Opinionated Review: Shadow the Hedgehog (2005)

As I mentioned on the footnote of Shadow of Time, I published it to celebrate something very special to me. For the first time in my near-15 year experience with Sonic games, I can finally call myself an expert at one of them. I completed Shadow the Hedgehog’s “Expert Mode” (with 90 lives to spare at that. Thanks, chicken gun.), a feat which I assume most players never even get the chance to attempt. (Just a few days later, I finally got the seventh Chaos Emerald and experienced the final boss for the first time in Sonic Heroes. This has been a really good week for me.) Anyways, in working towards getting an A-rank on every single mission of the game, I got an excellent chance to really analyze its core gameplay elements, while, writing for Shadow of Time, I’ve gotten an equally appropriate chance to analyze the story. Normally, I wouldn’t want to review a game that I first started playing over a decade ago, but these are special circumstances. Additionally, with Mania done and Forces on the way, I am interested in establishing a baseline of comparison between classic games, Adventure-style games, and modern games. Now, since this game came out 12 years ago, it would be unfair of me to compare it directly to modern games (unlike Sonic Mania, which came out last month). So, most comparisons will be made to Sonic Heroes and other Adventure-era games. So, without further ado, let us begin.

Just as with Mania, this review will be split into five equally-weighted categories: Gameplay, Plot, Sound, Aesthetics, and Overall Quality.

Gameplay Score: 8.5/10
I know what you’re thinking. “Seriously? Eight and a half out of ten? With the cheesy guns and the glitchy homing attack?” First of all, cheesiness isn’t part of this category, so the gun mechanic must be reviewed from a gameplay standpoint, as it is. And as it is, mowing down your enemies with a pretty big variety of weapons is a heck of a lot of fun, without necessarily being overpowered in most cases. While you as a player generally have a lot more firepower than your opponents, they have unlimited ammo and a health bar, whereas you must conserve your ammo, must always be careful not to let a single hit knock you into a bottomless pit. While that can be annoying at times, it further encourages you to learn the patterns that enemies attack in with each weapon, adding a layer of depth to the combat mechanic that Sonic Heroes was a bit lacking in, excluding a few of the largest enemies. The ammo mechanic is simple and easy to understand, while offering you as a player a great variety of ways to go about playing even a single level. And that’s the name of this game. Variety. Twenty-three exclusive levels to play (more than any previous game, unless you count every individual act of Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a single game, or every timeframe of CD), two to three missions in each, making for 326 (plus final mode) possible ways to play through the main campaign. Now obviously, no one in their right minds would actually try to complete all of them (though I did try once, gave up after about 10), but that still means that every time you play through, it’s a new experience. The one real flaw with this is that, in order to unlock final mode, all ten endings must be seen, meaning that you must play through the first level, Westopolis, at least ten times. (Part of the reason that I skipped ahead to The Doom in Shadow of Time, instead of starting from Westopolis, is because I’m sure we’ve all seen that opening scene more than enough times.) But let’s be honest here. Westopolis is a pretty good level. It perfectly showcases Shadow’s abilities in a low-risk setting, while setting the tone and style for the entire game to come. Sure, alternate paths are minimal (as they are through most of the game), but the three different missions and variety of weapons makes each playthrough its own experience. “But what about the homing attack,” you ask? Yes, it is flawed. I know I’m not the only one who’s been sent careening into a pit by a homing attack that had no reason not to lock onto an enemy. First of all, there is a learned rhythm to it; spamming the button will get you nowhere fast. It does make it slower to use. Second of all, with a slow, minimally damaging, dangerous-to-use homing attack, the game strongly, strongly encourages you to use the guns instead, and I am so glad that it did. If I spent all of my time in the game trying to conserve ammo by using a more effective homing attack, I would have enjoyed the game as a whole so much less, as gunning down opponents was the most entertaining part. And that’s all just the stuff that the game did differently. Perhaps the best part about this game, something you may only notice if you start going for A-ranks, is that in terms of movement mechanics, this game truly is the unsung successor of and highlight to the Adventure saga. The forward movement is much more strongly momentum-based than its Adventure predecessors, more closely resembling the classic games that everyone worships. Seriously, if you can run for a good little while without being stopped, you can get up to some pretty monumental speeds, which have a very strong impact on your jumping power and access to what alternate paths exist in the game. The spindash is a bit clunky, but serves as a great way to build up that momentum quickly from a standstill, allowing for great leaps across long distances. The slide mechanic, which most people credit modern booost-formula games with, actually originated in this game, and was far superior to the somersault mechanic of Adventure 2, though the process of exiting a slide still needed some work. All of this combines to allow for level design which is far less dependent upon dash pads and auto-run sequences, since you can reach those speeds on your own accord. There is one major gameplay flaw that I haven’t mentioned yet. That would be the tendency of the triangle jump to spit you out right into a bottomless pit, especially seeing as Sonic Heroes strongly encouraged you to spam the button until you land safely on the other side. The reason it does so is because of the addition of the wall-run mechanic, which is certainly appreciated as one more way to emphasize the sheer speed of the character you’re playing as. Still could have used some work, though. There’s more I could say, but this section has dragged on for long enough.

