Sonic feels right at home in this open-zone platforming cocktail of nostalgia and bold new ideas. Find out why in our Sonic Frontiers review!
Sonic the Hedgehog recently raced past his thirtieth birthday, a milestone decorated by dozens of games, television shows and feature films. The iconic blue mascot of SEGA has sped his way through countless 2D and 3D adventures but for the first time in the franchise, Sonic has finally found himself in his very own open world adventure, Sonic Frontiers.
Referred to as open-zone rather than open world, Sonic Frontier’s approach to the genre is appropriately experimental, bringing with it multiple gameplay mechanics, ideas and characters that worked in previous titles, culminating in a definitive Sonic experience that is ultimately unlike any that has come before it.
Freedom to explore, new takes on classic stages and the chaotic fusion of speed and combat take Sonic into a new frontier of possibilities that works far more often than it doesn’t. Sonic Frontiers isn’t just a great Sonic game, it’s a great take on the open world, platforming formula.
Spanning five explorable worlds that comprise the Starfall islands, a handful of narrative threads weave in and out of relevance towards a predictable outcome that doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could have been. Sonic family favourites Tails, Amy and Knuckles are each tied to one of the worlds for players to collect Memory Tokens to further these individual threads. There is a disconnect between almost every individual plot thread and the overarching story that prevents the whole thing from feeling complete or meaningful, the emotional weight of what the story is ultimately trying to accomplish feels undermined as a result.
The mysterious Sage and Dr Robotnik/Eggman admittedly introduce an interesting antagonistic dynamic to multiple layers of the narrative, despite the latter being featured less heavily than one might expect given his decorated past with everyone’s favourite hedgehog. Sage speaks in brief, vague bursts that animate her in a fashion consistent with her nature and purpose in the story that compromised her development just enough to keep her from feeling as emotionally relevant as she otherwise could have been.
The supporting cast of Sonic, be it friend or foe, has never seen the in-game depth that they received in Sonic Frontiers. Tails finally feels like more than a side kick and Knuckles’ rivalry with our hero has never felt as playfully explored and examined as it has been here, an extremely refreshing feeling for a franchise that has consistently put Sonic at the forefront of every single adventure.
Despite the shortcomings, the highlights of the story are well-executed, particularly the focus given to an extinct race of alien beings and the general David vs Goliath scale boss encounters Sonic finds himself in against each world’s Titan. To the surprise of no one, the tiny pop-culture phenomenon that is Sonic is always the smallest dog in the fight, always having to punch up in order to succeed and overcome the colossal odds stacked against him.
Players just looking to race through the story are looking at a 10-12 hour playthrough if ignoring the extra curricular activities that Sonic Frontiers has to offer. Completionists however will be able to do all the game has to offer, including unlock all of its achievements/trophies, in less than 20 hours total. As a pioneer in the speed-running space of video games, Sonic Frontiers actually presents a way to essentially unlock story progression without having to properly work for it with its surprisingly implanted fishing system, more on that later.
At its core, Sonic Frontiers places its largest emphasis on speed and exploration. Each of the five explorable worlds is packed with enemies, giant Guardian enemy variants for late-game conquest, challenges to complete that defog the map, character interactions to find and portals to activate and subsequently complete.
Navigating these worlds is accomplished by (surprise surprise)… sprinting. It’s no secret that Sonic is fast, that’s kind of his thing but Sonic Frontiers finally takes his speed to a whole new level. Not only can Sonic’s running speed be upgraded in-game by trading creatures that can be rescued, the settings of the game itself offers a host of sliders that can be adjusted that relate to Sonic’s base, top and turning speed to name a few, a very surprising yet welcome suite of tools to allow players to further feel the sense of speed that Sonic has long been associated with.
Each world has a handful of challenges to complete that defog the map and uncover new locations. These challenges can be as simple as platforming from point A to point B, successfully completing jump rope activities, triggering pressure pads and recreating Tetris structures to name a few. There is an impressive variety to keep them interesting and most can be completed in as little as a few seconds or as much as a minute or two.
Completing all of the challenges for a world fully defogs it and opens up the ability to fast travel between Portals. Like many things in Sonic Frontiers, at no point is the information revealed before the fact, leaving players thinking that fast travel isn’t an option unless they happen to complete all of the challenges in a given world.
Traversing the world is made easier by completing challenges, not just because it ultimately opens up fast travel, but because new pieces of the environment are added to these locations such as rails to grind, launch pads to leap from and platforms to jump to that allow Sonic to reach areas that may otherwise be very tedious to figure out and overcome.
Portals populate the world and serve two functions. Their primary function is to be activated by collecting Gears, found as random drops from enemies, to transport Sonic to more traditional stages that feature the player trying to complete the run as fast as possible and with as many rings and Red Rings as they are able to collect. These stages feature some classics that have been masterfully reimagined and executed in the new style of Frontiers that are an absolute joy to experience. The secondary function of Portals is fast travel, unlocked by completing all of the challenges in a world as mentioned earlier.
Completing these stages awards up to 4 Vault Keys and can be replayed at any time. These Vault Keys are used to activate Vaults that award Sonic a Chaos Emerald, and collecting all 7 of the Chaos Emeralds allows Sonic to transform into Super Sonic.
