Sonic Frontiers Review – A Hero Revived

    Title: Sonic Frontiers
    Developer: Sonic Team
    Release Date: November 8, 2022
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Sega
    Genre: Open-World, Action-Adventure

Sonic’s latest 3D outing has been a long time coming following the largely negative reception of Sonic Forces roughly five years ago. The anticipation of this ambitious change of pace, Sonic Frontiers, has been on a rollercoaster ride since its initial announcement. Regardless, it’s finally here, and despite having provided coverage for this title, I had no idea how I’d feel about it.

3D Sonic experiences haven’t really done it for me since Generations. Still, since Frontiers was taking such a bold approach with the self-dubbed “open-zone” gameplay format, alongside having comic writer Ian Flynn take the helm, I knew that this game would at least be different. And I’m so indescribably delighted that aside from some evident technical hiccups and odd design choices, Sonic Frontiers has stuck the landing, hopefully birthing a new golden age for the blue blur’s gaming outings.

Sonic Frontiers begins with Sonic, Tails, and Amy going off to investigate the Chaos Emeralds appearing in an unexplored region called the Starfall Islands. However, when approaching the lands, sudden havoc strikes, causing the three friends to hurl off into a digital realm known as Cyber Space. Though Sonic quickly escapes its confines, leading him to the aforementioned Starfall Islands, where a mysterious voice urges him to “find the Chaos Emeralds, destroy the Titans, and tear down the wall between dimensions.” With nothing else to go on, Sonic somewhat complies, also aiming to find his friends.

Regarding narrative, Frontiers is exceptional, being not only the first recently well-told story in the series’ gaming library but also one of the best. It gradually elucidates a thought-provoking mystery surrounding an ancient civilization that once seemingly lived on the islands, naturally fitting in with lore previously established in the games. The tone is quite a shift for the series, too, embracing a significantly more melancholic ambiance.

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Although, what really strengthens this title’s narrative is its character writing, a far cry from what has come before via the likes of Forces, Colors, and Lost World. The cast is noticeably mature this time around, with their conversations, thoughts, and actions all stemming from a place of hard-fought experience. They no longer depict themselves as trope or joke machines, instead being true to their core selves that have long been neglected. Quite a dense amount of lore is discussed and referenced as well, painting a clearer picture of canonicity and contrasting the almost wholly self-contained and detached stories from older games. An immense degree of effort was poured into establishing a sense of continuity here, also amplified by an unexpected avenue, fishing.

Big the Cat is found at select spots throughout the islands, and if the player has enough purple coins on hand, they can fish. The minigame is straightforward, perhaps too much so, granting collectible rewards and the like. However, one of the more notable rewards is Egg Memos, voice logs from Eggman himself. He, too, is trapped in Cyber Space, and these memos detail his thoughts on various matters coursing through his mind. In fact, they even surprisingly depict an arc revolving around him and one of the new characters.

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Veteran fans will especially wholeheartedly enjoy these logs because Eggman remarks upon settings and characters from older games, some of which have not been mentioned for the longest time. My favorite incorporation of references has to be Sonic casually mentioning friends not in the game as he wonders how they’re doing. It’s blatant fan service, but I can’t help loving it since it aids in establishing the world as one that’s actually growing and living.

The English voice direction is stellar, too, with Amy being a particular highlight. Further, I know Roger Craig Smith’s portrayal of Sonic isn’t exactly a popular one. Personally, I found his acting here to be his best work as Sonic to date. He’s notably more natural and less forced with his line deliveries. Plus, the deepness of his voice adds to that maturity seen throughout the title, and it doesn’t sacrifice the character’s trademark snark.

Gameplay-wise, Frontiers marks a crucial turning point for Sonic. Linearity has been chiefly sidelined, with the open-zone format now being the pursued path. There were many concerns pertaining to how Sonic would feel, considering how his game-feel in the last entry, Sonic Forces, was poor. Thankfully, while opinions will differ, I had no qualms with how Sonic controlled here. For the first time since the Adventure titles, I truly felt like I was completely in control of his movements, speed, and all.

