Poor Sonic has been struggling to find solid footing ever since he jumped to 3-D. His most recent re-invention, the tag-team-based Sonic Heroes, was perhaps his most disappointing outing in his long history, and so, for this year’s holiday Sonic release, Sega takes a step back from the series and delivers an interesting spin-off featuring Sonic’s angsty counterpart, Shadow.
This is an ingenious move on Sega’s part, because it lifts some of the expectations of what a Sonic title can and can’t be (Sega tried this once before with Knuckles Chaotix with mixed results). Shadow’s outing takes some major departures from the Sonic we’ve come to know, and in so doing carves himself a niche. The most talked about change is the inclusion of weapons to fray. This is actually not as wildly game-altering as you might thing. Although it’s a bit odd to see one of the Sonic gang toting machineguns and bazookas, the ammo on these items is limited, and they really become what they were meant to be; power-ups. There’s a healthy variety of weapons too, ranging from handguns to alien ray guns, vacuums guns, and even swords. You’ll still be bopping on heads most of the time, but they’re a fun way to tackle your opponents.
More substantial is the new mission-based structure. Traditionally, Sonic games have been about speed, and much of their fun came from replaying them for the fastest times. Shadow throws this out the window in favor of a new branching level system. Levels each have 2 or 3 possible outcomes, based on the completion of light, dark, or neutral tasks. The mission completed first will determine which will be reached. With 5 different paths and a total of 10 endings, Shadow packs plenty of replay value even without the addictive time-attacking of the older Sonics.
It’s unfortunate that Sonic Team has still not been able to dazzle us with their technical prowess since leaving the Dreamcast hardware. In fact, this game is woefully close in appearance to Sonic Adventure 2, although some new light-bloom effects give the colors an incandescent sheen that really does look quite nice. Perhaps the time they could have spent polishing the graphics were spent tightening up the usual glitches, because they seem far sparser this go-round. In fact, in several plays through I didn’t once find myself falling through the floor, or getting the camera stuck inside of a box. This might not sound like much, but given recent history, it’s a relief.
The more generous level design is a relief as well. After one too many cheap pitfalls in Sonic Heroes, Shadow’s levels are mercifully generous. The downside of this is that the challenge overall has been relaxed. In fact, Shadow doesn’t even lose all his rings when hit! He just drops 10 at a time. Still, it’s nice that the frustration factor has been dropped. Baby steps forward, Sonic Team.
If taken for what it is, Shadow is an enjoyable title. It was only ever meant as a holiday fix for Sonic fans, not a new direction for the series. While it’s not what I would call a return to form, it’s an enjoyable game with enough meat to keep in rotation for a good while. I’ll take that over another heartbreaker like Sonic Heroes any day.