It’s been five long years since the last mainline Sonic title was released to underwhelming reception. Sonic Forces was infamous for its lackluster level design, player control, and poor attempt at storytelling. Considering this, it’s understandable that many were skeptical of Sonic Team’s latest outing even before gameplay was revealed. However, to much surprise, Sonic Frontiers appears to have inverted the well-known “Sonic Cycle” by possibly delivering one of the best 3D titles in the franchise to date.
Exploring New Frontiers with Sonic
Frontiers is as weird as it is fun. If I had to describe the game briefly, I would call it a bizarre blend of a collectathon platformer, Breath of the Wild, Shadow of the Colossus, Neon Genesis Evangelion, NieR: Automata, Death Stranding, and of course, a Sonic game. It contains a fascinating mix of elements that sounds like a disaster on paper, but it mostly works in execution. As someone who enjoys some of the more experimental aspects of this franchise, it’s good to see it done properly here. That being said, if Sonic Team ever decides to make something truly out there, such as a Silent Hill inspired Sonic game for whatever reason, I’d probably subject myself to it out of complete morbid curiosity, regardless of its quality (please don’t take this as an actual game suggestion though, Sega).
Especially early on, marketing materials for this game failed to properly inform players of what exactly you do in this game. However, when you start playing the game, the gameplay loop starts to become pretty clear. Described by Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka as an “Open Zone” game, the distinction between this and a typical open world game can be understood as soon as you beat the game’s first island. Each island is essentially a large stage that can be cleared through a variety of means. Everything you do can progress the game in some manner. Whether you go fishing with Big the Cat, complete Cyberspace stages, or challenge minibosses, exploration and player freedom is king here.
I found this gameplay loop to be incredibly addicting, especially with how it rewards the player for collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds, which I will get to in a bit. Overall, the gameplay structure is quite solid. I hope Sonic Team continues with it in the future.
A Sonic Adventure
Of course, the big selling point of this game is the large open worlds you can explore as Sonic. Traversing these worlds is a lot of fun thanks to Sonic having the best 3D controls in the series since the Adventure games. The game also gives you access to several sliders which allows the player to tune how Sonic controls as they please. I found myself fairly satisfied with the “high speed” preset though, only tweaking Sonic’s steering sensitivity and speed later on.
The Starfall Islands are home to more traversal options than some may think. A network of rails will start to appear as the player completes puzzles and challenges in the open zone. Players can use these rails to send Sonic flying across the map at blistering speeds. In addition to this, the player can find natural ramps to send Sonic soaring as well. Using the drop dash down steep inclines is also a ton of fun.
I actually quite like the atmospheric qualities of these islands, even if they aren’t to everyone’s taste. However, pop-in is abysmal and can sometimes damage the sense of immersion. It doesn’t help that many platforms and sonic level elements feel like something out of a level editor. That being said, the pop-in wasn’t as distracting as I was expecting it to be.
Unfortunately, environment variety is an issue in this game. Sega claims that there are five islands in this game, but that is a tad misleading. It’s pretty obvious that somewhere during development, they switched gears, but wanted to keep as many assets as possible. That’s why one island in this game has been divided up into three different “islands”. It’s a shame, but I believe that the core of the experience remains intact despite this.
One of the big new additions to this game is a combat system. Now, Sonic has dipped its toes into combat systems before, but not quite like this. The act of throwing Sonic’s fists around is fairly simple, yet fast and enjoyable. The sheer variety of enemies you will encounter is impressive. Even on the last island, you will be encountering enemy types and variations you haven’t seen before. This really helps keep combat fresh throughout the game.
I found combat to be fairly easy throughout the game, even with the difficulty set to hard. It features one of the most lenient parries I’ve used in any game (it can be held indefinitely). The cyloop ability can also be abused to generate rings, which essentially acts as Sonic’s health bar. Enemy attacks and patterns are quite easy to read, with many attack animations giving you a large window to react to them. Despite wishing it would be more challenging, I still enjoyed my time with the combat system.
Combos are quite simple but open up as you gain more skills. Players can freely chain together skills in combos to build up their combo meter. “Phantom Rush” activates when the combo meter is filled, giving Sonic a power boost as long as the meter doesn’t deplete. While easy, it’s fun to build combos and see how quickly you can deplete an enemy’s health bar.
