Blue blurring the lines between past and future
Sonic’s 3D outings have a complicated and interesting journey that’s impossible to chart. That said, ever since the first Sonic Adventure, one thing’s remained constant. At their heart, 3D Sonic games have been linear, course-based affairs like their 2D brethren. Whether it’s the Dreamcast classics or the games that fall under the “Boost” umbrella (as coined by fans), this has been the golden rule.
Sonic Frontiers stands out as a challenger to this, with a bold goal of reinventing and reimagining what a 3D Sonic experience can be. Upon its initial reveal, there was a lot of skepticism. Could Sonic Team deliver upon this ideal and provide a game with a consistent vision and design goal, particularly after recent outings? Is a more open approach really what Sonic needs? These questions swirled around in the heads of Sonic fans like myself, so going into Sonic Frontiers, I was instilled with a sense of curiosity and a desire to see it through to the end. The plan was to gather my thoughts and tackle the question that seems to follow every Sonic release: was it quality?
The primary amount of gameplay in Sonic Frontiers takes place in what the developers have coined the “Open Zone.” This consists of islands that contain many tasks for Sonic to do, and numerous collectibles. Included in the lineup are Portal Gears, Attack and Defense seeds, Vault Keys, Memory Tokens, and yes, Chaos Emeralds. There’s a lot to do, and it’s all spread out quite densely. So much so, that I felt things to be quite daunting at first.
Thankfully, Sonic’s core movement and control had me feeling right at home from the get-go. Sonic’s control in the Open Zone segments of the game is the best he’s felt in 3D in a long time. Movement is snappy and responsive, and Sonic’s speed makes traversing these large areas extremely convenient and fast. In spite of the large size of these areas, I found myself just lost in how good the core movement felt when things were going well.
This is aided by the way these Open Zones are designed, too. While some games are content to have one large map with many small objectives, Open Zones are what it says on the tin: essentially a Sonic zone. You can think of it like one large Sonic stage that’s segmented and split around. Key areas are denoted with ways to fill in the map alongside various platforming challenges and puzzles. These guide you from one to another very smartly, and the variance in their size and scope is both engaging and fun. Getting lost and finding an odd set of platforming sequences is something I am happy to report happened more than once, and it was rewarded each time with map completion and the game’s many collectibles. The new Cyloop mechanic sees its primary utilization here as a means of activating puzzles and even solving them; a great way to give the player a fun way of toying with the environment, as well as a way to control when a puzzle sequence is activated.
If I had to liken it to anything, the Bowser’s Fury campaign from Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury comes to mind. While Frontiers doesn’t execute it with quite the same grace and refinements, the formula and reason it works at its core level is similar. It’s an application of what Sonic Team knows how to do, fused with modern design trends to create an interesting hybrid of non-linear and linear design ideas. In many aspects, it SHOULD feel cluttered and messy, and it manages not to for much of its duration. That isn’t to say the experience is totally seamless, however.
Scattered throughout some of the islands (one in particular has this as its predominant gimmick) are 2D segments. These as an idea on their own are fine, and they control about as well as the 3D portions, but the elegance in which they’re implemented is….a little strange, to be honest. It’s very easy to accidentally enter one and be locked into a fixed perspective until you move backwards and out, or end up in the middle of one without the assistance of the 2D perspective. The game sometimes corrects this when you interact with a set piece in one of these segments, but I find the abundance of them later in the game to be a bit of a distraction. The lack of any indicator as to where they are means you can end up stuck abruptly, and quite often.
Sonic Frontiers also has a combat system for its Open Zone segments, but unfortunately, its implementation feels a bit sparse. The combat mechanics are sound enough: Sonic has a good deal of moves you can unlock through the in-game skill tree. There’s plenty of evasive actions and counter-attack moves, and you can string all of these together into really fancy sequences to quickly rip apart most enemies. The problem lies more in the encounters themselves; enemies don’t come in mixed varieties, which isn’t an issue early on while your skill selection is more paltry and you’re learning the ropes, but by the end of the game I was left yearning for greater encounter design and variety. This frustration is exacerbated by the mini-boss fights that are peppered throughout the Open Zones, too. A number of them are quite fun, but others feel a little tacked on; a bit gimmicky for my liking.
