Gotta Go Fast Through Open Worlds
Review: Sonic Frontiers
Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the most enduringly beloved videogame heroes of all time, hasn’t had a new 3D game in a while. Since Sonic Generations seemingly reinvigorated the brand in 2011, Sonic has only starred in two additional 3D platformers, neither of which was well received. Sonic Frontiers is a radical reinvention for 3D Sonic, an open-world take on the character that sees the Blue Blur sprinting through huge, strange environments rather than the meticulously curated worlds that have historically been his bread and butter. Frontiers is a real attempt at fixing the series, and it’s largely a success–albeit a qualified one.
In Frontiers, Sonic and his friends have been pulled into a new world. Through a plot that grows increasingly convoluted and silly, but is thankfully pretty easy to ignore, Sonic is tasked with defeating a series of giant “Titan” enemies and restoring harmony to each of the game’s island zones. There are five different islands to explore, each skinned differently, but the objectives you’re tasked with never really change–it’s all about exploring widely, gathering items, and taking on a bunch of challenges you’ll encounter along the way.
The level design of these islands, when observed from a distance, can look extremely ugly. Rails float in the sky seemingly at random; platforms and landmarks pop in extremely close to you as you run through each level, as the game clearly suffers from some performance issues. Sonic Frontiers looks pretty underwhelming in screenshots and videos – but when you’re actually playing it, the bizarre level designs start to make sense. Essentially, every world is filled with dozens of mini-challenges, lines of platforming that you can complete if you time your jumps, dashes, and attacks well. It never stops being ugly, but that matters less the further in you get.
At times Sonic Frontiers can feel almost like a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game as you string together combos of moves and traverse the environment. 3D Sonic games often have sections that feel like rollercoasters, where your input as a player is minimal, and this is still often the case in Frontiers; however, it feels as though care has been put into making sure the player is able to have a meaningful impact on Sonic’s actions more often than not. You’ll often have to quickly read a situation and figure out how to progress as Sonic pinballs through a series of rails and bumpers. On PS5 or Xbox Series X/S you can also enable a 60 frames-per-second mode, which makes Sonic’s ultra-fast movements feel satisfyingly silky-smooth.
You find currency around each island, which can be used to help your friends and progress the story; but you’ll also need to unlock Portal Gears by defeating bosses to unlock portals, then play through the linear levels contained within those Portals to unlock Vault Keys, then use those Vault Keys to collect Chaos Emeralds. This means that, while there’s always a next objective to complete that will progress the story, you can pursue multiple goals at once, tracking down bosses to fight or playing through the more traditional levels found within Portals (which are generally decent, but feel a lot less inventive than the experience offered within the overworld). In fact, every island is full of things to find and unlock. The structure of the game is pretty straightforward and repetitive, but you can also explore each level at your own pace, and there’s plenty of optional content to discover.
Unfortunately, to actually progress through the game you’ll also need to complete a lot of tedious tasks – for some reason there are numerous irritating unskippable minigames throughout the story, which usually amount to either very simple puzzles or annoying platforming sections that strip Sonic of many of his best abilities. They feel like padding in an already massive game.
For the first time ever in the series, the combat is also solid. You can unlock more abilities for Sonic as the game progresses, but even at the beginning your move set is already more dynamic than before, and the fights have evolved beyond anything we’ve seen in a Sonic game before. Bosses, in particular, are standouts–there are enemies that float through the sky that can only be attacked by reaching a high point and jumping onto their backs, unique creatures whose fights are like mini-games with unique mechanics, and others whose patterns need to be learned and disseminated to defeat.
Sonic’s best new move is the Cyloop; hold down a button and Sonic leaves a trail behind him, and if you run around enemies in a circle you can use it to damage them. Because of this move, Sonic feels as fast in combat as he does during platforming sections.
All of this adds up to a Sonic game that is frequently absorbing, occasionally a little boring, but ultimately fairly successful at giving fans something new. Despite some teething and technical issues, Sonic Frontiers suggests that there are still new, interesting ways to make Sonic work in 3D. Lapsed fans might even find some of the old spark in here.
Sonic Frontiers is available now on PS5/PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC, and Switch. A PS5 copy was provided for this review.
James O’Connor has been reviewing and writing about games since 2008.