Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut Review

My heart is always open to you!

To say that the 90s were a turbulent decade for Sega would be putting it mildly, and I could spend the better part of an hour rambling about how much of a mess the company made due to the conflicting viewpoints and ideals held by their Japanese and North American branches.  Focusing on Sonic however, after the Genesis was on the way out Sega’s American branch began overseeing production of a Saturn Sonic title, Sonic Xtreme, which was to bring the series into 3D, but was cancelled Sega’s Japanese branch.  This threatened to send Sonic down the path of obscurity as while titles like Sonic R, Sonic Jam, and Sonic 3D Blast were released, the series was lagging behind while other gaming icons made their brave and often ugly first foray into the 3D.  Real 3D, not the isometric pre-rendered pseudo-3D rubbish seen in Sonic 3D Blast.  

Due to the gap between mainline titles, this latest title was envisioned as something of a reinvention of the series, and with revised character designs, a greater focus on realistic locations in comparison to the abstract locales the series was known for, an emphasis on story-telling, and a very different soundtrack that was rife with experimentation, I would say that they certainly managed that.  Oh, and then it was re-released on the Gamecube with some notable upgrades and downgrades as Sonic Adventure DX, which I played a lot when I was younger, and I wanted to revisit it, because I have a habit of reviewing mainline Sonic games.

Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), GCN, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Sonic Adventure DX takes the form of a sprawling multi-character odyssey that primarily centers around Dr. Eggman/Robotnik awakening an ancient tormented guardian known as Chaos, who intends to use it to destroy the local city, Station Square, in order to build the first part of his empire.  The duty of stopping him expectedly falls upon Sonic and Tails, but this game’s story and scope are few things if not bizarrely ambitious, and complications soon arise as their tales diverge and intersect with another four playable characters, each with their own missions, arcs, and intersecting paths.  

As to be expected, Sonic’s story takes precedence over others on behalf of being the title character, and is spread across a series of 10 stages that involve him collecting the chaos emeralds or embarking in a standard race to the finish throughout an abstract environment constructed to illustrate a veniere of realism, yet designed to accommodate speed oriented 3D platforming.  This core gameplay would go on to serve as the base for roughly a decade of titles, and while it can be a bit unwieldy at times due to primitive physics, a 90s-era camera, and some expected level design hiccups, the stages still illustrate a sense of thrill and, well, adventure as Sonic traverses through shifting environments at fast yet reasonable speeds.

It’s actually a bit surprising to me how easy Sonic is to control in this game, as his momentum never takes too long to build up or halt, the levels often avoid precise platforming, and traversal is made seamless through the introduction of a homing attack that makes enemies function more like the obstacles they always were in prior titles.  While I certainly can’t say that I’m much of a fan of later levels like Sky Deck and Lost World, which involve more elaborate platforming and feature more opportunities for sudden unwanted deaths, the campaign still offers a lot of novel moments, and I simply had a good time going through it.

As for the other five stories, they are all 3-5 stage affairs, and often feature elements of his stages reworked or repurposed to accommodate differing gameplay styles, in a move that I actually appreciate as they all serve to give the game something of a more finite sense of place and feel like they all exist in a small, haphazard, and impossibly constructed world, but a world nevertheless.  This is something further expressed by the overworld, or rather Adventure Field sections that take place between each stage, allowing the player to explore a small yet concise world that I really appreciate.

They give this world a greater sense of cohesiveness, provide some light exploration elements, and are filled with small visual easter eggs that go to make the act of travelling throughout these environment feel more meaningful.  I admittedly am a bit bias towards these environments due to how they served as my equivalent to Peach’s Castle from Mario 64.  This really was the first game I played that offered free traversal around an open 3D space with no threats or obstacles to really worry about, and because of that, I can’t help but appreciate these environments.

Getting back on track though, Tails’s story can loosely be described as an abridged remix of Sonic’s as Tails accompanies Sonic for the bulk of his journey, which results in his stages serving as straightforward races against the blue blur, while his story is ultimately one about him learning to stand up for himself and gain a degree of independence, as punctuated by a conclusion that mirror’s Sonic’s.  It’s a bit schmaltzy and simple, but it functions as a character arc nevertheless, and goes to make Tails feel like a more fleshed out character than he did in prior entries. Even if the whole 8-year-old mechanic genius thing is, and probably always will be, a little weird.

