Release Date: November 8, 2022
Developer: Sonic Team
How can a game that is so messy, so bloated, and so technically inadequate be so much fun? That is the question that I’ve been wrestling with throughout my playthrough of Sonic Frontiers, SEGA’s latest attempt (of which there have been many) to try and revitalize the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and introduce the Blue Blur to both new and lapsed fans. It’s Sonic’s first true open world (or open zone) game, and with that comes a lot of interesting ideas to attempt to reinvent the structure of what a Sonic game can be. But while Frontiers can be a blast at times, it also constantly gets in its own way at almost every turn, hindered by poor visual performance, bloated mechanics and bland world design that lacks a unique identity.
While I hardly consider myself a Sonic superfan, I’ve enjoyed previous outings to some degree or another; I have some nostalgia for Sonic’s original 2D adventures, and the recent remaster of Sonic Colors hit a lot of the right gameplay and thematic notes for me. Frankly, I was skeptical that an open-world gameplay structure would work for Sonic, and an opportunity to preview the game back in June left me both curious and cautious as to how such a bold idea could work. I think the answer lies in that while Frontiers does indeed feel like a step in a new direction for Sonic, it also feels like someone read the textbook for “things an open world game should have” and just slapped a bunch of pieces together with Scotch tape, then haphazardly lathered it all with Sonic-colored paint, to mixed results.
Sonic Frontiers begins with a stage-setting cutscene in which Dr. Robotnik gets sucked into a mysterious dimension called Cyberspace after attempting to activate an ancient technology for his own gain. Sonic, Amy, and Tails also get sucked in while attempting to fly to the Starfall Islands, which apparently is where the Chaos Emeralds are now, for some reason. Fortunately, Sonic is able to escape, thanks to his ability to… you know… go super fast. After playing through a brief linear stage in this strange cyber-dimension – Sonic wakes up on a rain-drenched island, tasked with finding a way to save his friends.
Most of the player’s time in Sonic Frontiers will be spent exploring the Starfall Islands, a series of five sprawling, self-contained “open zones” that make up the backbone of the game. Upon taking control of Sonic in the world for the first time, I was immediately struck by just how bland, generic, and ugly everything looks on the Switch. This is partially due to some of the most uninspired open-world art design I’ve seen in any game in a long time. The first of the Starfall Islands is essentially a bunch of grassy rocks with some trees here and there, and maybe the occasional waterfall. Another region is a desert biome completely devoid of any memorable landmarks, and the third is a volcanic world that is somehow even more gray and dull than anything that came before. The final two regions share almost the exact same aesthetic as the first of the Starfall Islands, too. It all just lacks any kind of distinct personality. These don’t feel like worlds that belong in a Sonic game; instead, they feel like terrain packs that were purchased off the Unreal Engine Marketplace and unceremoniously stitched together.
At the very least, if you choose to play Sonic Frontiers on a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X console, you can rest assured that you’ll be getting an experience that at least looks crisp and run somewhat fluidly, despite its unremarkable art design. That cannot be said for the Switch version, which feels like it’s on the verge of disintegrating into dust at any given moment. Not only can the open world simply not run at a consistent thirty frames per second for any length of time (to the point where it affects the playability of the game) it’s also unacceptably blurry and fuzzy for a modern game. Objects pop into existence mere feet away from Sonic as he runs through the world, and if an object does actually appear further in the distance, it can be difficult or sometimes impossible to make out what that object is. It’s just ugly; there’s not really a nice way to put it while still being honest.
What’s shocking is that almost none of these complaints apply to the stages of Sonic Frontiers that take place in the Cyberspace dimension. These are linear levels that are reimagining of stages from previous 3D Sonic games, and they were my favorite part of the game. They’re colorful, bursting with energy, and they look sharp and run smoothly, even on the Switch. The controls are a bit more finnicky here, but I think it’s by design, because my deaths in these stages always felt like my own fault, not the game’s. More importantly, these levels just a ton of fun to play through, and are integrated into the main gameplay loop of Frontiers in a compelling and rewarding way.
