I’m going to get this out the way: Sonic Forces is not an especially enjoyable game to play. The sections where the camera is behind Sonic’s head are poorly designed and lacking in consistent challenge – often made difficult because you can’t see obstacles, rather than the obstacles themselves. The side-scrolling sections played as ‘classic’ Sonic feel too floaty, with arbitrary physics. The sections using weapons to fight enemies make you stop, button mash and continue, completely breaking up the sense of speed the series is best known for.
I loved Sonic Mania, but struggled to enjoy much of Forces.
However I did play Sonic Forces from start to finish, something I don’t typically do with a game that feels so flawed. Why? Because Sonic Forces does get one important thing very right. Key to its concept is the player creating a Sonic fan character, which the game then wraps the story around in order to make ‘you’ the hero who saves the day.
This idea isn’t realised perfectly: the story Sonic Forces builds around your original character is more often than not awkward, cringey and stilted. But it had me oddly hooked.
Very early in Sonic Forces, Sonic is taken out of the picture in a rather drastic manner. He’s defeated by his rogues gallery, initially assumed dead, and later clarified to have “only” endured months of physical and psychological torture while held prisoner by his nemesis. Worse yet, he was defeated by an enemy faster than himself and, as we all know, nothing could deal a more fatal blow to this franchise mascot than not being the fastest person around.
At this point, who should walk in to save the day but Laura The Hedgehog. The one and only! I designed her to be as deliberately edgy and dark as possible, and naturally with a red and black colour scheme. She’s heralded by series mainstays like Knuckles and Silver as a hero, someone who survived some huge attack and joined the resistance and is totally going to be the one to save Sonic from his terrible fate. The player character is a total Mary Sue: they appear out of nowhere, having never been mentioned before, and save the day when the familiar heroes can’t do so alone.
During this whole introductory cutscene, Laura is stood there awkwardly stiff. Where the canon characters in the scenes move naturally, talk and express emotions with their faces and play an active role, Laura just kind of stands there with an unmoving and unfeeling uncanny stare. It’s not quite a T Pose, but it’s pretty close, and the juxtaposition of sincerity from the established cast placed next to an unfeeling self-insert hero ultimately makes the whole thing a little less serious. It’s quite hard to take it all sincerely, but the thing is that this helps Sonic Forces tonally.
Every time the plot got too bogged down in trying to tell a grimdark tale of a world on the brink of war, of those lost to conflict and the sacrifices that needed to be made to claw things back, Laura the Hedgehog awkwardly stumbled into frame to remind me what this was meant to be. Every time a character needed to magically level up and become mysteriously better than those who previously beat them, Laura the Hedgehog stepped in to justify the impossible. Her presence motivates the heroes, she’s just amazing in general, and teamwork with her makes everyone the hero they needed to be. She takes the brunt of the plot inconsistencies on her own shoulders, and as a result feels cool in a silly way, while the rest of the characters look comparatively less ridiculous.
This was a chance for me to make the character that edgy young Laura would think was cool, and let her hang out with and ultimately be the hero for these characters that I once unironically enjoyed. It’s unbridled power fantasy for Sonic fans, pure and simple, where I was now an indispensable friend to these characters and loving how silly it all was.
It really has an impact. Every time I got to run hand-in-hand through a level with Sonic, hopping between rails with him and hearing him cheer me on, a part of me just completely put aside how bad the weapon system was or how temperamental grappling from hanging rings can be. I just wanted to run with Sonic, and feel like I was saving the day.
I’m not saying that Sonic Forces’ incorporation of the character creator gets everything right. Or that fanservice like this can or should be a substitute for a well-designed core game. But in this particular case the sincere-seeming leaning into awkward Sonic fan culture really worked in the game’s favour.
Everything about Laura the Hedgehog was slightly stilted and awkward but, honestly, so is everything about the Sonic franchise these days. Sonic as a brand is now a mix of self-referential twitter humour and overly serious lore, so adding a little bit of knowingly awkward self-insertion elevates Sonic Forces from irredeemable mess to somewhat lovable mess. It’s a game that feels like it knows how silly it all is, and is happy to let me revel in the nostalgic fun that brings.