Following a film that broke records for video game adaptations and a decent compilation celebrating his 16-bit glories, the stage has been warming up nicely for Sonic the hedgehog’s big comeback. Yet as the headline act, Sonic Frontiers is a risky one.
The Blue Blur has always been on shaky ground when it comes to navigating 3D space, unlike Nintendo mascot Mario – who not only aced it on the first go, but revolutionised games as we knew it in the process. This time around, Sonic Team has gone for a bold open-world overhaul (called ‘open zone’ by the devs), rather than stick Sonic back on linear rails.
Initial reveals had many comparing it to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it’s certainly not of the same scope. The focus is on action as well as Sonic’s signature speed, along with a number of new tricks. Does it work? The answer is not so straightforward.
Into the open zone
Sonic has had open 3D spaces to move around in since Sonic Adventure more than two decades ago, but they were basically small hubs with a few light puzzles or collectibles. The linear action stages were the meat of the game. The open zones of Frontiers are much larger and properly playable hubs, with plenty to do.
It’s liberating to freely run around in these vast environments, exploring where you want and encountering different challenges at your own pace. But the familiar Sonic designs are still there: springs and boosters to speed you up, and grind rails to direct you along set paths. Linear traversal hasn’t really gone away, it’s just now you’ve got more route options in the wider space.
That also means the annoying camera and physics issues of past Sonic games still rear their heads. Launch onto a rail with a one-way route you don’t actually want to go and sometimes you’re stuck until it’s run its course. Sometimes the physics give way mid-jump, and Sonic veers into the abyss through no fault of your own. The frustration is only eased by the ditching of the limited lives system, and that you’ll even respawn with the rings you had on you at the time.
The placements of these objects around the otherwise deserted ruins of a lost civilisation almost feel as random as the many low-effort puzzles you’re required to complete to uncover parts of the world map. We’ve played open world games where you reach a high place and turn the camera around to take in the breathtaking view. In Frontiers, the reaction isn’t awe but more often befuddlement, not helped by some pretty distracting and frequent onscreen pop-up.
Sonic of the Colossus
Throwing in skill trees, a levelling system, and progression that requires collectible upon collectible makes much of Frontiers feel like a checklist exercise of what you’re supposed to have in a modern game as opposed to what fits a Sonic game. But at least it does get something right with the combat.
Instead of just bopping enemies in one hit, Sonic actually faces some real mean machines in all shapes and sizes, which calls for new abilities. The first skill you unlock, Cyloop, lets you draw shapes with a light trail left behind as you run. It’s handy for exposing a heavily guarded enemy’s weak spot, activating certain puzzles, and even for digging out rings from the ground.
It doesn’t mean you always need a specific move to attack a certain enemy’s weakness. A lot of them merely add some panache to the combat loop, although reaching Sonic’s maximum ring capacity does buff his speed and attack. They also come in handy during the mini boss fights encountered on each island. Some enclose you in artificial arenas, while others lead you on thrilling chases across the map, eventually culminating in epic showdowns against titans who you need to climb up first before doing battle.
Not all of these encounters are made equal, with a few relying on dragged out platforming and attack dodging sequences before you can reach a weak point, but they do add a sense of drama. Big boss fights also bring back a proper rocking soundtrack that’s missing in the more ambient and melancholic open zones.
Gotta go back
Even as Frontiers tries to move the hedgehog forward, it still spends time looking back. Some of that is through its story, which introduces one new mysterious antagonist but does away with all the extra characters that have drifted into the Sonic universe over the years. Sonic’s nearest and dearest, Tails, Amy, and Knuckles (who you’re also trying to rescue) are the only ones to make an appearance.
Interactions with these characters neatly recall moments from Sonic’s past adventures, including one memory shown in its original 16-bit form. That also ties into having Cyber Space levels apart from the open zones, which are basically the linear action levels of past 3D Sonic games. Their inclusion feels like a way to placate fans not convinced by the open zone gameplay, while the aesthetics are also straight out of past Sonic levels.
Mining nostalgia is fine, but it gets tiresome once you see that Green Hill Zone and a handful of other level styles are recycled over and over. The fact they’re just named by numbers (e.g. 1-1, 1-2, etc) suggests a lack of care or attention. At least they’re short enough to breeze through without too much frustration, which makes it less of a slog if you’re replaying to complete the optional challenges, such as getting an S-rank time or collecting all the red rings in a stage.
Indeed, while it’s longer than most games in recent series history, Sonic Frontiers is still a considerably speedy affair compared to a typical open world game. You can get through it in less than 20 hours. While we felt we got the full measure of the game’s collectibles loop by the time we wrapped up the first island, the quota for progressing the story also isn’t very high, which means it’s not a grindy affair, especially when you can do things at Sonic’s speed. Thankfully, for all its flaws, disrespecting your time isn’t one of them.
Sonic Frontiers verdict
It’s by no means a bad game, but to call Sonic Frontiers the best 3D Sonic game in years is rather faint praise when the hedgehog’s output in this area has been disappointing for so long. We can’t fault Sonic Team for finally trying to switch things up with a new open zone structure, where running around at high speeds and growing combat skills to take on a variety of enemies that extend to gargantuan colossi titans can be a rush.
However, it’s an experiment that all too frequently falters and frustrates, with bizarre design decisions in a world that lacks any coherence or personality. If this is meant to be the future of Sonic games, it’s not quite there yet.
Sonic’s most ambitious 3D game in years but teething with bizarre choices and familiar frustrations.
Running around in open zones
Fun combat and mini bosses
Short and sweet linear action stages
Lots of weird presentation and design issues
Camera and physics from past games persist
Unimaginative and rehashed environments