It feels tempting to start by saying how Sonic had a rough transition into 3D – after all, that is what the fanbase expects from reviewers these days. The truth is that it wasn’t the transition that was the problem, but rather what happened next.
But let’s start with a brief history first on Sonic’s 3D origins (Flicky’s Island doesn’t count!), and I promise that it will be relevant later in the review. Anyway, unlike most 2D mascots of the time, Sonic never really got a true 3D outing in the 32/64 bit console era. This was mainly due to Sega’s abysmal handling of the Sega Saturn. However, our colourful friend did get some semblance of a 3D platformer in the form of Sonic World: basically a bonus mode in Sonic Jam that had you running around a tiny little green-hill inspired area doing mini challlenges that the game asked you to do. People typically enjoyed it, but Sega didn’t get a proper 3D adventure out until the Dreamcast era.
Sonic Adventure was a surprisingly competent adaption of the blue blur’s antics and, despite some issues here and there, laid a great foundation for what was to come. The problem was that instead of building upon it, Sonic Team quickly started changing the formula so much that it got to a point where every single game was vastly different to the last. Sonic had an identity crisis, and Sega refused to stick with something and refine it; instead, just throwing any new good concept into the bin and starting something new instead.
Needless to say, when they announced Sonic Frontiers was going to be yet another radical shift in the formula, I wasn’t very optimistic. From that awful IGN gameplay footage to creator interviews where they fail to get across how the game actually plays, all signs pointed to yet another colossal flop for our hedgehog.
Thankfully, this time their experiment worked. Mostly.
SONIC FRAMING SHIFT
That failure to get across how Sonic Frontiers actually plays is something that resulted in a certain degree of confusion going in, and that unfortunately leads to a pretty poor initial experience. Prior to release, the creators threw around the phrase ‘Open Zone’ whilst denying that was the same as Open World – but refusing to elaborate on why that is. It left me assuming that the boost stages would be the core focus of the game and that the larger areas basically just acted as large hubs to mess around in until the next one.
The game’s opening doesn’t do much to dissuade those suspicions either, as you’re initially thrown into a Green Hill (yes, again) inspired boost stage before being dumped on a rather bland linear path that has you solving incredibly simple puzzles and doing some very basic combat. It’s set up like a tutorial, even though the game only really tells you a small handful of important details and leaves the rest for you to figure out. Considering ring dashing and boosting are mapped to different buttons to previous games, it took a while before I figured out they were actually available right from the start and not something to be unlocked later.
But then, eventually, things just start improving. Despite the general lack of guidance, things start to slot together as you start making progress. It was as I started exploring this sizeable, yet manageable, island that I realised just how much there is to collect by overcoming the various challenges scattered around. It’s absolutely teeming with collectibles: there’s the obvious rings you can gather, but then we also have coloured fruit that can boost your offensive and defensive abilities, Korok-like fellas called Koco that can be saved to increase your ring and speed abilities, skill points to unlock new moves, hearts to interact with Amy, gear tokens to unlock cyberspace stages, and keys to unlock chaos emerald vaults.
It was at this point that I realised that this Open Zone format wasn’t a completely new idea for Sonic, but rather a logical progression from that original 3D prototype: Sonic World. Instead of having a small playground to overcome various challenges, instead you now have a much bigger playground to mess around with. The game feels very much like a collectathon platformer starring Sonic, with the cyberspace stages merely acting as bonus levels (think the FLUDDless sections from Super Mario Sunshine). With this realisation, everything started to fall into place and my enjoyment of the game increased substantially.
SAGE AND EGGS
With that extremely long prelude out of the way, I can finally start talking about the game itself and what it actually is. Starting off with the story, and we have two events that lead our heroes and villains to the Starfall Islands. First of all, we have Dr Robotnik / Eggman, who is looking into the mysterious power of the ancients with the hope of harnessing their technology for himself. After he finds himself in a bit of trouble, his latest creation ‘Sage’ drags him into cyberspace to save his life. Unfortunately, he’s also struck without a way out, so his digital entity daughter needs to find out how to get him back into the real world. Meanwhile, the Sonic friends are investigating the chaos emeralds which seem to be drawn to those very same islands. Their flight comes to a halt as a wormhole to cyberspace opens that separates the team and sucks them into the digital realm, although Sonic manages to break out via the power of protagonism. Or something..
With Sage finding a way to save her ‘father’ and Sonic trying to find a way to save his friends, both find themselves crossing paths as they explore the Islands and find out what happened to the lost civilization that once dwelled there. It’s an interesting premise that takes on a far more serious tone than usual, and I found it very welcome for the most part. Even though the characters just stand still talking to each other during the cutscenes, I still found myself compelled to actually pay attention – which is something I’ve been unable to do in a Sonic game for a very long time. It helps that the dialogue is actually really good, with the new writer adding some real character depth that we just haven’t seen before. It’s a welcome change to the cringey attempt at humour we normally see, and I really hope we get a more grounded approach to the future games too.