The other primary weakness of the Open Zone areas are the mini-games that break up the story progression. Some of them are quite fun (one in particular will please fans of Treasure’s games, particularly in the year 2001), but one in particular has a pretty aggressive point requirement and score gate. While it didn’t really hamper my experience, I can’t say it enhanced things either. These mini-games are a very small piece of the game, however, so they didn’t aggressively bother me. There’s an optional fishing mini-game you can find as well that gives a means for unlocking upgrades for Sonic alternatively, and it even allows you to nab things like Vault Keys! Big’s Fishing mini-game is actually pretty fun, even in its relative simplicity, and beyond the offerings of in-game progression items, it also allows access to narrated logs from Dr. Eggman himself. The fishing game, as small as it is, remains a notably enjoyable distraction from the main game while providing a (probably too accessible) alternative means of progression.
Aesthetically speaking, the Open Zones are…..interesting. The art direction left me wanting a little bit; it feels almost too similar to other games of this kind, and doesn’t strike me as very “Sonic-like,” with considerations to the Adventure games and other 3D entries that had a more grounded, realistic-esque aesthetic like Sonic Unleashed. I’m also not big on the HUD, which I can only describe as a HUD that stylistically feels like it’s ripped from other games. These are normally areas in which Sonic excels, and while things never got outright distracting during my gameplay, they remained on my mind throughout the entire experience.
On the note of aesthetics, let’s address the elephant in the room: how does the Switch port fare? It’s….fairly compromised, unfortunately. Being a video game in 2022 for a five year old system, concessions had to be made. Frontiers looks….generally ok, but the aggressive pop-in can be mildly distracting at points, and much of the time the game goes from decent-looking to simply ugly. There was at least one instance of Sonic going underwater into the murky depths, and my entire screen was filled with a particularly putrid shade of brown. The water effects in general dynamically change from passable to unrecognizable, among other weird visual oddities. Thankfully, the game holds its 30 FPS target fairly consistently with very few frame drops, so even if this comes at the cost of its looks, for a handheld experience it’s passable enough. It does make me wish that more could have been done to make this port stand out a little or look a bit more refined, but it works.
The last notable feature of the Open Zone areas are the boss fights separating them. Without delving into excess detail, these fights involve Super Sonic and are…pretty fun! Admittedly, they work a bit clumsily sometimes, and the mechanics aren’t particularly robust or deep, but as far as Super Sonic fights go for the franchise, they’re on par mechanically. One notable wart in particular is that one of the bosses cannot be killed unless it enters a specific phase, which only triggers if you get hit by a specific attack. As a spectacle though, boss battles are framed in really fun ways, accentuated by rocking tunes with vocals on a per-boss basis. These served as fun little eye-candy treats on my playthrough, giving me something to look forward to after finishing my work on each Open Zone. Sadly, the odd camera and mechanics of these fights coupled with the gratuitous use of quicktime events might be a turn off for some.
Up until this point, I’ve neglected to mention what the Portal Gears are used for. They’re awarded by mini-bosses (and sometimes standard enemies) upon defeat, and they unlock the secondary mode of gameplay in the game; the Cyber Space levels. These levels take up the most time outside of the Open Zone gameplay and you’ll find them all over the Open Zones you traverse. Cyber Space stages are the primary way Sonic Frontiers breaks up its progression, and to that end, they do what they’re supposed to. These levels give you a linear objective that additionally offers up four missions to complete; get a certain ring total by the end, clear the stage fast enough, collect all the red rings, and simply finish the stage.
