Sonic’s been on a pretty rough road for the past decade or so with hits like Sonic Mania alongside major misses like Sonic Boom and Forces. With Sonic Frontiers, the first new Sonic game in five years, the longest time gap between releases, it seems Sega and Sonic Team want to wipe the slate clean with a new overhaul for the blue blur: a semi-open world game where Sonic can run free through new borders.
There’s been a lot of discourse over Frontiers, from its criticized first preview to its better-received second preview but after playing the game, I can safely say that it’s good, in fact, it’s very good. Sonic Frontiers has a couple of flaws but it corrects and innovates in several aspects that make the hedgehog’s gameplay feel fun and creative. If this is Sonic’s future, then the future is bright.
The Mysterious Islands of Cyberspace
The story of Sonic Frontiers sees Sonic, Tails, and Amy traveling via airplane when they’re suddenly hit by a strange wave of energy, and crash land onto a desolate collection of islands inhabited by mysterious creatures called the Cocos. Sonic wakes up and finds that his friends appear in a ghostly, glitch-like state with their bodies passing through physical objects. From here, Sonic sets out to save his friends and find a way to escape. All the while, he also is watched and attacked by a new entity called Sage, a young girl seemingly working for Dr. Eggman.
The plot is unveiled at a steady pace with a new cutscene after every major story mission. It starts off rather minimalist but as the game continues it becomes more intriguing as more of the mystery of the island, Sage, and the Cocos are revealed. It even has some cool callbacks to the previous games which while obvious fanservice does feel like it plays a part in most of the character’s development.
Sonic Heroes Reborn
Each of Sonics’ friends appears in one of the games’ different zones. While it’s a little sad you don’t see them together as a team that much, each character has some good one-on-one development with Sonic. For fans that thought they’ve become too one-note and exaggerated over the years, this game rerails them with far better writing. Amy is sweet and caring without being a complete yandere, Knuckles is a friendly rival without being a complete idiot, and so on. It’s good stuff that should please longtime fans of these characters.
As for the new character Sage. I can’t say a lot about her without going into spoilers but she’s a villain with a lot of sympathetic qualities. By the end of the game, I think she’ll have quite the following of fans.
Unfortunately, the voice acting can be hit or miss. Tails, Eggman, Sage, and Knuckles sound fine but Amy’s voice sounds very stiff and Sonic’s new voice is way too deep. I’m sure that actor is great in other works and I did get more used to Sonic’s voice as the game went on but it never sounded quite right.
An Open Zone Game
There are five zones to explore across Sonic Frontiers. The worlds have a rather somber tone with slow, more whistly music accompanying their rather empty hills and lakes. The only life here is are mysterious Cocos and the various enemies trying to kill you. It does a good job of setting the atmosphere of how surreal this place is but with hints of a previous civilization. It’s a far cry from the colorful worlds of past Sonic titles but that seems to be the point. Sonic and the gang are lost in a very different world, they’re supposed to feel out of place.
Scattered throughout these worlds are a number of classic Sonic obstacles like springs, grind rails and boost pads. It can seem a little messy with all these contraptions haphazardly placed about but when it comes together it really works. The various courses make getting around a lot faster, even allowing you to pull off many of the same physics-bending stunts to breeze to different parts of the map that you could do in past games.
Scouring The Map
At its core, Sonic Frontiers is a collect-a-thon, similar to Mario Odyssey or Banjo Kazooie. You need to collect Gears, which unlock ‘Cyberspace’ stages found around the zones. These are bite-sized traditional Sonic levels, with the more familiar colorful worlds and hard rock music. Beating cyberspace stages will get you keys that can be used to unlock the chaos emeralds which you need for story progression. You also need to find memory tokens for Sonic’s ally on each island. These are also necessary to advance the main campaign.
Frontiers also has some RPG elements to boost Sonic’s stats. Collecting red and blue fruits and taking them to an elder Coco will upgrade Sonic’s offense and defense. Meanwhile collecting Cocos will raise your max ring count and speed. The offense is especially important here as enemies can be pretty big damage sponges at the start of the game.
All of the items (except the Cocos) can be found either by completing various obstacle courses around the zone, hidden underground, or dropped by an enemy (though it’s very rare for the keys to be dropped which encourages you to get them by doing the cyberspace stages). You can also get items by playing the fishing mini-game with Big The Cat (all the best games have a fishing mini-game).
Like all the great collect-a-thons, the game fully allows you to try any of these methods for getting items at any time. This makes it fun exploring the zones and just running through the vast areas at top speed going on up random ramps and boosts to see what you get and where you go. Whatever you do, there will be some progress. The game has a great sense of freedom and allows you to play at your own pace which feels in line with Sonic’s easy-going personality.
