There are many words I can think of to describe Sonic Frontiers, but the one that always comes to mind is ‘ambitious.’ A game that does so much in terms of changing the modern Sonic 3D-era gameplay style that it’s almost viewed as incredibly risky. But Sonic Team clearly had a vision that was ambitious and ready to shake up that formula, and after spending a lot of time with this game, I would say that they’ve done it very successfully.
Sonic Frontiers’ story begins with our friends Sonic, Tails, and Amy flying abord their plane, the Tornado, following a signal indicating the location of the Chaos Emeralds to a bunch of Islands referred to as Starfall Islands. However, a freak accident occurs with the plane going crazy and out of control, resulting in a wormhole appearing and sucking the trio in. It’s after this opening cutscene that the game throws you straight into gameplay, opening in the first Green Hill-themed Cyber Space stage of the game (more on these later).
After successfully getting through the digitized stage, Sonic awakens to find himself stranded from his friends with a mysterious voice telling him to find all seven Chaos Emeralds scattered across the island and to destroy the enemies of Starfall Islands, the Titans. With little context as to who, what, and why, Sonic agrees to find some answers and save his friends.
Along the way, Sonic comes face-to-face with an unusual adversary named Sage, a girl-like Artificial Intelligence who is hell-bent on ensuring Sonic does not survive through these islands and enemies, ensuring that this time, he may have met his match.
Let’s start things off with Sonic Frontiers’ story… what a welcome return to some great storytelling!
I cannot express not only on how much I have enjoyed this story, but also the way these characters have been written and are portrayed in this game. I have been internally critical of the 2010 era of storytelling and writing in Sonic games during this period (the games themselves are a different story, ranging from very fun to decent when playing them) due to either characters not behaving the way they should be, or their personalities simply being written the total opposite of how they have been in prior entries since the jump to 3D in 1998’s Sonic Adventure. Here, everyone behaves and acts the way I’ve always known them since the late 90s/early 2000’s counterparts, and it feels like a return to true form for these beloved characters.
Sonic no longer has this weird cocky almost-obnoxious snide to him like previous games were making him out to be (I’m looking at you, Sonic Forces) but still has the snarky edge and quick-paced attitude that doesn’t feel over the top. Even Knuckles, who also makes an appearance in this game, comes across more serious and less goofy (he’s been portrayed as ‘the dumb one’ stereotype for quite a while now) during his time to shine when exploring the many islands that Sonic Frontiers has to offer.
A big thank you to Ian Flynn (Sonic fans will know him as the writer for the Archie Comics and IDW Publishing for Sonic the Hedgehog comics) who has managed to bring out the best of these characters personality-wise, while also writing a story that is genuinely intriguing and isn’t so damn cheesy and downright dumb. Although there are still some one-liners that make you chuckle whilst in a serious scenario, it feels normal and not almost cringe-like, something Sonic Forces just did not do very well, as a comparison. I may be a hardcore Sonic fan, but Sonic Forces’ story missed every mark it had brought to the table when it came to storytelling and characterisation and Sonic Frontiers finally remedies this.
But the most interesting aspect people would be very enthusiastic to know about Sonic Frontiers is the Open Zone aspect of the game; the first Sonic game to fully utilize an open world environment for Sonic to run around and explore across the multiple Starfall Islands, something I’ve always wondered for years now if Sonic Team would ever attempt to do.
After the opening scene where Sonic and friends were sucked away into the wormhole, both Tails and Amy are stuck in a strange digital limbo-like state whilst inside a digitized cage that Sonic must rescue all of them from. Once you traverse across an Island and find a character to free them, you are then tasked with finding Memory Tokens. Not only do these tokens help slowly bring your friends back correctly to their normal state, it also progresses the story by playing cutscenes and idle chat amongst Sonic and friend when you locate the area your rescued said friend is casually located at on the map.
While it’s a little weird to view any cutscenes with Sonic’s friends by having to locate these tokens to progress the story forward, it’s not awful in any way. In fact, it’s a good initiative to explore the open world when viewing your map to see where tokens may be hiding. Some of these cutscenes aren’t just delegated to Amy and Tails. Even our new mysterious villain Sage will be casually hanging around on the Islands where you can use the same memory tokens to view a cutscene with her and come to somewhat understand her motives and personality more (assuming you have collected enough tokens to do so, and this goes with any character and not just Sage).
Aside from rescuing friends, there are missions scattered across each island you will inevitably find. These missions are fairly easy and range from simple objectives such as step on a switch or run to a specific location on the map in a short timeframe. Once completed, a part of the Island map unlocks and showcases more to explore and items to find. These missions don’t pose much of a challenge whatsoever but are a great initiative to unlock more of the island and continue the good initiative of exploring, like as mentioned above with the memory tokens.
But it doesn’t stop there! Amongst all the items and missions are mini bosses scattered throughout every island. These bosses were quite fun to encounter and were not only much harder than the occasional enemy found amongst every island, but also much bigger in size. I had a blast with most of these bosses and the creativity in having to beat them.
One mini-boss was a desert shark that requires you to hold on to its tail and press buttons in a somewhat quick-time event fashion before you can attack it which I felt was fun. I loved the creativity behind these bosses and how all of them felt different and weren’t a rinse and repeat type of thing.