See, while out in the open world, Sonic’s goal is to collect the Chaos Emeralds scattered across each region so that he can make it to the next one. But you can’t just make a beeline for the Emeralds and call it a day; each Emerald requires a certain number of Keys to be collected to unlock it, and the primary means by which these keys are collected is by finding and performing well in Cyberspace stages. These levels are all very short – players should be able to reach the goal of each one in under three minutes at the most – but reaching the end in of itself only awards a single key. Finding all the red coins in each one awards another, as does collecting a certain number of rings and beating the stage within a strict time limit. Mastering all these objectives awards players with up to 7 keys, so there’s a big incentive to learn the ins and outs of each level.
I was always excited when I found a portal to one of these Cyberspace stages while exploring the overworld; my only complaint is that these levels only made up about thirty percent of my playthrough. It was always a bit jarring going from something that felt so polished, stylish, and fluid to something so… not.
To be fair to Sonic Frontiers, I don’t want to make it sound like there’s no fun whatsoever to be had out in the open world. In fact, if we set aside the aforementioned technical issues and visual design of it all, the Starfall Islands are jam-packed with fun traversal challenges and exploration-focused gameplay that can often be very satisfying to seek out. Each biome in Frontiers is littered with grind rails, floating platforms, springs, ziplines, and boost pads, usually floating in midair for reasons that are never explained. While it all admittedly looks a bit out of place, these floating obstacle courses are bite-sized bits of platforming and timing-based challenges that make traversal around the Starfall Islands a ton of fun. I didn’t always know where a path would take me, and sometimes I would end up on a completely different portion of the map after a particularly lengthy sequence. I wish there was just a touch more skill involved in these traversal challenges sometimes, but I won’t deny that it’s just fun watching Sonic bounce through the air at high speeds.
I also was surprised at how much fun I was having with the combat in Sonic Frontiers. There are a multitude of foes big and small scattered across the world, and they all require a different approach to taking them down. Some foes require Sonic to use his new Cyloop ability to trace a circular path around them to lower their defenses; others require Sonic to use his homing attack to chip away at pieces of armor while avoiding shock-based attacks. The bosses that roam the Islands are even more interesting, with some of them being so massive that Sonic needs to race along their bodies to reach their weak points. I don’t want to spoil all of them, and there are too many to list anyways, but they were one of the highlights of the game for me.
The combat can feel a bit button-mashy at time – even as Sonic unlocks new combat abilities via a skill tree, most of them aren’t required for success in battle, and there’s even an optional skill that will stitch combos together automatically for players who don’t want to learn all the button combos. On the other hand, a dedicated Training Mode pops up while the game is loading that lets players experiment, so there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to dive deeper into combat to do just that. I appreciate that options exist for both types of players; ultimately, I liked that I could choose how much I wanted to engage with it in most situations.
There are a whole other tier of boss battles that takes place at the end of each world; after Sonic has collected the Chaos Emeralds in each region, he faces off against a gargantuan foe that is too strong for him to take on his normal form. It’s here that Sonic transforms into Super Sonic, letting him literally fly through the air with invincibility. The goal here is to figure out how to create openings in which to attack, with the added pressure of an in-game timer dictating how long you have before your ability wears off (which, strangely, is tied to how many rings Sonic is holding at the start of the battle). While these big fights don’t have a ton of strategy, they are immensely stylish and bombastic, and a high-energy way to wrap up Sonic’s adventures in a biome before he’s whisked off to the next one.
While all this is well-executed, I wish that SEGA could have found a better way to package it all. Part of the gameplay loop in Frontiers involves collecting just an absolute ton of stuff scattered across the map, and it’s pretty overwhelming, even compared to other open world games. I’ve already established how Cyberspace stages are crucial to progression, but to unlock those stages, you’ll need to collect Portal Gears. These are sometimes found, sometimes won from enemies, but never marked on the map. Then you have Memory Tokens, which are used to talk with hologram versions of Sonic, Tails, and Amy, and which you need to collect a LOT of to progress the plot – we’re talking in the dozens and above, folks. These absolutely litter the map and are mostly obtained by completing traversal challenges around the game world – which can get repetitive when you have to do 30 of them to talk to an NPC once.
