Sonic Mania Plus Review – A Mighty Ray of Hope (PS4)
Sega’s blue hedgehog mascot has been busy lately, with a new racing game deep in development. But there’s always time for a new 2D adventure, where it all began for the blue blur. Sonic Mania released last year, and most everyone quite enjoyed the homage to Sonic’s older games. Fast-forward 11 months, and we have Sonic Mania Plus. Featuring stages both new and remixed, the return of two classic characters, plus local multiplayer options for up to four players, is this an improvement to an already solid entry? Time to find out in our Sonic Mania Plus review.
Where to begin? Well, for starters, let’s go with the lengthy campaign. There are 13 zones to explore again, with two acts for all but the first – 25 acts total. The zone names may be the same, such as the classic Angel Island and Green Hill Zones, and culminate with a final boss battle in Titanic Monarch Zone, but the individual acts have been remade in a new Encore mode, with special areas for this entry’s new characters. When visiting classic zones such as Hydro City, while classic sections remain intact, they are interspersed with new areas to uncover secrets from – nothing is ever truly left alone, perhaps with the thinking that if you wanted to play the old stages exactly as they existed before, you could simply play an older Sonic game. Each zone has a transition cinematic of some sort, where the player and partner are controlled by the computer and make some sort of jump, leap, or run to the next area. The entire campaign technically takes place in one long camera shot, then. Pacing isn’t as stellar as in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, where multiple acts per zone were followed by three lengthier single-act zones, all leading up to an epic, multi-stage final battle aboard the Death Egg – in Sonic Mania Plus, things just kind of end after a drawn-out final fight, much like Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Still, this campaign will run the average gamer 3-5 hours on their first run, and much less time for those speed freaks out there, so there is a lot of game to run through.
Two old characters have been resurrected for Sonic Mania Plus: Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. Mighty could easily be confused with Knuckles the Echidna, since both are red. But Mighty’s color shade is different, and his hair is more in style with Sonic’s. Mighty’s ability is a downward slam, like Sonic’s Mania ability, except holding the jump button in mid-air only causes Mighty to move downward, and does not result in a spin dash being automatically performed. Furthermore, and arguably more useful, if Mighty is attacking (that is, in ball form), he is impervious to damage, even from (non-squishing) obstacles. This means that jumping onto spikes does not cause the player to lose rings or die. It’s a new tactic that can come in handy in boss battles, and Mighty may become some players’ favorite character just due to this option.
Ray looks like a cousin of Tails at first glance. His special power is a glide ability. It is similar to Knuckles’ glide, but noticeably different in execution. By holding back on the directional pad while gliding, Ray will pull back and begin to glide up, more slowly than his usual glide. Pressing forward will cause Ray to lean forward, gliding much more quickly but consequently losing more altitude in the process. Whereas Knuckles can glide to and then climb walls to reach higher ground, in the right hands, Ray could simply glide high enough to avoid having to climb altogether. Ray might take more time to master compared to Mighty, but the investment will pay off in the ability to reach more places more quickly than other characters.
Two new characters bring us to a grand total of five when added to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. This also brings us to the new maximum number of lives that can be collected by the player. Only two characters can be active at once, in any combination. If playing alone, player one can press Triangle in most situations where both characters are on the screen at the same time to switch which character is leading. If the lead character dies, their partner takes over wherever they are on the map, if possible. Otherwise, the player is returned to the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the level if one was not passed to this point. The order of characters can be seen in the bottom-left corner of the screen, which is where the lives indicator normally sits in previous games. If all five characters die, a game over is immediately encountered. This is in stark contrast to most other Sonic games, where extra lives could be stashed away to all but ensure that a game over scenario couldn’t occur. In Sonic Mania Plus, extra lives cannot be earned – only characters can be added to the team, with one life each. In addition, a bonus stage in the form of a three-level pinball game is used to earn each missing character back, as well as to earn continues for every 10,000 points. This bonus stage is fairly easy to exploit for as many extra continues as is desired, though it does take some time to build up the points. This bonus stage is a nice homage to past times we’ve seen Sonic in pinball form but gets extremely repetitive after the first few encounters with it (unlocked by running past a checkpoint with 50 or more rings).
Grab That UFO!
The special stage from Sonic Mania makes a return in Plus. The player is tasked with chasing after a UFO before the timer reaches zero or they run out of the arena, collecting blue spheres to increase their speed and rings to increase the timer. Catching the UFO releases a Chaos Emerald, and collecting all seven before finishing the campaign rewards the player with unlocking a Super version of each character.
Graphically, things remain much the same as they were in Sonic Mania. Stages have had their colors remixed, and while layouts have changed, it’s still the same general style as before. If you’re familiar with Sonic games circa mid-1990s, then you know exactly what to expect here. It’s a wonderful celebration of the look and feel of Sonic games past, but with all-new surprises just around the corner which will help to recapture a sense of exploration for fans of the series who by now have played the originals countless times. The PlayStation 4 Pro is also supported again, which is a glorious way to see Sonic and friends rendered in 4K, 60 frames per second glory. There was no noticeable slowdown at any moment during the campaign, either, and split-screen also works smoothly.
Complementing Sonic Mania Plus’ pleasing aesthetics is an equally pleasing soundtrack. Crisp chip tunes mix with synths and other effects to produce a soundtrack that once again sounds like it was ripped straight out of the ‘90s. New sound effects for Mighty and Ray feel right at home in this new yet retro setting.
Also Grab a Buddy or Three
Co-op is only here in the base Mania mode. Encore mode, with its reliance on the ability of the player to change characters whenever they’d like (or it is strategically advantageous), does not offer co-op. Competitive mode also makes a return in Plus, but this time supports up to four players on the same system. This may be the best competitive Sonic game option ever offered simply for that fact alone. Competition is much like it was in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, where players compete in multiple categories as they attempt to clear campaign levels in the shortest amount of time, while also scoring the most points, collecting the most rings, finishing with the most rings, and collecting the most items. Some modifiers allow players to change item pickups, or turn them off entirely, as well as set the round length.
A special mention goes to the physical edition of Sonic Mania Plus. For only $29.99, quite a loaded package is offered. The traditional PS4 jewel case is wrapped in a holographic stock, featuring Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles on the front, and Mighty and Ray on the back. Inside, the sleeve cover can be reversed, to show off the game as if it were released on the Sega Genesis, going so far as to include the official Sega seal of quality that was all the rage in the ‘90s. Yes, a reference to “blast processing” is also included in this alternate reality cover. To top things off, a 32-page collector’s art book is stuffed between the case and its holographic cover, showcasing early concept art as well as final pieces. Sonic fans should at least pick up this base physical edition of Sonic Mania Plus to show their support for such a dedicated launch offering. Otherwise, the Encore DLC is available for purchase for existing Sonic Mania owners for $4.99, which is also a great bargain.
Somehow, Christian Whitehead and team have made the definitive version of Sonic even more definitive. The genuinely challenging stages are chock-full of secrets, and will require multiple playthroughs to find everything they have to offer. The lengthy campaign may not have as stellar pacing as Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but it provides both nostalgia and fresh experiences. The limited lives make each death significant, though the bonus stages can easily be exploited to gain enough continues to render the threat of a true game over moot. These are small issues, to be sure—Sonic Mania Plus is the best Sonic game you can buy today.