Sonic Frontiers’ venture into an open world (especially on the Switch) is a really promising but occasionally flawed experience. While it’s already a (mostly) enjoyable game, it is the obvious potential it shows for where the series could go in the future that has us most excited.
After a flurry of Sonic games that were not well received, Sonic Frontiers promised to usher in a fresh take on the Blue Blur’s video game adventures by bringing the gang into an open world. At first, I will admit that I was sceptical. First, I’m in the (apparent) minority that feels that open-world games are often not all they’re cracked up to be. Give me a tightly-designed linear level-based game and I usually have a lot more fun than wandering around aimlessly in a large open space where I can “go anywhere”. Then, I also wondered how Sonic games with their intense speed-based platforming would translate to navigating vast expanses. However, now that I had the opportunity to roll credits, I am happy to report that while some of the issues I had (especially around open-world design) remain, I actually had a lot of fun playing it. And while it has some drawbacks, thanks to an engaging story, some epic music and some interesting new takes on Sonic gameplay, Sonic Frontiers feels like it’s ‘almost there’.
The Final(Fantasy) Frontier
This time around, Sonic and his brightly-coloured pals crash onto the Starfall Islands. A lush world which has been left behind by an advanced civilisation. Ancient relics and ruins dot the land and while Zelda’s more fantastical creatures are replaced here by mechanical menaces – the clear Breath of the Wild inspiration is pretty clear. The story is filled with some familiar sci-fi tropes (think Stargate, Transcendence, Matrix, several Japanese anime). However, being a big sci-fi nerd I was actually pleasantly surprised that a Sonic game handled these as well as it did. To add to the alien feeling of the world, the original soundtrack provides a perfect if a little unexpected backdrop. It again feels quite anime-like in tone with each new area boasting an enthralling, orchestral piece intermittently interrupted by fully-voiced indie-rock numbers that roar you into action as you tackle bosses along the way.
A lush world abandoned by an ancient civilisation… familiar sci-fi tropes… and each new area boasting an enthralling orchestral soundtrack occasionally interrupted by indie-rock numbers that roar you into action.
While Sonic Frontiers is available on pretty much every platform (including current-gen consoles that no doubt provide a graphical boost) I was pretty happy with the visuals on the Switch. Sure, there is some pop-in, and flat textures are more prevalent than you’d want. However, I happened to play most of the time in handheld when reviewing and it really didn’t bother me too much. Once you dock your console and play on a bigger screen, those issues are definitely more visible and the occasional frame hiccup does affect that super-smooth gameplay as Sonic is zooms across – and that is a pity. However, even then, if you’re anything like me – the convenience of playing on a handheld is worth the visual trade-offs. And considering that you’re getting the fully voiced open-world game (and I had no serious visual glitches or crashes) I really think most people would still be pretty happy with playing on the Switch despite some obvious graphical and processing downsides. However, if you have one of the other consoles and intend to play on a bigger screen – a quick comparison of performance is probably going to give you an idea of the best platform for you.
Arguably though, the main innovation that people that play Sonic games will be interested in – is Sonic’s venture into an open world. As I’ve said above, I wasn’t convinced this would work and I’m traditionally not a fan of open worlds unless they’re really well-designed. Whether you share my concerns or not, after playing the game in full – I can share that there is good news and bad news. On the good side of things – I actually enjoyed exploring the world (especially at first). The worlds are small enough that you don’t get overwhelmed, however, still large enough that there were some areas I hadn’t seen even after returning to islands I’d visited before. Also, because this is a Sonic game – quick movement is encouraged. And not only can you increase your running speed as your progress on your journey – every area also has a series of rails, poles, trampolines, and bumpers that shoot you across areas really quickly. Chaining these together into a series of X-games-style combos feels pretty great and makes traversal usually quite fun.
I found the combination of open-world general search, punctuated by moments of old-school Sonic speed timed-mayhem really great.
