When it was first shown, it was clear that Sonic Frontiers is very different from the games that came before it. In the 31 years Sonic has been around, his 3D adventures have been more misses than hits. Every time there was Sonic Generations, there was also Sonic Boom or Sonic ’06. These games left a bad taste in people’s mouths and made the fast mascot less appealing. Each new Sonic game has changed the formula in some way, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and give the series a clear path forward. So far, none of them have been successful, at least until now. That game is called Sonic Frontiers.
Sonic Frontiers: Introduce
Sonic Frontiers is the best 3D Sonic game in more than a decade. It has its flaws, and it still has many of the familiar parts you’d expect to find in a game about the famous hedgehog, but it’s the differences that make it stand out and sometimes make it great.
The change that stands out the most is the move to a semi-open world. Sega calls Frontiers a “open-zone” game, which means that it is made up of several islands that Sonic can explore on his own. Each zone has its own look, from green rolling hills to dry desert plains and a smoldering volcanic island floating above the clouds, mixing natural beauty with ancient alien temples, grind rails, and bounce pads. It’s a strange mix, but it works well enough with the sci-fi theme of the game. The environments are also a big part of a big change in the tone of the show. Classic Sonic levels like Green Hill Zone no longer have the bright primary colors that made them stand out. Instead, they have a color palette with a lot of pastel colors and low saturation. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a clear influence on Frontiers, not just in how it looks but also in how it uses music and how it changes from a closed world to an open one. It doesn’t play at all like Link’s adventure from five years ago, but you can see how it influenced Sonic Team in many ways.
The same basic game loop is used to move through each island. You have to beat mini-bosses to get cogs, which you can then use to open Cyber Space levels. In these more traditional Sonic stages, you have to complete challenges to earn vault keys, which you can then use to open Chaos Emeralds so you can become Super Sonic and fight each island’s Titan in a huge boss battle. Along the way, you’ll also find small challenges that reveal more of the map and give you upgrade items, as well as short platforming sections that give you the memory tokens you need to free Sonic’s friends and move the story forward. All of this may sound a little complicated, but there’s a satisfying flow to how exploration and progression work, to the point where you don’t even need to think about the bigger picture from moment to moment.
There is a map in the game that has a lot of different markers, but I’ve never felt the need to look at it. The game does a great job of gently leading you toward interesting things, like a building on the horizon or a set of ramps and boost pads that lead to a platforming section. To move the story forward, you need to collect a certain number of memory tokens at different points. These tokens are easy to find as you explore the world, so you never feel like you have to go out of your way to find them. The same is true for the quick-fire challenges you’ll find on each island. There are short time trials and puzzles like Tetris. Each one ends with a few hopeful piano notes that would fit right in with Breath of the Wild.
This formulaic way of playing could lead to boredom, since you do the same thing over and over again when you go to a new island. I didn’t feel it until I got to the fifth and last island, mostly because each activity is short and there’s a lot of variety in almost everything you do, from the types of enemies you face to the environments you go through and the challenges you face. Still, it’s not quite enough to keep the game going, and it’s too bad that it runs out of steam at the end.
Combat doesn’t happen very often, but it has been made more complex, so you don’t just use Sonic’s homing attack to destroy everything in your way. You start out with a simple one-button combo and a stomp attack. You can also dodge and block attacks that come your way. But over time, you’ll be able to get more abilities through Frontiers’ skill tree. You could say that a character like Sonic doesn’t really need a skill tree, and the fact that it’s here seems kind of pointless since you can just unlock every move as you play the game. There’s no way to choose specific skills for a certain play style, so the skill tree seems like it was added just because that’s what’s popular now, even though it doesn’t quite fit.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a clear influence on Frontiers, not just in how it looks but also in how it uses music and how it changes from a closed world to an open one. It doesn’t play at all like Link’s adventure from five years ago, but you can see how Sonic Team was inspired by it.
But it’s fun to use the moves you unlock, and they often give you more ways to deal with enemies. The first ability you get is called “Cyloops.” It lets you draw circles around enemies and deal damage to everyone inside. This can also be used to break through and remove armor from certain enemy types, letting you finish them off with a barrage of attacks once they’re open. There are also more flashy moves that let you fire shockwaves from afar, follow a successful dodge with a zigzagging attack, or hit enemies with a flying kick. All of these moves are easy to do, so you can easily string them together into long combos. This could get boring pretty quickly, but it’s fun to fight because there are so many different kinds of enemies. Each one makes you think about how to beat it, and this is especially true when you face one of the many Guardians that roam each island.
Many bosses to make your game greate
There are a lot of these mini-bosses. Their names, like Spider, Tank, and Sumo, tell you what they are. Most of the time, these fights are big and showy, pitting Sonic against big enemies that are much bigger than him, but their quality varies. At their best, you’ll be grinding around circular discs while avoiding obstacles to reach a weak point or bouncing off the fences of an enclosed cage to build up speed and send the Guardian careening into an electric hazard. But others take a long time and are made with boring mechanics and a weak lock-on system. Even though you often fight in open areas, you can only target enemies when you are very close to them. This makes it hard to see an enemy as you get closer and try to avoid the many projectiles they are firing at you. At times, you’ll also need to aim for specific parts of the body, but this is just another way to get frustrated with Frontiers’ slow lock-on.
The quality of the levels in Cyber Space also varies. On each island, you’ll find teleportation points that will take you to these short, classic Sonic stages. They have a wide range of familiar styles. Some are about hitting every boost pad, while others are about grinding or switching to 2D to focus on platforming more slowly. The second game, on the other hand, is hard to read because the camera is zoomed in so close, and Sonic’s floaty movement and sloppy jumping don’t make for very fun platforming.
Most of these Cyber Space levels can be finished in a minute or two, but that makes them all the more fun to play again and again. Each level has optional mini-challenges that you can do. One of them gives you a reward if you finish a level in less time than the S-rank limit. I spent a lot of time going back to find the best way to get through a stage as quickly as possible. When I found it, it felt like a big win. From a visual point of view, it’s too bad that there isn’t more variety. Most of the Cyber Space levels are based on classic Sonic stages, like Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, and Radical Highway. It doesn’t really change, though, so levels near the end of the game still look the same as those at the beginning.
Sonic Frontiers is at its best when you just have time to explore. The fast-moving hedgehog might say, “Run around at the speed of sound,” but that’s not what the game is all about. The music is sometimes calming and sometimes sad, but it also knows when to burst into life with punk rock energy. There’s even a fishing minigame that lets you earn rewards while slowing down the pace even more. As you walk around each island and check off goals as you find them, it’s easy to get into a zen-like flow. Whether it’s a mediocre mini-boss or Sonic’s floaty movement, there are frustrating moments that break the flow. This is a big change from what Sonic fans are used to. I fully agree with this new path, though. Sonic Adventure set the standard for 3D Sonic games for the last 24 years, so I hope Frontiers will do the same for the next generation. The spikey mascot is finally moving in the right direction. It still has some problems, and there is definitely room for improvement.