The idea of a new Sonic game dropping is not a strange one, since the blue one’s debut back in the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive era there’s been a steady stream of sprite-based side-scrolling platformers, racing games, 3D titles, spin-offs, tie-ins, compilations, remasters, and reimaginings. And with two surprisingly popular and well-received live-action movies in recent years, Sonic is experiencing something of a resurgence. Even though the speedy blue blur hasn’t gone anywhere
With Sonic Frontiers, SEGA and Sonic Team are tapping into a new look and feel for the hedgehog - that of the open-world game with a somewhat realistic tone to the art direction. Of course, open-world isn’t a genre per se, but in the case of Sonic Frontiers, it means thematic and large zones to explore (from forests to deserts) and collect stuff in, do battle with enemies, complete challenges, and even solve a few puzzles.
Structurally, you could say that Sonic Frontiers is an open-world modern take on the formula first seen in the original 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog, and then in the Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure. Even average games like Sonic Forces. There’s a map to uncover new regions by completing challenges at various waypoints, and there are plenty of roller-coaster-like structures and momentum opportunities to send Sonic racing from one point to another. There’s also a cartoon-like story too, but with one-note dialogue and equally bland voice work - the quality is a far cry from the recent films.
With Sonic Frontiers, SEGA and Sonic Team are tapping into a new look and feel for the hedgehog - that of the open-world game with a somewhat realistic tone to the art direction.
Sonic’s move list is long too, and there’s even a skill tree to unlock new abilities - but it’s not game-changing stuff. You can also increase Sonic’s power up to Level 99 by collecting components to trade in. At its core, it’s a very Sonic take on the pure 3D platformer that expands the size of the playspace to match the sheer speed at which Sonic can move around. And with that larger size comes more freedom to explore and tackle little bits and pieces in a non-linear way. That said, it’s still more Super Mario 64 than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Fans of the more on-rails and linear Sonic titles will be pleased to know that there’s a touch of Super Mario Sunshine’s platform challenges in the various Cyber Space portal stages you can complete to collect keys. These are short runs reminiscent of Sonic’s earlier 3D outings, and you need to perform decently in them because keys are needed to unlock Chaos Emerald vaults. With all Chaos Emeralds in tow, Sonic can take on a giant boss in the form of a mechanical Titan. Beat the Titan and you can move on to the next open zone.
The mini throwback stages are well executed, though they feature floaty controls and camera issues when the perspective isn’t side-on or directly behind Sonic. Sonic Frontiers definitely throws a lot at players and excels in some, but it's more miss than hit. Worst of all it rarely justifies all of the variety found within, so for those that like to “do everything” Sonic Frontiers feels disjointed and weirdly empty.
Take the fishing mini-game as an example, which is a great addition when viewed as a way to gain items and other things you missed or need to progress. With the added bonus of a relaxing pace. All you do is press a button, and then you catch a pre-determined fish based on a list of fish the game goes through one at a time. There’s little in the way of skill or even mechanics, a far cry from Sega’s many great takes on digital fishing.
Stopping to fish or even to look around doesn’t do Sonic Frontiers any favours, environments lack quite a bit of personality. For every interesting ruin or tower, there are large empty spaces that all look the same. Or in the case of the opening forest zone, easily the weakest, generic and bland. Mostly though, it’s all rails, floating mechanical structures, speed pads, and speed rings. Carnival attractions play into the game’s greatest achievement - speedy traversal.
Sonic Frontiers definitely throws a lot at players and excels in some, but it's more miss than hit. Worst of all it rarely justifies all of the variety found within, so for those that like to “do everything” Sonic Frontiers feels disjointed and weirdly empty.
Seeing Sonic Team struggle to create an immersive, memorable, and intuitive 3D version of that classic 2D Sonic game formula though, at this point, feels par for the course. Exceptions exist, some of the combat moves are engaging to pull off, and personal enjoyment varies. But comparing the design and world-building of Super Mario Odyssey and Mario’s open-world riff Bowser’s Fury to Sonic Frontiers is akin to comparing a wireframe prototype to an end product.
Player freedom aside, the extent of most of the exploration revolves around the on-rails roller-coaster set-pieces, with combat and boss battles varying from fun distractions to annoying exercises in slowly chipping away at a large health bar. Boss designs are inventive though, and the mechanics vary here too, but again, the variety comes at the cost of polish and balance.
The fact that there are several difficulty levels and the ability to fine-tune Sonic’s speed, jump height, and even damage recovery as part of the in-game options is not a great sign and is indicative of the mish-mash feel. In the end, the lack of focus and consistency makes Sonic Frontiers feel unfinished - even if playing in the solid 60 frames-per-second performance mode is great for capturing and conveying a sense of speed and scale. But even here there’s so much pop-in that you lose out on a true sense of awe when it comes to the environments and structures born from the mysterious Cyber Space. Another average, but ambitious, outing for the blue hedgehog.