It’s been quite a while since the last mainline Sonic game. Five years ago, Sonic Forces released to an overwhelmingly mild reception. It and its predecessor Sonic Lost World were seen as average-at-best experiments, being lamented for being lesser experiences and their lack of ambition. Sonic Team seems to have taken those criticisms quite personally, as we now have Sonic Frontiers, their grandest and most experimental game to date.
Open Your Zone
The key differentiator between Sonic Frontiers and all its predecessors comes down to the new ‘open zone’ format the game touts. Rather than take on a series of levels in a linear order, Sonic is instead let loose to run around enormous islands, going wherever and doing whatever he pleases. Littered around each map are a series of platforming challenges, puzzles, enemies and bosses to fight, and a whole lot of collectible doohickeys. While this might appear as a standard open-world game on the surface, in practice it’s actually something that plays out like a much faster version of Super Mario Odyssey or Banjo-Kazooie.
Although it takes a lot of cues from the ‘boost’ style Sonic games, where Sonic can move at intense speeds at the press of a button, it’s much more freeform than before. Not only does Sonic himself control more smoothly than ever, but the open-ended approach allows you to tackle platforming challenges in your own ways. Sure, you could take this dash panel to launch yourself up to a grind rail to reach a token, or you could homing attack onto a series of balloons to reach it instead. This free-form ‘do it yourself’ approach is applied to the entirety of the open zone, allowing for rhythmic and rewarding exploration that makes the act of traversal such a joy. Throughout my entire time playing Frontiers, I never once used fast travel simply because moving around by itself was so fun.
You’ll be running around the open zone in search of series staple Chaos Emeralds, as well as Memory Tokens needed to progress the main story. While Chaos Emeralds are in fixed locations and can only be unlocked with a certain other item, Memory Tokens are scattered all across the map and usually placed at the end of short platforming challenges. It’s incredibly gratifying to find everything there is to do and complete each map the game offers, while also being free to do it in whatever order you want.
You’ll additionally partake in a number of mini-games over the course of the main story. These serve as decent pace breakers that either dramatically change up the mechanics, or recontextualize existing ones to fit a different mold. This includes pinball (naturally), a lovingly made tribute to the shooter Ikaruga, and playing Border Collie to herd up some of the cute critters that populate Starfall. There’s even a fishing minigame with Big the Cat, which is mercifully completely optional and actually decent fun this go around.
Overall, the blend of Sonic’s speedy gameplay and an open-ended format ended up proving to be a very successful one. Each zone is like a theme park, full of attractions and points of interest to keep you busy for hours on end.
What He’s Made Of
With Sonic Frontiers, the blue blur is the most versatile he’s ever been. He’s a Swiss army knife of new control styles, attacks, and movement options for you to try out and familiarize yourself with. While the game does offer many sliders and adjustments to his core movement, I was immediately made comfortable with his handling in “High-Speed Mode”, a mode meant for those familiar with Sonic. There’s also “Action Mode”, one meant for slower platforming and newcomers, as well as emphasizing the new combat system.
Combat’s nothing new for Sonic, but attempts at meaningfully implementing it in the past have been lukewarm at best. Out of all of the new elements introduced in Frontiers, it was the one I was most nervous about. That’s why it’s to my shock and delight to discover that Frontiers’ combat isn’t just passable, it’s actually quite decent.
Rather than be combo-focused, the combat in Frontiers is focused on maneuverability and finding the right openings in your enemies. With Sonic’s speed, you’ll literally run circles around the opposition and bash them away with a series of high-speed punches, kicks, and more that can be unlocked through the game’s skill tree. These skills can be further enhanced by a new level-up system, which can give you higher attack, defense, speed, and max ring count.
The most praiseworthy aspect of this combat system is how appropriately ‘Sonic-y’ it feels. Rather than the stop-and-go and button-mashy combat seen in games like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Heroes, the combat here instead opts for constant movement, with some enemies and bosses even throwing in bits of platforming challenges here and there. It’s thanks to those bosses and enemies, of which there is a surprisingly strong variety, that the game manages to stay fresh in terms of engagement.
There is one more element of Sonic’s repertoire added in this game especially, the ‘Cyloop’. With the press of a button, Sonic will draw a trail around him that will allow him to encircle enemies and objects, allowing you to deal damage, uncover hidden items or objects, and solve puzzles. You can additionally give yourself a temporary buff, and grab rings, or Memory Tokens with it. It’s a nice and intuitive addition to his move set that further shines a light on how brilliantly he handles this time around.
Deja Vu in Cyberspace
The last major component of exploration are Cyberspace portals dotted all across every island, which you gain access to by collecting Portal Gears from bosses or with Cyloop. Cyberspace levels are short, linear affairs that play out as Sonic games of old tend to. You’ll collect rings both regular and red while racing against the clock to receive a high rank in plentiful, elaborate platforming stages. Each level can vary in length, with some being as long as 2 minutes and others being as short as 30 seconds.
