As a longtime Sonic fan, Sonic Frontiers’ launch was a familiar prospect, one filled with nervous anticipation for a series that has failed to consistently stick its landing since it transitioned to polygonal, 3D graphics.
Despite an uneven road set across five distinct biomes, Sonic Frontiers, by and large, is a marked improvement over any of the blue blur’s previous outings released in the last decade (sans Sonic Mania). With the release of Sonic Generations all the way back in 2011, which set a new standard of what a 3D sonic game could be, came hope for a brighter, more consistently good experience for future Sonic games.
Unfortunately, since Generations, Sonic Team seemingly found it tough to forgo an overreliance on mixing modern Sonic the Hedgehog levels with classic 16-bit era-inspired 2.5D additions. The two distinct approaches to gameplay have resulted in modern Sonic titles feeling inconsistent and derivative of each other. 2017’s Sonic Forces came and went, cementing my fears regarding Sonic’s future, one filled with unearned throwback stages and gimmicky one-off game mechanics.
Sonic Frontiers, instead, offers the player something familiar in a package that feels wholly unique and new for a Sonic the Hedgehog game. Of course, I’m referring to Sonic Frontier’s take on the open-world concept and its new action RPG-focused combat system. As mentioned in press material for Sonic Frontiers, the game relies on an open-zone concept rather than a typical open-world setting, something that only really makes sense once played.
Sonic Frontier’s open-zone system refers to the five distinct islands the player eventually gets access to as they progress further in the game. These large and expansive islands feature your typical assortment of open-world collectables, means to expand the viewable map, and, of course, encounters with both friends and foes alike. However, what sets these islands apart comes in the form of access to the 30 or so action stages that can be unlocked across the five islands that make up Sonic Frontiers game world.
Not only are these unlockable stages fun to play, but they also do a great job in keeping Sonic Frontiers feeling fresh and its overworld worthwhile to explore and progress through. The action stages themselves, despite still reusing and relying on some overly familiar environments, more importantly, are fun to run through and even try and go for better times, thanks to each stage being bite-sized and easily digestible. If I had one complaint about Sonic Frontier’s action stages, it would be concerning some still featuring a forced 2D perspective, which at this point in Sonic’s history feels antiquated and redundant.
Typically, combat in Sonic games tends to be simple homing-attacking only affairs, whereas Sonic Frontiers introduces a whole host of different melee and ranged-focused attacks to the mix. Additional moves and specials can now be earned via a typical RPG skill-tree system, which works surprisingly well for a Sonic game, thanks to its open-zone concept, which incentivizes exploring and accruing experience.
With a healthy mix of your typical Generations-style levels among a fun sandbox for Sonic to parkour and explore, Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay loop is a fun and refreshing experience that stumbles on occasion due to its new approach to combat.
“Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay loop is a fun and refreshing experience that stumbles on occasion…”
The combat itself, on the other hand, although not bad by any means, instead feels a bit uneven. Particularly regarding larger titan and boss encounters where most fights boil down to continually mashing the attack button, sometimes made worse by weird collision and a finicky camera. The ability to increase Sonic’s damage output also seemingly contributes to this uneven feeling, with some encounters going down way too quickly while others deliberately feel a slog to get through.
A brand-new tracing ability also changes things up regarding combat encounters and navigating the open world. By holding down one of the face buttons while moving or running with R2, Sonic will leave a line of blue energy behind him, which the player can essentially draw with. This tracing ability can be used to ensnare enemies, complete puzzles and even generate rings, which in typical Sonic game fashion, act as Sonic’s health.
Outside solving environmental puzzles, Sonic’s tracing ability felt especially useful against some of Sonic Frontiers‘ more formidable enemies, ultimately earning its place among Sonic’s move set.
Graphically, Sonic Frontiers looks fine, but it is clear the game has been designed for last-generation consoles. Thankfully, the title does take advantage of the PlayStation 5’s SSD and loads fairly quickly, while offering a solid 60fps presentation when played in performance mode. Some notable pop-in does detract from the experience somewhat but ultimately, outside of perhaps the PC, Sonic Frontiers is best played on current-gen hardware.
Although I consider myself a little too old to really find the narrative in Sonic games appealing, I would be lying if I said my nostalgia for the Sonic Adventure games did not feel reignited more than a few times while playing Sonic Frontiers. With several callbacks to the Adventure games and a story written by Ian Flynn, known for his work on the Sonic the Hedgehog comics, Sonic Frontiers seems to be the genesis of a more structured and exciting story that longtime fans of Sonic the Hedgehog will surely appreciate.