Plot/Character Score: 7.5/10
I know what you’re thinking. “Seriously? Seven and a half out of ten? With the ten different incomplete things you do that are all completely false, up until the end that doesn’t make any sense in the context of the rest of the game?” Well, this will take a bit longer to go through, so let’s break it down. Firstly, we must ask the question: “What is the purpose of this game’s story?” The opening scene answers that pretty clearly. Shadow the Hedgehog keeps being told who he is by all of the people around him, but can’t remember it for himself. So, he’s on a quest to discover what it means to be Shadow the Hedgehog. But how does one go about doing that? Well, he is Shadow the Hedgehog, even if he can’t remember it. So, hypothetically, whatever his instincts tell him to do are, in fact, what Shadow would do. So in the midst of chaos, if Shadow follows his instincts, he should eventually find out what it means to be Shadow. That is where you, the player, comes in. The entire purpose of the game is that you take the place of Shadow’s instincts, decide what he should do and when, and give him the information he needs to discover who he is. In essence, you really are deciding who Shadow is, be it the alien who takes over the world, the android who destroys it, or just a guy who really, really hates Sonic. Plenty of games have a similar “Are you a hero or a villain?” tagline, but few are so literal or effective as this. And rather than force you to choose a hero path in the end, as many other games do, this game allows you to play out your character-building to its logical extreme. Thus, ten alternate-universe endings are created based on how you define Shadow’s character. These are not “incomplete;” theoretically, Shadow proceeds to do exactly what he says he will in his end speech, and final mode never happens. It’s not that these endings are false, it’s that each of them are a different truth. Each of them would have happened, if Shadow did what you told him to do. But then, there’s also an eleventh ending. One that momentarily removes you in favor of Shadow’s actual instincts, and drops you off at what would have been the end moments of any other story. Even though Shadow was capable of making any of the other decisions, these were the decisions that he did make. Now, all of this sounds very deep and revealing about Shadow’s character, but there were certainly execution errors. This is no perfect, easily-comprehensible demonstration giving you an inside look on who Shadow really is as a person. But there’s a lot going on that most people don’t understand (which, admittedly, is the game’s fault in strong part). Often times, people still demand to know which of the ten stories comes before final mode, and the answer is “all of them, but also none of them.” The semi-hero story is just about the closest it comes, ending with neither Eggman, nor Sonic, nor Black Doom betrayed or severely incapacitated. It also leads Vector to the computer room, and gives Shadow his confrontation with the Commander, both of which come into play during final mode. But there are still contradictions, no matter where you look, things clearly happened that shouldn’t have in the semi-hero story. The answer is that some semblance of every level and scene in the game did happen, certainly with variations some cases, whether Shadow was there or not. There are even hints of this during the main story. On the all hero side, Sonic and Shadow fly up to the ARK, following the Black Arms who are going there for unknown reasons. But on the opposite side of the level map, the mostly villain side, at about the same time, Shadow leads the Black Arms to the ARK in order to fire the Eclipse Cannon. Even though the aliens are at an advantage in one story and a disadvantage in the other, something resembling the opposite story is still happening behind the scenes, Shadow just isn’t there to see it. So, even though the game is giving you ten non-canon stories, not telling you what actually happened, it’s actually paining a far more complete picture of every event than even a single, canon story would have been able to. Somehow, the game manages to give you a better understanding of the story as a whole by inundating you with false information, which is a pretty impressive feat in my book.

