The grim-'n'-gritty makeover has become the final crutch of the creatively challenged, a move as predictable as the offerings on the dollar menu at the local Taco Bell. While going dark worked wonders for Wolverine and Colin Farrell, sticking a laser rifle into the hands of a beloved side-scrolling hedgehog is a different story altogether.
That's the jarring juxtaposition that attends Shadow the Hedgehog, Sega's attempt to breathe new life (and guns, and, you know, edge) into its sunny, long-running Sonic series. Dreamcast vets and longtime fans are likely to wonder what the hell happened.
The game begins with the dark-themed rival, who debuted in Sonic X, struggling to recall his dark, clichéd, and shadowy past. An alien drops out of the sky, commands Shadow to collect a set of "chaos emeralds," and we're off and running.
Or rather, we're either jogging or wildly out of control. The Sonic games have always been about insane levels of speed, but speed plus 3-D sans solid control equals frustration squared. Shadow skates as he runs, and accelerates like Apollo Ohno flung from a nuclear-powered slingshot. The controls aren't responsive enough to handle this level of G-force, resulting in lots of backtracking, battling the game camera, and bullrushing straight into chasms and other hazards. This is particularly maddening in the game's many platform-jump sections, where Shadow is likely to miss even the easiest leaps.
The highly touted guns are no help, either. Even with an auto-aiming feature, Shadow's new arsenal still can't top a well-timed jump-dash, so what's the point? More frustration.
Shadow can choose to help Sonic or hook up with the game's bad guys, the evil Black Arms aliens, changing the path of the plot in the process. Terrific idea, but the whole good-evil dichotomy collapses almost instantly. I was midway through the second level before I realized that I even had a choice. Since both good and evil enemies will attack you no matter which side you've chosen, you're often stuck dodging your "pals" when you ought to be speeding along at mach five.
The enemy of my enemy is my enemy? Back to the drawing board.
Leaving the death-metal soundtrack and the deathly stare in the dust has worked wonders for the final installment of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series. No longer does the buff 'n' acrobatic Prince emote and toss tantrums like Russell Crowe in a hotel lobby. But messing with those sands of time continues to yield unpleasant consequences. While they helped the Prince avoid untimely demise back in 2003, they also unleashed a titanic-sized time-beastie in 2004's Warrior Within, and now they've left Babylon in ruins and split our hero into two personalities.
Two Thrones brings the story home by heading off in a few interesting new directions. The thrilling jumps, wall-walks, and backflips that define this series are deployed less in the service of scaling the impossible wall (although you'll do that, too) and more to set up the Prince's new secret weapon — the Speed Kill.
Or, more accurately, the stealth kill. The minions of the evil Vizier — remember him from Sands of Time? — are significantly stronger this time around, which means that even with his full array of combat moves, the Prince generally gets his ass kicked in straight-up melees with multiple foes. The opportunity to go all Splinter Cell and stick a scimitar in the ribs of an unsuspecting archer often means the difference between advancing to the next area and reloading your game.
Not so for the Dark Prince, the evil-twin personality that's emerged as a result of a "taint" from touching the sands of time. He's a black-and-flame-tattooed gent with the moral compass of Dick Cheney — none of those happy ruminations on Babylon from this dude. He also gets a much more aggressive prop: the daggertail, a nasty little whip/sword that looks painful to even hold. It's not quite as all-purpose as the sword-and-chain get-up Kratos packs in God of War, but it does open up a whole new menu of fun climbing and combat moves. If you can actually pull it off, the Typhoon of Torment is a thing of death-dealing beauty.
The split-personality play mechanic adds great variety to a game that already had sizable depth. Not so sure about those chariot-driving sequences, though. While they make sense from a historical perspective and offer okay game play, they seem somehow out of place — when did this fleet-footed prince ever need a horse?
Aaron R. Conklin writes about games regularly for the Charleston City Paper.