Review – Sonic Frontiers

Breath of the Shadow of the Hedgehog's Odyssey

Overview

Developer Sonic Team
Publisher SEGA
Genre Platformer
Platforms PC, PS4|5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/Series S|X (reviewed)
Release Date November 8, 2022

To paraphrase the Bard, “the course of true fandom never did run smooth.” And it’s hard to find a group more deserving of that quip than the Sonic fanbase. Over the 31 years the Blue Blur has been around, we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs. The trouble is, most of those ups came well before the last 5 years or so. From the excellent Genesis games to the…divisive 3D platformers of the early 2000’s (yes, I will die on this hill), it’s safe to say that Sonic’s early years were marked by some truly excellent titles. But something shifted around the fateful year of 2006 (which will sound familiar to any Sonic player), and since then, Sonic’s outings have been taking a bit of a downward trend. No offense if you’re a fan of any of the recent games, but it’s not a stretch to say it’s been a good long while since we’ve had a game that the fanbase can truly unite around. So when Sonic Frontiers was officially revealed last December, I got excited. It looked like, just maybe, we were finally getting a game that would really take advantage of Sonic’s speed and agility. Though the ever-present division of the fans was there, I was HYPED.

Content Guide:

Violent Content: Sonic faces off against enormous enemies called the Titans. They throw him around and slam him into walls, and Sonic retaliates with kicks and punches that cause the Titans to break down and explode. Sonic can die in various ways, including falling off cliffs, drowning, and otherwise taking too much damage.

Spiritual Content: Some of the ruins on the Starfall Islands are referred to as generic spiritual sites.

ESRB Rating: E10+

Review:

Sonic Frontiers takes the Sonic franchise in the same direction it seems every other franchise has been taking since Skyrim: the open world. And while I’m personally a little over the trope at this point, I think Sonic has a unique advantage in this regard: he’s fast. The Genesis games did a decent job of portraying his speed on a 2D plane (at least, they did for the time), but the franchise as a whole has been hit or miss when it comes to showcasing their golden boy’s signature attribute. An open world has the potential to let Sonic loose and show us what he can really do.

The gameplay in Frontiers is separated into two distinct styles: Cyber Space levels and the open world. Cyber Space levels play like most modern Sonic levels: boosting through a linear path to get to the end. And, as per the usual for Sonic Team, they’re themed after levels from past Sonic games. I’m not a huge fan of the “boost era” gameplay that kicked off with Sonic Unleashed, but I will say that Frontiers nails the style better than any of the modern Sonic games I’ve played. My main complaint with this era of Sonic games is how it feels like you simply hold boost to win. There hasn’t been a lot of finesse to navigating the levels. However, the Cyber Space levels in Frontiers amp up the skill requirement a good deal. The stages are built to be sped-run, allowing for multiple paths depending on how quick your reflexes are. You’ll need to get a good grasp of Sonic’s arsenal of acrobatics to make some of these paths work, and it’s a blast when you’re able to string together a set of moves that land you somewhere completely new.

Each level has a set of objectives beyond simply reaching the goal, though they don’t change from stage to stage. You’ll need to reach the goal, reach the goal under a certain time limit, collect a minimum amount of rings, and find the five red rings per stage. I would have enjoyed missions that were specific to each level, but it’s not a bad system. These objectives are where the design of the levels really shines, especially that time limit one. Once you’ve learned the layout of a level, you’re able to blast through at the speed of sound, and it’s extremely rewarding to nail the jumps and grinds you’ll need to get the objective.

I’m not a fan of the red ring collections, however. In fact, I’ve never liked the system in any game it’s shown up in. It feels so counter-intuitive to Sonic’s main gameplay loop of speed and agility. The red rings are generally placed along the main path, along with some secret alternative paths, so they do pair a bit better with Frontiers’ focus on fluidity. Still, there were times I had to stop dead in my tracks and backtrack to find one missing ring, and that’s really frustrating.

