppy music, composed by series veteran Richard Jacques.
Thankfully, it isn’t just the story which has received a buff. Breathe easy: Fire and Ice is an absolute blast to play too. Gone are the labyrinthine, drawn-out slogs which sunk Shattered Crystal – this time around, though the engine and mechanics are practically identical, the stages are built around speed. Pure, raw speed. Boasting some colourful visuals that really pop in 3D, loop-de-loops and boost pads are the order of the day here, with only the odd environmental puzzle requiring the use of one of Sonic’s friends – Tails, Knuckles, Amy or Boom newcomer Sticks – getting in your way.
Although some could argue that the whole thing feels somewhat automated – and they’d be right – it’s tough to care when you’re witnessing your character screaming round bends, collecting rings and shooting off mesas with the best of them. Even the actual platforming, if a little floaty, feels pleasingly tight, and your mettle is put to great test in the odd special bonus room, where a collectible (in another improvement from Shattered Crystal, these are no longer mandatory) lies beyond a network of spike traps.
Disregarding the slightly clunky inclusion of an unnecessary sprint button – mapped to Y, which makes sprinting while using the Enerbeam lasso, mapped to A, a little unwieldy – all the controls are fluid and simple. Transitioning from a jump into the trademark homing attack with rhythmic stabs of the B button is ludicrously satisfying, as is using the L and R bumpers to snap between the new titular fire and ice abilities.
Although these are generally circumstantial and they’re not really integrated any more creatively than ‘use fire to light fuses, use ice to freeze water’, that’s okay since once again, this keeps the flow of the stages going, while still offering the odd mental diversion beyond just holding right until the end.
If I had to sum up how the level design in Fire and Ice feels, it just feels right. The ability to simply run straight through the worlds, bopping enemies, grinding on rails (or, in this case, water spouts, which you freeze over in a great visual touch) and ricocheting off springs is the kind of kinetic mania the series is known for, and was what Shattered Crystal sorely lacked. And yes, the other thing the series is known for, glitches aplenty, are almost totally absent here. Sorry, YouTube.
Rounding out the package are a few giant boss battles against robots which occupy both 3DS screens – and which require some very clever use of fire, ice, and Sonic’s friends’ abilities to vanquish – as well as a submarine/hovercraft minigame, the odd race against Eggman, and souped-up versions of the 3D ‘worm tunnels’ from Shattered Crystal. All these additions are perfectly fine and bulk out the title, but none stand out as being particularly great and pale in comparison to the main stages.
So here it is. That thing many of us have been clamouring for since around 2011. Another good Sonic game. While Fire & Ice is unlikely to set the world ablaze, and probably won’t be given the time of day by most thanks to its association with the Boom label, it’s a fantastically enjoyable, fast-paced romp that plays beautifully, has a lot of content to offer and, at times, almost drips with an eagerness on Sanzaru’s part to improve. And improved they have.
With his anniversary game just over the horizon, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Happy birthday, Sonic.