Hot on the heels of a new full-sized Sonic game in Sonic Superstars, the Apple Arcade exclusive Sonic Dream Team might not look like it has much to offer at first. It only has a dozen levels, and all you get control-wise are a D-pad and two buttons. For some, the fact that it’s only available on Apple devices (at least for the time being) is a non-starter all its own. But despite all that, Sonic Dream Team more than manages to justify its existence – in fact, its superb level design and bite-sized missions make it one of the most fun, creative, and enjoyable 3D platformers I’ve played in a long time.
Sonic Dream Team’s story kicks off when Dr. Eggman finds a device that brings his dreams into reality. This is obviously bad news for reality, so it’s up to Sonic and friends to work their way through four dream worlds and defeat him. Unfortunately the story is forgettable, lifelessly told through voiceover on top of still images, like a radio play accompanied by comic book panels. But even with its brief runtime, taking me around five or six hours to reach 100% completion, the levels between those cutscenes pack in more delights than many much larger games.
Each world is visually striking, with its own distinct set of enemies and interactive elements. That ranges from the Scrambled Shores, a tropical area filled with giant inflatable structures, to the Dream Factory, which has conveyor belts and pistons set over lava pits. I especially liked the third world, Nightmare Maze, which is like a colorful take on an M.C. Escher drawing, with shifting gravity that lets you run up the walls and onto the ceiling, reaching new areas in mind-bending ways. It’s the only world that really takes advantage of the dream concept, making it something of a missed opportunity that the other three are fairly standard Sonic settings. And unlike many other Sonic games, the music is auditory wallpaper at best and a repetitive annoyance at worst.
Each world is made up of only three levels, for a grand total of 12 in the entire campaign. While that may sound like a skimpy offering, they are all big, open playgrounds to run around, with plenty of offshoots and distinct areas to discover that break up the usual platforming – be that a room that’s all rails and pits or a long spinning tube wrapped in thorns you have to sprint over. That makes every one of them a joy to zip through and explore.
Movement is fast and smooth, so running through the world feels fantastic. Levels are filled with various routes you can take that have rails and springboards to fling you forward, keeping your momentum going as you leap between platforms and bounce off enemies. You could still misjudge a jump or bungle an obstacle’s timing, but unlike some Sonic games, you’ll rarely ram into a blockade or spike wall designed to stop you from blazing ahead. Even when you do run out of rings or fall into a pit, Sonic Dream Team’s checkpoints are forgiving, so you’ll never lose much progress.
You only start out with Sonic and Amy as playable characters, but you’ll unlock two other pairs as you progress, each of which gives you access to a new ability unique to them. Sonic and Amy’s ability lets you zip through strings of floating rings that take you wherever the path leads, high or low; Tails and Cream can both fly briefly, and most levels have floating yellow hoops that replenish that ability mid-air; finally, Knuckles and Rouge can climb certain walls. All of these powers are fun to use, opening up new paths and opportunities in the levels depending on who you’re playing as.
Unlocking new levels requires you to collect a certain number of orbs, but you’ll never have enough to progress after playing the previous level just once. This means you constantly have to replay levels you’ve already beaten – that can be a major source of frustration in some games, but thankfully it’s not a problem at all in Sonic Dream Team. In fact, I actually loved replaying levels because of the way missions work, which make them function more like a Super Mario Galaxy stage than a typical Sonic world.
You start every level by selecting a mission that will reward you with an orb upon completion. Each level has seven missions, the first of which generally asks you to simply go through the whole level to unlock the exit. You can explore and collect items at your own pace during this first mission, but others are timed, making you excitingly speedrun the level. Other missions drop you in a walled-off section of a level and have you collect “orb shards” that are scattered around, asking you to slow down and explore intricately designed areas you might otherwise miss as you speed through the environment.
Getting access to new characters also unlocks additional missions in previous levels that make use of their specific abilities, giving you a good reason to revisit them later on. For instance, you might have to collect an orb that’s waiting at the top of a wall only Knuckles or Rouge can climb. The excellent level design and those diverse mission requirements work together to make Sonic Dream Team a blast to play even with its seemingly limited number of stages. I was never frustrated to have to dip back into a level to complete another mission, as they always felt fresh and fun each time I went back.
Capping off each world is a boss encounter, which are all cleverly conceived but feel undercooked in practice. For instance, the first boss is a huge inflatable crab, like a balloon animal, so you have to pop its various body parts to defeat it. That’s a delightful concept and a great idea for a silly boss battle — but the crab only takes four hits to beat, so the fight is over before you know it. It just feels anticlimactic, and the same goes for most of the other bosses.
This being an Apple Arcade game, you can play it on most Apple devices. The touchscreen controls work fine on iPhone – it’s not as precise as using a physical controller (which you can also do), but it’s perfectly serviceable. On iPad, however, I found the buttons spaced too far apart for comfort, and touch controls in general started to let me down as I got to some harder missions later on. My favorite configuration was using an Xbox controller connected to a MacBook Air, which bucks any mobile assumptions by making it look and play just like a console game. The larger display also helps, because sometimes the camera pulls back for a wide view, making your character nearly microscopic on a phone display. Your save also syncs via iCloud, so you can pick up and play on any Apple device you have lying around, which is super convenient.