Ooh boy, where to begin. Other Sonic fans out there, allow me to extend an olive branch and state from the outset that I don't think the entire game is bad.
And with that riveting send-off, let's begin!
A Shrekfan Review Presents: Sonic Adventure 2: HD Edition
Platforms: Playstation 3 / Xbox 360 / PC (Reviewed)
Release Date: PSN - October 2, 2012 / XBLA - October 5, 2012 / Windows - November 19, 2012
Developer: Sonic Team USA
Sonic, Sonic, Sonic... you've had a turbulent past. There are those who haven't liked you since you went 3D, there are those who didn't like you until you went 3D, there are even those who never liked you but play your games anyway. There's no denying you've had quite the impact on gaming history. So it begets the question: Where did it all go wrong?
Sonic Adventure 2: HD is an upscaled re-release of Sonic Adventure 2, originally released for the Dreamcast in 2001. That's not to be confused with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, which was an expanded re-release of Sonic Adventure 2 for the Gamecube. You could make the assumption that the game follows on from Sonic Adventure, but ignoring the characters present within the game, there's nothing more than a name connecting the two. So what is Sonic Adventure 2 all about, then?
Maybe that's not entirely fair. The game does feature classic antics by Sonic and the gang, after all. But the story never seems to focus on them so much as the narrative set up around Shadow the Hedgehog, at this point a new addition to the franchise. The other new character, Rouge the Bat, isn't given nearly the same amount of attention in the depth of the narrative (as if there's depth to be had in the story of a Sonic game). As the story goes, cheesy things happen, Shadow throws off some angst about his past, and a supernatural monster threatens to destroy the planet - Standard fare for a Sonic game since they began relegating Dr. Robotnik to the role of "secondary bad-guy". There's not really a whole lot to spoil, but I won't really go in-depth in analyzing the story here because it is mildly interesting if you can get past the issues. Just as a point of context, though, the story is split up into two separate campaigns: The "Hero" story that follows Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles; And the "Dark" story, which follows Shadow, Rouge, and Robotnik.
That brings us to the first major black mark: The voice acting. Sonic Adventure wasn't exactly a shining paragon for good voice acting in video games, but Adventure 2 seems to take it to a whole new level of bad, with the only redeemable character being Dr. Robotnik. Sonic, Shadow, and Knuckles are all limp and uninspired, and the voice actors for Tails and Rouge are so bad that it physically hurt my ears to listen to them after about half an hour. That's right. My headphones were punching my ears, assaulting me in an attempt to make it stop. I'm not sure I can convey just how bad this voice acting is in text. Picture a bleeding husk of a man, curled into the fetal position on the floor, his eyes wide and unblinking, forever mumbling the words "I can't!", and that's what you've got after you've spent an hour playing through levels as Rouge the Bat.
The voice acting isn't particularly helped by the writing, either. I'm not sure how I should judge it, though, because I don't play Sonic games for the writing. Do you? Does anybody? Yes? Well, the writing in Sonic Adventure 2 is only mildly better than Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. How does that make you feel? Probably dirty and violated, and just a tad in denial, right? That doesn't make it any less true.
I'm going to skip right on by the writing now, because I certainly don't want to spend any more time dwelling on it than the game writers themselves did. *Pause for laughs.*
So if I don't play the game for the story, what do I play it for, you might ask. "That's a silly question", I would reply, "Why, the gameplay, of course!" So let's talk about the gameplay of Sonic Adventure 2. Let's talk about it. No, seriously, Sonic Team, have a sit-down and we can talk about this.
What happened, guys? Now, I won't say that Sonic Adventure is completely devoid of gameplay issues (particularly that Casino level as Sonic), but the levels for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles were nowhere near as mind-numbing as they are in Adventure 2. The style used for E-102 Gamma in Adventure has essentially been lifted wholesale to be repurposed as the template for Tails/Robotnik levels, Sonic/Shadow levels play out similarly to the Sonic stages, and Knuckles/Rouge levels play out like (worse versions of) Knuckles' stages.
Let's start with the good: The aesthetic. Each character has their own separate, unique levels, but on the level select map you'll often find that some of the levels take place in very similar locations of the in-game world. These levels always have a similar theme and artistic design, no matter which character is playing them. Thumbs up for that one, Sonic Team.
Sonic/Shadow. Focusing on the speed-based platforming is the game's strong point. It really probably should've done more of it, because those levels are genuinely fun and interesting if you're a fan of Sonic-style games. Unfortunately, compared to more recent titles like Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations, the game comes across as extremely dated and, I'll be honest, while playing through "City Escape" I wished I was playing the Generations version of the level instead.
The Chao Garden: I'll touch on this point later, but the Chao Garden is still as adorably addictive as it ever was.
And now for the bad.