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He has staples, such as the Boost, Lightspeed Dash, and the Homing Attack, alongside recent arrivals like the Drop Dash. When utilized wisely, mainly for the lattermost maneuver, neat navigational tricks can be performed to reach destinations in ways unique to each player’s approach. Sonic’s speed and other related factors can even be customized in the main menu, allowing all players to control a Sonic best fitting their respective levels of experience and comfort.

An implementation players should be aware of is Sonic’s Power Boost when holding the maximum number of rings, letting him blaze by at genuinely thrilling paces. Endearing little creatures, Kocos, can be found throughout the lands, allowing Sonic to enhance his ring capacity and speed when interacting with a specific NPC. The differences are only noticeable in certain contexts at late levels, but it’s a nice conjoined touch.

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Unfortunately, there are issues regarding exploration: draw distance and pop-in. The world is full of various mini-puzzles and collectibles, but the paths to them can be veiled by objects simply not appearing when they should. For example, rails and springs litter the maps and are necessary to access certain spots. Though, since they only spawn in once close enough, their sudden appearances can be jarring and distracting, occasionally making areas needlessly cumbersome to devise pathways to. These issues didn’t bother me much since the map markers helped alleviate these instances, yet I was frustrated here and there.

Aside from those faults, exploration is nailed in Frontiers. Based on what I’ve seen in promotional material, I was concerned about too much automation from rails and springs. But there was enough on-the-fly decision-making with inputs and choosable directions that I thankfully rarely found that problem to be pronounced. On the islands, Sonic must find memory tokens correlating to the character trapped there in order to free them, and they’re found by doing a bunch of stuff, such as performing the Cyloop in specific spots. This new technique in Sonic’s arsenal is the partial crux in several new systems, primarily used for puzzles and combat.

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Speaking of the former, the puzzles in Frontiers are too elementary for its first two-thirds, not even granting enough thought to warrant being brain teasers. The endgame provided more involved trials that I wish more of the earlier game embraced. I’m aware that, especially for an open-world type of game, not every task has to be intricate or complex to impart a sense of achievement. Still, the simplicity of what’s presented here is almost a tad insulting at points.

Having to sidestep across glowing panels or run across a series of glowing squares with well over half my time remaining was always a tad questionable. I would’ve preferred if higher difficulties impacted puzzle time limits or if a ranking system was in place, rewarding players who completed puzzles as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, they made sure the pacing was never stale.

Vault Keys are another significant collectible Sonic has to find, used for gaining access to each of the Chaos Emeralds. They can be obtained in many ways, like battling particularly potent foes or completing the Cyber Space stages. The latter can be understood as Frontiers’ take on special stages due to their relative brevity. These levels are throwbacks to Sonic’s past, adopting the boost formula across linear areas with a clear end goal. Missions are clearable in each Cyber Space, too, always involving achieving an S-rank clear time and obtaining all Red Rings. These levels, as mentioned before, are brief, usually lasting around a minute or two. While some fans may think that to be too short, I found their lengths ideal since these are not the main game by any stretch. Instead, they’re commemorative side tasks to gain items.

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Moreover, the following point will highly depend on player perceptions; Sonic’s control in Cyber Space. I found it adequate; he never felt stiff or ill-suited for the stage environments, though some practice is needed to get a firm grip on the control style. Bizarrely, the level themes only comprise a few types that can grow repetitive the longer one plays. Due to Cyber Space’s collective brevity, this wasn’t much of a ruiner for me, though greater visual variety would have been appreciated. Cyber Space is a rare case of quantity over quality done right in my book.

Regrettably, combat in Sonic Frontiers is where potential feels the most squandered. Sonic has a basic melee combo alongside learnable abilities via a Skill Tree that grants more options in battles. Additionally, most enemies have unique gimmicks with multiple ways to defeat them, usually via those learnable skills. Sadly, combat is simply too easy no matter what difficulty you play on, and too many of its boons can be spammed with no consequence.