Before I move on from the Cyber Space stages, I want to quickly mention the music. Sonic games have always had incredible music, regardless of the quality of the game they’re to which they’re attached. Sonic Frontiers continues this trend, but takes an interesting twist on it, swapping the traditional hard rock influences of the past for drum & bass-inspired tracks for these shorter experiences. While I will always adore the catchy melodic tunes of the Genesis era, and Crush40’s original songs are nothing short of legendary, I fully support this change. Sonic’s rock era is over, and holding on to that aesthetic would date the game. While the D&B tracks do sacrifice a bit of the memorability of something like Ice Cap Zone, it’s a perfect fit for the fluid yet frantic speeds you can reach in these Cyber Space levels.

The other main gameplay style is the aforementioned open world. Sonic will explore five of the Starfall Islands on his adventure, and as he does, he’ll encounter enemies, collect a ton of different items, speed along setpieces, and maybe even catch a few fish. It’s a weird blend of styles, taking notes from Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and, surprisingly, Shadow of the Colossus. Yes, stay with me on that one.

The most obvious influence is the open world of games like Skyrim and Breath of the Wild, and this open world is where the design of Sonic Frontiers really begins to shine. Each island is completely open, save for the first bit of the first island, which functions as a tutorial. You’ll explore the islands by rolling around at the speed of sound to find various collectibles. As you run, you’ll come across strange question mark nodes, which are generally paired with a puzzle of some sort. You complete these puzzles to fill in your map. There’s a bevy of these puzzle nodes in every island, and they’re decently varied as well. Sometimes you’ll be tracing a path along a grid without doubling back, sometimes you’ll be dealing a truckload of damage to a dummy, and sometimes you’ll be dodging back and forth to hit lighted tiles like some kind of hyperactive Simon game.

The Odyssey influence is obvious from the absolute dumptruck-load of collectibles the game has to offer. As you explore, you’ll find that each island is absolutely littered with setpieces like rails, platforms, springs, and more. These are all things you’d find in a traditional Sonic level, but here, they form a sort of mini-challenge. Hit a spring, and the camera might lock into a side-scrolling segment as you jump and hop your way across platforms and springs to get a collectible. Other times, you’ll have to climb up a giant tower to reach the goal. Every island is full of these micro-levels to complete, and they’re surprisingly fluid, too. You’ll get that same rush of satisfaction from the Cyber Space levels if you really nail down the controls. Nothing will beat the feeling of grinding along, hitting a spring, and perfecting the timing of a Light Dash to finish it all off.

Those collectibles are absolutely everywhere, too, and allow you to do various things from progressing the story, unlocking new levels and side games, and upgrading your skills. They function a lot like Power Moons from Super Mario Odyssey, and you won’t be able to go far without tripping over at least one. In fact, I rarely found myself in need of tokens to move forward, as the design of the game leads you to a lot of them.

This blend of speed and modular challenges makes the open world a blast to explore. Instead of spending minutes slowly climbing a mountain, you’ll blast by at high speed until you find something that catches your eye. Once you hit that initial conveyor belt or spring, you’re on a surefire path to something new, and you’ll have to stay quick to get to the end.

The only complaint I have with the system is how easy it is to get on a path you’ve already completed and how hard it is to abandon it. Once you’re on a track, you’re stuck until you finish it. I found myself re-completing challenges I’d already done two or three times simply because I wasn’t cautious enough and landed back on an old rail. In addition, the game has some pretty bad pop-in/pop-out issues, at least on the Series S. Rails and platforms appear out of thin air, making finding the path to a particular Memory Token quite the endeavor.

One last aspect that I should mention is the combat. Sonic has tried to do melee combat before, to varying degrees of success. But here, once again, Sonic Team has found the balance. You have a basic attack at first, but as you progress, you’ll build up Skill Points that you can use to unlock new attacks that you can chain together in some killer combos. These combos take advantage of Sonic’s speed in crazy high-flying maneuvers that can really deal some major damage once you figure out how to chain them together. Again, the name of the game here is “fluidity.” Sonic has a brand new move called the Cyloop, which causes a bright blue trail to follow Sonic as he runs. Close the loop around an enemy, and they’ll take a good amount of damage as well as get stunned, opening them up for another major attack.