The overall quality of the level design hits a much higher batting average than past games such as Forces and Lost World, cutting out much of the fat and spectacle of those games in favor of pure platforming experiences. While some levels are linear and are speedrunning focused, others offer up dense and winding designs filled with lots of pathways to explore. Thanks to the new control scheme that offers a much greater degree of free movement, especially in the air, it feels like crafting my own optimal path through each level is encouraged.
There is one eye-rolling thing about Cyberspace levels, and it’s not how they play, but rather how they look. Out of the 30 Cyberspace levels in the game, there are only four aesthetics used across all of them, three of which are old zones seen many times before. Witnessing Green Hill Zone be both the first and final Cyberspace levels I played in my time with Frontiers didn’t induce nostalgic joy, it was groan-worthy.
Reusing old stuff doesn’t just stop at looks, either. Level design motifs and gimmicks are also lifted from past games as well. Though in this case, I was actually quite delighted by this revelation. Thanks to the new control scheme and style of play, these old motifs are given fresh context and practically feel brand new. In some instances, it took multiple playthroughs of those same levels to even realize that they were from old games at all.
In general, Cyberspace levels are not flawless. I wish they were longer and I wish they also had more aesthetic variety, but as a whole I think they make a great supplement for the Open Zone gameplay.
Revenge is Sweet and Golden
Capping off your visit to every island are battles against Titans, giant mechanical monstrosities that will prove a stopgap to your journey across each of the Starfall Islands. Sonic doesn’t stand a chance against them in his regular form, so he’ll need to go golden and become Super Sonic in order to beat them.
To put it shortly, these fights are among some of the most memorable moments not just in this game, but the entire series. They are epic in scope, and spectacle. The Titan fights carry an over-the-top energy that can only rightly be described as ‘anime-as-hell’. Even just the first Super Sonic battle is on equal, if not better footing than most final bosses throughout the series.
While you’re on a timer, as is typical of Super Sonic gameplay, you also can’t be damaged. This makes each Titan boss more like a series of puzzles, and once you solve those puzzles, you can cut loose and deal a whole bunch of damage with souped-up moves you’ve acquired from the Skill Tree. It’s incredibly cathartic to just tear into the Titans that have been causing you so much trouble before this point.
Journey Across Starfall
The story of Sonic Frontiers seems pretty simple on the surface. Sonic and his friends head to the mysterious and deserted Starfall Islands in search of the Chaos Emeralds, which all mysteriously wound up there. Along the way, he and his friends are sucked into a mysterious portal, wherein they all end up trapped in a strange realm called Cyberspace, with the only one to escape being the titular hero. Now, with nothing but a mysterious voice guiding him, he’s off to slay the island’s aforementioned Titans in order to free his friends from their imprisonment. It’s a simple setup, and in execution it is also somewhat simple, but this story is just groundwork for deep and very well-written character exploration.
Most Sonic stories carry a strong sense of forward momentum and typically waste very little time going from one plot beat to the next, Frontiers is the opposite of that. It’s a slow, weightful, game that ponders a lot. This is reflected in the overall tone, atmosphere, and the way the characters are all voiced. Rather than being high energy and somewhat more joke-y like past games, everyone speaks in a more reserved and realistic manner to reflect their steady maturity. While this may at first be far removed from how past games do it, I think it was the right call for Frontiers because of its subject matter.
It’s bitter and sweet in equal parts. As everyone looks back on their lives prior to their current happenings, they realize the things they want to do with themselves moving forward. However, the hard part is knowing what must be given up in order to do that. If you’re a fan of the series and have seen how these characters have grown, it tugs at the heartstrings quite a lot. Knowing these characters are about to evolve is a great feeling, but knowing that you probably won’t see them the same way you used to hurts just the right amount.
Ian Flynn’s dialogue does an excellent job conveying this. It’s easily the smoothest reading game the series has ever seen, and it never falters even under loftier story ambitions. Characters do still crack wise with each other, but it’s always done with an intentionality that helps progress their respective arcs. These arcs aren’t just something crafted for this game, either, they build upon the stories established way back when they were first introduced. Knuckles’ isolation as guardian of the Master Emerald, Tails living in Sonic’s shadow, and Eggman’s implied estrangement from his family. This makes the story somewhat less approachable if Frontiers happens to be your first game, but it’s a very rewarding experience if you’ve stuck with the Blue Blur for a while.
Voices of the Past
Sonic Frontiers is also a game that heavily indulges in the series’ established lore and past story events. There are references, name drops, and allusions to past titles littered absolutely everywhere. I’ll be frank and say that it’s going to go over the heads of many people who aren’t that into the series’ lore, but I feel it does build intrigue as well. Even as a longtime fan, I was left shocked and very pleased when I heard characters from things like the ongoing comic series and even the infamous Sonic Boom mentioned. While all the references made in Frontiers might at first seem somewhat overbearing, it goes a long way in finally making all prior Sonic media feel like a proper, cohesive whole.
