Sonic Adventure 2 Battle Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), GCN, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Sonic Team
Sonic Adventure did a lot of things upon its release. Show off Sega’s new hardware, revitalize the Sonic series, and give it a much needed direction to follow after so many other games made the bold, and often clumsy, leap into 3D. But as a launch title developed along with the hardware, there were a lot of areas where the team felt things could be improved upon, so a sequel that followed the same trends and tempos was naturally put into production. The approach ultimately adopted by the developers, that of Sonic Team USA, was to refine and focus the efforts seen in Adventure 1, meaning no more fishing, slow platforming, or Adventure Fields. Instead, the focus was placed on creating a more fast-paced and action oriented experience that featured an even more ambitious multi-character odyssey of a tale, albeit a significantly more condensed one split between two separate campaigns.
The Hero Story follows the pursuits of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles as they must fight against both Eggman and the government in order to save the planet from total annihilation. While the Dark Story follows the pursuits of Eggman, going out on yet another one of his crazy plans to dominate the world, but rather than relying on an army of incompetent robots powered by innocent woodland critters, he instead sought out the aid of two new characters. The first being the reawakened biological alien super weapon and classically trained edgelord Shadow The Hedgehog. Along with Rouge the Bat, who I’m pretty sure exists to parallel Knuckles from a gameplay perspective and spin the concept of a treasure hunter on its head, and the best thing the developers could come up with is a femme fatale spy type character.
Now, I praised Sonic Adventure 1 for being such an ambitious and wild narrative that somehow, just somehow, all managed to work out in the end with only a few minor continuity hiccups, but Sonic Adventure 2’s story is something else entirely. It is an utterly absurd rollercoaster of a narrative that involves forgotten technology with a dark history, biological super weapons, the heroes fighting against military robots as they try to fend off the police and break into the president’s limo, and a giant 50-year-old space station that looks like Eggman’s face. Despite being nuttier than a cane made entirely of cashews and nuget, the story itself always presents itself with a degree of sincerity and genuineness, clearly trying to tell an epic narrative with high stakes, and it’s hard to not get wrapped up in the insanity of it all.
Yes, yes, the dialog can be corny, there is a plethora of minutiae that warrants questioning, and the entire story has something of an adolescent bent to it, but the earnestness and drive expressed by at least some of the developers is incredibly palpable here. The sheer entertainment value and general enjoyability the story provide overshadow whatever issues this greater story holds, and while I am blatantly aware of its objective shortcomings, it is still a story that brings me a lot of joy and excitement.
As for what gameplay improvements this iteration brought, things have been distilled to the three most positively received gameplay styles from Adventure 1, with Sonic’s style of stages returning and being shared with Shadow. Knuckles continues to hunt for three pieces of treasure in expansive areas, as does Rouge. While the gameplay of E-102 Gamma has been made slightly slower in order to better fit the bipedal mech gameplay adopted by both Tails and Eggman. From a broader perspective, there really is not much different between the gameplay of these two titles, with the established core of Adventure 1 still being very apparent in Adventure 2.
Yet in developing this title and trying to add value to this game, the developers chose to do two things. They implemented a point system that rewards players with a ranking based on how quickly, efficiently, or stylishly they get through each stage, and also introduced a mission system that encouraged players to truly get intimate with the 31 stages found in the main game, and pursue some form of mastery. It is a concept that admittedly is the cause for a lot of frustration, as getting an A rank in every single stage is a feat that I probably could not accomplish unless I were to exclusively play this game for a year straight on a deserted island. However, this also gives Adventure 2 a lot of replay incentive, which is only enhanced by the expanded Chao Garden.
While the entire process seen in Adventure 2’s Chao Garden is gradual, and has few considerable rewards and things to do beyond feeding the DNA of animals or concentrated chaos energy to creatures that themselves are manifestations of chaos, it is one that I find to be immensely pleasing and satisfying. Raising and taking care of the Chao as they wander around the three distinct gardens, watching them learn to walk, swim, and fly, eventually making them strong and fast enough to compete in races and karate battles, and taking them to kindergarten so they can learn to sing, dance, and draw, it all manages to feel rewarding and worthwhile even though it is ultimately just a mere distraction, but its integration into the game prevents it from ever feeling like a drag.
The Garden can easily be accessed from the stage select screen, but (almost) every stage in the game has several Chao Garden keys that allow the player to access the garden after the stage. It’s direct, immediately, encourages some form of light exploration within a stage, provides the player the opportunity to get their Chao raising in small bursts. While I will never fully understand the minutiae of the Chao raising process, I still find it to be an immensely calming activity that nicely offsets the action offered by most stages.
Speaking of which, the Sonic and Shadow stages feature the general refinement and focus that goes to characterize most good sequels. What I mean by this is that stages have been turned into high speed roller coaster rides that cater to the unique abilities of these characters, come with a variety of small detours for the player to take, and serve as visual setpieces in their own right. From the sunny hilly streets of City Escape to the abstract gravity defying railways of Final Chase, there is a lot to praise about these stages, but in aiming for the stars and trying to create a spectacle focused high-speed platformer, the developers also developed a sense of mechanical ambition in some sports, as seen in the gravity mechanics of later stages and the omnipresent grind rails.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not quite tight enough to make mechanics like these as enjoyable as they ought to be. There is a degree of looseness in Sonic and Shadow’s movement that makes it difficult to play through stages as stylishly as the game seems to want the player to, and the decision to not use a unique button for context sensitive inputs perplexes me to this day. Sonic Adventure 1 was a somewhat janky affair due to that being the style of 3D gaming at the time, and while I do think that Adventure 2 fares better, and remains more consistent and generally enjoyable than most subsequent titles, it’s mechanical complexity and overall unevenness can be a detriment at times.