It’s a shame then that the actual plot itself never really goes anywhere. It’s mysterious at first, which kept me intrigued, but the game’s failure to give satisfactory answers left the whole story feeling rather underwhelming. The final revelation in particular where the ‘big bad’ comes out of nowhere feels especially unearned, particularly when combined with the underwhelming final battle itself.
ROLLIN’ AROUND AT THE SPEED OF SOUND
As for the game itself, it’s separated into five worlds comprised of three different biomes: forest, sand, and volcano. They’re disappointingly generic locations given Sonic’s rich history of iconic zones, but at the same time they also don’t look as ugly as I initially expected. That’s not to say that they look great, especially as the pop-in is almost as bad as a Pokémon game, but there are moments where the stunning vistas can really take you by surprise.
The asset-like locations aren’t really helped with the assortment of platforming sections that are seemingly randomly scattered around the world. These typically are comprised of moving platforms, grind rails, parkour-able surfaces, and have an aesthetic that never really fits with environments themselves. That being said, they are usually a lot of fun, even if many force you into a fixed perspective for the duration of the segment. Having the camera go from being open to suddenly two dimensional can be quite jarring at first, but you do get used to it – and it only happens from time to time.
What helps is that Sonic controls surprisingly well in the overworld, with his movement being surprisingly fluid for the most part. His jump and homing attack in general feel a lot better than in previous titles, and this helps keep things flowing smoothly instead of having all your momentum come to a sudden halt like in previous titles. Having the boost remapped to the trigger also works surprisingly well too, with the face buttons being used for Sonic’s physical actions instead. As you fly around the map or the platforming challenges, there’s a really liberating feel that makes you feel that sense of speed Sonic is known for, without making it almost completely automated like in most modern Sonic titles.
It isn’t perfect and there are moments where Sonic won’t aim his homing attack in the right place, or will wallrun in the completely wrong direction, but these moments are infrequent enough as not to spoil the overall thrill of being Sonic. What proved more of an annoyance were the abundance of dash panels scattered around that force you into one particular direction; zooming around at top speed and then suddenly find yourself flying to the opposite side of the map accidentally never stops being annoying as hell. Having them two-way would have gone a long way to improving general navigation. There’s also some mechanics that are included but also pretty throwaway, such as a slide that I never used and the drop dash which is substantially slower than using your basically-unlimited boost. I appreciate their inclusion, but both skills are near useless.
Controls also suffer whenever you find yourself in one of the game’s cyberspace stages. In essence, they play out like pretty much every other boost game stage … and that is the main problem with them. Controls revert back to how they were in Forces, with jumping and homing being as clunky as before. Platforming, especially in 2D, feels slightly reliant on luck rather than skill due to how imprecise Sonic feels. Given how well everything controls in the Open Zone, it’s weird that they didn’t use that movement as a foundation for these levels.
The level design in the cyberspace stages are at least an improvement from Forces, mainly due to how a lot of stages take designs straight from older titles. There was a little controversy about how similar some of the levels were to previous entries leading up to the game’s release, but it actually works rather well given that these stages are more of a bonus rather than the meat of Sonic Frontiers. The biggest sin these levels commit though is that there are only four different level themes for these stages and, because they’re all mixed up, it can make it hard to differentiate between stages. A couple of the Chemical Plant levels are absolute bangers, but I couldn’t even tell you what island they appeared on, let alone the exact stage. The lack of visual variation gives them a lack of identity that really spoils them. They’re still fun, but don’t expect them to be anything more than an extremely short diversion.
Of course, running around at the speed of sound isn’t the only thing you’ll be doing. The island is also littered full of puzzles for you to solve that will grant you with rewards, including: stat increasing items, increased map coverage, and even new grind rails that provide handy shortcuts to help traverse around the island. The starting island puzzles are all pretty simple with barely any thought required to solve (barring the final puzzle on the island which is ridiculously difficult to solve), but later islands introduce some interesting new puzzle variants that up the challenge slightly. Very few will actually prove tough, but the variety alone is decent enough to ensure you won’t get too sick of any particular puzzle type.
There are also story scenes you can activate too using the memory tokens you pick up around the world (typically via one of the many platforming sections), and those will typically just show off Sonic chatting for a bit; however, they also lead to various minigames that earn you emeralds too. There’s a real variety of minigames too, from speeding your way to activate a bridge to herding those weird Koco creatures to your friend. Not all of them are fun, but the range of minigames on offer are certainly welcome.
Speaking of those little creatures, there are thousands of these Koco scattered around the map. Unlike the Koroks, which are a specific event, these fellas are everywhere and there’s no real limit to how many can be obtained. Finding them and returning them to the Elder Koco will allow you to increase your speed and ring limits, and it’s liberating to know that there’s no real way/need to get every single one. There’s also a Hermit Koco who can trade in the red and blue fruit collectibles for a boost in your attack/defence too, which are also more than plentiful enough to allow you to get your stats to max with many more to spare.
