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Sonic Frontiers Review

Fast-paced fun, but far from flawless

As a long suffering Sonic the Hedgehog fan, it is a difficult timeline we live in. Sonic is cranking out some cracker movies, pretty decent TV shows and the occasional game that is outright bum. It is an odd scale to sit back and behold – spectating one of the original iconic ‘Video Game Mascots’ sowing his ‘success’ oats in all the wrong places, and for the fans you sort of just need to come along for the ride. A bit like going to your favourite restaurant for the banging music, while the food has long since become rubbish. Thankfully I am here to tell you that Sonic Frontiers has some flavour, so starve no more my hedgehog-admiring amigo.

Let there be no confusion, the game is still rough at times, however when you observe the scale of roughness within Sonic the Hedgehog games, Frontiers comes off downright merciful – even forgivable. It somehow manages to cram itself full of new mechanics and gimmicks – the very things that bring such great ire from long-term fans – and utilise them in ways that feel fun and engaging. Especially the uniquely monikered ‘open-zone’ gameplay, but more on that later.

The Koco are an ever present, ever enthusiastic audience

The premise of the title is that Sonic and his closest, most tolerable mates are out for a routine shopping trip to get some Chaos Emeralds when a wormhole swallows them up and deposits Sonic on a strange set of islands where he realises his mates are now trapped in some digital dimension. He sets off to explore the islands and recover the Chaos Emeralds that are conveniently present there – so he can biffo some big bads and get everyone home safely. Also Robotnik is trapped in that same digital dimension, because the lovable buffoon discovered the islands first and then found himself the first to be wormhole sucked. What a trendsetter.

These islands set the backdrop for the vast open-zone gameplay that was initially marketed for the game, with huge expanses full of treasure and toys to fool around with. The landscapes are enormous and quite stunningly detailed – the rigidly realistic aesthetic not actively fighting the cartoony hedgehog man that inhabits them. It is probably the most free I have ever felt as Sonic, really getting a proper chance to drop the foot and moving at a blistering pace across grass, sand and snow. I understand the developer’s hesitation to call the game properly open-world, because one can’t really liken it to something like Elden Ring or similar. While you have a ton of space to exist in, there is still progression built within this world to make sure you are discovering things when it is assumed you are ready. Then there is the simple fact that the game is divided into clear chapters, each with their own unique island and mostly unique biome to keep you engaged.

The islands also serve as the backbone of a gameplay loop that introduces a few moving parts that all need to cohesively move together to progress the game. Now initially I was a bit overwhelmed with the amount of random things I was collecting that were not shiny golden rings, but I quickly came to terms with how each macguffin worked together. Defeat bad guys, get a Cog. Deposit Cogs into a Portal to play a Classic Sonic Stage. Complete Classic Stage Objectives to get Vault Keys. Deposit Vault Keys into a Vault to receive a Chaos Emerald. Get it? Got it? Good.

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Sonic jumps on a skateboard and doesn’t grind a single rail – what a poser

My first thoughts were a depressive spiral as I feared that the game might be unmitigatingly cruel with how these items are weighted or how often they might drop. I had visions of the game demanding S-Ranks on every Classic Stage in order to get enough Vault Keys, or perhaps a sad reality that the random nature of enemies dropping a Cog when defeated might be sadistically low. These all felt like hallmark examples of a padding strategy to try and make the game feel girthier than it is. Now imagine my abject joy when I came to rapidly realise just how generous the game would be. I actually found myself having barely scratched the surface of a new open-zone/island and I was already concerningly close to a narrative beat that may well progress me elsewhere. I was even delighted to discover that if you take the time to explore and try out the many different avenues for fun that Sonic Frontiers offers, you may well find bonus Cogs, Keys and the like bursting out of your coffers. Getting an S-Rank on a Classic stage was not a requirement, it was an objective for you to attempt if you felt up to the challenge. Intelligent design.

Beyond these narrative macguffins, there is also a range of other doodads to increase the effectiveness of the blue blur – these too are generously sprinkled throughout the landscape and pop out of some baddies when bashed. These range from seeds that will boost Sonic’s damage output and defense stat, little blue experience chips that award skill points to learn abilities – and finally, little stone beings known as Koco, which can be collected and returned to their Elder to increase both Sonic’s speed (good) and his ring capacity (rubbish).

Again, tracking all of these dingleboppers and fumbunglers will initially feel overwhelming, but in reality the game is paced in such a way that you just sort of…bumble through them. It’s implemented in such an inconsequential way that you’ll likely bump into the Elder occasionally and he will happily slap +5 on your damage rating and you will move on unfazed. I never once found myself in a position where I was ignoring a primary objective, lifting up rocks trying to find another red seed to eke out a couple more points of Sonic kick damage so I could bop a digital dickweed.

