8.0 / 10
Open zone Sonic works, character writing
Repetitive gameplay, limited Cyberspace settings
November 8, 2022
PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Disclaimer: A code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Running around at the speed of sound as Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis was one of the most exciting moments in gaming as a kid, but the experiences began to become a lot more hit-or-miss since the transition to 3D. From the multiple playable characters in the Sonic Adventure games to the Werehog in Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Team has never been afraid to try new things – sometimes it works, more often than not it doesn’t. Sonic Frontiers is another new direction – an ambitious iteration with clear inspirations from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s open-world design.
It starts, as ever it does, from a simple premise. While searching for the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic ends up separated from his friends on the mysterious Starfall Islands after they fall into an area known as the Cyberspace. Sonic sets off to find the Chaos Emeralds and his missing friends, and also solve the mysteries of the islands’ inhabitants known as Koco, and how they tie into existing Sonic lore. The game introduces a brand-new character named Sage, who has ties to Eggman and serves as a sort of antagonist for Sonic throughout his travels on the Starfall Islands.
While Sonic was able to fully escape from the Cyberspace, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy Rose are trapped between the two realms; even after you find them, they will only appear on the Starfall Islands as a digital manifestation that is bleeding from the Cyberspace. For years, Sonic games have struggled to offer compelling stories that capture the true spirit of the characters that fans know and love, which is why they brought in beloved Sonic the Hedgehog comics writer Ian Flynn to create the story in this one. Flynn’s influence is felt most prominently with the character dialogue, in particular with Tails talking about his future as he reflects on how he is always just there helping Sonic rather than actually taking the lead.
Starfall Islands are the first true “open zone” concept in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, as Sonic Team has donned it, with each of the five islands serving as your main hub of exploration. These separate islands are massive landscapes for you to explore, with only a small piece of the map available initially.
If Sonic feels a little slower at the start of the game than you may be used to, this is because there’s a level-based stat system for strength, defense, ring capacity, and speed, which require you to bring certain objects to the inhabiting Koco leaders to increase their level. The pace at which you level up strength and defense felt a little too quick in comparison to the capacity and speed, but the late game allows you to max out all four with relative ease through the infamous Big The Cat’s very basic, yet oddly relaxing, fishing mini-game.
Flynn’s influence is felt most prominently with the character dialogue
The game also includes a skill tree with 15 abilities that can be unlocked through a mix of Skill Points and story progression, including the very helpful Auto Combo technique. Cycloop is the first one that you will learn, and it’ll quickly become your most used technique due to its versatility with challenges, in combat, and even just spawning rings by holding down Triangle and making a circle. The only disappointment here is that it felt like they misjudged the time it would take to earn all the skills, as I had most of them earned not too much past the midpoint of the game.
Not unlike Assassin’s Creed, Sonic Frontiers has challenges scattered around the world that you can find and complete to unlock more of the overworld map. These challenges are rarely difficult, usually tasking you to race to another marker on the map or something else that takes no more than 30 seconds or so to complete. Due to the repetitiveness and ease of the majority of them, these challenges felt a little undercooked.
After unlocking the subsequent islands, you can travel back and forth between them directly from the map screen in less than five seconds, making the game feel all the more cohesive in scale. In fact, the load times as a whole were very impressive between cutscenes and the like, though that doesn’t carry over entirely to the in-game loading as there is still a good bit of pop-in at times when traversing the islands.
Besides building out your map on each island, Sonic will also have some sort of main mission goal that he is working towards. This mission will usually be one of two things, finding Memory Tokens for a specific character and then eventually collecting the Chaos Emeralds on each island. Memory Tokens bring a collectathon element into the mix by gating players from advancing without collecting certain amounts.
The most common way to obtain Memory Tokens is by taking the paths and rails around the island that will usually end by throwing you into the air towards a floating Memory Token. here, the perspective will shift to old-school 2D. There was one of these, in particular, that was especially thrilling as you had to take a path up this swirling cyclone-shaped platform and then cross over to another one way up in the sky, with one wrong move in your platforming skill meaning you fall and have to start over again. Sonic Frontiers delivers the excitement in these more well-designed lengthy sections, but it can start feeling a little rinse-and-repeat after a while.
Running around the islands completing missions and fighting the various enemies is quite enjoyable, but it’s in Cyberspace that we see something of the ‘old-school’ Sonic rear its blue-maned head. As you collect Portal Gears, you can use them to unlock Portals to the Cyberspace. These stages rotate between 3D and 2.5D similar to how Sonic Generations handled things, often blending the two as well. While it is nice to see areas like Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone, it was very disappointing how limited the Cyberspace levels felt, with only a few other settings making an appearance.
The overworld does feel pretty barren at times when it comes to enemies, but there are still mini-bosses placed in areas for you to fight. Strider was a particularly intriguing one, requiring more strategy than most as you had to grind on the surrounding guard rails before being able to attack the robot itself at all.
Sonic Team has never been afraid to take risks and Sonic Frontiers is a good example of one that has paid off. There are some areas where it is lacking, such as the minimal number of Cyberspace settings and the Titan fights, but Sonic Frontiers is the best 3D Sonic games in a long time, with its open-world foundation offering something for the series to build on in years to come.
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