After going through select entries in the Sonic series over the past few months, I think I’ve reached my end with this. A game that released eleven years ago, and served as a present for my eleventh birthday, because I was still a dumb little child young enough to find the edginess of this game to be cool. So I got the game whenever I did, including the limited edition Shadow The Hedgehog beanie. A collectible that I eventually threw away, but remembered well enough to reference it in a story of mine… because I think that the fact Sega sold this game with a beanie is funny.
Shadow The Hedgehog Review
Platforms: Gamecube(Emulated), Playstation 2, Xbox
Developer: Sonic Team
From what I can both gather and recall from a point that was actually half of my life ago, Shadow The Hedgehog was created due to the love the Sonic fandom had for its titular black hedgehog, and their desire to learn more about his ‘dark and mysterious’ past. That, and figure out what the heck happened to him after Sonic Adventure 2. Because he supposedly died, and then showed up in Sonic Heroes, except that might not have been him as there were Shadow androids created by Eggman. Well, what they came up with was… weird.
The story of Shadow The Hedgehog casts its titular amnesiac being at the center of an alien invasion by a race known as the Black Arms, and after being approached by their leader, Black Doom, Shadow is given several choices about how the story will play out. Which basically boil down to be a hero who fights the alien forces, be a villain who assists them in the destruction of humanity, or just get all of the chaos emeralds because they will tell him the secrets of his past… somehow.
These choices are presented as missions in a given level, will in turn determine what level comes afterwards, and eventually dictate what ending the player will receive after going through a fairly brief story spread out over six stages. Conceptually, it is a very interesting and ambitious idea that presents choice in what is actually a more meaningful way than most games, as the player does indeed go through stages differently based on the mission they choose. In execution though, it’s a mess.
There are so many oddities, contrivances, and leaps in logic that happen within the story that it is difficult to take it in without asking one or more questions during every single cutscene. The creators behind the game clearly had a lot of ideas for scenes and concepts to interject into this game, but even when I wasn’t intentionally going through the game is as indecisive manner I possibly could, the story simply does not make a lot of sense. Levels are mostly connected by Shadow simply teleporting to a new place, encountering characters who give him missions along the stage, and then being randomly sent to a new location after a cutscene tries to establish a greater story, but most often fails at it. Foreshadowing, consistency, and general focus are all lacking, and subplots can easily be forgotten as times goes on, or be overshadowed by contradictions.
If it is not obvious already, the actual story isn’t any good, and lacks even the determined nature that made the stories of the first two Sonic Adventure games memorable quests of epic proportions. The most damning thing about this story is the culmination, the true ending of the game, which not only discredits any one of the ten routes the player would need to do in order to reach this ending, it … well, here’s what happens. It is revealed that Shadow is actually part Black Arms and was created by professor Gerald Robotnik in order to save the world from the black aliens, who want to destroy the humans and use them as nutrients because apparently they will eventually destroy themselves or some rubbish like that. Shadow uses the chaos emeralds, defeats Black Doom, and then decides that he is done with his past, and will never mention it again.
I would be willing to excuse a lot of this if the game exuded more personality, but it doesn’t. It is not as edgy as the box art or main theme would imply, and is generally very tame. Shadow does use guns, shoot humans, blows up an unoccupied city, and shouts, “death to all who oppose me,” but the edge factor was not the primary driving force for the developers, which is a bit upsetting. The most edgy thing is how characters shout about killing all of the “black creatures” and “black aliens”. Which itself is only edgy because it sounds incredibly racist out of context. In context, it just sounds stupid because the Black Arms are mostly grey and dark red.
Beyond this often asinine narrative and unique means of story progression and stage selection, the game is just another early 3D Sonic game. Levels are fairly linear collections of enemies and obstacles that are made to be cleared through expediently in exchange for a higher rank and sense of personal satisfaction. However, the building blocks of such an experience are not given the same level of care as seen in the Adventure titles. Movement does not mix well with accumulated momentum, and more often than not can result in an unwanted run-in with an enemy, obstacle, or bottomless void. The core mechanic of the homing attack returns as a quick damage dealer and means of traversal, but after missing a target or falling down a pit for the dozenth time its imprecise nature reveals why Sonic Team chose to highlight enemies that were locked on by a homing attack going forward.