A clash of the orbs

A big part of this is simply how the game’s environments are designed. I would liken the open-zones to something akin to a skate park – a vast area full of potential for radical tricks and navigation. Springs, speed boosts and rails litter the landscape, begging you to discover what treasures they might offer. Why are they there? Who knows? But you can throw yourself into all manner of high-flying gnarlitude, pulling off the kind of manoeuvres that would make Red Bull Extreme Sports jealous, or perhaps you are uncovering treasures and puzzle mechanics at ground level to further uncover the map some more. All the while, you will be hoovering up rings and whatever other macguffin or doodad might be present on whatever rail or spring-loaded death drop, investing in your player power simply by having a good time. Then, if you grow tired of tooling about, maybe consider seeking out a story objective or portal stone to do something a little more traditional. You’ll likely bump into a classic stage portal while you are trying to collect the letters S-K-A-T-E and remember that they do serve a fairly critical purpose.

These classic stages are upscaled, remixed and cyber-spaced versions of recognisable Sonic stages from games of yore. Any long term fan will find themselves constantly noticing details from decades of prior titles – badniks, level hazards and even mechanics long forgotten (for better or for worse). I found the greatest swing of quality within Frontiers lay within its classic stages, simply by virtue of how experimental they could be. The game identifies a core assistance mechanic early – the concept of a fixed camera, where player control over the viewing angle is removed. In some cases, this would be ideal – a classic stage could play identically to a 2D side-scrolling Sonic level from the past, even restricting the movement of your hedgehog to only match the viewpoint. This fixed camera would even appear in the overworld, again serving to either help with navigating a hazard or even just to give a cool camera angle on a particular element, like grinding up a massive twisting rail. It makes sense for such a thing to exist, given that 3D Sonic games perhaps have the most chequered history with awful player cameras (I remember Sonic Adventure all too well).

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But occasionally, this fixed camera would present itself in a diabolical way. Like a friend that might randomly reverse-kanga your toilet, or drop a terrible political take at a dinner party – they’d make things just awkward enough to suck all the fun out of what you were doing. In classic stages, this would manifest with camera angles that might change at a time while you still had full control – perhaps you were midair, steering for a platform. Suddenly, a change to a fixed camera may see you careening off course and falling to your death – because of course classic stages are conveniently set in a pitless void. Perhaps in the overworld you have dedicated more than a couple of minutes to navigating a particularly epic trick route to an impossibly high height, and now you need only jump on some moving platforms to reach the zenith. Only, oh no! Fixed camera has decided you can’t get a firm idea on where the next two platforms are relative to your jump distance! Hope you like falling for close to a minute. While these occasions are not massively prevalent, they are present enough that you need to steel your resolve to deal with them when they arise. They come suddenly, and without warning, and you will find yourself adjusting your play – if just for a moment – to accommodate a developer decision that just kind of…stinks. At least once the game is completed you can rapidly jump back into classic stages to chase S-Ranks, with the prior knowledge of where these awful fixed cameras may be lurking.

A fixed camera nightmare waiting to happen

To speak to the experimental nature of these classic stages, there was also an amazing amount of random mechanics that just sort of…appear…and then are never really seen again. Remember the weird drifting mechanic from Sonic Heroes? Neither did I until I went careening off the edge of a level. Every now and then a classic level will hit you with a weird and wonderful quirk from Sonics’ past and you’ll more than likely fail spectacularly as you come to grips with how it is supposed to work. Then, once you remember how that odd gameplay worked and complete the classic stage, you’ll likely never see it again – gone, like tears in the rain (unless you want to replay the level for that sweet, sweet S-Rank of course). As a Sonic the Hedgehog alumni I often found myself laughing along with the nostalgia of these items, but for the common player it may just feel like a random thorn in the arse that they were not expecting, or likely to appreciate. I was personally delighted to see Sonic whip out a skateboard for all of about 15 seconds in a single level and then never again – but the immediate and odd change in control scheme might grind the gears of many.

