Sonic Frontiers represents the biggest shake-up of the Sonic the Hedgehog game franchise for over twenty years. So naturally, there has been a lot of apprehension from fans about the project since its announcement – especially as Sonic Team has built up a reputation of switching focus with each of its mainline titles since 2001.
Everybody is desperate to finally get a series of Sonic titles that establish (and maintain) a consistent visual, gameplay and narrative design. Will Sonic Frontiers be the start of a brand new branch/generation of Sonic games? Sonic Team has gone on record to say that is their intention. After playing a brief demo of the game at Gamescom last month, I’m cautiously optimistic enough to agree. With some reservations.
Perhaps the biggest gameplay change that’s being introduced is the ‘Open Zone’ mechanic, which presents the player with a more expansive environment for Sonic to run around in and explore. When early comparisons started being made to open-world games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Skyrim, I was afraid that these areas would be overwhelming in scale and offer no sense of real direction as a result.
Although I was only able to play the first of the many Starfall Islands present in Sonic Frontiers (the recent Gamescom trailer showed off different Open Zone biomes including a desert and tropical beach environments), I came away happy that this wasn’t the case. While the opening area was quite expansive, and took a fair amount of time to travel from one end to another, it still felt very consciously-designed and definitely more structured than what you would expect a true open-world to be.
In many respects, the lush-but-mysteriously-verdant open plains of the first Starfall Island felt less like the ‘world map’ that Sonic Team described it – and even less like the Adventure Fields from Sonic Adventure that it has also been compared to – and simply like a more open, free-roaming take on a traditional 3D Sonic action stage.
With significant parts of the Open Zone locked until you solve some (simple) overworld puzzles, there is a guided direction in how you progress through these areas. And yet, the zone is peppered with optional areas to explore and bonus items to collect by way of hidden springs, curious pathways and tantalisingly-placed grind rails. Ignoring the rather obvious niggle of seeing floating structures in the island skyline, I really liked how Sonic Team approached the design of the Open Zone. I hope this considered direction is present in the other hubs in the game, too.
I really was surprised at how much I enjoyed just pottering around the Starfall Island as Sonic because of its world design, but what definitely enhanced the fun for me was in how the blue blur controlled in this new environment. The demo I played was on a PC (so final experience may differ when the game is released) but the framerate was buttery-smooth and every action felt incredibly responsive.
Some may have found Sonic’s inertia/speed a little on the slow side, but I thought it was perfect – more akin to ‘classic’ 3D games like Sonic Adventure. Frontiers allows for a fast-paced experience that can offer players some exhilaration, while crucially allowing them the time to assess, process and respond to upcoming obstacles and threats (an issue that has severely dragged down the enjoyment of many Boost-era Sonic games of the past).
Sonic’s moveset has also been dramatically changed for Frontiers, with his traditional traversal moves tweaked just enough to enhance player flow – and a host of new combat moves shoe-horned in for good measure. It’s no surprise that loading screens contain tutorials challenging you to perform certain moves – the amount of actions, attacks and chained stunts that you can perform in this game can be a little overwhelming at first!
For example, Sonic can use a homing attack on a spring, light speed dash through some rings, use a stomp move to crash onto an enemy, hold that stomp button down to get Sonic to bounce upward, use the boost move (right trigger) to air dash forward towards a wall, hold that boost move to run UP the wall, jump off, double-jump towards a collectible, then hold the jump button down to perform a drop dash upon landing.
There is a feeling that Sonic Team is throwing almost the entire kitchen sink here, including moves inspired by Sonic Mania, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Lost World and other past titles. That can mean that controls will require some getting used to, though.
For instance, the homing attack can be performed at any time using the X/Square button, even on the ground, which is a fantastic change that really helps you stay in the action, but it also requires you to rethink your play style a little bit. Similarly, the Light Speed Dash is now triggered using a click of the left stick, which took me a while to remember as I careened endlessly towards the abyss when attempting to reach some obscure collectibles. The Boost returns but is sensibly set to the right trigger, and it works a little bit like the Stamina gauge in Zelda: Breath of the Wild – it depletes as you hold the trigger down, but rapidly replenishes as you let go. No need to rely on Rings, Wisps or anything else.
Most interesting of Sonic’s new moves is the Cyloop, which you unlock pretty early on (yes, Sonic has a skills tree that offers a number of bonuses and abilities the more you progress) and allows you to ‘draw’ a mystical band around enemies and items of interest. Using this move to circle bands around armoured enemies is the most effective way of uncovering shields and leaving an opening for attack.
Combat in particular was another surprise for me, in that I went into the demo feeling pretty certain that I’d hate it. Who wants to play a Sonic game where you have to stop every five seconds to focus on hitting an enemy for ages? Honestly, the jury is still out on this for me, but at least in the demo I played, I felt pretty satisfied with the low level of egregiousness I had when choosing to engage in combat.
What helped was that, like Sonic’s other moves, combat actions felt pretty refined and they seemed to flow quite well into one another. The homing attack can allow you to quickly close the gap between you and a foe (another benefit to being able to perform this move on the ground), while the controller bumpers can be used to both block incoming attacks (which are nicely telegraphed by some wiggly lines) and dodge roll. The roll in particular really helps to keep the pace of the action going.