That’s all just the whole. What we still haven’t looked at yet are the more individual factors. Now is your opportunity to shout the word “cheesy!” In a sense, you are correct. There is absolutely a certain level of disconnect when an anthropomorphic four-foot-tall cartoon animal character totes a gun and starts shooting down aliens (and people). There’s little that could have been done about that; the problem existed from the moment of the game’s inception. These are limitations that they were forced to work with. And considering those limitations, they did a dang good job. Going from the plot of Sonic Adventure, to Sonic Adventure 2, to this game, there was already a well-established trend. They spent all of their time in the 3D era (minus Sonic Heroes) trying get us more and more used to the idea that these cartoon characters can exist in a serious world. After Perfect Chaos leveled an entire thriving city, Eggman holding a weapon to Amy’s head didn’t seem quite so wild. And compared to that, this game is barely even a moderate step into the more “edgy.” Sonic Team could have made this an M-rated game with gratuitous gore and graphic violence, just like any other generic shooter out there, but they didn’t (thank Chaos they didn’t). Instead, they made their own niche. They made a game with an atmosphere just dark enough to display their character in the most ideal way, without utterly destroying the world they’ve been building. Admittedly, the swearing can be a bit gratuitous at times, but we can once again all be glad that hey didn’t go any farther with it. There’s one thing that my mind now always goes back to. It was a full CG scene they made that wasn’t included in the game, but was instead used for promotional material. Shadow walks away from an explosion in stereotypical action hero style, saying “Finding the secrets to my past will be impossible. I’ll take those odds.” Even though I didn’t remember that this existed until a few months ago, I think this is what made me fall in love with Shadow as a character all those years ago. If you want to call it edgy, call it edgy. Because it was just about the coolest-looking thing that I had ever seen. Aaron Webber, head of the Sonic Social Media team, once said something along the lines of: “‘Edgy’ is just a word people use to describe emotions that they don’t understand.” And while he probably meant it as a joke, I think it’s true. The difference between an average character and an edgy character comes down to empathy versus sympathy. You want to feel empathy for a normal character, to relate to them in a way that makes you feel personally invested in their story. But for an edgy character, it wouldn’t make sense to relate to their feelings directly. Instead, you feel sympathy for them; you feel for the character not because you are like them, but because you don’t want to be. Sympathy, used correctly, can be the far more powerful of the two. If you can clearly understand that the edgy character your looking at has gone through a thousand times worse than anything you’ve experienced in your own life, it makes you want to see them reach salvation, because you would want to reach it yourself if something so terrible were ever to happen to you. But typically, when someone uses the word ‘edgy’, it means that they have failed to generate sympathy for the character, either because they haven’t experienced enough hardship to understand how much worse the character has it, or because they have experienced enough to not believe or not want to believe that the character deserves their sympathy. Or, they just can’t stop laughing at the cartoon character with a gun for long enough to ask why. Now, as I said originally, that disconnect does exist. Not everyone can get past it, and that is a flaw of the game. But I don’t know if it would be possible to do a better job. In the 60 seconds of opening cutscene, they do everything to make you believe that this character really is serious. They show you his tragic backstory, set up his personality, and place him in a position where using guns just kind of makes sense. So if you take the story and character for what they are, instead of complaining about cheesiness, you’ll realize that they’ve done everything they can to set you up for believing it all. This category is high not because the concept is good, but because they did such a stupendous job with such a…well, ridiculous concept. I’ll also add as a footnote that the game did well with what no other game has yet (though Forces has hope): utilizing the cast of the Sonic universe in a highly natural setting. They don’t all have to be main playable characters in order to have their existence acknowledged where appropriate.

