The Blue Blur Blazes New Trails in Sonic Frontiers

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most easily recognizable mascots in the entirety of video games, and many times not for good reason. With a gigantic cast of lovable characters, Sonic games generally offer tight platforming gameplay that rewards players who learn it well with greater speed and faster clear times. Unfortunately, unlike Mario, one of Sonic’s most common competitors, the Sonic series has had an identity crisis for years. From transforming into a Werehog, to copying Mario Galaxy, and then to playing as an anti-hero who for some reason owns an SMG, SonicTeam has had a lot of difficulty in keeping Sonic relevant in relation to the design of their games. The big question is: After Sonic Lost World, Boom, and Forces, is Sonic Frontiers a return to form for the Blue Blur? Let’s find out.

Sonic Frontiers begins with Sonic, Amy, and Tails flying to a new island because they discovered the Chaos Emeralds gathered there, most likely through some kind of scheme by Sonic’s longtime nemesis, Eggman. Upon getting near the island, an electrical disturbance pulls all three of them into a strange digital world from which only Sonic can escape. After emerging from cyberspace, Sonic finds himself without any information on an unfamiliar island, and subsequently discovers that Amy, Tails, and even Knuckles are trapped between the digital dimension and the real one. Therefore, his goal is set: Explore the islands, awaken and defeat the gigantic Titan robots that are keeping his friends trapped, and escape the Starfall Islands.

The core gameplay loop of Sonic Frontiers is that you explore a huge island littered with rails, springs, and enemies, searching for the Chaos Emeralds that lay in vaults throughout the landscapes. In order to access the vaults, you need to obtain vault keys which come from cyberspace portals that contain more traditional Sonic levels. The portals are locked when you first come across them, so you need to obtain gears in order to even access the thing that gives you the keys you need. Gears come from mini-bosses called Guardians that also crop up periodically on the map and are actually quite enjoyable to fight, so it’s nice that the first thing you’ll do on each island is fun.

Sonic Frontiers doesn’t shy away from its combat mechanics, but thankfully the combat in Frontiers is leagues above what Sonic fans have experienced in games like Sonic Heroes or Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic can perform a basic combo string, homing attacks, etc., while locked in duels with various robots across the Starfall Islands, but the real joy is that you can unlock new techniques as you progress. These new, unlockable techniques consist of things like homing slashes through the air, an AOE where Sonic spins and cuts everything in a circle around him, and even the ability to counterattack after you get hit. The best part is that all of these moves flow into one another and make for some delightful spectacles while you’re slaughtering sumo wrestling robots, caterpillars, or straight up ninja bots.

That being said, Frontiers does give you quite a lot of flexibility in how you go about acquiring the necessary items for progression. While gears predominately come from fighting Guardians, you can also find them as rewards for performing Sonic’s new Cyloop technique or as the rewards from minigames such as fishing with Big the Cat. Vault keys and memory tokens are the same way in that you can just find them across the map. This is helpful in the event you don’t like the cyberspace stages which is where the lion’s share of vault keys came from in my playthrough of the game. Of course, I also had a massive surplus of vault keys, memory tokens, and other items, but more on that later.

Also littered about the map are memory tokens and various challenges you can perform. A specific number of memory tokens need to be obtained in order for Sonic to be able to talk with his trapped friends in cyberspace. They will either give you side information about the plot or will involve you in some kind of minigame to acquire a Chaos Emerald, which means these are necessary for progression through the story. The challenges are just simple things to do, like knock a ball through a hoop or play jump rope, and once completed reward you with items plus revealed portions of the map. Completing challenges also create new rails you can use to more quickly zip back and forth across the islands, and once you clear all of an island’s challenges, you can fast travel to make additional item pickups much easier.

The primary way in which you’ll acquire keys to unlock the Chaos Emeralds will be through the various cyberspace stages littered across the islands. These stages are a lot more like the traditional 2D/3D Sonic stages that you would expect, and typically only take around a minute or two to clear. You get one vault key for clearing the stage, another for beating it within a specific time limit, a third key can be yours if you beat the stage with enough rings in tow, and the last key is obtained when you collect all five red rings in the stage. The cyberspace levels can be viewed as a nice diversion from the open world gameplay of Frontiers, and you’ll generally have to do at least a few of them in order to collect all of the Chaos Emeralds and move onto the next island. Thankfully, should you not enjoy the cyberspace levels, you don’t actually have to do all of them. If you S-Rank the first few you come across, you likely will have enough vault keys to unlock all of the Chaos Emerald vaults on that island, so you have the freedom to engage with the cyberspace levels as much as you feel you want to, it’s not forced.

Several cyberspace stages are actually levels, or level segments, from Sonic Generations or are inspired by previous 3D Sonic games, but Frontiers has some weird quirks about its controls that make fine movements a pain. For example, you may have fine control on the ground, but springs launching you into the air completely saps you of all forward momentum so you just fall back down onto the same spring despite holding forward the entire time (meanwhile, had you jumped, you could have easily moved horizontally enough to clear obstacles). Sonic can also have a strange problem with running up slopes, randomly, in the 2D stages. This isn’t withstanding that automated sections of stages sometimes just don’t work and will fling you into an abyss while you don’t have control of Sonic, though that issue has been around since 1998’s Sonic Adventure, so it’s almost like an old friend at this point.

For the most part, it was nice to notice a whole bunch of level designs from games ten to twenty years old. But when I noticed that a specific cyberspace stage was Metal Harbor, it made me want to stop playing Frontiers and return to Sonic Adventure 2, instead, because how you controlled Sonic felt a ton better in that game. The cyberspace stages are a nice, brief diversion, and S-Ranking them all is actually quite easy, but I found myself very rarely wanting to return to any of them due to how sluggish Sonic feels once airborne, among many other momentum-breaking aspects of Frontiers.

