I once had a childhood nightmare about Sonic beating up Tails and taking his lunch money. This game is my dream, now fully realized.
Shadow the Hedgehog is really just Sonic dressed up in black, and how appropriate! Sonic was the fastest hedgehog around, and his world was bright and speedy. Shadow's game, on the other hand, is full of dreary, pathos-laden environments that prevent speed of any kind. It is as though a good ol' Sonic game is wearing a dark costume and pretending to suck. A few critics have claimed that the poor design of this game is due to an over-emphasis on speed and an under-emphasis on gameplay, but to them I say pshah – this game is slow and has too much gameplay, the type borrowed from bad RareWare games on the N64. Shadow the Hedgehog ruins the Sonic concept. While Sonic games in the past were slight and lightning fast, this game makes me want to wear sackcloth and cover my head in ashes.
You quickly learn, via a gorgeous opening cinema, that Shadow has no memory, amnesia being the metaphor for humanity's consciousness, lost and captive in a hostile world. Like every good angst-hero, he cops an attitude with anyone who tries to help him along his journey. The game unwisely encourages you to play as Shadow, to identify with his amnesia, his lostness, and to fight your way through the Ivory Tower of B.S. to find your true meaning, your ultimate destiny (read: existential crap). Sonic Team has taken the oft-used, rarely successful position that “attitude" is cool (or at least it sells). In this game, Shadow not only uses guns, but he swears when he gets hurt, emphasizing his cool, too-cool, doesn't-care-if-he's-cool enigma. Never mind that he is a talking hedgehog.
Shadow's ambivalent morality directs the story, and it is also the bedrock of the gameplay. Each mission has a Hero and a Dark objective, and most also feature a Normal objective as well. The objective you decide to complete determines which level you will play next (twenty two in all). The Normal objective is usually the easiest, because apparently the path of least resistance is always preferable to a real choice. The Hero or Dark objective is usually some variation of “Find Four Statues" or “Light Five Torches" or “Kill All Dark Enemies." No matter which objective you decide to follow, both the good and the bad guys will attack you (they apparently hate ethical indecision), and your attacks will hurt both. Since you are thrown into a level without choosing an objective, you can very easily complete a mission half-way, stop, then decide to complete a different one instead. It is sometimes possible to work on two objectives at once, even unintentionally finishing one while devoting yourself to another. This reality reveals Sonic Team's marketing gimmick: they are able to tout over fifty different missions, but the levels stay unchanged no matter which choice you make.
The game has set up save points that are also teleports so you can backtrack if you miss anything, making the levels into endless loops which you must scour two or three times, or more, for the items you need to collect. Along for the ride is either a Hero or Dark companion, switchable with the D-Pad, and these support characters are supposed to offer help and advice. Well, they don't – they only patch up some of the badly designed portions of the game. Every time you progress to a new area, your companion must describe for you what the new objects, transports, and weapons are and how to use them, since nothing you've seen up to that point would give you any idea. However, when you get lost and can't complete an objective, the companion will only repeat the things he has said before. These characters are a uselessly necessary part of the game.
Shadow can also use guns, which sounds like a great idea but really isn't. Shadow picks up enemies' weapons and can use them until their ammo runs out, at which time they disintegrate. The weapons are necessary for some puzzles, but since there's never enough ammo around, and almost every enemy can be killed by a homing jump, the weapons are rendered useless. But don’t worry about actually killing the enemies, because you don’t have to. Want to pretend you’re playing an old-school Sonic game? Just run past the enemies as fast as you can. There’s never any reason to stop unless you want the ammo. Aiming is also problematic...because you don’t get to do it. You can only face Shadow in the direction of an enemy and fire. If you need to aim high, you must jump and then fire, which suspends Shadow in the air. Why? Because it looks cool. There are also swords, but for some reason, these too have ammo, usually even less than the guns. Weapons overall become just another distraction along the path to one of the game's endings.
Sonic Team seems to misunderstand what Sonic games are all about. Ever since Sonic Adventure, the developers have been confused about whether to propel the gamer as fast as possible through a beautiful, simple level or make him solve boring, slow puzzles. They have sided with the latter for Shadow the Hedgehog, but they haven't changed how fast the main character moves – at full gallop, the scenery whizzes by quite impressively. Never mind that the levels are almost never made for this ability. Based on the level design, I would expect slow and steady play control a la Mario or even Zelda. The main weakness of the game is that Shadow can move fast, but never gets the chance. The levels are all so ridiculously complex, with multiple routes, various objects to collect, and puzzles to solve, that each one is fifteen to twenty minutes long! One level in particular, “The Ark," has major vertical portions. Since Shadow cannot jump very high, he must use elevators (another emasculation of Shadow's natural attributes) to progress upwards. But don't bother trying to look up, because you can't; there are only left and right camera controls. There isn’t even a camera centering button, even though the L button is mysteriously unused. To top it all off, Shadow does not run, he glides or roller skates or something. His movement is therefore very floaty, and he can't turn very well. But there is never any stretch on “The Ark," to allow Shadow to run at full speed. Sonic Team made Sonic to be fast, but even in the Genesis days they didn't know how to balance his speed with exploration. The solution, I submit humbly, is to cut the exploration altogether. Why not create on-rails, high speed platforming? It would take guts and a lot of skill, but it could be done (see several notable levels from Sonic Adventure for the birth of this idea). This idea might be controversial - the 3-D Sonic games are not without a following. It is clear, though, that platform-style exploration has been mastered by Nintendo in the Mario games, where the play-mechanic suits it perfectly. If Sonic wants to stay fast he must discard the goal-based aesthetic of Mario and try on a new shoe.
It's always been fun to play a Sonic game not because of goal-completion or item collection, but because it looks and feels good to move fast. In other words, Sonic games are primarily aesthetic in nature. The goal-based platforming levels of Shadow the Hedgehog, as well as most levels from all the 3-D Sonic games up till now, have ignored this. Shadow has the speed to make for an exciting game to watch and play, but he never gets to use it due to the non-linear, (sometimes first person shooter-esque!), level design, compounded by the abundant objectives and items. What was unique is now bland. Overloaded with goals, we find that the easiest path is always the one of least resistance. The game teaches us that following good or evil is not desirable, just hard, and the result of our labors is more hardship.
In one of the game’s endings, Shadow tells Dr. Eggman that he will send him to hell, and he promptly follows this remark by killing him. That is nothing like any Sonic game I played as a kid. Those games were fast, colorful, simple, and fun - all things that Shadow the Hedgehog not only misses, but flat out ignores.