The road to Sonic Frontiers’ release has been as rollercoaster-like as the very zones we’ve seen the blue hedgehog race through for decades now. After a promising tease at The Game Awards late last year hinting at a new The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild-style open-world approach, Sonic Frontiers’ first proper gameplay showing earlier this summer would then go on to raise concerns after revealing a world filled with random out-of-place floating grind rails and a general lack of ‘Sonic’ feel from its aesthetics. With new trailers that followed however things would start to look up once more; Cyberspace stages harkening back to the series 3D/2D platforming, freedom to go about Sonic’s adventure how you wanted and epic battles as Super Sonic against towering monsters. What could possibly go wrong?
We find Sonic, Tails and Amy flying high aboard the Tornado, their investigation into the whereabouts of the Chaos Emeralds leading them to the mysterious Starfall Islands when out of nowhere a strange portal sucks them and the plane in. Sonic then finds himself coming to on the first of the five islands, alone and with no sign of Tails or Amy. Being the plucky hero he is, the blue blur quickly sets out to not only rescue his friends, but uncover the history of the Starfall Islands and the identity of a mysterious figure who keeps popping up known as Sage.
To accomplish this, Sonic will need to explore each of the islands’ vast open spaces one by one, collecting Chaos Emeralds before eventually going toe-to-toe against its towering Titan guardian. While the game’s sprawling environments tease an adventure offering complete freedom in how you tackle the task at hand, the actual reality of the situation is you’ll be going through the exact same motions to collect each of the Emeralds on each island (more on this later).
Running about the game’s open zones is fantastic fun, an exhilarating feeling that never wears out its welcome even as I reached the finale some fifteen hours in. It may sound strange but I’d liken it to that of a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater title, as you explore the environment looking for rails to grind and trying to decipher the best way to reach areas just a little out of reach. There are plenty of chances to chain together jumps through rings into a well-timed swing off a pole, or to run vertically up a wall toward a spring and bounce off it toward some airborne enemies. Better still, is that Sonic has never felt better to control. There’s a real fluid nature to his movements once more (aside from the odd weird janky moment here and there). It’s in the open zone areas where the game is truly at its best, delivering a true sense of adventure and discovery not really seen from the series before.
Every island is littered with a mix of collectables and tasks each aiding Sonic in his adventure. Objectives, when completed, reward items used to upgrade Sonic as well as fill in portions of the map. These challenges range from getting between two points within a time limit, using your Cyclone Loop ability (one of Sonic’s newest and most important tricks allowing him to draw loops on the ground using his trail), dashing to hit buttons or deflecting attacks among others. These are rarely too challenging with many often repeating – albeit with a slight variation or raised difficulty – but offer a light element of puzzle solving in your travels. Each island also has a special collectable that needs to be gathered in order to progress conversations with one of Sonic’s friends. These are absolutely everywhere and often easy to come by, a relief since story progress is tied to these character conversations. Big the Cat has somehow even made it to the party too, his portal transporting you to a peaceful lake where you can partake in a spot of fishing. It’s a very simple mini-game but oddly satisfying with plenty of fish and humorous catches to discover.
Discovering a portal meanwhile, will take Sonic into Cyberspace, the game’s Generations/Colours/Forces style levels. Unfortunately, this is easily where Sonic Frontiers disappoints the most for me. For starters, there are only four environments and all returning from past games. As iconic as Green Hill Zone is, I’m sick to death of seeing it reused over and over again. The same can be said (to a slightly lesser degree perhaps) about Chemical Plant and Sky Sanctuary too and the last (City Escape) is fine but again feels all too familiar. If Cyberspace is a wonky memory of Sonic’s past then why not make use of lesser-used zones? Or why not offer more variety than the four on offer? Secondly, stages will straight up reuse set pieces and segments from older levels. At first, it’s a neat call-back, a wink and nudge to Sonic fans sure to raise a smile or two, but later down the line, it feels more like a cheap trick, one that doesn’t look nor feel as good as the originals it’s trying desperately to mimic. Which brings me to my last point, the way Sonic controls. While the blue hedgehog feels great out in the wild, here he’s oddly stiff, almost to the point where it feels as though you’re playing a totally different game. Sonic Team has been making these games in this style for years now, it’s surprising how off things can feel in Cyberspace, especially compared with their earlier efforts like Sonic Colours or Sonic Generations.
Littering each island will be an assortment of enemies most taking far more than the usual homing attack to defeat. These start out as smaller threats that can often be disposed of with a quick drawing of Sonic’s Cyclone Loop ability and a few punches and kicks for good measure before graduating up to those massive in size and higher in complexity featuring everything from bouncing off of walls to racing up the enemy’s leg. As Sonic takes out more enemies he’ll collect gears used to power up Cyberspace portals and experience used to unlock further combat abilities, from hurling projectiles to performing a rapid hitting cyclone. I’ll be honest, I perhaps didn’t make the most of the range of moves at my disposal but combined with my slowly upgrading strength, battles while very button mashy never felt boring or repetitive. Sure, it’s hardly the depth of a Bayonetta or God of War, but it’s entertaining enough and breaks things up from the usual speedy running.
Through all the exploring, grinding and entering of Cyberspace, your main goal will always be to gather the seven Chaos Emeralds. These are collected in three ways; four by unlocking vaults with enough keys, two through completing missions eventually given by one of Sonic’s friends and the final always kept with the Titan you’re set to fight. Across the five islands, you’ll do this four times in exactly the same manner. So, for example, you won’t be able to collect all the Emeralds by unlocking vaults or five through missions and two through keys. In fact, keys are the main item that can offer some flexibility in how you obtain them. You’ll find them randomly hidden on the map, awarded by completing fast times, ring targets and finding all five red rings in Cyberspace stages or through buying them from Big the Cat by trading in coins for snagging fish. As a result, Sonic Frontiers can start to feel familiar with every passing island, repeating the same drill over and over.
Fortunately the islands themselves are enjoyable playgrounds you’ll find yourself keen to dart about every point whether it’s the moody rain-drenched island of Kronos or the scorching deserts of Ares Island. Sadly islands four and five lack a unique theme opting to return back to the green forest-filled vibes of Kronos, a disappointment and one that results in them lacking a unique feel and thus intrigue.
The soundtrack for Sonic Frontiers is an exceptional high point, the open world aspects beautiful and subtle with their melodies while the pumping EDM of Cyberspace is sure to get the pulse racing. Sonic even throws a little metal in for good measure during its Titan battles, a giddy reward for your efforts in turning into Super Sonic. Voice acting is decent too, with the story going for less of a Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe and instead feeling more serious, a trait evident in the one-on-one conversations Sonic has with each of his friends. It was the first time I found myself actively interested in where the tale was going to take me next. Unfortunately, the game’s visuals lack the same level of polish, with the open world a little barren at times, detail blurry and pop-in atrocious, the latter a sin for even the PS5 version from our playtest. Just when you find yourself getting immersed in the world of Starfall Island, a random rail or platform will appear directly above dampening that moment.
The Sonic the Hedgehog series has never been one too timid to try out something new and while those experiments have varied wildly in quality over the years between the excellence of Generations and Colours to the miserable Sonic ’06 and Boom, you can chalk Sonic Frontiers up in the former group. Rough around the edges and disappointing in more than one area but an exciting new direction for SEGA’s blue mascot nonetheless, one that Sonic Team would be smart to stick with and refine and explore further.
Version Tested: PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by SEGA