Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dreamcast review: Sonic Adventure

The more recent releases in the Sonic the Hedgehog series have received more than a little negative reception from critics and gamers alike. Not only do they seem to be churned out quickly without receiving adequate time to develop an enjoyable (or in some cases, logical) story, but the gameplay is usually hit-or-miss. Some games manage to throw too many curveballs at gamers by trying to fix what isn't broken, while others work backwards on familiar formulas. And while some old-school fans of the Genesis-era Sonic games might blame this unfortunate turn of events on the series having shifted to the realm of 3D, the first few 3D titles actually showed a great deal of promise for the series. Sonic Adventure was arguably the most revolutionary title in the franchise since the original Sonic the Hedgehog, and succeeded in many areas as the series' first big 3D outing.

The story of Sonic Adventure builds off the relatively simple premise of Eggman relying on the water-shifting entity known as Chaos to gather all the Chaos Emeralds in order to destroy Station Square. Things become more complex via the intertwining stories of each of the playable characters, as well as the story of Tikal and her people, the latter of which is revealed in small cutscenes for players to piece together. It's disappointing that the shaky voice acting bogs this storytelling down some, as Sonic Adventure has one of the stronger plots in the entire series.

From the start of the game, players are granted control of Sonic, whose high-speed levels make up the bulk of the game. During the course of Sonic's narrative, he will encounter other familiar faces, including Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose, as well as two newcomers - E-102 Gamma, and Big the Cat. All five of these characters can then be selected from the main menu, and completing their stories ultimately unlocks Super Sonic as a playable character for the game's final chapter. Each character has their own unique abilities, with Tails being able to fly (to both immediate areas via his tails and higher altitudes in his plane, the Tornado), Amy carrying an oversized hammer to fight back enemies, and Knuckles having powered-up punches and the ability to glide through the air.

While Tails and Amy's levels stick to the same basic formula as Sonic's levels, Knuckles is tasked with restoring the missing pieces of the Master Emerald in free-roam treasure hunt levels. E-102 adds gunplay to the race-to-the-finish routine, and follows up each with a boss fight against his robotic brethren. Big the Cat is perhaps the most obnoxious character in the game, with regards to both his 'bumbling idiot' personality and his control scheme. Every one of his levels is the same concept - catch his friend Froggy with a fishing pole. Thankfully there are only four levels to Big's story, though each is equally frustrating, as Froggy only goes for the bait half the time, and Big can lose his edge reeling Froggy in at any moment. The rest of the cast controls quite smoothly, save for the occasional awkward camera angle that leads Amy to run into a wall.

Players can also access three different Chao gardens after exploring the nooks and crannies of each separate area of the overworld. The Chao gardens act like a minigame of sorts, where players can raise the Chao and have them compete in races. Animals that are collected by destroying Eggman's robots in the various action stages can be brought back to the Chao gardens, and giving these to a Chao will alter both his/her appearance and attributes. It is a bit of a time-consuming process, but players who want to earn every emblem or simply wish to extend their experience with Sonic Adventure will probably find it an enjoyable, though casual, minigame.

The soundtrack to Sonic Adventure presents a wide variety of musical stylings, from hip-hop to heavy rock to techno. Each track meshes quite well with its respective stage or character, though a few cheesy lyrics drag down some of the tunes. The voice acting is pretty terrible across the board. The game's sound mixing, on the other hand, is quite impressive for its time. This is due in part to how much of a head-start the Dreamcast had with tech that would eventually find its way to the PS2 and Gamecube. Similarly, the graphics are a standout element for Sonic Adventure. They might seem primitive by today's standards, but the fact that this 1999 release had such detailed textures and rounded edges instead of the angular character models of other big titles such as Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII were big steps toward the current-day standards of modern 3D gaming.

Some elements of Sonic Adventure seem like a test bed for what would come in later titles - primarily the consistent format of each character's missions, and the Chao gardens. Its visuals certainly look dated and the gameplay is not as polished as in the sequel. That said, Sonic Adventure is still a great adventure platformer in its own right and is a lot of fun to play twelve years after its debut.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

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