Monday, June 10, 2024

Sonic Dream Team (Apple Arcade) Review

Two Mondays in a row with a new review? That must be record, at least post-2021! We return to the review realm and the dreamscape itself with a new entry in the Sonic series: Sonic Dream Team. This game is currently an Apple Arcade exclusive, as of the time of this review. Let's dig in, and hope we don't have to dream on for a better adventure featuring SEGA's Blue Blur.

 Dream a little dream with Sonic and friends

There are some terms that might be complete non-starters or worse, turn-offs for certain sects of the gaming fanbase. For instance, "Apple Arcade-exclusive" and heck, maybe if you're really down on the series, "3D Sonic" as well. Sonic Dream Team fits both of those descriptions rather aptly, being one of those rare high-profile Apple Arcade exclusives that also happens to be a truly stellar 3D Sonic game. 

I don't damn with faint praise either when I say that, as a lot of us know--it's only been repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseum--Sonic hasn't had the best experience in three-dimension realm. Regardless, Sonic Dream Team offers a compelling take on the boost formula that rivals the enjoyment I had with its console big brother, Sonic Frontiers. Perhaps THAT'S damning with faint praise, as Frontiers, while a nice new foundation for the series, was hardly the best interpretation of 3D Sonic for me. 

Sonic Dream Team takes players through four worlds of boost-centric 3D Sonic action. Unlike Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations (the latter of which receives an impressive-looking new edition this fall), Sonic Dream Team's levels are fully 3D. There are no 2D sections to speak of, where the camera switches perspective from 3D to 2D or vice versa. Instead, it's all open goodness for Sonic and friends to trek on, speed through, and for players to hopefully enjoy.

Have rail, will grind!

The level design is all about finding your groove. It's highly satisfying to speed through levels--chaining boosts by collecting energy from defeating Eggman's badniks or picking up stray energy littered along the levels themselves--to go for fast times. Conversely, it's also enjoyable to thoroughly explore levels, searching high and low and in corners and crevices for Red Rings and blue tokens, of which there are five for the former and dozens upon dozens of the latter respectively in each level.

Charging through or otherwise homing attacking to enemies grants
you more energy for even more boosting goodness.

Levels are built with mobile devices and chiefly mobile controls in mind, offering wide platforms for the most part. However, you can also practically connect any game controller under the sun to play, giving you a more traditional console experience with the game. The touch screen controls are serviceable, but I found when trying to do anything requiring speed or a tight time to complete, these were more of a hinderance than anything else. Thus, an additional controller was a requirement for me, essentially.

I've mentioned "Sonic and friends" multiple times throughout this review, and the reason, of course, for that is that Sonic is not the only playable character within Dream Team. While the Blue Blur is the character you start with, as you progress through the game's story, new characters are rescued and join the titular Dream Team. Sonic and Amy serve as the speed characters, with the specialty of a light dash to rush along paths of rings in the air. Meanwhile, Tails and Cream the Rabbit use the power of flight. Finally, Knuckles and Rouge the Bat utilize their gliding and climbing prowess to cross lengthy expanses and scale specially marked red walls. Characters can be switched between on the fly as long as your current character is standing still on solid ground. The only other time this option isn't available is during special acts where a character type is automatically assigned.

Tails and Cream are fantastic flyers, but their flight time is limited, of course.

These aforementioned special acts are basically miniature, obstacle-laden levels that are usually linear in nature, unless you're tasked with tracking down five shards. Then, these levels are a bit more open in design. Either way, you have an assigned character class to use to clear them. Unlike the standard levels, these are very short experiences, but they are much greater in number.

Aside from the more explorable main acts and the multiple miniature-sized acts that Sonic Dream Team contains, each of the four worlds or zones in the game conclude with a boss encounter. These, too, stick you with a character class and have you battle a big boss in a multi-phase fight. From a giant inflatable crab that you burst for massive damage (that reference NEVER gets old...) to an Eggman mining robot split up into four parts that transforms into a massive robot close to the fight's finale, these encounters are rather spirited, albeit relatively easy to beat.

Bust this crabby boss balloon's claws to deflate its ego (and its ability to appear anywhere near as menacing!)

Thus, each zone in Sonic Dream Team features three main levels, about a handful of sub-levels, and a boss encounter to wrap it all up. Team Sonic's adventure in the dreamscape sees them speed through a colorful, vibrant world with inflatable foliage and tropical beach environment, a factory filled with lava and manufacturing equipment, a maze of platforms of varying gravity in a nightmare-style space, and a city that's basically an ode to Eggman himself, complete with the villain uttering lines over the loudspeaker in a semi-regular fashion. 

A recent update added a fifth zone, Sweet Dreams, completely separate from the Sonic Dream Team story, which features difficult checkpoint-free levels. Additionally, ranks were introduced as well, offering S ranks for quick completions of acts. These are truly tricky to achieve.

As for the story of Sonic Dream Team, it features Cream being abducted by Eggman, the latter of which is using an omnipotent Dream Machine to attempt to make his dreams--or rather nightmares for everyone else--come true. A mystic being in charge of protecting the dreamscape, the cleverly named Ariem, does her best to hold off Eggman's attempts, but brings Sonic and his other friends into the dream world to assist their friend and Ariem's struggle against Eggman as well. The story is told through still-frame cutscenes as opposed to something in real time, giving it and the overall game package a decidedly budget feel. 

However, what doesn't feel so budget is how well Sonic Dream Team plays. It somehow feels more authentic to the Sonic series than Sonic Frontiers, with the now-standard "gotta go fast" gameplay that puts into a groove that feels great. Its levels are ones that are crisp, colorful, and cartoony. (Nor is there a tremendous amount of rails and other objects popping into the environment from out of nowhere, but I'll digress now as I'm sort of bullying Frontiers by now. My apologies!) 

Knuckles isn't here to chuckle; he's here to flex his muscles.

Perhaps the weakest link in Sonic Dream Team is with regard to its music, featuring nothing too memorable musically or melodically. For a series with such constant bangers, it's a bit of a letdown, even knowing Sonic Team didn't directly develop the game (SEGA Hardlight did). That said, it's hard to find too much fault with the music. It's serviceable, pleasant enough, and never distracting.

Amy Rose may not have the natural power of flight like Tails or Cream,
but she's gaining lots of height here all the same!

Sonic Dream Team is one of those games that most likely (and perhaps SHOULD) make non-Apple Arcade subscribers or those without a device upon which to play the game a bit envious. To say folks are currently missing out on one of my favorite 3D Sonic experiences would be a bit of an understatement. That said, I also don't wish for this game to languish in perpetuity on a subscription-based digital service. The more people that get to enjoy this game, the better, so throw in my attempt to not be a pathetic beggar for console ports, but yeah, SEGA, please. Between the satisfying ways to link Sonic and friends' movements together through the well designed and well realized levels, to the sensationally fun feel of the game itself, Sonic Dream Team plays and handles like a--well... dream!

[SPC Says: A-]

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