It took me far too long to figure out the logistics of Sonic Mania Plus' new Encore Mode. I had breezed through multiple zones with nothing more than a single ally by my side (Sonic the Hedgehog, as I was Ray the Flying Squirrel), and then by one silly mistake, I lost Ray. I lost all my rings, got hit by another foe before I could get more rings, and that was the end for Ray. I just had Sonic.
Encore Mode is more than just a palette swap for Sonic Mania's zones. It seemingly takes place after the base game's campaign, with new cutscenes (though as someone who didn't play Sonic Forces, I'm not sure if it takes place before or after the events of that). At the start it drops you off in Angel Island Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, but only a sliver of it, as you're quickly urged to choose between two obscure characters from Sonic's past, Ray and Mighty, to save. Whoever you choose becomes your immediate partner.
But don't worry, you don't lose the other character forever. In Encore Mode, there's no lives system. In its stead, there are item boxes which net you whichever characters you don't have by your side (the five are Tails, Sonic, Knuckles, Mighty, and Ray). When one character dies, whoever your second in command is takes their place, and if you have a third character in your arsenal, they sub in as your second. If you don't have that third character, then it's bad news because if you die, you're dead-dead and have to restart the whole zone over. (Unless you've lucked out with some hard to come by Continues.)
The problem is, it's hard to come back from having only one character. In Encore Mode, it's not just a new hue over the familiar levels, but the enemies are in new, unexpected places and rings are far harder to come by. You're more likely to come by the new question mark or switch boxes (the former jumbles up who your player character is and the second-in-command, while the switch just changes the player character to another who's on retainer) than the boxes that net you a character you're missing. The bonus stage, too, has been updated to a new pinball game, and it's the best chance to stock up on your five characters should you be missing some. The problem is: you need at least 50 rings to unlock the special stage at checkpoints, contrary to the base game's 25.
It's hard to retain those rings too, with the ferocious enemies facing you at every spindash. And if you mess up during a boss fight and lose a character, that leaves you with zero rings and just however many characters that take one hit kills to try and weather the battle. If you lose, it's back to the start again with just one character, hoping you'll collect and retain 50 rings along the way so you can hop into a bonus stage and stock up on what's basically Encore Mode's version of "lives." For the tougher boss battles, such as Metal Sonic (who was retuned in a patch earlier this year, in addition to new zone transitions), if you mess up enough times you can watch that five character team dwindle real quick, and it can be a struggle to get back to that comfortable point.
I've run into that problem a few times. Just the other night, I spent well over an hour trying to get past a zone because I kept having poor luck in not having enough rings when I sped through checkpoints to unlock bonus stages, and not lucking out with a box for a new character. Often, I would make it relatively unscathed to the Act 2 boss, only to meet my demise and be sent back to Act 1 all over again.
I reviewed the original Sonic Mania last summer, so the levels still feel vaguely familiar—I even got tripped up on the same sections of levels—but the experience itself felt different from the main game. It's more intense, less forgiving of mistakes; plus zones are tweaked with new perks to accommodate the new characters Mighty and Ray and their unique abilities.
The introduction of Ray and Mighty (along with the randomness of having any of five characters to swap from randomly) makes Encore Mode sometimes a delight, even in face of its frustrations. Ray the Flying Squirrel has a nice little glide ability, reminding me of Mario's cape in Super Mario World. Mighty the Armadillo, on the other hand, has a ground smash ability called Hammer Drop that can crash through some environments, take out nearby enemies, and also knock down boxes from the ceiling. (Mighty's Hammer Drop led to my death a lot when jumping over crevices and hitting jump one too many times like an idiot.) As an armadillo, when Mighty's in ball form he can also deflect projectiles and bounce off spikes unscathed—Mighty's incredibly handy in boss fights for this reason, if you have him available that is.
All the Encore stages extend to Time Attack too, so if you don't have it in you to muster through the entirety of Encore Mode (admittedly, at the time of this writing, I'm currently speeding through Oil Ocean Zone... again), you can at least experience the visual swaps in a less-intense way. Competition Mode has also been expanded to accommodate four players, accounting for Ray and Mighty joining the roster. The physical edition of Sonic Mania Plus also comes with a nice little 32-page art book. If you already own the base game, the Plus add-on with Mighty, Ray, Encore Mode, and more costs only $4.99, whereas the complete package costs $29.99. Sonic Mania Plus will be released on July 17, 2018.