What makes levelling up, and getting pretty much anything you need, so easy is the inclusion of Big’s fishing minigame. For the price of a handful of purple coins (yet another collectible), you can stick your rod into his pool and see what you can catch. Catching just requires a well placed button press when the moving ring aligns with the target area and will net you one of many, many types of fish that will reward you with tokens for Big’s shop. It’s not a difficult minigame, but there are a ton of fish that you can log in your fishopedia and that alone makes it surprisingly addictive. To make it even more enticing, the tokens you obtain can be traded for almost any collectible: Kocos, Fruit, Memory Tokens, Gears, Keys, whatever. The only thing you can’t buy are emeralds, but pretty much anything else is fair game if you want to save yourself a bit of time.
Sonic Frontiers really does add a lot of new things to keep you busy, and I haven’t even mentioned what is probably my favourite new addition: the combat. Whilst starting extremely basic, giving you just your homing attack and the cyloop – which enables you to break enemy defences by drawing a circle around them – it quickly builds up into something that is not only quite in-depth, but satisfying too.
The skill points you earn (another collectible!) will allow you to unlock new moves from the upgrade tree to help make shorter work of the enemy. One of the first ones you will unlock is a kick attack that fires multiple low powered attacks at your foe in quick succession: whilst it may not be as strong as some of the other unlockable attacks, it’s a great way for dealing with foes that spawn weak protective bubbles to shield themselves. Most move have some kind of utility, but at the very least they add a little variety to your attacks. The whole combat system is surprisingly well thought out, although if you don’t care for it you can just unlock and activate the auto-combo skill to take care of enemies with ease.
The only real main issue with the combat is that the standard fodder enemies just aren’t that fun to fight. Sure, they offer you some skill points when you take them down, but you’ll probably find yourself running past the majority by the time you reach the second island. Thankfully, these opponents are secondary to where the true fun lies: the mini-bosses.
Each island is absolutely packed with mini bosses for you to take down, and there’s a wide variety of offer that are unique to each island. Very few boss types are alike, so you need to work out how to take them down and deal with them appropriately: the ninja, for example, requires you to utilise the parry move to deal with its fast and strong attack; whereas the shark has you taking hold of its tail and avoiding obstacles in order to slow it down enough to give it a battering. Unlike the small handful you encounter in Breath of the Wild, I was taken back by just how many interesting foes you come up against. Whilst there are a couple of stinkers, I never tired of these fights and they’re a great way to earn Gears and Skill Points.
It’s a good job these bosses exist too, as the main bosses that appear at the end of each Island are more like cinematic set-pieces than actual fights. Revolving around Super Sonic, you can’t really die so the challenge is to take it down before you run out of rings. These are usually pretty exhilarating, and the boss of the third island is probably the best boss in 3D Sonic history.
THE FUTURE OF SONIC?
All in all, Sonic Frontiers is a bit of a strange title. Feeling a little bit like Pokémon Legends Arceus in that it feels like an experiment with a limited budget to see how people react to this drastic shift, it also similarly succeeds in offering a great proof of concept while also being extremely unpolished in many regards.
Frontiers fails to do any one of its many, many things well – but somehow it all comes together to form a satisfying experience. So much here works here that really shouldn’t have: that sense of speed, the portals to cyberspace, using the emeralds as a collectible, and the sheer audacity to implement a proper combat system with a skill tree… and yet, it does work. Somehow.
As someone who isn’t a huge fan of everything becoming Open World, I am absolutely all for the Open Zone project. Tighten up the controls, have some environments that feels like Sonic, tighten up those cyberspace levels, and you have a formula for an excellent Sonic title. This is the first time in 3D Sonic history where I can see the franchise becoming objectively excellent and perhaps even stop the constant ridicule the hedgehog has from his detractors.
So, the big question is whether or not I’d recommend the game to people? Well….. yes, and also no. It probably won’t win over anyone who isn’t already a fan of Sonic in the first place, as the game is at its best when giving you that feeling of being fast and having the wind rushing through your quills as you explore these open-zones. It certainly has a lot of mis-steps that may test all but the most hardcore of fans, but it’s still a great foundation for a Sonic game and is the most fun I’ve had with a 3D Sonic title in a long while.
If you’re a big Sonic fan, you’ve no doubt bought the game already and don’t even need my recommendation. If you aren’t, then there’s still a good chance that you’ll have a good time – but you may want to wait for a sale first.
Sonic Frontiers is a mostly successful experiment that aims to create a Good Future for Sonic. It certainly has more than its fair share of issues, but it gets the foundation right. Whilst its issues may rub up non-fans the wrong way, it’s still enjoyable enough to please both enthusiasts and newcomers alike.