Sonic Frontiers is a fever dream for BotW, Mario and Anime Nods
I had a good feeling about Sonic Frontiers from the moment I saw the announcement trailer at last year’s Game Awards in December 2021. Something about the clear and obvious way Sonic Team drew from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – a game I consider to be the very best of the last decade – made me think / hope / wish that this was finally the game that would break the much discussed “Sonic Cycle”.
My excitement only grew as the first gameplay footage and hands-on impressions trickled out over the summer. Despite the mixed reception, I was drawn to what I saw. Not because of any new and innovative ideas that were brought to the table, but because it felt like Sonic Frontiers drawn somehow from countless inspirations that I happen to love on an atomic level. And now, after spending over 15 hours in Sega’s new world, I’m convinced that Sonic Team somehow discovered a list of games and other media that I love and created an installation piece that was genetically engineered for me ( while also adding a bunch of pretty terrible design decisions that are really confusing).
First and foremost, yes Breath of the Wild comparisons are apt Sonic Frontiers. The techno-fantasy vibes of Sonic’s islands are reminiscent of the Sheikah Slate, the abundance of small challenges feel like shrines, you piece together the story of a world torn apart by ancient weapons of war from centuries ago, and you level up by collecting cute little creatures called Koco and returns them to their protector. It’s clear that the team was directly inspired by Nintendo’s 2017 masterpiece, but there’s also so much more at play here than that.
Sticking with Nintendo, the sheer abundance of micro-challenges across the islands creates a dense open-world playground that reminds me so much of the core of the game. Super Mario Odyssey. There is a constant sense of experimentation, reward and progression in both games, especially when you first get into either game Sonic‘s islands or Odysseytheir worlds.
Sure, there’s an overarching goal in both, but just pointing your character in a direction and running off to see what kind of trouble you can get into shares a similar flavor of fun. And both games are filled with completely unexpected moments, be that as it may Odysseyhis ode to Mario’s origins in the iconic “Jump Up, Super Star!” musical numbers, or the fact that Sonic Frontiers tasks you with building and firing an actual nuclear weapon in its second desert stage. Yes, it was a real thing happening in Sonicand i love it.
But beyond Nintendo’s walls, Borders was clearly inspired by other iconic Japanese games from the past decades. The roaming bosses and massive guardians scattered across each of the islands immediately come to mind Shadow of the Colossus. Observing them from a distance, studying their gigantic attacks and solving movement puzzles while climbing these almost organic ancient beasts evokes the burgeoning Colossus-like subgenre, now populated by newer indies such as The wayless and Solar Ash.
But while Shadow of the Colossus made me regret the things I did to these incredibly lonely creatures, Sonic Frontiers has an “oh hell yeah” flavor of anime adrenaline coursing through the veins. Whether it’s the monsters’ similarity to mecha and kaiju of Neon Genesis Evangelionor every boss fight like Super Sonic being framed as one Dragon Ball Z fight, Borders channels the spirit of late 90s anime in a way that only speaks to the version of me who used to spend hours every day after school parked in front of the TV watching what Toonami had in store for me.
In addition to all of this, one thing I didn’t expect the game to channel was the lonely and contemplative landscape of 2019 Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima and his team used the dreamlike landscapes of Iceland as inspiration for their take on a post-apocalyptic America, and along with the incredible music of Low Roar and Silent Poets, helped create a surreal world for you to wander through. And I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself, but Sonicits opening zone, Kronos Island, channels the exact same frequency in volcanic rocks, mossy cliffs, black sand beaches and surprisingly somber music. The fact that this melancholic mood is juxtaposed with the bite-sized Cyber Space scenes hearkening back to classic Sonic motifs, challenges and music make it even more remarkable.
I feel like I’m past halfway through the game and I’m really not sure what the rest has in store for me. Maybe I’ll find out more about the mysterious new character Sage, who is the spitting image of a young 2B from Nier Automata. Speaking of Ninethe road Sonic swings between 2D and 3D gameplay, plus its setting of a hacking minigame via a bullet hell shooter, immediately brought Yoko Taro’s games to mind, and I have to feel that was intentional.
Sonic Frontiers is the weirdest AAA game I’ve played in years. I’ve read reviews ranging from 2/10 to 9/10 and I totally agree with both of these results. Its kitchen-sink approach to design means that alongside all these influences that speak to the mediums I love, there are also cumbersome menus, a plethora of in-game currencies, a confusing fast-travel system and visuals that can go from beautiful one second, to a technical mess in the next. And while most of Zelda influences really work for me, Sonic trying to make their own version of BotW‘s Blood Moons in the form of Starfall Events, which are a complete mess that smacks a giant slot machine into the middle of your screen and all but stops you from making any meaningful progress in the game until it’s over. But honestly, all of this is part of what makes me think so damn much about the game, so I consider it a net positive.