Music/Sound Score: 8/10
I know what you’re thinking. Actually, no, I don’t. Some people are Ohtani people (the guy who directed music for Sonic Unleashed, Colors, Lost World, etc.), and some people are Senoue people (the guy who directed music for Sonic 3, Adventures, Heroes, etc.). I’m a Senoue person. And as a guitarist as well, Jun Senoue really shines in this soundtrack and its heavy use of guitar. Some people say that Westopolis is the only memorable level theme in the game, but I strongly disagree. Almost every theme is perfectly suited to the atmosphere of its associated level, from the “think about what you’re doing” atmosphere of GUN Base to the “heroic final charge” atmosphere of Final Haunt. Sky Troops gives me chills every time. And let’s not forget about “I Am,” the main theme of the game, which starts off a little slow, but contains a chorus which absolutely nails the feeling of the entire game both through its music and its lyrics. That goes double when you realize that the piano opening to “Never Turn Back” (another phenomenal track for which Senoue actually performed) is actually that chorus slowed down and made a hundred times more emotional. It feels like it ties the entire soundtrack together in one massive rollercoaster ride of emotions, just as the game itself was. There are flaws in the soundtrack, of course. The darker tone of the game (and the fact that there’s only one playable character) made for a lot less variety in the soundtrack than the average Sonic game, and you may get tired of guitar after a while. Another brilliant feature of this game that can’t be credited to Jun Senoue is the fact that, when you die or restart a level, the music continues seamlessly. I cannot tell you how sick and tired I was of the first ten seconds of Crisis City in Sonic Generations, because it would restart every time I died (which happened a lot). I can’t believe that Shadow the Hedgehog is the only Sonic game to keep the music going instead of restarting (as far as I remember), as it makes the whole process of death a lot more tolerable.

Also judged in this category is voice acting. If I were forced to choose an entire package set of Sonic voice actors among the three (four if you count Jaleel White’s era) I would choose this game’s set in a heartbeat. Sure, I’d take a well-practiced Ryan Drummond Sonic over an unpracticed, unskilled Jason Griffith Sonic any day, but on the opposite hand, anything is better than Sonic Heroes’ Tails voice. *shivers* Anyways, the voice acting cast in this game is rather unpracticed, their only prior experience being Sonic X, but for the most part, they do a very good job at capturing the essence of the characters. Unlike Sonic Heroes, the cutscenes are voiced just as well as the main game (and there are no volume problems, either). There are certainly a few issues with the script that could be mentioned here, such as the overuse of the phrase “It looks like [such and such is happening].” Then again, it’s no worse than Sonic Heroes’ us of “This must be (or that must be, or they must be) [such and such].”

Graphics/Aesthetics Score: 7.5/10
Reminder that we’re judging by 2005 standards. And can we please take a moment to admire those full CG cutscenes? I mean, mother of Chaos, they’re gorgeous. Even what we’ve seen out of Sonic Forces has been just as good at best, and it’s been twelve years! I mean, Sonic Heroes CG scenes looked pretty good (minus the nightmare-inducing eye movement), but forget being on another level, Shadow the Hedgehog is playing a whole different video game. Everything from the level of detail on Shadow’s fur, to the natural way the wind affects Shadow’s spines and the environment around him, to the way his eyes move and his face contorts. It’s absolutely stunning. As a child, I legitimately asked if the opening scene was filmed at a real location, because it just looked that good to me. I could go on ranting, but I’m sure you get the point. However, not all is well here. So far as I can tell, the game reuses a lot of the same character models and textures from Heroes, leading to some very shiny, almost pastel-colored characters in an otherwise dark and gloomy world, creating another minor disconnect. The gameplay graphics in general suffered from timing; the game came near the end of the lifetime of its associated technology, and there were few improvements to be made. This game and Sonic Adventure 1 both ran on the same Gamecube system, despite their original releases being almost 7 years apart. Consoles of the following generation wouldn’t come out for another year. The result is in-game graphics which are neither impressive nor disappointing, just exactly what you would expect.