Once you’re able to attack an enemy, rapidly hitting the button will allow you to wail on them for a satisfyingly long time. It’s a bit spammy, yeah, but honestly trying to do anything more complicated here would have just frustrated the heck out of me. If you’re going to make Sonic fight properly, at least make it so it doesn’t feel like a waste of my time, right?
Thankfully, the enemies do seem to be well-balanced. The first enemies you encounter were able to be destroyed with a simple homing attack, but as you progress you’ll find different forms of these obelisk-shaped alien creatures, each requiring different combat approaches. It was fun to spot a more challenging enemy and try my luck with them from time to time, but I am not sure if this will be an entirely fun experience after too many encounters, in the final game. It is possible that players might want to go out of their way to avoid these guys after a while, if they can help it. Hopefully Sonic Team keeps the combat side of things interesting and not too frustrating in the later areas.
In fact, the enemy design – and the art/environmental design in general – is one of the main reservations I currently have about Sonic Frontiers. Putting aside that the biomes don’t really look particularly interesting or have any kind of characteristic features, the Starfall Islands and the foes that populate them don’t feel like they mesh very well with Sonic’s character or the brand’s well-established artistic identity.
Look, I know the concept behind all of this is that this is a “mysterious world” that Sonic has never seen before, but I think Sonic Team may have overthought this to the point of complication. I generally don’t feel very excited about Sonic fighting faceless, black, angular alien things – and the challenging Titan bosses that roam the Open Zones (some requiring Super Sonic’s transformation to actually defeat) just really look out of place in a game supposedly for a series titled ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’.
I’m worried about the Open Zone environments looking bland as well. Generic plain, generic desert sandscape, generic tropical beach… I know everyone complains about seeing Green Hill Zone too much in Sonic games (a complaint I actually do agree with), but at the very least that environment is very iconically ‘Sonic’. There just isn’t much to say about the art style of the biomes, besides the fact that they do generally look very nice. They do! It’s just… not very ‘Sonic’. It kind of feels like they’ve just dropped Sonic in a Phantasy Star Online 2 planet, with robots from The Matrix to fight against.
I feel that you absolutely can design mysterious unexplored worlds in a branded universe and still add artistic flairs and gimmicks that make it feel like it is part of that connected world. Heck, Sonic Colours is set entirely in ~space~ and that game manages to feature whole new worlds in which the blue blur doesn’t look out of place. Even Sonic Adventure, which was largely focused in a real-world environment, managed to pull it off.
For what it’s worth, this is clearly an intentional style choice by Sonic Team – I just hope it pays off when it’s considered against the final game and the overall plot. I worry at this stage, that the overly-realistic focus of the Open Zones and obtuse enemy designs lean a little too far from what we all expect from a Sonic experience.
In contrast, the so-called second half of Sonic Frontiers – the ‘Cyberspace’ stages – lean quite heavily into Sonic’s brand identity, pulling from stage design and gameplay gimmicks from the blue blur’s 31-year history in the process. The Cyberspace zones are actually short levels that are a little more like the ‘traditional’ linear 3D action stages of games past, that Sonic can access via Vaults dotted around the Open Zones.
Sonic Forces has been a big comparison point for these Cyberspace areas, and to an extent that’s quite accurate. The levels I played – Green Hill and Sky Sanctuary – were incredibly linear, fast-paced runs that felt like bite-sized Forces stages. You even have the familiar Red Star Rings littered about the place.
From a plot perspective, Cyberspace exists to build challenges for Sonic that specifically pull from his memories (which is why a lot of these stages look so familiar – we know that there is a cityscape, almost Radical Highway-style level also in the game, as well as Chemical Plant) but gameplay-wise, they serve to break up the Open Zone play with familiar, short, almost ‘arcade’-esque attractions.
I found them rather inoffensive to play, although my opinion may change if later Cyberspace stages end up being longer than the 1-2 minute affairs that Green Hill and Sky Sanctuary were. I enjoyed replaying these stages to make sure I found all the Red Star Rings, or to beat my previous time/score. In any case, it’s a bit of a shame that the environmental gimmicks/design of these stages aren’t reflected more in the ‘real world’ Starfall Islands too.
Each of the Cyberspace stages has a number of objectives assigned to them that, if completed, award you a number of Vault keys that Sonic can use to unlock more stages – or help him uncover Chaos Emeralds (which is the main objective of progression to the next Open Zone island). I’m told that you don’t necessarily need to play the Cyberspace levels however – apparently there will be ways to progress by exploring the Open Zone and gathering items there.
And I have a feeling that it will be worth progressing to see how the story of Sonic Frontiers unfolds. I wasn’t able to experience a lot of it in the demo, for obvious reasons, but from what I saw from opening cutscenes it does feel like it will be written a little better than past Sonic titles. Sonic’s dialogue doesn’t appear to be constant cheesy one-liners on the scale of Sonic Colours, but at the same time the premise and over-arching story doesn’t feel faux-edgy or ‘apocalypse of the day’ in the same way that Forces or Sonic 06 did. I have faith that, with Ian Flynn’s involvement, we will finally get a Sonic game that doesn’t talk down to its audience.
All in all, Sonic Frontiers is really feeling like a seismic event for the entire game franchise, and my feelings about whether it will succeed will come down to how it pulls off two key elements – the gameplay, and the presentation. Both are being changed up in ways long-time fans will hardly recognise, and while I came away from the demo feeling very excited about the former, I am currently a bit apprehensive about the latter. I’m looking forward to playing the final product and seeing if it can win me over completely.