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For instance, one of the skills, Sonic Boom, is triggered by holding down a button, and there’s no gauge or time limit. It can just be incessantly utilized at no cost. Further, the skill tree is rather compact, which isn’t an issue by itself, but one can swiftly learn all available skills before even reaching the last two islands, making regular fights a waste of time in the endgame. The skills are all flashy, boasting mostly terrific animations, yet they lack meaningful substance that endures the whole game.

At the very least, a worthwhile base was built here that will hopefully be improved upon in later releases. And I still had fun with select enemy encounters. Some mini-bosses and standard foes have interesting gimmicks that shake up the combat to keep it fresh. I just wish that it required additional thought and another form of management to mitigate spam. Moreover, the attack and defense stats can be upgraded, and while only noticeable when comparing at later levels, the provided RPG progression here is appreciated.

Thankfully, Frontiers partially makes up for the combat’s faults via its island-end boss battles. During these crucial story encounters, Sonic transforms into Super Sonic, enacting fights against gargantuan foes that I’m sure younger Sonic fans could only have dreamt of. Admittedly, the mechanics here are shallow, but the bosses are such adrenaline-pumping bouts that I could not care less. They’re undoubtedly the best bosses in the franchise thanks to the sheer spectacles they comprise, with sublime vocal tracks unique to each island’s final foe and stunning quick-time events that had me pogging out of my mind. I have no doubt that every Sonic fan will enjoy these sequences.

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Two issues I had that I’d like to discuss offhandedly regard the fishing and the Cyloop. I mentioned the former before, and it’s an addictive activity, but it allows players to obtain too many collectible rewards at once for little effort. Fishing is an exceedingly simple minigame, only requiring players to tap a button at a particular time(s) for a catch to be marked as complete. These catches then reward Sonic with tokens that can be exchanged with Big for rewards.

The previously discussed Eggman Memos are obtainable here, as well as Vault Keys, Memory Tokens, and more. The sole barrier of entry for fishing is Purple Coins, which are abundantly found on the islands, meaning that if a player so desires, they can acquire a humorous number of vital items from this one minigame. Some more restrictive measures here would have probably been smart. Then again, this is merely a side task that can be avoided entirely if you’d prefer. In hindsight, it’s pretty funny.

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Cyloop is a mechanic that usually works well with puzzle and enemy design, but it has a functionality I’m not a fan of. If used on the ground by itself, Cyloop can infinitely spawn rings as long as a player is performing it. It’s a truly peculiar design choice that I don’t understand the point of since rings are plentiful, and it removes some tension from certain scenarios due to rings acting as the health gauge. Although, it can be conveniently used just before battling the Titan bosses because the Super Sonic transformation subsists off rings. Still, I could’ve done without this mechanic.

I lightly touched on the soundtrack before, yet it deserves honed emphasis. Sonic Frontiers’ compositions tend to feel inherently different in approach than what has come before, with a permeating sense of dread coating the islands. They resolutely support this entry’s melancholic and almost tragic mood, enhancing the determined tone present this time around. As for performance, Frontiers was a smooth ride on PC; the only stumbles I witnessed were intermittent texture pop-ins. Of course, everyone’s experiences on PC will differ, but I can vouch that my time on the platform was primarily problem-free.

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Sonic Frontiers is the most fun I’ve had with the series in ages. It boasts a fulfilling, exploratory-based gameplay loop bolstered by excellent character writing, a well-thought-out narrative, and much-appreciated references to previous games in the franchise. Even amidst the lackluster combat implementation, pop-in, and more minor faults, they don’t diminish this title’s strengths.

All Sonic fans, whether veterans or newcomers or even those unfamiliar with the franchise at all, should give Frontiers a shot. It’s not perfect, yet it’s an admirable and respectable step in the right direction. I sincerely hope this gameplay and writing style are retained and refined for Sonic’s next gaming outings because an unabashed golden age could be in the works if embraced.

Score:
8/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.