Each mini boss had a unique aspect to break down its barrier before you can simply attack, which I loved. Even all their designs across all the islands looked and felt unique. However, one mini boss located on the first island absolutely needed more time to be worked on to defeat properly, as you needed to run up the robotic giant to attack it at the top. Most of the time the camera would just not cooperate once you were too close to it and quite a lot of failed attempts at trying to run up its arm to the top were inevitable. This was frustrating and not satisfying to do and was a sore part of the Sonic Frontiers experience, but luckily it was just one bad mini boss compared to the rest of good.
And then of course, there’s the cyberspace stages. These are the more traditional platforming levels Sonic fans and casual players alike will recognise from previous 3D games that are much more straight-forward and linear. Cyberspace stages are found amongst the Islands that must be activated to enter by finding portal gears that enemies and mini bosses can drop. In these stages, you reach the end goal to complete in-stage missions to obtain keys. These keys unlock the alters where the Chaos Emeralds are being held to progress further. These stages are also based on Sonic’s memories and are all modelled after prior stages we’ve seen before, such as Green Hill, Sky Sanctuary, and Chemical Plant.
In my impression review last month, I stated cyberspace stages will be the most polarizing aspect of Sonic Frontiers. I stand by this comment as these stages are not the super speedy stages you’ve come to know from previous entries and are short and sharp to go from start to finish. While the further you play through the game, they do become more difficult and a little bit longer. They are mostly same-same in terms of length, and I believe it will garner a very varied response by players on how they feel about these.
I personally enjoyed my time in these cyberspace stages, but I was a little disappointed only a small handful of past levels were replicated and re-skinned for each one to do across all Islands. For a series that has such a variety and rich number of levels varying from grassy outdoors to the metropolitan, this was a let-down to showcase what great allocation of past levels the franchise has to offer that wasn’t on show.
In terms of a graphical point of view, the game looks quite nice. Environments look lush and lively in the grassy fields or the active volcano lava seeping out of the ground with a mixture of colours blending in from the environment. Sonic and friends also look nice and are animated well in cutscenes and show some decent emotion when the storytelling needs it the most.
There is quite the noticeable pop-in with textures whenever you are running around, and it does become something you will inevitably see as you play through the game. While this can be a little annoying once you see it, this seems to be the worst of Sonic Frontiers’ technical performance as the game ran in a very sturdy 60fps on PlayStation 5 and didn’t suffer any crashes or major issues that hurt the flow of the gameplay. Pop-in is annoying, but I will gladly take this over crashes and horrible frames per second, and I think Sonic Team knew this was what players would prefer to ‘suffer’ with if they were not technically able to have both perfect framerate and little to no pop-in.
But how does the gameplay compare? When it comes to the combat gameplay of Sonic Frontiers, I was pleasantly surprised at how seamless it was to use a variety of Sonic’s brand-new attacks and moves against enemies. Sonic Frontiers introduces a Skill Tree that, when finding skill points by defeating enemies or breaking open boxes in the open world, you can learn new moves to defeat enemies that will aid you in very tough fights you will face along the way.
Using multiple attacks over and over can cause chain attacks that allow you to gain even more power and utilise abilities unlocked from the skill tree once done. So, there’s a lot to experiment and learn when fighting. Despite it being simplistic, the skill tree and combat works easily yet effectively. For a first attempt at having a proper combat system, Sonic Team have done it well, and I’m happy with it.
You can even upgrade your combat and stats by finding items called adorable little creatures called Kocos that you will find scattered anywhere and everywhere that, once found, you can bring them to the elder Kocos to level up your speed and ring count in the open zone. Finding other items such as red and blue seeds to upgrade attacks and defence, respectively, can also be provided to another elder Koco to upgrade these stats, too.
It’s a nice little RPG-like feature to get more out of the combat system, although there’s no real way knowing how many are required to hand over for exactly one stat point in return to upgrade either your speed or your ring count. Just collect as many as you can find, hand them over to elder Koco and from there. It’s really just a guestimate to how many stat levels you will upgrade to, which I found weird. An imperfect stat upgrade system, but at least the combat is easy to work with.
I must talk about the soundtrack to the game, because my goodness, WHAT A SOUNDTRACK! I cannot remember the last time I have been this enamoured with a video game’s soundtrack that has such a strong hold over me. The wonderful blend of genres is absolutely stunning. Ranging from piano-driven tracks to the upbeat electro-dance boss themes or the vaporwave-influenced synth grooves playing in cyberspace, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy when it comes to the music. It’s a gorgeous blend of a melting pot of ideas that work cohesively and wonderfully. Lead composer Tomoya Ohtani has once again proven what an asset he is to Sonic Team with his fantastic direction and keen ear for sound to visually match what is happening in-game and the scenario surrounding it. Kudos to all involved when it comes to the music.
Sonic Team knowingly took risks with changing the modern era of Sonic by introducing open world gameplay and a proper combat system instead of playing it safe this time around à la Sonic Forces, and it has paid off well. If you’re happy to put aside the pop-in when exploring the worlds and that imperfect but not awful levelling up stats system, you are sure as hell to have a fun time with Sonic Frontiers. I did, and despite some issues, I had an amazing time playing this game. I hope to see Sonic Team use this game as the template for the future of Sonic titles because I could not be more excited with what they could come up with if they improve from this.
Sonic Frontiers is available now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows (PC), Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.
A PlayStation 5 press key was provided for the purpose of this review.