I grew up on Sonic games, to the point that I can’t even fathom the number of hours I spent playing Sonic Adventure 2 as a kid. Since that time, though, not many Sonic games have caught my eye other than Sonic Frontiers. I find it strange, then, that the only other Sonic game I’ve enjoyed in the past decade is a visual novel, a genre I don’t normally partake in. Perhaps that’s a testament to how refreshing this particular take on Sonic feels, and a credit to how well they’ve written these characters.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was a surprise April Fool’s Day release that you could be forgiven for passing off as just a light-hearted joke. After all, SEGA wouldn’t seriously kill off Sonic in a murder mystery visual novel, would they? I’ll not spoil the answer here, but let’s just say the game is full of a surprising number of twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing. That’s not to say every plot element was a surprise, as The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog also makes excellent use of foreshadowing. There are details that are revealed early on that become relevant much later, and even the most innocuous detail could wind up being important. There’s a surprising amount of detail smushed into this two-hour game, and things might not always be as they seem.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog presents a charming cast of characters, a compelling mystery, and stunning hand-drawn art. The music is top-notch, as well. It starts out cool and charming but becomes more intense during interrogations and other serious moments. The game handles atmosphere in general rather well, both with its characters as well as the environment. The over-exaggerated expressions of each character are both comical and handy for deducing potential motives, and the environments are littered with easter eggs to lighten the mood and delight long-time fans of the franchise.
The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog is set aboard the Mirage Express, a top-of-the-line smart train that exclusively hosts events, the event in question being Amy Rose’s birthday. Being a self-professed lover of true crime podcasts, Amy has decided to go with a murder mystery party for her birthday celebration. After collecting tickets from the passengers, a mix of both high-profile Sonic characters such as Rouge and Shadow, and sideline characters such as Vector and Blaze, everyone goes about fulfilling their roles in the murder mystery. Each Sonic character has been given a role to play in the day’s festivities, from stalwart Sheriff Knuckles to poetic “genius” Espio. It was surprisingly charming watching them act out these personas, with even notorious tough guy Shadow doing his best to make sure Amy’s big day goes well. You play as Barry (or whatever custom name you choose), a new hire just starting out aboard the Mirage Express.
The interactions with other characters are often humorous, with Barry either fawning over his heroes or being intimidated by them. Barry acts as a bit of a foil for the others, often taking on the role of the only ‘sane’ one amid this cast of kooky characters, questioning the ridiculous (and often dangerous) antics at hand. After things go off the rails almost immediately, Sonic winds up ‘dead’ and Barry is tasked with helping detective Tails and journalist Amy figure out the motives of everyone aboard the train to find out whodunnit.
This is where we come to the main gameplay loop. Barry enters each train car, housing one or two Sonic characters each, and must navigate clues point-and-click style before interrogating the present suspects. Tails and Amy will often butt in with hints (or red herrings) to help guide your decision-making. You’ll find pretty quickly that almost everyone gives you the run-around, attempting to hide things ranging from trivial happenstance to critical clues. While there is no real failure state, since making the wrong choice just nets a “hah, what a funny thing to say,” kind of reaction, it is still satisfying to get the answers right the first time around. The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog does a good job of providing enough evidence so that you’re able to connect the dots.
After you’ve cross-referenced somebody’s alibi with a piece of evidence disproving it, Barry must “think” about what the evidence means by playing a timed minigame on his “DreamGear” where Sonic must collect a minimum number of rings while avoiding obstacles and gaps along a narrow, isometric strip. The levels become progressively more difficult as the game goes on, adding in new and more complex obstacles and higher ring counts to finish.
The DreamGear minigame is actually quite fun, for the most part. Weaving between springs, avoiding enemies, and timing jumps to collect rings feels smooth once you get the hang of it, and it’s a satisfying experience when you’re able to complete the path without any issues. People who are already familiar with the Sonic series will feel right at home, and there is an assist mode available for those who are not. It includes options such as reducing Sonic’s speed (scandalous, I know), lowering the needed ring count, removing gaps, and making Sonic invincible.
The minigame isn’t without its issues, however, as I encountered bugs that hampered my progression quite a few times throughout what should have been a two-hour game. The minigame requires crazy precision and timing, but there seem to be relatively frequent issues with the game registering when Sonic connects with a spring or ring bubble. While I was able to power through the levels by avoiding most springs and simply making up my rings elsewhere, these bugs created a layer of unpredictability that soured the experience a bit. There are other bugs to watch out for as well, such as the endless running bug at the end of a level that prevents you from finishing, stuck instead watching Sonic run forever. . . and ever. There is no autosave, so this can set you back quite a ways.
As unfortunate as the problems with the DreamGear minigame are, those issues didn’t ruin the rest of The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog for me. For one, the investigative aspect is already top-notch. It feels good navigating the web of intrigue, exposing the truth, and narrowing down the suspects. There are also genuine laughs to be had all throughout the game, whether Tails is sassing you for digging through the trash again, or Barry is having an internal meltdown while questioning just how he wound up in the middle of all this. The writing is particularly refreshing, as well. The Sonic cast feel like themselves again, more authentic to their original vision rather than a caricature of themselves. Shadow, in particular, has evolved beyond simply embodying pure edginess. Ultimate life form, indeed.
While the visual novel format isn’t exactly classic Sonic, everything else here is a breath of fresh air for a franchise that lost its stride for quite a few years. After this and Frontiers, it’s safe to say I’m once again hopeful for the future of the Sonic franchise. It will be interesting to see if SEGA continues to do spinoff games such as this one, or if this just happened to be a one-off. Given the resounding positive reception The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was met with, one can hope SEGA will take note of what the fans enjoy.
Austin played The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog on Steam, where it is available to download for free.