On top of that there are the Kocos, which are these mysterious little clay fellows that are basically bargain-bin Koroks from Breath of the Wild. They’re tucked away in hard-to-reach corners of Frontiers and can be traded in to increase Sonic’s Ring Capacity (which is not really all that useful) and his speed (which can be fun, sure, but not essential). And on top of THAT there are red and blue glowy things that can increase Sonic’s attack and defense, and on top of THAT there are skill pieces that turn into Skill Points. If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, it is, and what’s funny to me is that none of it really feels necessary or fun. I understand the developers needing to gate progression in some way, but I don’t play Sonic games to open a map and be overwhelmed by icons. I play Sonic games to go fast and kick ass, and I’m not a fan of mechanics being shoehorned in when it gets in the way of that.
So, yes not only does Sonic have more freedom of traversal than ever before in Frontiers, but he also has some of the most interesting and technical combat encounters that have ever been present in a Sonic game before. That, I think, is worth applauding and recognizing. It really does feel like this release is laying the groundwork for the future of the franchise, a point which the developers themselves have indicated. But SEGA itself has also blatantly called the launch of this game “a global playtest”, which is a brazen acknowledgement of the rough technical status this game is shipping in. It makes this game a very tricky one to review. There are the bones of a good game here! But for every bright idea that Frontiers manages to pull off, there seems to be a caveat right around the corner that brings the experience right back down a notch.
Take the minigames, for example. Sonic Frontiers likes to throw in an occasional one-off minigame every now and then, and while there’s the occasional decent one, a lot of them just feel out of place or poorly executed. You may have already heard about a pinball-themed level that pops up late in the game – while something like that could have theoretically been fun, horrible physics combined with a high score requirement make this not a fun time. And there are a good number of mandatory distractions like this, and I can’t think of a single one I played through that I thought was genuinely fun. The only exception is fishing. Yes, this game has a fishing minigame, and it’s surprisingly satisfying, albeit simple. There’s just something delightfully wacky about pulling giant pufferfish and alligators out of a lake while Big the Cat stares at you with a blank expression. The more you fish, the more tokens you earn, which can be redeemed for those fifty bajillion other types of collectibles that I mentioned earlier, so it can be a great way to grind out some progress if you want. Just make sure you’ve collected enough purple coins out in the open world so that you can play the minigame in the first place.
Unfortunately, the story in Sonic Frontiers also tends to get in the way more often than not, and by that I mean… it’s not very good. I know there are plenty of folks out there who are down for the slightly absurd, overly serious, threadbare plots that Sonic games are known for, but I really don’t think the ambitions of this story are served well by its execution. Overall, the narrative revolves around uncovering why this whole Cyberspace dimension exists, who created it and why your friends are trapped there. But there’s also a new character in the game, Sage, whose main personality trait is not telling the player anything and telling you how screwed you are. The story takes forever to get anywhere interesting, which is not helped by the fact that Eggman – whose vocal performance in this game is top-tier – is absent for most of it. Most of the story is delivered through talking with these holograms of Sonic’s friends, but they rarely have anything interesting to say beyond “You can do it, Sonic!”, so it moves at a glacial pace until the last act.
Ultimately, when I look back at my time spent with Sonic Frontiers, I had fun with it more often than not – I just wish there was more of the good, and less of the bad and distracting. Yes, there’s some exciting open world traversal and combat present here, but players will need to accept poor technical performance and needless bloat to enjoy it. Sure, the Cyberspace levels are a great time, but they’re only a small part of the game. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Sonic Frontiers will depend not only on your love for the characters themselves, but also on your willingness to accept the bad alongside the good.
Sonic Frontiers is the definition of a “mixed bag” – it nails the fundamentals of making exploration, going fast, and fighting foes feel good in an open-world setting. But it does so at the cost of some of Sonic’s personality and identity, the grind that comes with layers of needless collectibles, and a package that barely feels capable of running on the Switch. If you really want to give it a try, go in with an open mind, but don’t expect a masterpiece. And if you can play it on a different console… do that.
Sonic Frontiers copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.