Meanwhile, the Knuckles and Rouge stages center around exploring a sizable 3D environment in order to find three emerald shards, or keys, or chaos emeralds, by dashing, gliding, rocketing, and diving throughout the environment. While the whole randomized nature of where these macguffins are hidden remains the same from Adventure 1, as they reside in a variety of predetermined locations, the manner in which they are found was notably changed, and admittedly not for the best. Instead of following Tikal’s spirit to the nearest emerald, the game now informs players of emerald shard locations via interactive hint computers that range between clear instructions based on landmarks throughout the stage, to overly vague gobbledygook. And instead of being able to track three emeralds, now only one of them is tracked at a time, with the radar not going off if the player is right next to the third arbitrarily numbered emerald when they have yet to find the second.
It’s a bizarre change that can thankfully be modded out on PC using the SA2 Mod Loader, allowing players to track all three emeralds at once, among other things. This makes these stages considerably more enjoyable, but it does little to advert the issues that arise in the later stages of Meteor Herd and Mad Space. The two final stages for each character, and they each contain a lot of massive vertically arranged environments, which do not lend themselves well to focused treasure hunts, especially when only one emerald can be tracked at a time. While they are technically impressive, they really do pale in comparison to the likes of Pumpkin Hill or Security Hall.
Finally, the gameplay offered for Tails and Eggman initially seems rather displaced when put side by side with the other characters, as both are comparatively slow characters whose gameplay is primarily based around going through linear figurative (and sometimes literal) hallways, holding down a button to lock onto a variety of enemies and destructible targets before releasing to destroy them in order to get a barrage of points. Yet these stages do manage to maintain a relatively expedient pace, focus quite a bit on good timing, require the player to be agile in order to avoid enemy fire, and still reward detail oriented players with the ability to rack up massive combos with regularity.
While I would not say that the underlying gameplay is really enough to stand as its own fully featured title, the stages manage to remain very enjoyable bombastic romps that remain surprisingly consistent when compared to the other gameplay modes. At least before getting to the final stage, which requires a lot of time manipulation driven platforming and some frustrating enemy placement. Though in all honesty the final stage of this game is something of an overambitious letdown that, while conceptually interesting, feels like the least polished part of this game. Things do get better when fighting the final boss, but much like Perfect Chaos, I cleared them before the second verse could even kick in. Whoops.
If it seems like I am being a bit tempered with my praise here, it’s because I have a large soft spot for this title, and the areas where it does not properly aligned with my more optimistic memories of the title stand out to me. However, I still find the game to be thoroughly fun from beginning to end. The road through Sonic Adventure 2 is one with a number of small bumps or hiccups, but when it works, it works really well, and can be a genuinely wonderful time.
Shifting over to the presentation, after going through Adventure 1 last month and being made very aware of its more archaic visual elements, I was a bit concerned that Adventure 2 would fare similarly, what with them being for the same platform and such. However, the advancements made between games often make the games seem like they came from different generations entirely. The models are considerably slicker, gameplay animations are more fluid, the textures are surprisingly high quality for a game of this era, and while some of the cutscenes are a bit iffy, they are a marked improvement. Aesthetically, the game also reprises the whole fantastical realism angle, but as the campaign escalates and stakes are raised, things drift further away from the city streets, lavish naturey environments, and military complexes to full on sci-fi once things move to the Space Colony Ark for the final third of the game. Yet despite this change, the visual direction manages to remain strong, with each stage feeling like a distinctive location in this stylized fantastical world and fitting into a distinctive theme for each character.
While it’s not always pronounced, every stage feels as if it is designed to match a style and tone evocative of its respective playable character. While this can be seen through certain visual motifs and design trends, it is far more obvious when looking at the soundtrack, which shifts between a variety of styles and genres and when combined with the vocal themes for each character, you could more or less make an EP representative of each character. This approach helps the score remain engaging throughout the experience, shakes things up regularly, and despite having so much variety, the soundtrack remains concise and focused.
I could easily go on about how much I enjoy certain tracks or character motifs, but to keep things punctual, cut to the chase, and say that Sonic Adventure 2’s soundtrack is my favorite soundtrack of anything, ever. While one could claim this is due to nostalgia, much like anything I have to say about this game, it is a soundtrack that I have regularly gone back to over the years, and has left me positively elated every time I went through it in its approximate entirety.
Though, I will say that despite the soundtrack being excellent, the audio mixing is, well, bad. This is thankfully averted by a mod that rebalances this game’s sound effects. I also feel that I should note that I used yet another mod in my playthrough, a very special one that puts every character in Rouge’s “outfit” in what I think is meant to be a reference to an old Deviantart trend that I think originated back in 2009, was picked up by members of the TG art community, and has continued sporadically over the years. The mod itself looks more than a little awkward due to Rouge’s exaggerated proportions, but it appeals to a certain niche in my weird brain, and it’s a reminder of how amazing modding can be. Not only can it enhance 18-year-old games, but it can bring fetishes to life!
I could easily go on about this game for hours, but I think I’ve said enough. While not the most polished or refined title, Sonic Adventure 2 is certainly up there amongst my favorite games of all time. The outlandish and silly story, thrilling stages, and distinct personality rich presentation mix together to create an experience that I feel I’ll find myself coming back to every few years. Which is more than I can say for most subsequent Sonic titles, as the trail of successive titles that followed this one, most of which could be considered Sonic Adventure 3 in all but name, were of a questionable quality, having their own remarkable high moments, but the negatives kept compounding up until the 2006 reboot of the series. After that, the series began to wallow in a bitter cycle of manufactured cynicism that has led to an environment where hope for any Sonic game is seen as foolish, unless one’s expectations are unreasonably low. A mentality that seems all the more wise following the reveal of this… thing.