The highlight of the combat system to me is the “Titan” boss battles. These unlock at the end of each island after the player collects seven Chaos Emeralds. These fights may present a bit more spectacle than substance, but what a spectacle it is. These titans will fill your screen as metalcore music that sounds straight out of a 2007 AMV blasts your ears. It’s glorious and makes Super Sonic feel more powerful than ever. Every time I beat one of these titans, I just wanted to experience it again.
The Cyberspace stages are probably the weakest aspect of Sonic Frontiers. I still consider them considerably more enjoyable than the stages offered in Forces, but there’s an unfortunate reason for that. A majority of the stages borrow level design from either Adventure 2, Unleashed, and Generations. Original stages also exist, but it’s clear that Sonic Team cut corners here. It’s also a shame that Cyberspace stages only use four level themes, three of which have been seen in several prior games.
However, it’s hard to say that I didn’t have any fun with these stages. While the physics in Cyberspace is noticeably worse than in the open zone, Sonic’s increased 3D control makes these stages very fun to speedrun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate as well to the 2D stages.
The 2D stages are easily my least favorite part of this game. These stages retain little of what makes 2D Sonic fun, with awkward physics and controls that don’t mix with the level design. Fortunately, a speedrun tech that involves the player canceling a homing attack into a boost can make a select number of these stages more fun to play.
As you may have heard, Sonic Frontiers sprinkles in some light RPG elements. If you were concerned that these elements might interfere with how the game is paced, there’s no need to be worried. The simple skill tree requires very little grinding to fill out as the game progresses. Instead, it seems that the intention is to ease players into Sonic’s new skill set. The progression of the skill tree feels very natural and only leaves me wanting more skills.
Players can also increase their speed and ring capacity stats by collecting little rock creatures called “Koco”, which look suspiciously similar to Korok Seeds from Breath of the Wild. My only gripe with this system is that the player is required to level up each stat one at a time, which can be frustrating when you have a large amount of Koco. This issue is non-existent with power and defense upgrades, as the game handles this differently. Players can collect red and blue seeds to upgrade these stats, and the experience is much smoother. Power and defense stats automatically upgrade to the highest possible amounts when the player visits a Hermit Koco.
Ring capacity is probably the least useful stat in the game. You’ll most likely want to keep this at its minimum because you can boost at maximum speed when you reach your ring capacity. This will take longer to do if you level this stat up. Sonic Team should consider giving Sonic a standard health bar in the open zone when it comes to future games, as rings prove to be very abusable in this game. It would give the player more incentive to increase their health.
A Characterization Comeback
While the story in Sonic Frontiers is somewhat similar in structure to games like Adventure and Unleashed, it still has some interesting ideas. Eggman and the newcomer Sage are easily the highlight characters of the story. Without getting into spoilers, the story plays with the idea that Eggman may be a bit more than the mustache twirler that most media often portrays him as. I wish they had more time to develop his character, but hopefully, this is something that can be elaborated on in future titles.
Thanks to writer Ian Flynn, all of the returning cast are characterized similarly to the 2000s games instead of the 2010s games. The game feels less like a Saturday morning cartoon and more like a continuation of an anime series. The plot takes some inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus and Evangelion, but also expands on Sonic lore in its own way. Overall, I much prefer the story compared to more recent games. However, I think there’s an opportunity to expand on the concepts introduced here.
A Bold New Frontier for the Blue Blur
Despite its numerous flaws, I really enjoyed my time with Sonic Frontiers. In fact, I’m still playing it long after the credits have rolled. There’s just something so addicting about rolling around these open environments at blistering speeds. However, there are several ways to improve upon this formula going forward. The next game should incorporate a larger variety of environments and linear stages. I’d also love for Sonic Team to expand upon the combat system as well.
Sonic Frontiers is absolutely a success for a franchise that really needs one. I strongly recommend this game to anyone who is on the lookout for an atmospheric action platformer. There’s a large variety of content here, with little of it being a pain to complete. I haven’t even talked very much about the amazing soundtrack, which you should definitely give a listen to. The game has its share of stumbles, but it’s been a long time since a 3D Sonic game has been this consistently fun. I genuinely think you can make an outstanding game with this formula. Here’s to hoping Sonic Team continues to improve on this formula going forward.