Best of all, in each area, one of the myriads of collectables (Rings, Gems, Keys, Memory Tokes, Gears…) is unlocked when you enter portals into ‘Cyber Space’. These are short levels – very much in the arcadey style of previous 2D/3D Sonic games – where it’s all about getting to the finish line as quickly as possible – while also collecting rings and special hard-to-reach Red Rings. I found the combination of open-world general search, punctuated by moments of old-school Sonic speed timed-mayhem really great. Also, along the way, you’ll have to take on some monster bosses that mark the end of levels as well as some smaller enemies that guard areas of the open world. Each features its own ability and I usually really enjoyed the process of learning their weakness and then figuring out how to use Sonic’s new powers to defeat them. And really my only gripe here is that a few of these bosses are markedly tougher than others. And there was even a mega-boss somewhere near the halfway mark that I struggled to defeat way more than anyone in the end-game section. However, thankfully there are some good difficulty toggles to help you here too. And if that wasn’t enough – there is even an occasional surprise mini-game like Sonic-flavoured Asteroids and Pinball. I really found the mixture of styles entertaining and it definitely kept me interested. And it very much reminded me of the enjoyment you got from multi-genre adventure games that were all over the place a decade a go, but you don’t see as much anymore.
On the flip side though – despite all that I liked, I really found certain gameplay elements frustrating. The new ‘cyber combat’, for example, involves using dodges, parries and combos. At first, this was quite intuitive and I particularly liked Sonic’s new Cycloop ability – which allows you to run around an enemy encircling them with a kind of soundwave explosion. The dodge ability and more traditional stomp are great too. Unfortunately, as you proceed later in the game, attack combos require a series of button presses that not only did I find unintuitive – but also it often felt like even if I pressed the right combination I’d often not get the desired combo animation or effect. So, despite moving along a pretty detailed skill tree – too many battles were basically made up of button-mashing the basic attack and haphazardly fumbling around the triggers and other face buttons. Often the basic attack worked (which kind of made me think ‘What’s the point of the better attacks?’), but even when I managed to pull off a more interesting combo it felt too undirected and random.
…my biggest struggle with the game is the confusing level design of the open world.
However, my biggest struggle with the game is the level design of the open world. While the map is not terrible, certain parts of it are hidden until you find a specific type of portal. Too often I found myself wandering around not sure what I had to tackle next to continue the story. I understand that some players simply love the idea of unguided exploring. However, in Sonic Frontiers certain areas are completely blocked off unless you have the right amount of gears or gems or rupees (no wait that’s another game)… and so what tended to happen was I’d blissfully head off in a certain direction, find myself gated out of a certain area and then not know what I had to do. Usually, it was some basic collecting – but I now may be in a completely random part of the map and so I’d essentially have to vaguely make little forays in every direction collecting everything in sight until the map told me a new area was now available – and only then would I have a waypoint to aim for. Exploring for the sake of it may be fun, but when you want to move forward, not knowing how is super infuriating. Randomly, fishing actually makes this process a little easier because you can actually purchase any collectable. However, as this is open-world I unluckily only discovered my first fishing spot on the very last island I visited and so didn’t even realise that was an option until it was almost too late. And hence as a side note, if there’s one tip I’d suggest as soon as you arrive in the first area – look for the fish on the map and head toward it immediately. And really that’s a good example of where Sonic Frontiers just fails to shine as brightly as it could. The basic premise of mixing up a big open area with shorter more-traditional Sonic levels and area bosses is great – however, in this game, the design felt confusing, often encouraging you to forge your own path and then punishing you for doing so. If this kind of design along with the combat were tightened up – I really think the overall game would improve tenfold.
Exploring for the sake of it may be fun, but when you want to move forward, not knowing how is super infuriating.
As you can tell I’m a little conflicted with this one. Sonic Frontiers is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. After so many disappointing games, this is definitely one that stands out because it’s doing something interesting and different. Despite my concerns, the open-world concept is a good one, especially when combined with the fun additional gameplay elements as well as a good story and great music. However, some irritating design missteps and combat that needs to feel a little more polished means it’s one of those games that is all about potential. In fact, while already a pretty enjoyable game as it is – what it does most for me, is make me super excited for a possible sequel. A title like that wouldn’t even have to do much; It would just need to include all that Sonic Frontiers has already fixed for Sonic games and then simply improve on all the small issues mentioned above. I think that would be a pretty special game that I’d be really keen to add to my collection.