There's certainly a lot to do in Sonic Frontiers. God, there's so much. Just about every inch of this open world (or 'open zone', as developer Sonic Team is keen to call it) is packed with content. Every conceivable activity is shoved in here, almost as if a hat had been passed around the office asking for gameplay donations; you've got the herding of small critters, a bizarrely punishing and glitchy pinball game, and an Ikaruga-like shoot-'em-up with the most basic visual design you've ever seen – and it's all mandatory. When Sonic Frontiers isn't stringing you along to see what odd design choice will be made next, both the story and level design go to great lengths to remind you that you could be playing almost any other Sonic game and be having a much better time.
Release date: November 8, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, Switch
Developer: Sonic Team
So, I can't really recommend Sonic Frontiers. But to lambast it like this almost feels a bit cruel. This is a Sonic game that's anything but safe – it's an ambitious push forward, an attempt to turn the formula into something new. There are flashes of what could have been. Moments where you're running around a large open environment, as a completely unleashed Sonic for the very first time, and think: 'Wow, this is kind of neat.' And then you keep playing.
These open zones you run around are the Starfall Islands. Sonic and his pals pursue Eggman here (up to no good, as usual), but both groups quickly end up way in over their heads, trapped in a strange cyber space that was core to the long-gone ancient civilisation that called the islands their home. Sonic is the only one able to escape thanks to his super speed, alongside Eggman's latest ally, Sage, who is an entirely digital being. In order to rescue his friends from their digital detention, Sonic must zip around the island collecting all sorts of collectible currencies to restore their forms (they otherwise communicate with Sonic as hologram-like images).
To defeat each island's boss, you must collect all chaos emeralds. To get the chaos emeralds you need to collect keys to unlock them. To collect these keys, you need to clear objectives in 'cyber space' levels (more akin to traditional Sonic 'boost'-style platforming stages). Oh, and to unlock those levels, you need to use gears from mini-bosses to restore them to life. Plus, you need to collect a unique character currency to follow the journey of each of Sonic's friends, which also provides some of the emeralds. All of these currencies can drop randomly from enemies, or can be traded for a fishing currency in an extremely simple minigame (presided over by our Big The Cat, naturally). Yes, this progression cycle is as exhausting as it sounds.
Put a ring on it
All this currency collecting mostly amounts to either running around the large, open world environments (each island is essentially a huge level), or jumping around in the more straightforward cyber space areas (with naming conventions like 3-1, 3-2, 3-3, and so on ).
Small fragments of Sonic levels, made up of 'ancient' rails and platforms, float in the air across the open zones – only popping-into view when you get relatively close to them, even on PS5. Reaching these areas usually involves finding a spring to bounce up from, a lower rail, a pulley, a series of balloons – things like that. Then, the platforming is so rudimentary and slight that it's really hard to comment on.
Maybe you will have to switch rails at some point, do a bit of a wall-jump, or bop a couple of robots (only to see the items they drop tumble to the far-off ground below) – whatever the task, it always feels as if you're going through the motions. Mercifully, Sonic will stop on a dime with no directional input, meaning you won't slide off of the platforms, though Chaos-be-with-you if you want to turn around – with his wide turning circle making the act of performing a homing attack bounce towards anything he's passed impossible. Thankfully, each of these platforming challenges are slight enough where falling down won't set you back far.
There are so many of these sequences throughout Sonic Frontiers' open zones, though it's clear that you aren't meant to complete them all, and can accrue enough currency to progress if you just vaguely do the things you see as you move between core objectives. From the third world on, some of these sections force you into a two-dimensional perspective, even from ground level, which can make navigation a pain when you accidentally stumble into them.
New rails can be summoned onto each map as you complete 'challenges', linking each one to create a fast-travel of sorts (though if you complete all of them, you can actually fast-travel from the map). These are even more simplistic than the platforming, challenging you with low-stakes tasks such as moving across glowing tiles without double-stepping on them, knocking a big ball into a ring, or completing a skipping rope challenge.
You'll also notice as you zip from point-of-interest to point-of-interest that Sonic… really isn't that fast? By holding R2 you can perform a pitiful boost to increase his speed, which is more of a necessity than a thrilling burst of nitrous-oxide, as Sonic will otherwise grind to a slow halt on rails and the like.