As for the gameplay, Trails can be described as a slightly slower Sonic without a homing attack or spin dash, but in their place he has the ability to fly and subsequently glide across the stage.  However, I think the developers forgot to ever program in some sort of gravitational drop to his flight abilities, as he can glide indefinitely, and that ability kind of breaks the game. Seriously, going through Windy Valley or Speed Highway is a goldarn visual spectacle in how much it resembles a tool assisted speedrun, and it is clear that the game was never strictly designed around having such a powerful ability.  It’s busted, but it never becomes a hindrance, and I kind of love it.

Knuckle’s story takes him from being the loosely defined guardian of Angel Island into the last survivor of an ancient race responsible for protecting the newly introduced Master Emerald, which actually keeps Angel Island floating high above the sky.  But after Chaos is reawakened by Eggman through some loose means, the Master Emerald shatters, and Knuckles proceeds to retrieve them while also inconveniencing Sonic along the way.

His gameplay takes the form of a radar driven treasure hunt, where Knuckles must traverse a fairly small environment to locate 3 shards of the Master Emerald, gliding, punching, and digging his way to victory through a gameplay style that I find to be very intimate, requiring the player to examine and get to know the environment in more detail, rather than just focusing on the fast lane.  It is a nice divergence that still emphasizes speed, while also having additional replayability due to the randomized emerald shard locations. Plus, there is something about gliding through environments that one gets to intimately know after a while that I find to be immensely pleasant.

Amy Rose makes her playable debut here, and because she has a history positioned a something of a noncombatant, the developers instead decided to turn her story into something of a more experimental 3 stage campaign that involves her avoiding the clutches and eventually taking revenge upon a nasty green trashcan of a robot named Zero, while protecting an unnamed bird.  While it can be seen as an extension of her status as a damsel in distress, she is positioned as a fairly independent, albeit still stereotypical, female character who ultimately manages to fend for herself and get past whatever obstacles lurk in her way.

Her gameplay sections are considerably slow platforming romps that border around being a bright and cheery survival horror game as Zero relentlessly stalks Amy in a manner not dissimilar to Mr. X or Nemesis from the Resident Evil series, while also incorporating light stealth elements in the form of barrels she may hide under.  Though, a lot of this tension evaporates upon realizing that there is little stopping Amy from turning and bashing Zero in the face with her Piko Piko hammer whenever he gets too close.  I ultimately find her story to be interesting, if a bit underdeveloped, and would actually like to have seen something similar to this gameplay style be featured in subsequent Sonic titles.

Though, I cannot really say the same for Big’s story, which is a goldarn fishing game about a fat dopey eyed cat trying to get his friend Froggy back after he ate part of Chaos and started going crazy.  It is a very silly and goofy little aside, but it nevertheless has some plot significance, and I cannot help but admire it due to the immense juxtaposition between the high speed roller coaster levels of Sonic’s story and the lumbering antics of a fat cat who loves fishing.

With regards to gameplay, Big’s story is broken up into four stages that have Big cast his fishing rod to attract his pet frog, and other fish if the player wants, and catching them by holding the left stick down upon impact, and then shifting between a light and heavy pull in order to reel Froggy in.  All of which is punctuated by some exceptionally bad camera angles, and some bizarre attempts at genuine platforming. I honestly never understood these stages up until I played through them recently, and while not awful, they are certainly the most bizarre campaign seen in this title, and are clearly a remnant of an era where features were easy to introduce and just cram into games for the sake of variety.

The final character, E-102 Gamma, functions as Eggman’s primary robot assistant throughout the other characters’ campaigns and offers what is easily the most captivating narrative I have ever seen attached to the Sonic series.  It is a tale of abuse, fratricide, mutilation, vengeance, love, the pursuit of justice by defying one’s inherent programming, and self-actualization all centered around a goofy looking robot with a gun arm powered by a cute little bird.  

While the storytelling itself is hockey, as is all the writing seen throughout this game, it nevertheless illustrates the level of commitment and care the scenario developers and writers put into the creation of this game, and I was nevertheless impressed by how well rounded not only this story managed to be, but all of the storytelling seen in Sonic Adventure.  I mean, the sheer level of ambition and drive that had to have been injected into this game’s narrative approach is evident, and even though there are a plethora of meme worthy scenes and dialog lines, the story remains constant despite its branching nature, is well paced, and is thoroughly entertaining to watch.

As for the gameplay, Gamma falls into the camp of feeling vaguely broken, being a very loose third person shooter with automated aiming that encourages the player to spin around frantically around enemies to amass massive combos to grant them additional time throughout the stage, all while progressing forward to whatever preset objective, or assassination, lay before Gamma in his quest for redemption.  It is certainly messy, but the levels are well laid out for this sort of gameplay, it makes for both another nice change of pace, and establishes a gameplay style that was deemed good enough to be carried over into the sequel.