Overall Quality/Appeal Score: 6.5/10
This is the place where the game actually takes a hit for its use of guns. Because, as much as I enjoyed the game, I have to look at this at least somewhat objectively. If this game had never existed (assuming I would still be a Sonic fan after that), and you told me today that they were planning a shooter-style Sonic game where you use actual guns, I would be pretty turned off by the idea. In fact, I might even be outraged. Therefore, the appeal factor is quite small. Some people also complain that the game’s use of aliens is just another edgy ploy, but I strongly disagree. Under the same hypothetical scenario as before, if you were to tell me that the next Sonic game would feature evil aliens, I would say, “Cool, we already have the Wisps, why not have an evil counterpart to them? Even if they aren’t related, we already have an established universe where aliens exist, so why not expand the concept?” (That is partially a stab at the fact the Wisps do absolutely nothing for the Sonic universe. Seriously, the Black Arms fit better in the universe, because they are at least explained and integrated.) The point is, this game excels all-around at integrating into and building up the Sonic world, unlike any Sonic game made since 2008 (though once again, Forces has potential). So while the guns are a detriment to appeal, that doesn’t mean there’s no appeal at all. Then we have quality. In terms of glitches, this game is much cleaner than Heroes, at least in my experience. The single, concise style makes for gameplay which may not have quite the same variety as Heroes, but is certainly less messy. On a scale of low to high, this game’s replay value goes off the charts at EXTREME…but, realistically, no one’s going to actually pursue all 326 stories, so we can dial it back down to high. The drive simply to complete every mission pushes this game higher than most prior Sonic games (depending on your thoughts on the Chao Garden), but the pursuit of all A-ranks, and the Expert Mode that it unlocks, can easily double that amount of time, though it does depend on your skill level and how many A-ranks you got in your initial playthrough. One problem I can note is an unfortunate side-effect of the game’s momentum-based physics. When falling from a great height, when Shadow hits the ground, his downward momentum will often be instantly converted into forward momentum, sending him flying off in some direction. When landing on a small platform, this can often mean being sent flying right off over the edge, most notably a problem in the Cosmic Fall level. On a perfectly flat platform, Shadow will stop as he hits edge, playing his edge animation. But if there is any kind of bump or slope, then no such luck. These physics are often called “slippery,” and I understand the analogy. I’ve certainly lost more than a few lives when “slipping” across the floor, in this and other scenarios. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for the physics, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with it.

Final Score: 38/50, or 76%
I was…actually expecting higher. Maybe I’m just a harsh critic. But in words, I honestly do rank this game among my favorites in the series. But, just as with Sonic Mania, there exists greater criteria to judge by that lie outside of the game itself. First of all, just as with Mania, we can judge its presence in the franchise as viewed by the audience. And unfortunately, however unjustified, this game was the first (and lesser) of two to be so thoroughly hated by the fanbase that it not only gave Sonic a pretty bad name, but ended up forcing a complete reboot of the franchise’s 3D mechanics, something I sincerely wish hadn’t happened. Additionally, we can judge how well this game has aged. As I’ve spoken about earlier, in terms of CG graphics, the answer would be “phenomenally.” But as for the rather imprecise physics and camera controls, and the unimpressive in-game graphics, the answer would be “not so much.” Taking all of this into account, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take away five penalty points, bringing this game…one percent lower than Sonic Mania!? Only by default, as comparing the games themselves, Shadow wins by a pretty significant 14%. But, I guess that just goes to show that perception can be much more important than reality. If Sonic Mania gives the franchise a good name, and Shadow the Hedgehog gives the franchise a bad name, then, looking at the big picture, how much does it really mater which one was actually better? Final Conclusion: Shadow the Hedgehog can look pretty shocking to an unfamiliar player. But to anyone who is willing to put aside their fears and prejudices, and experience the game for what it really is, you’re in for a good time.
Revised Score: 71%

-Until next time, remember to always look forward, never turn back!

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