Super Sonic is implemented differently in Sonic Frontiers with the form tied to a singular, story related boss battle in each world. Transformation isn’t possible outside of these encounters and the reason is perhaps as simple as the sheer boost to attack and speed that would otherwise make traversal and combat far too easy.
While it’s disappointing to not be able to activate the transformation as freely as previous titles, Super Sonic is epic, impactful and downright fun to play as and watch in action-packed cinematics that are interlaced with the battles themselves.
Combat is undeniably the weakest aspect of Sonic Frontiers by a wide margin. There is a skill tree with nearly a dozen abilities to unlock and experiment with, but the core combat consists of button mashing in a manner that just doesn’t feel fun. Certain enemy types can’t be attacked straight away, instead requiring an opening to be created via the Cycloop ability, which is easily the coolest new ability Sonic has seen since the Super Sonic transformation.
Cycloop is used by holding a single button down while creating a loop by running around. Once the loop is complete, the player can release the button and the enemy inside will be damaged or exposed, presenting a window for Sonic to unleash melee attacks to finish the job.
The Cycloop can be used at any time, even outside of combat, which always generates rings, and is also required to solve some challenges and dig up treasure spots which may also include Vault Keys, Memory Tokens and Gears.
Purple tokens can be found in each world that are used to activate fishing Portals, transporting Sonic to a fishing spot with fan-favourite Big the Cat. Here, players can play a very simple fishing task that consisted of casting a line and reeling in their catch with a QTE. Every catch awards the player tokens which can be spent to obtain Memory Tokens, Vault Keys, Gears and a host of items required for upgrades to Sonic’s attack, defense, speed and ring capacity.
Dependent on the world the fishing is being played in, there is a varying cost of purple tokens to activate each cast. For instance Kronos Island, the first island, only costs one purple token, whereas the final island costs eight. Proportionately though, the number of tokens awarded for each catch is also scaled to reflect the cost, making it ultimately more rewarding the more expensive it is to play.
This function, if known before starting out in Sonic Frontiers, essentially allows players to bypass the scavenging and collecting of Gears required to activate Portals and therefore unlock Vault Keys. Savvy players could find enough purple tokens to outright buy all of the Vault Keys they need to unlock the Chaos Emeralds without having to actually earn them all by playing the stages within the portals. They could also buy the Memory Tokens which are also required for story related interactions with Sage, Amy, Knuckles and Tails. Story progression can, for lack of a better term, be bought out for the most part which would allow players more interested in just experiencing the story to be able to do so with out spending a dozen hours collecting things.
Sonic Frontiers doesn’t attempt to raise the bar in the visual department. It does offer charming models of the uber-popular cast but definitely plays it safe in terms of environmental design and general art direction. Each of the five worlds all look distinct, which is nice, though a general sense of emptiness is present throughout all of them. There just isn’t enough meaningful content to populate them.
Easily the biggest issue in Sonic Frontiers is the distasteful texture popping that occurs with alarming regularity. Designed to allow Sonic to travel at ridiculous speeds, this title somehow managed to release without the realisation that the environment drops in around Sonic constantly as players whizz around at high speeds. It is distracting to no end, on many occasions it leads to the player running into something that wasn’t there until it all of a sudden appears. This unfortunately breaks a lot of the immersion established by the otherwise excellent sense of speed.
It is worth noting that Sonic Frontiers offers a default 4K mode as well as a 60 FPS mode, with the latter adding an unbelievable layer to the sense of speed. As a player who typically favours visual fidelity over performance, I can not recommend 60 FPS enough for Sonic’s latest adventure.
As always, Sonic is complimented by an electric, upbeat and energetic soundtrack that goes into overdrive with the Super Sonic boss battles in particular. Sonic titles always deliver a soundtrack that matches the energy of its protagonist which adds to the fun factor and chaotic speed of the gameplay.
The voice acting does little to add any emotional weight to key story beats though it does feature voice artists reprising their roles from other Sonic titles. Sound design is wonderfully on point, with the familiar and satisfying sounds of rings being collected and lost always triggering a nostalgic sense of joy.
Sonic Frontiers is the culmination of three decades of gameplay ideas that have been cherry picked for experimentation in this new take on the Sonic formula. The inclusion and reimagining of the classic Sonic stages in both 2D and 3D work excellently, offering an authentic past and present vibe that compliments the mostly familiar gameplay mechanics.
There are some features, particularly fast travel, that aren’t explained that could deepen and enhance the initial experience of more casual players. There’s no escaping the poor combat and disastrous texture popping situations that unfortunately hold this experiment from reaching further heights.
There’s no denying that Sonic Frontiers is a risky take on the franchise, but it’s one that ultimately pays off. The ideas experimented with mostly work and with a few tweaks here and there, the future of Sonic continues to look bright and another open zone outing is something that seems more certain than ever considering the positive strides the series has just taken with Sonic Frontiers.
So, why should you play it?
- Incredible sense of speed
- The open-zone worlds aren’t unnecessarily oversized
- Most in-depth characterisation of Sonic family
- Perfect amount of extra optional gameplay
- Nostalgic reimagining of classic stages
- Best original Sonic game in years
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- A lot of mechanics are poorly explained, such as fast travel
- Super Sonic is tied to the four boss battles only, missed opportunity
- Minimal replay value
- Constant texture popping
- Poor combat
A review code for Sonic Frontiers was kindly provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review. If you enjoyed our Sonic Frontiers review, be sure to check out more of our reviews and articles here!
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