Beyond that, the game generally controls fine during normal play, and truly does feel like a full game based on the Sonic and Shadow stages from Sonic Adventure 2… but with guns. The guns, or rather, the weapons, fall into three categories for me. Assault weapons that have some level of auto aim that will hit any baddie so long as Shadow is facing them. Manual weapons that require a finer aim but make up for it with higher damage and range upon impact. While melee weapons are utter rubbish, break incredibly easily, and do only slightly more damage than a regular homing attack. Meaning the best strategy for pretty much every stage is to stockpile on assault guns, and use them to decimate the health of the otherwise damage spongy enemies.
For such a prevalent mechanic, the shooting is actually pretty simple, and a bit archaic, but is ultimately reliable. That is, so long as the camera behaves itself, which it does 95% of the time, but the other 5% of the time is pretty abysmal. Either due to tricky platforming, poorly conveyed direction, or a very narrow view that only becomes worse if the player tries to fix it using the horizontally inverted camera controls. Controls that in some instances actually locked up on me, and I don’t even know how.
Returning back to the new mechanics, vehicles are most often relegated to specific sections of certain levels, and fall into two camps. The useless cars and motorcycles that control poorly and at least feel slower than Shadow’s regular running speed, and the few level mandated vehicles that also manage to be slow, and none of which manage to be fun. The flying saucer is used to traverse over toxic liquid, but moves at a glacial pace, the pilotable alien bat monster controls like something out of a dollar store Panzer Dragoon knock-off, and the jumping bipedal robot is slower and less effective than a pulley or cannon with regards to vertical progression
With this, admittedly, fairly solid foundation, the game is then shaped and shaded by the various levels and missions corresponding to them, and they certainly run the gamut. Some levels are on par with those featured in Sonic Adventure 2, involving high speeds, interesting set pieces, and a group of enjoyable obstacles that are fun to go through several times. Most are just okay, and remain satisfying enough to just zoom through, and others… others are just an absolute pain, not helped by frequently non-linear level layouts that can be quite confusing to navigate.
Said pain and confusion is amplified in these stages, and in all stages to an extent, by the various missions Shadow is assigned, most of which involve reaching an objective at the end of a stage, finding certain objects during a stage, or destroying all enemy forces in said stage. While certainly palpable if not particularly interesting in concept, problems naturally emerge when it comes to missing any criteria throughout a stage before the end, and the game’s solution to that it to allow the player to backtrack to previous checkpoints. An acceptable solution, but one that led to a few bitter instances of blind backtracking for me, as I desperately tried to find what I missed in the stage.
They are mostly manageable aside from that, but some of them are truly obnoxious in their vary nature, such as the mission to remove thirty bombs from Mad Matrix, a mission that took me 18 blasted minutes to do. Two missions belonging to The Doom, which involve defeating the highest number of enemies in any given stage, in a maze, and needing to find and heal scientists using oversized capsules that need to be slowly carried to and imprecisely thrown at their bodies in order to work. Or The Ark, a flight based stage that just sounds bad on paper, and is worse in execution.
Moving on, I remember this game never being much of a looker, and even with anti-aliasing and such, the game still doesn’t look better than a late era Dreamcast title. One with the muddy textures, simple lighting, low-polygon models, and generally murky stages that try to be dark and dreary conceptually, but come across as dull more than anything. The new enemy designs do not fare well either, the few human models in the game look just as bad as the returning president from Sonic Adventure 2, and cutscene animations can almost comically janky and awkward.
I wish that I could at least look at the music highly, but despite retaining the same talent as prior games of this era, the soundtrack is very limited in its tone, and most tracks tend to be pretty good, but not very memorable. That is, excluding the few vocal tracks that are scattered throughout the game, by which I mean they only exist in the credits. It’s a damn shame too, as they represent the angsty edge that I desperately wish this game wore on its sleeve like a garish tattoo a 14-year-old got by using a fake ID.
There are a lot of sour notes with Shadow The Hedgehog, not a whole lot of high points, but a lot of alright points that keep this game at a pretty average level. While I can view it as a solid 3D Sonic title, a lot about its structure is lacking, and the more I think about its story, the more upset I get by the sheer futility of its entirety. There is some fun to be had, just not as much as the mainline 3D Sonic games that came before it. In fact, its a game that’s probably more fun to think about and play pretend with over actually playing it.