Some of the momentum-breaking issues persist into the open world design as well. In order to get any amount of speed, you’ll need to hold the boost button nigh constantly, but there are so many tiny little things that can cause you to drop your boost that it’s maddening. Decorative stones on a pathway can fling you into the sky, off the side of the map, or suck you down into a watery abyss at seemingly random intervals, and it’s tough to reconcile with a platformer where sometimes you feel like you have no control.

All in all, once you collect all seven Chaos Emeralds on an island, Sonic will engage in a one-on-one battle with the Titan that is keeping his friends locked away in cyberspace. The first Titan battle is truly one of the most incredible boss battles that the Sonic franchise has ever had, as it effectively marries the invincibility of Super Sonic and his time limit with the already flashy and fun to watch combat of Frontiers. Playing as Super Sonic expands his move set, and you can parry and attack the Titans during their openings to have Sonic use Shadow Clone Jutsu like he’s Naruto and kick an Evangelion-looking robot right in the face, or grab a dragon and spiral throw it into a mountain. They go full Dragon Ball Z with the Super Sonic persona, expand on the spectacle of the normal Frontiers combat move set, and the game is all the better for it. The boss battles are far and away the best part of Frontiers, capturing that magic of when I first saw Perfect Chaos with the backing rock track when I was 13 years old.

Speaking purely from a level design perspective, Sonic Frontiers does all right with its “open zone” gameplay, at least up until the third island. The first two islands give you a considerable amount of freedom as you run around collecting keys, gears, and tokens to unlock story events and fight the absolutely incredible bosses that follow. The third island, conversely, is full of springs and boost pads haphazardly strewn about the map that lock you into 2D sections if you accidentally hit a booster pad that was obscured by a bump in the terrain. It’s not so bad, at first, on the third island because you acquire memory tokens and other goodies while you run around and explore, but by the end of your time on the island, you’ll likely see yourself accidentally getting stuck in 2D segments you’ve already completed before because a booster pad launched you into it and took all control from you.

The single largest problem with Sonic Frontiers is that it adopts open world gameplay but ultimately does nothing interesting with the world. The same rails, springs, and boost pads you see on the first island are the exact same ones you see on the second and third, for example, so there’s always a strange juxtaposition of a realistic looking fantasy environment with glitchy, futuristic platforms from cyberspace. To add on top of this, challenges littered across the first map have things like, “Parry shots 3 times” in order to complete them, which is a fantastic way to make the player feel like they’re not only making progress, but are learning the game’s mechanics. Why, then, are there still, “Parry 3 shots” challenges on the final island of the game? At that point, it’s just a way for the game to soak more of your time with less and less interesting things to do.

The visuals of Sonic Frontiers present a strange dichotomy, because on one hand you have a giant, anthropomorphic hedgehog, and on the other, you have realistic environments with digital effects running across them. At the very minimum, on PC, the game looks great. It has some slight trouble running at times, but that could just be due to my outdated hardware. There is a lot of pop-in of floating objects as you run around the islands, usually rails, springs, etc., appearing in the sky just as you get close to them. This seems to be a limitation of the engine as a whole, because this issue exists on PC, PS5, and every platform on which this game released.

The soundtrack for Sonic Frontiers, on the other hand, is above reproach because SonicTeam went above and beyond in almost every regard. Not only does every single major story boss have its own theme, but every single cyberspace stage has its own track. Many of the cyberspace stages have EDM themes and quite a number of them were catchy to the extent that I continued to repeat them in my head well after the game had been turned off, and the boss tracks for the Titans are this delightful combination of metalcore and rock that goes together with Sonic like peanut butter and jelly. While exploring the islands, Frontiers opts for calmer atmospheric tracks that would be right at home in something like Breath of the Wild, which means this game’s OST really runs the gamut in enjoyable tracks. If the Titan battles are the best thing in Sonic Frontiers, the soundtrack is easily the second best.

There’s a lot to love in Sonic Frontiers, but there’s also a lot that should be refined if they try this formula again. Personally, if they managed to make 2D segments and cyberspace stages feel less sluggish by giving Sonic better air control and movement, that would do a ton toward making the cyberspace stages more enjoyable. Admitting, even with the mediocre air controls, it was a simple matter to S-Rank every cyberspace stage, but it’s better when you feel like you did something cool because of how the controls function, not in spite of them.

So, all in all, is Sonic Frontiers a good game? That’s difficult to answer. For Sonic fans, Frontiers is a solid 4/5- it’s easily the best 3D game released in this franchise since Generations; the one decent 3D game in the franchise for eleven years. However, if you’re not a Sonic fan, automated rails killing you seemingly at random, poor controls in the cyberspace stages, and the first island being the best island of the game can really kill the enthusiasm. As a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog, this is the most fun I’ve personally had with a 3D Sonic game in over a decade, but for everyone else, this game is likely closer to a 3/5 because there were a lot of missed opportunities and mechanics that needed further refinement. That being said, however, if you’re a Sonic fan, Frontiers is a must play.

I won’t say that Sonic’s back, because every single critic said that after Sonic Mania released in 2017 and Forces came in to ruin our days, anyway. But, for one of the biggest mascots in video gaming with one of the most troubled histories of development in the industry, Frontiers is probably the most fun you can have with a hedgehog in 2022 that isn’t disallowed by the Animal Welfare Act. I really don’t think that needs any explanation.

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