The islands also contain mini-bosses called Guardians. Each and every one is completely unique, and they almost function as minigames of sorts. You’ll have to work out exactly what you have to do to get them to open up, and once you do, whale on them as hard as you can. Some of the methods needed to beat them completely changed the gameplay, and I couldn’t help but smile when I realized what to do.

The main bosses, the Titans, are also a completely new venture for the ‘hog, and that’s where the Shadow of the Colossus influence enters. They’re enormous, and you’ll start each battle climbing on them to reach the final Chaos Emerald you need to initiate the real battle. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the battles, but suffice it to say they’re…fine. If I’m honest, I was a little disappointed here. They’re not exactly mechanically complex, and I had a harder time with most of the Guardian mini-bosses than the actual big baddies. It’s a little underwhelming, since the game builds up these battles throughout each level, and they’re not really that engaging. They function as more of a button to each section of the story rather than some enormous challenge to overcome.

However, while the combat was a lot of fun most of the time, it’s also where I saw the most “Sonic jank” come into play. There was one special move in particular that’s very easy to activate on accident, and its effect is to send you flying off into space. Yes, the attack landed, but Sonic also landed off a cliff and away from the battlefield. Another attack straight up never even initiated for me, though the game was kind enough to jet me away from the enemy I was attacking in preparation for the attack that would never actually launch.

That “Sonic jank” is exactly what I was worried about leaking into Frontiers‘ overall gameplay, and while it’s few and far between, it’s definitely there. The Homing Attack targeting system feels off sometimes, making boss battles needlessly tedious. Boosting on uneven ground sometimes launches you dozens of feet in the air seemingly for no reason. And sometimes, you just don’t snap on to rails that you desperately need to. While it’s nowhere near as broken as some other games I could mention, it’s frustrating that we can’t seem to get a Sonic game without a little good old-fashioned glitchiness making its way into the equation.

And finally, if I have one overarching complaint, it’s that there’s not a lot of variety. While you get new islands to explore, you’ll be collecting the same items throughout and following the same path to progress. The game never really switches things up too much, and it doesn’t really build on the central progression model of collecting Memory Tokens to unlock Side Stories. Every once in a while, you’ll be forced into a few short one-off challenges that are…well, frankly, they’re the weakest part of the game. They’re unbalanced, glitchy, and tonally completely different from the more serious tone the rest of the game strikes. It’s a good thing there are only a few of these challenges, but it’s a shame that the one way Sonic Team tried to add a little variety fell flat.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of ambition here, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a ton of fun with this game. Combine that with the best-written Sonic story in years (complete with the best voice acting in as long,) a more serious tone that never flies into overly-edgy territory, plenty of fun references to past games in the series, and you get a game that’s pushing the Sonic franchise somewhere great. But here’s the thing: this is not where Sonic could, or even should, be.

The Frontiers title is appropriate, because this feels like Sonic Team venturing out into new territory, throwing a ton of new ideas out into the ether to see what could happen. And while some of those ideas don’t land, a lot of them do, and they’re a lot of fun. The exploration, the fluid movement, the balance of skill and speed, all of these things kept me engaged through the over 20 hours I played, and I want to keep coming back.

Sonic Frontiers is not a perfect game. Its issues, while not nearly as obtrusive as past games, are apparent. While I disagree with those that say this simply feels like the alpha of a good game, it’s certainly lacking some final polish. It feels like a taste of something truly great, if Sonic team can nail down what they succeeded at here and build on that. Frontiers hooks you with a solid control base and builds on that little by little as you upgrade Sonic to a true blue powerhouse. It keeps you coming back for just one more Memory Token, or one more map reveal, or one more Side Story, and that is the best testimony to its quality that I can give.

Veterans of the series who have been waiting for a game to truly take the Blue Blur to new heights will find a lot to love here. My hope is that Sonic Team uses this game as a base to spark a new era of Sonic games that give us true freedom to run and explore even more varied and beautiful locations. On its own, it may not be perfect, but I applaud Sonic Team for finally trying something new, and coming up with a bold take on a storied franchise.

The Bottom Line

 

Though it lacks a bit of final polish, Sonic Frontiers finally breathes new life into a franchise that's been on life support for far too long, and, fittingly enough, paves the way for great new things in the future.

 

8.5

Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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