The Best Sonic Game in a Decade: Sonic Frontiers

I’ll be honest, when Sonic Frontiers was first shown on IGN in mid-2022 I held a very negative opinion: I didn’t think an open-world Sonic game was the right direction the series should be going in and its overly ambitious scope appeared that for Sonic Team were spiraling towards a repeat of failures of the past and I wanted very little to do with that inevitable firestorm that was coming. I swore off the game and that was going to be the end of it for me, review over, right?

Fortunately, I was wrong. In September, due to morbid curiosity, I watched over a few more of the trailers and I saw the cyberspace stages and the open world that I had scoffed at before felt a looking more fleshed out. Given the context of ancient technology and digital constructs, all of the floating terrain seemed a lot more forgivable. At this point I stopped watching all revealed media and shut myself off to the game, I wanted to experience this as blindly as possible and until Christmas day of 2022, I succeeded in this endeavour.

The ‘Open Zone’ design, the big thing I was worried about the most, is essentially a big hub world. There are 4 open zones, these are all of a relatively decent size but it does only take a minute or two to run from one side to another due to the speed of our favourite hedgehog. However, the game takes the 4-island approach instead of one big land mass that’s artificially closed off with unlockable abilities akin to other open-world games. This means you can freely explore anywhere on the island as soon as you land on it. Seeking out the island puzzles reveals more of the map in which you can complete little obstacles utilising speed and platforming to collect a combination of memory tokens, rings, and shrine keys to help you progress the story. This loop is incredibly addictive due to its open-ended and easy-to-access nature. You keep completing these small puzzles to collect tokens or keys that engages you in the right way that you keep telling yourself “just one more puzzle”. Suddenly, hours of time have been lost to scouring the island for collectables.

This isn’t all the game has to offer, of course. There are also thirty stages that Sonic can platform his way through. These are very similar to the modern boost games, taking small minute or two long fast-paced platformer stages with red star rings and S ranks to obtain. Disappointingly though, they seem to just take the same level themes we have been used to seeing since 2011’s Generations with ‘Green Hill’, ‘Chemical Plant’, and ‘Sky Sanctuary’ being the main themes we get here. This isn’t a big issue, it’s not the main focus and makes sense within the wider context of the game’s plot, and the themes are used in unique ways that aren’t familiar due to the digital dimension element of the game’s world. However, due to the last decade of Sonic having very similar themes it can get repetitive and stale from a visual perspective, with the exception of the HUD you could pull screenshots from 3 separate Sonic games and casual fans would not be able to tell which instance ‘Green Hill’ they are looking at.

Moving on from the stages visual issues, the level design of the stages themselves take more from the bonus levels of Generations and Forces than the core stages of said games. This is a good move, in my opinion, as the stages tend to pick a gimmick (such as grind rails, light-speed dash, or mid-air boost maneuvering) and pushes them to their logical extreme which allows for more high-speed decision making and a quick and snappy approach to ensuring S Ranks are obtained by finding the best paths and optimising routes rather than superfluous details that score-based S Ranking can make a frustrating experience (I’m looking at you Colours). The stages truly aren’t on par with Generations or Unleashed here but as they are not the primary focus of the game here, the bite-sized and high-speed gimmicks are welcome as a distraction and change of pace to traversing across the islands.

The third prong on our Frontiers trident is the combat: for the first time since Unleashed, Sonic now has combos and a skill tree that will allow him to use new combat mechanics that have been sorely lacking in the older games (not just homing attacking and whirlwinding enemies to death). This comes to a head when Sonic needs to take down field bosses that require the utilisation of specific mechanics, like parrying or chasing the boss down, to find a weak spot and then beat those down until they run out of HP. This means that if you increase your attack stats high enough and then chain the right combos together you can take down a boss in a single cycle which avoids the often monotonous chain of waiting for an opening and hitting the enemy 5-7 times that has plagued the 3D platforming genre since its inception.

When you combine all of the elements specified above with the titan boss fights and utilisation of Super Sonic, you get a truly unbeatable boss fight style that captures the feeling of being a super-powered being. With the combination of the new combat and flying accompanied by a sick metalcore track with the talent of Tomoya Ohtani, Kellin Quinn and Tyler Smyth working to make a heavier soundtrack that fits the combat and the high energy movement of the battle unfolding in front of you, which to me at least, felt like the peak of the games as I felt unstoppable as Super Sonic.

I do have issues with this title though. The “final boss” is locked out to you unless you play on Hard difficulty (with no in-game warning of this), the worlds feel a little bland compared to the vibrant landscapes we are used to seeing in Sonic’s world, and the plot ends rather suddenly at the climax. This may be resolved in the free updates coming to the game in 2023 but as a complete product it does lack closure towards the end of the game.

The story direction, without spoiling, does take a darker tone that we should be used to in the last few years (SA1 and SA2 both have mass killings in their lore, there’s a lot of darkness in 3D Sonic— Sleep-deprived editor Dave), but I do feel like it was done well as the writers clearly cared about portraying real characters rather than quipping machines with no concern for the calamities that befall them. Sonic speaks more solemnly, seems more aware of the gravity of what’s happening whilst still remaining his stoic and positive self around his friends. This iss achieved without taking away from the tone Sonic Team was trying to attain which is a far cry from the “serious war” in Forces (note to audience, I really enjoy Forces but I feel the story was the weakest factor at play there).

This is not a perfect game. Personally, I don’t think any Sonic game is perfect. Having said that, its strengths far outweigh the weaknesses: we have the movement, feel, and fluidity of the early boost era, with the level design cues and gimmick utilisation that the bonus levels have used to create a richer experience that doesn’t outstay its welcome. The open zone mechanics are addictive and fun with very little performance issues or pop-ins, even on the last-gen versions as I played on the PS4 version which ran like a dream. This is honestly a solid and well-polished experience that took me off guard at first but gave me 30 hours of childlike joy that I haven’t experienced since I played through Mario Odyssey in 2018.

Video game completionist and 3D platformer connoisseur, Riley is a fan of the whimsical frenzy of bright and colourful characters to bless us in the late 90's. Their favourite game's are Spyro, Persona 5 and Super Mario Sunshine.

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