Flaws in the world
There are a couple of minor problems with the open world that weren’t a big deal to me but could be for others. While the framerate on these worlds is fine, they do have a lot of pop-in. You’ll be running along and suddenly the various obstacles in the sky will appear out of nowhere. This can actually be a problem for gameplay. If you’re trying to get to a specific cut-off area and rail to get there only pops into existence when you’re close by, it can be harder than it should be to find your way up. This was really only a problem a couple of times for me though.
The game also has fairly long loading times between parts of the stage. They don’t last too long but they’re long enough that the developers inserted small tutorial stages for you to play as they load. I’ll give them credit for giving you something to do as the game loads but I would rather the game just loaded faster in the first place. I should note I was playing the PS4 version so they might be shorter on the PS5 version.
Mini Games and Boss Battles
Another frustrating aspect of the game was at certain story beats you’ll be asked to play a short mini-game. These can range from herding a group of Coco like a sheepdog to collecting extra computer parts. At best these can be a cute little distraction but at worst they can be rather irritating to get through with awkward controls and needlessly short time limits. It doesn’t help that you’re forced to play through them to advance the plot.
What was more interesting though were the boss battles at the end of every zone. Once again, I can’t say much for spoilers reasons but let’s just they were awe-inspiring to see on screen.
There are also various mini-bosses scattered around the world that require Sonic to use different moves in his arsenal to beat them. They’re essentially meant to train the player on how to use each ability but they add a good amount of variety to the combat with all the different techniques you have to use to take them out.
Sonic’s Speed and Controls
This is where Sonic Frontiers really shines. One problem I have with some of the older Sonic titles is how unwieldy the controls and hit detection can be. Sonic can be incredibly slippery sometimes. It feels like every time he steps, jumps, or hits an enemy, there’s a chance he might just zoom straight off a cliff.
That’s not a problem here though. Sonic has two gameplay styles. Speed Style allows him to run at his usual high velocity, while Action Style gives Sonic a bit more weight, making him a little easier to control. I highly commend Sonic Team for these options as I went with the Action Style and he was so much easier to handle and execute attacks with.
Sonic’s speed feels just right, not too sensitive, not too stiff, just smooth and stylish. It makes sprinting through the landscapes feel almost relaxing with how natural it feels.
The game gives you one button to jump and a separate button to use the homing attack which charges Sonic straight at a selected enemy or platform. Pressing the homing attack button more will allow him to launch a short string of melee combos. The more manageable controls allow you to be more precise with Sonic’s attacks which in turn makes it more enjoyable to drive through the various trials of the islands.
Sonic also has a number of new moves which can be unlocked via a small skill tree. These include further combo abilities that allow him to perform some really cool cinematic moves like dive bombing out of the air and shooting actual Sonic booms Guile-style.
He also has a number of helpful practical abilities like the cyloop. This involves running around foes in a circle to stun them and launch them into the air. The cyloop is also important for finding hidden rings and items. Sonic can also sidestep by hitting the R1 and L1 and parry enemy attacks by holding down both shoulder buttons and letting go at the right time. This former can really help with faster opponents and the latter is essential for boss battles.
Overall I feel like this is the best combat Sonic has ever had. The number of new abilities he has combined with the various need for them to traverse the world and beat enemies creates a joyful sense of experimentation with what Sonic can do. This game has often been compared to Breath of The Wild, and much like how that game felt like’s Zelda initial exploration gameplay fully realized, Frontiers does the same for Sonic. Speedy physics-based platforming but now with a wide-open world to play with it.
Sonic Frontiers is a great new step in the Sonic franchise. The semi-open world setting allows for greater movement, attacks, and customization which makes for a fun, high-octane ride through an intriguing story that shows Sonic’s friends and foes at their best.
It does have a fair share of flaws. The mini-games are frustrating, and the pop-in can be annoying but none-of take away from the simple joy of the open-world platforming and explorations. That game would be even better without them but they’re far from a real detriment.
I hope Sonic Team continues with this style of semi-open-world gameplay. It fits the feel of Sonic: it’s fast and free, allowing players to tackle enemies and stages at their own pace and through their own means thanks to Sonic’s larger moveset. Sonic Frontiers is a new world of possibilities for the blue blur and I forward to seeing where he goes next.
|The open world is fun to explore and allows players to do things at their own pace.||Pop-in and loading screens could be annoying|
|Sonic is easier to control and has a lot of fun new moves||The mandatory mini-games could be a pain to get through|
|The story is interesting and Sonic's characters are well-written.|
Sonic Frontiers is available for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
A review copy was provided by Sega. The game was reviewed on PS4.
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