You see, speed is just one of four stats Sonic can level up as he collects yet more currencies. Speed, maximum rings, attack, and defense, can all go up to level 99. The former two can be improved as you rescue the little Koco creatures who jiggle across the land (though why you'd want to go above 400 rings I have no idea, as hitting this maximum gives you a buff to boost and attack); and the latter two stats increase as you trade in red and blue fruits respectively.
You will need to buff up the ol' blue blur as well, as Frontiers takes combat further than any other Sonic game – and foes in the open zones are a far cry from the one-hit bopping of classic Sonic titles. Almost every enemy you encounter has some kind of gimmick you'll need to keep in mind to damage them – for instance, one requires you to hold Triangle to slowly run a paintbrush like 'cyloop' around a foe to throw their shield temporarily into the air. Another later has a pack of wolf-like robots surround you and pounce, where you have to hit L1 + R1 in-time with their leaps to parry them.
Once vulnerable, you can mash-out a combo-chain of homing attacks to deal damage. These can be capped off with finishing moves acquired through upgrading a skill tree (yet another currency to scoop up) – one with X, for instance, has Sonic twirl around and then roll into them with extra force. Most of these are canned animations too, which makes these attacks feel sluggish to execute – especially when enemies have too much health, meaning you have to use these moves over and over again.
Sonic also has a gun now, and the gun is his feet. Holding L2 mid-combo will have him kick shafts of wind through the air, which is a great way to pick off basic enemies at a distance without having to worry about watching other boring combat animations kick into gear. This is only exacerbated by each island's boss, where the screen will constantly fade to black to load up a new animation – whether that's to trigger a lengthy attacks or to simply knocking Sonic back a set-distance.
Confused about how to approach an enemy or mid-boss? Don't worry, as you can tap on the d-pad for a tip. Sometimes this is a textbox pop-up, that tells you which move you should be using. Other times, this takes you into a quick tutorial-zone that has you execute the move to make sure you understand it. But exit that tutorial and – no matter how far into a tussle you were when you pressed it – you're reloaded to a checkpoint, completely disoriented. Yes, asking for help here is the equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog dying. It's one of several bizarre design decisions that make no sense whatsoever – like the Starfall event that happens every few nights, which plasters a slot machine over the screen that takes up a large amount of space, making it hard to see large chunks of what you're doing for several minutes.
So, if the open zones aren't all that, how are the more traditional levels? After all, there's quite a few per area. Unfortunately, the answer is 'even worse'. While controlling Sonic in the larger areas makes a certain amount of sense, the way he handles in these speed-oriented stages feels actively hostile. Even at high speed, if you take your finger off the analogue stick for a second, even meters away from a speed boost, Sonic will immediately stop. There is no sense of momentum here whatsoever. Combine that with some horrible fixed camera moments, and it's a recipe for platforming disaster.
Each stage is, at least, quite short. For the most part they're a mix between one-note challenges, and level layouts ripped whole cloth from older Sonic games. This is no Sonic Generations-like celebration, mind you. Source material isn't highlighted, and everything is wrapped in a visual skin that's either a generic cityscape, Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, or Sky Sanctuary Zone. It's difficult to ignore just how bad these spaces are to navigate in Sonic Frontiers; playing through homages to Sonic Adventure 2's Sky Rail, Metal Harbour, or Green Jungle feels sticky and unnatural.
Off-handedly, the re-use of designs is explained by the islands' cyber space being built from the users' memories (but Sonic never canonically went to Sky Rail… so allow the conspiracy theories to commence, Shadow fans). However, despite that, the writing is actually quite good. It's nothing revolutionary, but the little chunks of narrative Sonic Frontiers throws at you are engaging enough, and the characters are well-written. Extra effort seems to have been paid to referencing the events of nearly every Sonic game (including flashbacks in 16-bit graphics), and it even gracefully handles some somber moments.
Sonic Frontiers features the kind of lightweight yet engaging storytelling that should easily enrapture fans young and old – though I'd hate to be a child forced to play through some of the abysmal platforming featured throughout. Was taking Sonic open world an ambitious endeavor? Yes. Did it pay off? Absolutely not.
Sonic Frontiers was reviewed on PS5, with a code provided by the publisher.