Okay, what else… oh, right, the Chao Garden!  One of my favorite examples of a game within a game has to be the Chao raising mechanics of the Sonic Adventure series.  It is a monster raising simulator that involves making adorable little creatures more powerful by giving them the traits and abilities of various animals who can be collected throughout stages by defeating Eggman’s robots and rescuing the cute animals that dwell within them.  All of which is fed by repeatedly playing through the game, clearing stages and missions, and generally getting to know the ins and outs of the overall experience.

Though, the Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure DX is… a bit rough.  Farming for animals is cumbersome due to how stages and gardens need to be entered manually through the Adventure Fields, certain stages are simply not good for collecting animals, and the player’s animal inventory as it were frequently resets itself.  Plus, the actual gardens can be a bit sprawling, often make use of an awkward camera angle, and are simply not equipped to support characters like Big and Gamma, whose large models make it hard to feed the chao the animal DNA that they crave so dearly. Though I still looked forward to every opportunity I could get to feed my precious little pets, as the entire process manages to be both adorable and also strangely satisfying.  Seriously, I love raising these cuties so much that I would willingly engage in self-destructive behavior if Sega ever decided to make a Chao raising mobile game.

Visually… Sonic Adventure was an early 3D title, but in porting it over to the Gamecube 5 years later the developers chose to change a number of models and textures for some reason, while also reworking many visual aspects of this game.  As such, the game looks somewhat sloppy and inconsistent visually, has some truly bizarre animation, and some pretty poor lighting at times. Personally, I played this game with the Better SADX mod that is meant to enhance the visuals slightly, and contains the ability to restore the original Dreamcast assets and features, but I played Sonic Adventure DX back when I was a child, so I have a certain fondness for its visuals over the original.

While one could easily mock some of the facial animations, weird stuttering the models do sometimes, and some visual effects that simply did not carry over properly into these modern renditions, I still find the game to look pretty good.  The Dreamcast to me represents the point where 3D came into its own and began holding up fairly well as time went on. This was the point where developers started working with enough polygons per character model for people to look like, well, people.  However, a game’s ability to age with grace ultimately comes down to its art direction, and I really do like the one Sonic Adventure settled on.

Previous Sonic games aimed for a fantastical looking world, while Adventure found its basis in reality, drawing from luxurious beaches, vibrant jungles, and contemporary cities, going so far as to use photographs as textures.  Yet despite this adherence to some form or realism, the game simply uses it as a base for many fantastical settings and set pieces as seen with the stages themselves, creating an aesthetic of fantastical reality that I really appreciate.  It gives the Sonic series a new yet distinctive look that I still use to define the series, even if Sega seems to be eager to forget about it based on some of their more recent titles. Seriously, how the hell does this take place in the same world as Sonic Forces?

As for the soundtrack, it similarly sought to reinvision what the series could be with the aid of more sophisticated musical tools, and the end result is a very eclectic score rife with experimentation and variety that… I just love.  Every song enhances the environment or stage it is applied to, giving it a greater degree of personality, and even when divorced from the stages, the songs are catchy and have a nice energy to them.

Then there is the voice acting, another common source of mockery of this game, but I seriously cannot help but adore it.  It is poorly directed, the inflections are often bizarre, and the dialog itself has a stilted translated quality to it, but this was considered the norm for video game voice acting of this era and I found myself quietly giggling throughout most scenes as the actors try to make this story about a blue rodent fighting a water monster while collecting a bunch of magic rocks with some degree of seriousness.

Now, I will not say that Sonic Adventure is a particularly great game from a more technical and mechanical standpoint.  It is messy, lopsided, janky, unpolished, and rife with imperfections aplenty. However, despite these things, the core underlying gameplay remains largely enjoyable throughout the entire affair, with the stages never being too demanding or challenging for its imperfections to become major detractors.  Yet even beyond gameplay, Sonic Adventure is positively flushed with personality as seen through the environments, soundtrack, story, and multiple playable characters.  

While I could just be a rosy-eyed fan with goggles so tight that they need to be surgically removed, I still had a lot of fun going through this game once more, and getting to appreciate and understand where it fits into its series with a broader understanding, and more recent opinions, of the entire mainline Sonic series.  Sonic Adventure certainly is not for everybody, but it manages to negate a plethora of the foibles I feel the series eventually stumbled into, and established a gameplay and aesthetic style that I honestly would love to see revisited in a modern title.  Well, revisited and developed by a team that actually has some experience or greater understanding of the series, and does not force out a title that was, in its final form, only in development for about a year or so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.