At least you can work off these frustrations by beating up baddies in the overworld. The Starfall Islands are full of all manner of weird and wonderful digital douchebags, which are all creatively designed enough that I wasn’t gnashing my teeth and demanding standard badnik designs. Odd eyes and smooth surfaces cover everything from little wannabe ninja-bots that are little more than fodder, right up to spectacular bosses that appear to be a towering structure at first glance. The game does wonders by offering a myriad of minibosses that each have unique fight beats and mechanics that will test your Sonic combat knowledge. From one moment you will be clinging to the tail of a robotic sand shark, desperately waiting for the chance to bop him with a homing attack – moments later you will be grinding rails summoned by a spindly spider tower, ascending high enough to slam it in the robotic eye. These beasties are easy to spot in the landscape, providing ample chance for you to decide when you want to deal with it, if at all. One of the first encounters I had was with a flying squidbot that summoned a ribbon-like road behind it as it flew, and I leapt onto the road ribbon to run it down while it soared through the air. It was unlike anything I had done in a Sonic title, or any other title really, and I will absolutely be bugging my close mates by describing it to them for many water cooler moments to come.

Sometimes the road less travelled is a robotic squid road

These minibosses more than make up for the curious case of actual narrative boss encounters. Without spoiling anything, the crazy boss designs are absolutely worth praising, as impressive and odd as you’d imagine from the game’s aesthetic – but their structure is designed to be more about a power fantasy than a full-blown encounter. While I enjoyed them at a base level, it was hard to ignore the number of times I had truly enjoyed some boss encounters in Sonic games past. I feel the trade off between ‘over a dozen interesting minibosses’ and ‘a handful of narrative mega-bosses’ is at least an acceptable one.

And these awe-inspiring mega bosses all make perfect sense within the narrative. The game plays the ‘mysterious bullshit’ card close to its chest in an inoffensive story that is more about the world than its characters, with plot threads that harken back to Dreamcast-era Sonic. Things are slowly revealed to introduce a greater threat, while existing characters are given time to interact with Sonic and even explore their dynamics a little bit. It’s no Shakespeare, but hearing Tails ruminate on how he is concerned that being Sonic’s eternal sidekick might be stopping him from growing as an individual is a surprisingly solid take. All this can be attributed to the game’s writer Ian Flynn, who has a super solid history as the chief writer for Archie Comics’s Sonic the Hedgehog series before turning his attention to both Sonic TV shows and now games. It is also thanks to his penmanship that the game contains a plethora of solid references to other Sonic properties, with villains and characters mentioned organically within the dialogue, once again tickling the rib of anyone with prior Sonic knowledge. There are also a couple of quips that are genuinely funny and if I ever meet Ian Flynn in person, I will shake the man’s hand if only to steal his genetic material.

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Sand sharks – jawesome!

A mention must be made to the sheer amount of mechanics in the game, because I’m unsure if the word ambitious even cuts it. Seriously the ungodly amount of things you can theoretically do running parallel to the buttons that can action them is close to staggering. Sonic can run, jump, double jump, boost, dash, cyloop, dodge, parry, homing attack, combo attack, hit recover, light dash, bounce, wall climb…the list isn’t endless, but believe me when I say that this barrage of comma-separated actions honestly only serves as maybe half the amount of things you can do within the game – particularly when you account for what Sonic is capable of when engaged in fisticuffs with an enemy. The skill points you receive can be used to unlock new combat abilities, allowing you to strike foes in different ways and even create new avoidance and recovery options. The problem is, you will likely fall into the same trap I did – finding a small handful of easy to press buttons and using those actions when the opportunity arises. The sheer amount of things you can OPT to do is impressive, but being mindful of all of them can be exhausting.

Of all these additions, cyloop is the signature showstopper within Frontiers. By pressing and holding a button, Sonic will emit a blue trail from behind him as he moves. If he then creates a closed circuit with this trail, it will turn pink and have unique effects depending on where you have made use of it. Using it in combat against enemies can break their guard, and even fling them into the air – out in the open plains, it can shake freebie rings and treasure from the earth; and if you employ it against certain landmarks, it can action puzzles and challenges. The move is the most natural new effect I have seen added to Sonic’s repertoire over the years, and out of the dozen or so special attacks and combos within Frontiers it was one that I always fell back on in the majority of situations. Even when combat became frenetic and crazy against some of the later enemy types, I could always spam cyloop as a short-term solution to gain rings and try and beat enemies via attrition until I could locate their weakness.

This doesn’t mean the combat feels shallow or uninteresting, quite the opposite. This is probably the first time I have ever encountered a situation where Sonic feels like an actual hero of the super variety. The guy is pulling off all manner of anime-inspired speed attacks and barrages of ranged air slashes from whatever noodle-like extremity is willing to flail, and the spectacle and variety means you can be every bit as impressive as you want. It also lends well to the enemy variety when you can consider what particular attack may best suit busting one of the techno-dorks’ defences, a flurry of tiny blows or maybe a handful of aggressively strong ones. Sure, you can unlock auto-combo and watch the game almost play itself (a curious feature if I am honest), but its optional nature means I could safely ignore it in favour of the more engaging player-driven systems. It’s come a long way from Sonic just kind of bumping into things.