Unfortunately, I’d call the Cyber Space levels the weakest link in my experience with the game, despite their small scope compared to the Open Zones. While I anticipated they’d control a little differently than the Open Zone areas, the difference is night and day. Control over Sonic feels much stiffer in Cyber Space stages, likely to encourage continuous forward movement, but it ends up impacting jump accuracy and movement feel a lot more than I’d like. This aspect definitely stands out between Cyber Space levels and Open Zone traversal. Actions like the Homing Attack also feel very sluggish in Cyber Space. The big cinematic effect upon destroying an enemy makes sense in the Open Zone gameplay and combat system, given its emphasis on combos and canceling out of actions, but in Cyber Space where every enemy falls in one hit and constant forward movement is encouraged, having Homing Attack chains feel so slow is disappointing. While you can just elect to not use it and simply Boost past enemies, it’s just not satisfying in the way it was in prior entries.
The aesthetic of the Cyber Space areas also wears thin very fast. While the weird weaving cityscape background is entirely new, every other level theme is something that’s already existed. Green Hill makes yet another appearance, as does Chemical Plant and Sky Sanctuary. These four visual archetypes are the extent of the thematic variety in Cyber Space stages, and while they make alterations to lighting via time of day and other such effects, it doesn’t mask the feeling of similarity. I mean, Chemical Plant’s been in nearly every Sonic game released since 2011 by now! This is exacerbated by the Cyber Space level layouts, too. While there are a handful of original levels crafted for it, many of them simply reuse existing stages from other 3D Sonic titles. The hand-crafted stages tend to feel the best, as they were built from the ground-up for this gameplay style, but stages borrowed from Generations and Sonic Adventure 2 feel somewhat strange.
All in all though, Cyber Space as a secondary game mode only constitutes a modest portion of Sonic Frontiers, rather than a huge amount. In spite of my problems with it, I feel the need to mention that Cyber Space stages were still baseline enjoyable, likely aided by the absolutely fantastic accompanying soundtrack. While the Open Zone areas focus on more ambient music with emergent melodies that flow as the music progresses, the Cyber Space stages have high-energy tunes that absolutely get stuck in your head. It’s a wonderful genre mix, from base electronic instrumentation and punchy synths to elements of house music, drum n’ bass, dance, and so forth.
Naturally, what ties all of these gameplay pieces together is the storyline, and I’m happy to report that this was an area in which Frontiers felt like it really delivered on. The actual plot and progression is fairly standard fare for a Sonic outing, with the spectacle of the Titan fights being the highest excitement offered on that front. Where the story REALLY shines, however, is in the character dialogue. Long time writer for Sonic’s comic franchise under both Archie and IDW, Ian Flynn, was brought on to handle character dialogue and the general script. Suffice it to say, he absolutely nailed it.
For the first time in a long time, Sonic and his friends are given room to breathe in the dialogue and scenes. Characters feel like they have much more depth in their interactions, and gone are the myriad of setups for one-liners, along with Sonic’s inability to avoid cracking jokes each sentence. Sonic’s friends interact with him in a way that reflects not only what we’ve learned of them and how we’ve come to see them, but also with relevance to prior events in previous games. Even plot elements like the Master Emerald are explicitly mentioned! The reverence and respect Flynn’s writing shows to longtime fans is incredible, and skillfully avoids dialogue that would alienate those who might not be familiar with prior games, too. Sonic Frontiers is the most engaged I’ve been with these characters in a long time, and when my only real criticism relates to a late-game plot point that’s a bit too rushed, I can still call the story a standout aspect of the experience.
All in all, Sonic Frontiers is ambitious, rough around the edges, yet thoroughly enjoyable 3D Sonic title. While I’m not one to normally enjoy 3D Sonic games much, I couldn’t help but find myself enthralled by this game despite all of the nitpicks I’ve had. It feels like there’s finally a 3D Sonic game that delivers something the 2D games can’t, and even if it has a number of polish issues and design quirks, the good shined through and kept me engaged from start to finish. For longtime Sonic fans, Sonic Frontiers gets an easy recommendation, and it should serve as a good jumping-on point for new players.
It’s nice to see you back, buddy. Let’s hope the next game’s even better and irons out all the wrinkles.