The mech levels with Tails or Robotnik aren't explicitly bad. They function, they have a decent flow and occasionally aren't just straight paths for you to run down, shooting at robots. But, much like the original E-102 levels they're based off of, they feel entirely out of place in a Sonic game. The fact that they make up roughly 1/3 of the levels in the entire game doesn't really help matters.
And there's no excuse for the Knuckles and Rouge levels. No excuse. It wasn't even that bad in Adventure, though Knuckles is still perfectly suited for stages that play out similarly to Sonic's. But between cryptic hints, absolutely abysmal level design (seriously, more than one of the stages are just a series of floating platforms magically suspended in the air. Where the hell is Pumpkin Hill supposed to be located, anyway?), a dodgy-at-best-and-broken-at-worst camera, and hilariously token melee attacks, these levels are the distilled essence of pure atrocity, mixed down and poured into video game form. And they make up another third of the game's levels!
Going through the treasure hunting missions is an exercise in futility, and it doesn't help that the game encourages replaying over and over and over and over again... for multiple reasons. One, because each stage has up to five different missions and they're all graded individually and so if you're trying to go for 100%, you'll need an A rank on every mission of every level. Two, because animals are hidden throughout the levels which give unique stats, abilities, or features to Chao that assist in the Chao mini-games. And three, because the actual story mode is so poorly paced and structured that, going through the "Dark" story, you'll have done multiple Rouge levels before you even get the chance to play a single Shadow level. And by the time you're fifteen minutes into "Mad Space", you'll be screaming at your screen "Just let me play as Shadow, for Christ's sake!", even if you found yourself hating the character previously.
While I won't fault the art direction of the game, I have to make a point about the graphical fidelity. Now, this is actually something that my ten-year-old self noticed way back in the day, but I have to ask: How the hell does Sonic Adventure 2 actually look worse than Sonic Adventure, a game that not only has just as many characters, but far more action stages, a completely separate mission mode, and an overworld?
Obviously it's a bit more noticeable when the game is actually in action than looking at cherry-picked screenshots, but that's something I can't help.
The soundtrack is a bit divisive, as well. It can't seem to decide whether it wants to embrace the rock style of Crush 40 with their numerous tracks, evoke the feelings of yore with thematic electronic tracks such as the one during "White Jungle", or throw it all off with a set of hip-hop tracks for Knuckles' levels, or ambient jazz-inspired tracks during Rouge's levels. The tracks themselves are pretty good, though there are only a few really memorable ones that might stick with you long after you're done playing the game.
All right, time to wash off the film of negativity here: The Chao Garden.
The Chao Garden is the reason you've been collecting rings during the action stages, or those little colored cylinders that fly out of robotic enemies, or the animals. All of those things go toward raising your Chao, which really has a lot more depth than you might expect out of a mini-game from Sonic.
From the outset, there are two different ways you can essentially raise a Chao: Using a "Hero" character, or using a "Dark" character. Each will affect the way the Chao turns out in different ways whenever they evolve into an older form, and eventually you'll unlock a "Hero" Chao Garden and "Dark" Chao Garden which are specially designed for all those angels and devils among Chao.
The benefits of raising Chao are a bit nebulous, unless you want to go for the technical part in that the various mini-games Chao can participate in all grant you Emblems (also earned by completing action stages, missions, each Story mode, etc.) and count toward the grand completionist's goal of 180 Emblems. But there's something soothing in just sitting in the Chao Garden, listening to the water running in the background and all of the little sounds the Chao make, and seeing their expressions when you pat them or pick them up or, if you're trying to get them to go to the opposite alignment, beat them up. Yes, you can throw Chao, you can punch them, you can kick them, if you're Sonic you can use his Bounce Ball attack to bounce on their heads and make them go flying, though none of these things will ingratiate them to you.
So what else is there to say on the topic of this game? Even my younger self would rarely put the effort in toward playing the levels that didn't involve Sonic or Shadow, though I suppose I had a much higher tolerance for it back then since before I stopped playing, I'd gotten all of the upgrades for every character and at least cleared every mission, even if it wasn't with an A ranking. But now, after having gotten used to how Colors and Generations are set out, it was hard for me to get back in to Adventure 2. It just felt inferior, and it couldn't really keep me interested in it. That's not to say I consider it a bad game, but it's just not as good as I remember, or as my younger self believed it to be.
If the unnecessary fat had been trimmed away and Sonic Adventure 2 had focused its efforts solely on fast-paced platforming, it would be a completely great game. It's not as if the other characters in the Sonic universe aren't suited for speed, even in Adventure 2 Knuckles is a speedy runner. But as the game exists in its current form, I find it difficult to say that it's good. There are sections that are good, and even the bad sections aren't broken to the point of being unplayable like a certain future Sonic game would become. But looking back on it now, years later and with far more experience in video games than I'd be comfortable admitting to, it's a massive disappointment.