An uneven surprise
Look, any given Sonic Team production can go wrong: it’s just a fact of life. Even if something seems like a sure thing, the “Sonic Cycle” is jokingly shared for a reason.
An open world Sonic game that draws upon well-liked inspirations like Zelda: Breath of the Wild seemed like something that wouldn’t be disastrous at the very least. Thankfully, it isn’t. But some of it is definitely an acquired taste.
Sonic Frontiers (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
Developer: Sonic Team
Released: November 8, 2022
I don’t think any franchise has as many people rooting for it through thick and thin like Sonic. Every single update that Sega provided in the marketing campaign leading up to launch had something off about it, and at every turn, people found something positive to talk about. You know what? Sonic Frontiers‘ whole vibe is something is off, but there’s so much good stuff in here that I slowly started to get sucked in and enjoy the ride.
One of Frontiers‘ wonky details involves its dramatic and somber tone. Unlike Forces (and all the torture that entailed), it actually does work though. Because of a failed Eggman experiment, Sonic and his friends are thrust into Cyber Space: a mysterious and deadly world. There they encounter Sage, and a bunch of other AI monsters bent on killing them. It’s a very simple Saturday morning cartoon/Sonic X fish out of water setup.
The crew is still super cute, and bringing back most of the current voice cast (as well as providing an option for Japanese audio) helps a lot. While not everyone connects with Roger Craig Smith as Sonic, I’ve been a fan for a while now, especially after his turn in Sonic Boom (which generally has more clever writing than the entire game series). Scenes between Eggman and Sage, occasionally sprinkled into the story, are fun to watch too.
Smartly, Sonic Frontiers also capitalizes on nostalgia. One of the first things you see is the level-based format, complete with a Green Hill Zone motif. These are the traditional “few minutes or less” stages that you’ll be doing in tandem with the open world, and while many of them don’t aim super high, they’re consistent in quality and aligned with the layouts of a lot of the more well-liked 3D Sonic games (including the 2D viewpoint, utilized heavily in Sonic Colors). A light ranking system encourages repeat (quick) playthroughs, asking players to find all of the red ring collectibles, get a specific clear/par time, finish the stage with a certain amount of rings, and so on.
The open world shtick is the delivery system for these stages and big boss encounters. Here is where Sonic Frontiers starts to get jankier, for better or worse. The best phrase that describes the open world portion is “over-engineered.” Sonic has so many skills (and a one-page skill tree), many combat combos, and stat upgrade paths: but you really don’t need almost any of them, even on hard mode. Sonic’s core still involves going really fast, and the tools the game provides you at the very start can do just that, and get 90% of the job done in any given situation.
Those core abilities include the light speed dash (clicking the analog stick to dash into rings) and the “Cyloop,” which lets Sonic create a ring where he dashes (connecting it will either stun enemies or solve a puzzle). That’s pretty much all you need, which does work in the game’s favor. When exploring, you generally aren’t “locked out” of going places. Sure there is some gating (especially in regards to the requirement to take down minibosses or find gears to unlock the aforementioned traditional Cyber Space levels, which in turn unlock keys to unlock Chaos Emeralds): and as you can tell, the unlocking/sequential collectible schema is out of control.
The key thing I need to communicate is that running through the open world sandboxes is fun. No, not every puzzle lands, and there should have been more ingenuity and variety on that front. But by and large, you can roam around, collect pickups through exploration, and still progress through the core game. It’s a really smart move that even feels like a pivot mid-development, because requiring players to do only rote puzzles to move on would have been a huge mistake.
You can find gears and keys out in the open world to keep the story going, which cut down on my annoyance with the framework. There were many times in any given map (including the three main ones) where I didn’t clear entire stages: either because I earned a ton of keys from 100%ing one of them, or found enough gears/keys on my own through random map-based treasure drops.
The 60 FPS mode on current-gen consoles/PC (I played on PS5, where it has 4K visual or performance 60 FPS options) does limit the jank where it matters (though bosses are generally janky all the way through). The amount of control we have over Sonic in Frontiers is wonderful, lending some credence to the age-old marketing adage of “if you can see it, you can go there.” Of course that’s not completely true, as some sections in Frontiers are gated off, but you do have the freedom to devise alternate means of travel, and zoom about to locate random secrets and pickups.
After dealing with mixed bouts of quality on the first island, by the time I got to the second, things started to come together. The designs got more interesting, the enemies started using different tactics, and I even got lost a few times: in a Sonic game. That’s a cool feeling, especially when you have so much control over Sonic, and stumble across some secrets along the way (including the soothing and simplistic fishing minigame).
There’s a fair bit of discovery at the core of Sonic Frontiers, and the more organic experiences are the ones that made the game click. At one point I was dashing around like an idiot, and a random event happened that spawned hundreds of glowing meteor pieces on the map. After collecting them, a slot machine appeared and granting me fishing tokens. That’s one of the most insane-sounding sentences I’ve ever typed for a review, but here we are. You’re also asked to play a crane game, do a light/pillar puzzle, and weed a garden. It’s unpredictable to the point of being charming, as all of these things take a few minutes to finish at best, then you’re on to the next oddity.
There’s a lot I’d like to see improved upon in a Sonic Frontiers sequel (which they should absolutely do), but I had fun playing around with the open world format, and just skipping some of the more boring stuff that I didn’t want to do. If you haven’t given up on Sonic yet, you’ll find a lot to love as you wade through some of the muck.