This isn’t for nothing, either. Frontiers sets out to answer a number of the series’ longest-standing questions and mysteries. While I won’t spoil what’s what, I found the answers given here to strengthen both the franchise as a whole, and Frontiers when taken as its own thing. It gives just enough answers for me to be satisfied, while also leaving enough mystery to have me more excited than ever about the series’ future stories.
The graphics of Sonic Frontiers play a major part in upholding the game’s moodiness. The realistically rendered vistas of the Starfall Islands when placed next to Sonic’s usual cartoony self creates a strong and memorable dichotomy. All throughout the islands are enemies, structures, and buildings that take on abstract and hard-to-understand shapes. This is all deliberate and plays part in wordlessly conveying the story before it is explained in proper detail. I do wish this was pushed further, as there are a good number of areas that are just long stretches of regular grass land, desert, volcano, and so forth.
There are also certain visual effects new to the series introduced here, such as a dynamic weather system and a day-night cycle. While the weather system is pretty typical stuff, the day-night cycle really highlights how incredible the lighting of the Hedgehog Engine 2 is. This even extends to some of the Cyberspace levels, which can take place at different times of day and completely transforms the mood of otherwise same-y environments.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on the visual front, because the Hedgehog Engine ironically cannot seem to keep up with Sonic’s overwhelming speed. There is a gnarly amount of pop-in throughout Sonic Frontiers that will always be present in the open zone. No matter whether you’re playing on low-spec consoles like the Switch or a high-end PC, it’s always there and it’s always bothersome. Making this all the worse is that the things that pop into view aren’t just visual flair, they’re usually the platforms you have to run around on to progress. So it’s not just bad pop-in because it looks terrible, but it’s also something that actively makes the game a bit more obtuse to explore. It’s not something you can’t get used to, you’re all but forced to, but it is far from ideal.
There is another problem with the visuals, though it’s hard to tell whether it was an artistic choice or not. Platforming elements seem to exist independently of the environments. Rails, springs, climbable walls, and so on are oftentimes conspicuously floating about in the world, rather than existing as a natural part of it. The end result isn’t ugly per se, but it does make it difficult to forget that you’re playing a video game so you can be immersed. It does at least have the benefit of giving the player clear points of interest to head towards and makes clear what is and what is not interactable.
While amazing music is to be expected from Sonic, I don’t think it’s possible to stress just how awesome a job Tomoya Ohtani and the rest of the sound team did this time around. Frontiers is one of the absolute best soundtracks to grace the series in at least a decade. Individual compositions are wonderful, there’s a ton of musical variety, and the music helps to clearly convey the story’s beats at all times. It’s probably the most intentioned soundtrack the series has seen since Adventure 1.
While racing across each of the Starfall Islands, a quiet orchestra will slowly swell and grow in intensity and pomp with each Emerald collected to signal your impending battle with that island’s Titan. A mix of melancholy strings, piano, and a touch of that special Tomoya Ohtani synth help bring the music up to something that is unlike anything Sonic has ever seen before, yet is also right at home in this series.
On the flip side, there are the Cyberspace tracks, with each stage having its own unique theme. There is a wide variety of genres on display here: from EDM, Drum and Bass, and experimental J-Pop style tracks. There are even vocal tracks similar to the ones from Sonic Forces, with lyrics that oftentimes allude to important plot details. Much like the Cyberspace levels themselves, not all of them are winners, but I wouldn’t point to any one of them as being flat-out bad either.
Finally, we have the vocal rock tracks that first made waves with the Adventure games. Pound for pound, Frontiers has what are arguably some of the greatest vocal tracks to ever grace the series. When I heard the first Titan boss theme, titled “Undefeatable”, I was momentarily brought back to my days as a little kid who had first heard “Live & Learn” from Adventure 2 for the first time. They are ridiculously high-energy, high-confidence tracks that add a lot to the sheer spectacle of the Super Sonic boss fights.
As a longtime fan of the Blue Blur, I am overjoyed by Sonic Frontiers and what it represents for the series moving forward. With solid new gameplay ideas, an engaging and rewarding story, one of the best soundtracks in the series, and a good length, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a Sonic game. What holds it back are inconsistent visuals, a general lack of polish in some places, and not being particularly newcomer friendly. That being said, it’s a game I can still recommend with ease because of the sheer amount of heart it has, and how addicting it is when taken on its own terms. It’s a new frontier, and the air has never been so fresh.
SONIC FRONTIERS IS RECOMMENDED
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A hobbyist who took up the pen to write about their favorite pastime: games. While a lover of many genres, Isaiah Parker specializes in Platformers, RPGs, and competitive multiplayer titles. The easiest way into his heart is to have great core gameplay mechanics. Self-proclaimed world’s biggest Sonic fan. Follow him @ZinogreVolt