Sonic Frontier’s review – new direction for open zone still limited by old bugs
Look at this new frontier and it’s clear that this is no Sonic of the Wild, or Elden Hedgehog. Still, like the two hints that fans have been making ever since it was announced, Sonic Frontiers is a necessary new direction for Blue Blur to modernize with his peers – one that tries to finally pull his speedy form into a true 3D game .
More than Dr. Eggman’s nefarious plans, 3D has been Sonic’s longtime nemesis since his 3D debut with Sonic Adventure more than 20 years ago (though it arguably began with the canceled Saturn game Sonic X-treme). Too fast for its own good, or for the camera to keep up, Sonic Team has chosen to keep its mascot stuck within linear routes like a roller coaster ride, hoping that dazzling visuals would distract you from realizing that you did little more than stand your ground.
Frontiers, then, has finally built the confidence to let Sonic roam freely in large open environments at the speed you’d expect him to achieve. It seems like a no-brainer since for me traversal has always been one of the greatest joys in any open-world game – my fondest memory of the vastly underrated Xenoblade Chronicles X is having an avatar that can walk across the world at a superhuman standard . driving speed. For those worried about whether they can keep up, you can also customize Sonic’s speed settings, from acceleration to turning, although I actually managed to max it out.
Of course, Sega has worked to separate these open zones from traditional open worlds, which in practice means that the various areas that make up Starfall Islands are built with objects from previous games designed to propel you in one particular direction. Springs! Boosters! Slip rails! So while in theory you have free 3D roaming, Sonic Frontiers is actually filled with branches of linear routes. More confusing, however, is when the camera is twisted away from you, so you’re suddenly in a 2D platforming section. It’s a strange decision to have these elements in the open zone, as if Sonic Team was afraid to commit to a proper 3D world. The main effect is that when you go back to 3D, you end up losing your bearings – not helped when the compass doesn’t tell you which way is north.
While the latest version of the Hedgehog Engine may feature Quixel Megascans to render photorealistic environments, there’s something utterly unremarkable about the aesthetics of each of these barren islands of generic desert, volcano and forest, with ruins hinting at an ancient race that had existed before . It makes the placement of springs and rails as incongruous as the mournful ambient score, which feels at odds with the high-energy vibe you’d expect from a Sonic game.
Previous games also had level designs that would be just as ridiculous if you took a step back to scrutinize them, but it’s rare that you will be when you’re in the middle of the action, being zipped and pinged from one location to the next. Unfortunately, in an open zone where you can only take these views in, there’s more time to think about how everything seems to exist without rhyme or reason. Even Station Square had better world building.
The horrendous amount of pop-in all the time adds to the pain – even on a PS5! I lost count of how often platforms or other environmental objects would just appear out of nowhere, sometimes within meters of where Sonic is. Thankfully, these don’t occur right down the road to becoming a gameplay problem, but it didn’t make me cringe any less every time it happened.
Aside from Sonic’s friends Amy, Knuckles, and Tails being trapped in Cyber Space, and basically turned into digital ghosts that need to be restored to their corporeal forms, there’s little setup to establish the new features, which makes everything more naked video gamey. Collect memory tokens to unlock new conversations! Upgrade Sonic’s speed and other attributes! Unlock new skills! Oh, and here’s a fishing minigame featuring Big the Cat! It’s all put together and explained with a quick tutorial boxout, and off you go. “This is what modern games do”, the explanation seems to be, rather than justifying why they are in a Sonic game. Even the stone-like Kocos that you collect to upgrade Sonic’s attacks and defenses have little charm compared to the Koroks they’re clearly ripped from; where in Breath of the Wild it’s a joy to discover a hidden one, these just stand around, sometimes blending into the environment, in such a way that you’re more likely to either pick them up or miss them without being ready over it.
It’s a shame that the presentation and design issues make Frontiers an easy target for naysayers, because when you get down to the basics, it’s a fun game with new ideas here. An unexpected highlight comes from combat, which has never before been a priority in Sonic games, where homing spin attacks were more of a traversal tool. The hedgehog has a more varied moveset than just the spin attacks now, starting with the new Cyloop skill, where drawing a loop with a trail of light behind it can have effects on enemies and puzzles. More moves are unlocked over time, including a projectile attack that shares the same name as a synonym for Street Fighter’s Guile. It’s often a case of mashing or holding buttons but looking flashy while doing so, and to illustrate the low skill ceiling you can parry by simply holding down the two bumper buttons together to anticipate an attack rather than fraction of a second.
What really makes the fight satisfying are the mini-bosses, ancient machines that take a more menacing form than the series’ cartoony badniks. It’s a nice variety to keep you on your toes, although you’ll feel like you’ve got the hang of the game’s structure once you’ve completed the first island. More importantly, the difference in mini-boss design, be it the speedy Ninja or the seemingly impenetrable Sumo that traps you inside a ring of electrified fences, makes each fight feel like a unique puzzle to solve to reveal their weakness before dash away with your chosen attack. These feel even more magnificent when you take on larger enemies of colossi, or the main boss Titans. The latter has more of a cinematic choreography approach, but still provides Frontier’s visual backdrops – as well as a pounding rock metal soundtrack, which feels more in line with Sonic of old.
Defeating mini-bosses is also the main means of obtaining portal gear, one of the game’s many collectibles, required to access Cyber Space levels, which in turn award you with vault keys required to collect Chaos Emeralds. These are essentially the “classic” linear action stages played in 3D or 2D perspectives, which feels like a concession to fans skeptical of the open-zone gameplay. I’d almost liken them to Elden Ring’s mini-dungeons, though: more self-contained and digestible pieces of the past.
These provide a nice break from the open zone, and are a cleaner Sonic experience than the one-off minigames that also appear (although a hacking minigame riffing on Ikaruga is inspired). But again these fall short of the imaginative levels of the previous 3D Sonic games. How many times can you recycle Green Hill or Chemical Plant? ‘Not enough’, seems to be the answer.
At least they’re much shorter and tighter than in recent games, so restarts are relatively painless, and you can quickly see the back of the frustrating ones. There’s also incentive to replay to get things like an S rank time, all the red rings, or a certain number of rings, each of which gives you a different vault key. However, the goals often feel inconsistent. In one stage I tried every quick hack to shave down my time and still fell short of the S rank, but in another I died midway through and still somehow completed all the challenges on the first try.
But whether it’s open zone or Cyber Space, there’s still no way around the age-old headache that has plagued every 3D Sonic game: inconsistent physics, where you might suddenly stop on a boost track, or break out of a jump animation and turn off the track. It may no longer be a life system, and the large land masses in the open zones mean that at least you won’t fall into bottomless pits, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to redo platforming sections.
Sonic Team’s Takashi Iizuka has spoken about how Frontiers is set to pave the way for the series. So as a first attempt, perhaps it’s best not to draw comparisons to Breath of the Wild, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a cracking experiment that nonetheless showed potential for the series’ future that will hopefully be refined in the upcoming Scarlet and Violet games.
However, Frontiers is all too often bogged down by highly visible flaws, ones that I can already see potentially dooming the game into an early grave. That would be a shame, because when you’re in the moment of momentum, it’s still an interesting and fun time to be had, certainly compared to the string of disappointments that fans have endured over the previous decades. But for hardcore traditionalists who just want to see their blue hedgehog in two dimensions, this isn’t the 3D outing that’s going to change their minds.