Sonic is a series that goes in various directions and is never afraid to try out new things. Sometimes though, those new things are head-scratching at first. Taking one of your more mysterious characters and completely making him dark, giving him access to fire arms and going for a more serious visual style turns heads.
People were shocked when the game Shadow the Hedgehog was announced and when it released, confusion on the title only continued.
Some enjoyed it but many did not for various reasons. Does this darker adventure for Shadow result in a good game? Fire arms in platformers have been proven to work and games like Jak II prove you can take colorful franchises and make them serious. Lets dive into the adventure that is Shadow the Hedgehog and see what it has to offer.
Taking place after Sonic Heroes, Shadow still doesn’t know who he is. Not having any memories outside of flashbacks of this person named Maria, he wonders about things. But aliens fall from the sky and…..wait, don’t leave yet! I still have to explain the story. Anyway, Shadow encounter the alien leader ‘Black Doom’ who tells him to gather the seven Chaos Emeralds for him as promised.
Shadow really confused at this point just says ‘Gotta get the Emeralds; that might answer things’ and goes on a new adventure. I made the joke that the story is a bit lazy (just having Aliens invading is a concept used many times in other media) but it has some decent moments. We learn about Shadow’s past, his connection to Black Doom and even a bit about new characters to the Sonic series like the G.U.N. Commander.
The writing is the biggest issue for this story, as it feels like one of the best B-Movies of all time. Having aliens invading the world, Sonic and friends suddenly cursing (saying things like ‘damn’), humans having a larger role in the story and Shadow having amazing lines that are repeated to this day; it’s really funny.
When taken seriously though, it starts to fall apart though. I would like to learn about Shadow’s past and he is one of the few Sonic characters you can focus a story around. But it just doesn’t work all the time and with the games ‘choose your own adventure’ gimmick, it results in a disjointed narrative that makes everyone look stupid in the long run.
My overall thoughts on the narrative is that it has good ideas and if you treat it as a B-Movie, you will get enjoyment from it. The moment you start taking it seriously though, it falls apart right away unfortunately.
Shadow the Hedgehog is unique in the series, as it offers branching paths through levels. This means that depending on the mission you complete in a given stage, you are moved to a different stage. Differing from prior Sonic titles, this encourages replay value and offers more to the levels then just running forward. But this set up has various issues holding it back.
For one, the missions have very mixed design. Most of the time, missions force you to collect X amount of things or kill X amount of things depending on the side you work with (Hero or Dark). That isn’t too bad, but the amount you have to collect/kill is quite high and it results in levels that should be fast and fun feeling like a slog to get through. What makes this worse is the lack of a mini map or radar telling you where to go, making some levels feel very long.
What makes this worse is how even if you are on the Hero/Dark side, your allies keep attacking you. That is a problem, as your partner that follows you through the mission insults you saying ‘Stop killing those guys’. You as the player think to yourself ‘I would if you TOLD THEM to stop attacking me……’ That is a minor problem but can become really annoying sometimes.
Lost Impact vividly comes to mind, as that level has you assigned to kill every single Chaos Creature in the area…..and there are 35. Now that sounds like a low number and it is, but when you kill 30 of them and get to the end of the stage; where is the final one? It turns a 10 minute level into a 40 minute/hour long slog and I hated this. Sonic always had exploration but never to this degree. If you are pushing exploration, having a map telling you where things are is important and this game sorely lacks one.
But not every mission is badly designed; some have you race across space against Sonic himself, ride a little flying alien that invokes memories of SEGA arcade shooters and outright race to the end of a specific location. It works and I like it when missions are more creative.
One issue is that you need to clear the same paths twice, as the final mission per path has two different boss fights (depending on if you pick the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ mission). This means you will need to playthrough the same story path all over again just to fight the evil boss if you complete the Hero mission for example. It feels like forced padding and it is a problem.
The game also has a Multiplayer Mode and Co-Op support if you plug in a second controller but both aren’t that good. MP feels tacked on and the maps feel poorly designed while the later is very uncontrollable for the second player (and doesn’t always work) so it feels like a bug rather then a feature.
Overall this games design is quite poor outside of having some bright spots at specific points throughout the game.
Shadow controls very similar to his gameplay in Sonic Heroes while also having the ability to strafe (hold a shoulder button), punch/kick (press the attack button when not holding anything), and spin-dash. Shadow also has the ability to run across walls and has a more lock-on like homing attack, making it more useful.
Some small changes feel great, like having a unique button for the light-speed dash and great controls for grinding on rails. It feels like these small changes are Sonic Team USA responding to issues people had with Heroes core control problems, which is good.
Guns are interesting, as the 3D platformer has the Ratchet & Clank series to look at regarding proper gun-play control. Shadow doesn’t have a great level of control regarding aiming but shooting for almost all weapons is auto-lock on and this mostly works, resulting in most weapons feeling surprisingly fun to use. You even have a strafing function, which while making Shadow move very slowly, can help aim larger fire arms. The question to be asking is ‘How is the weapons line up? Is it creative and fun?’ Sadly, it’s a mixed bag. Many of the weapons despite looking different all act the same.
While weapons in Ratchet can be similar to each other but they have different elements making them unique. Shadow has very few weapons outside of special unlockable ones that offer any major differences, so gunplay while fun, is too simple.
Major gameplay problems are present though through how slippery Shadow controls. It feels like you are ice staking and this makes you fling off edges or platforms often enough to become a major problem. Major platforming sections instead of becoming fun challenges where you can run and jump freely turn into you gently tapping the stick to make precise movement. This shouldn’t be the case in a Sonic-series game honestly.
The camera system is also a bit of a problem, as it can get stuck on walls and doesn’t feel right sometimes. You adjust to it as you play, but it could have felt a lot better. Gameplay overall is honestly a mixed bag, with some honestly great ideas and smart fixes from past games being present. But the issues like the guns not feeling different enough, movement controls being quite annoying and the camera not being responsive are major problems.
This game feels all over the place with it’s graphics, as it’s one of the most ugly Sonic games of it’s generation. Character models, textures and animations all look awful and look dated even when the game released. But some art direction elements stick out to save the visuals a bit. Levels with more outlandish themes like a Haunted Castle or Cyber Space look good through vibrant color choice and nice set-pieces.
Regarding frame rate, it does run well on GameCube and Xbox with a stable 60FPS and nice image quality. But the PS2 version is quite bad, as tons of slow down and long loading times make control even worse then before.
Sound design is okay, with many of the sound effects trying too hard to be ‘edgy’. The menu sounds and select sound bite is gun clicks and shots; so mature and adult. But iconic Sonic sounds like the Ring Jingle are present. Music is honestly great, as despite many of the tracks using heavy guitar resulting in them bleeding together, some specific tracks are some of the series best.
The track ‘GUN Fortress’ is a wonderful example of the games sounding it’s best; you are exploring a base on it’s last defense on the darkest path, with this sad rift playing. It lingers across the level and honestly makes you feel bad for being a bad guy. Vocal tracks are great, as many to me reach ‘so bad it’s amazing’ at points. One honestly great one includes ‘All Hail Shadow’ which later becomes a main theme for the character in future games.
Sonic games can ensure you will have a high quality presentation and Shadow is one game that falls short of that expectation. It has some strong elements (mainly it’s soundtrack and some level tropes), but it’s just ugly and dated.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5
Shadow the Hedgehog is a game that feels like a rushed production in many respects. It’s strong concepts of blending gunplay with Sonic’s speed, some music tracks and interesting story elements do enough to make me enjoy the game in a cathartic way. But it’s issues are too large to ignore and they drag the game into something that is very hard to recommend.