Finally, literally running rings around my enemies

As if this mechanic based mayhem wasn’t enough, there are then a fantastic array of non-sequitur sections within the game, where an entirely different set of gameplay mechanics are employed. Hack a computer via Galaga? Herd tiny stone people away from bombs? Maybe a spot of fishing? Again these things come with no warning or prior preparation and reinvent the game for a quiet minute or two. I can’t even be mad at how nonsensical they are within the context of the story, they are so tightly designed and enjoyable that I just had to groove with them. When Big the Cat asks you to fish with him, and you land a hammerhead shark with the same deft motion that someone might have used to swat a fly, I dare you to say you aren’t having fun. Hell, the fishing is a bloody incredible resource for gathering extra macguffins for story and player progression if you just want to chill out away from grinding rails and laser beams for a spell.

In the grand scheme of things, the game is far more fun than frustrating – but that does not excuse its frustrating elements. Beyond the deadly fixed camera, there are a handful of level and trick-track design elements that come off as half-baked and doomed to cause heartbreak. A bad workman will blame their tools, and my patience is far from a low reservoir – but I will openly point at a number of moments in the game where a death or failure occurred and I will place the blame squarely on Sonic Team. A cardinal sin of gaming is having to work around an oddity in a way that impedes your enjoyment – it is not being agile, it is having to consciously avoid failure in a unique way that likely will never assist you again. It is not outsmarting a problem, it is un-dumbing it. There are also questionable polish issues within the game, such as dead space within cutscenes where a character will pause for moments too long at the start or end of a scene, menus that take a moment to respond to input for God-knows why, and for some reason there is a three-second cutscene that players EVERY TIME you gather enough rings to hit top speed, and I can safely say after seeing it once and thinking it was neat, it’s definitely three seconds too long. Did I mention it happens EVERY time you gather enough rings? As in, you get enough rings – it plays – you fumble an attack, lose some rings, grab some more – it plays again. This scenario took place over about 13 seconds, six of those dedicated to two instances of the same mini-cutscene. Also why the fuck can’t I run on water when at top speed Sonic Team? This was the perfect time to do it!

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You thought it was just rings, but Sonic clearly has a fixation for all things round

Final Thoughts

I feel many will judge the game on its frustrating failings, overlooking the deep sincerity that defines Frontiers. This is the first game in so, so long to come from Sonic Team that feels like a deeply considered product of passion and perseverance. It’s chock-full of chances, and attempts – and so many of these hit rather than miss. It is truly a triumph for any who really want a modern Sonic game to feel cohesive and fun. It has kicked enough goals to overshadow its fumbles, and the amount of patience it asks of you to enjoy it is not insurmountable. While I may be a Sonic fan and prone to bias, I can disconnect myself enough to recognise the attempt on display here and praise that it got so much right.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Sonic Frontiers Review
I Hear The Springs In My Sleep
While it may be far from perfect, Sonic Frontiers is a colossal step in the right direction for the future of the neon blue needlemouse. Its issues are more stumbles than falls, with the action and exploration creating a memorable experience for everyone's favourite Hedgehog.
The Good
The most Sonic fun I have had since Mania
World exploration and traversal is nutty, Sonic-styled fun
Fixed camera can recapture the fun of 2D Sonic
Minibosses are super creative and a blast to defeat
Unique aesthetic gives a fresh spin to the series
Quirky soundtrack has some banging tunes
The Bad
The needle can occasionally swing from FUN to FRUSTRATING concerningly quickly
Combo attacks are an interesting new feature, but they border on optional
Fixed camera will kill you more often than enemies
Open-zone gameplay may be a bit polarising to some
7
Good
  • Sonic Team
  • Sega
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
  • November 8, 2022

Sonic Frontiers Review
I Hear The Springs In My Sleep
While it may be far from perfect, Sonic Frontiers is a colossal step in the right direction for the future of the neon blue needlemouse. Its issues are more stumbles than falls, with the action and exploration creating a memorable experience for everyone’s favourite Hedgehog.
The Good
The most Sonic fun I have had since Mania
World exploration and traversal is nutty, Sonic-styled fun
Fixed camera can recapture the fun of 2D Sonic
Minibosses are super creative and a blast to defeat
Unique aesthetic gives a fresh spin to the series
Quirky soundtrack has some banging tunes
The Bad
The needle can occasionally swing from FUN to FRUSTRATING concerningly quickly
Combo attacks are an interesting new feature, but they border on optional
Fixed camera will kill you more often than enemies
Open-zone gameplay may be a bit polarising to some
7
Good
Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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