Sonic is back! After delays and remasters the blue blur himself is once again performing as the dude with ‘tude in his current gen debut Sonic Frontiers, was it worth the wait or has the cycle once again taken shape?.
Sonic Frontiers starts with Sonic, Tails and Amy flying the Tornado en route to Starfall Island where they are detecting the Chaos Emeralds. Naturally it isn’t as simple as a click and collect, the Tornado crashes and Sonic wakes up in a digitised version of Green Hill Zone, managing to escape Sonic finds out his friends are still trapped in “Cyberspace” and vows to get them out while solving the mystery of the Chaos Emeralds and Starfall Island.
What initially seems like a run of the mill Sonic adventure soon takes a sinister twist as you’re exploring the frankly morbid island and its ruins while trying to figure out how to save Amy from Cyberspace.
The story takes an absolute ice age to get really good and to say the game has a slow start would be an insult to snails and turtles everywhere, it isn’t actually until the latter half of the game where it really starts to pile on the goods.
Fortunately to keep players gnawing at the narrative threads is some genuinely interesting character development and interactions not only with the heroes but Eggman and the new foe Sage who develop quite the dynamic through the sporadically placed cutscenes.
What does dampen the blow here is some thought provoking dialogue is random when you’re out exploring, the cutscenes outside of the main story ones are usually awkward character models waxing lyrical at each other and at times don’t match the tone of the given section, nothing quite as jarring as Sonic and Knuckles talking deep followed up by ‘Ol Blue spouting some “Gotta go fast for friendship” nonsense.
This brings me nicely onto the graphics and art direction of Sonic Frontiers which is quite frankly baffling in its execution and has raised concern from day 1 of its unveiling. It seems that Sega have quite literally “Hired that guy” who earns money on YouTube by putting Sonic and Mario into Unreal Engine 4 worlds, you know the videos and screens and that’s exactly what a bulk of the game is like.
The character models for the main cast are all fine, nothing particularly mind blowing and the new batch of enemies really don’t inspire me at all, rather they look like a batch of nondescript “futuristic” killing machines that dropped out of the latest Matrix film, fortunately the classic Badniks do make an appearance in the Cyberspace sections of the game.
Even the boss fights lack that visual charm, nothing like the Egg-Terminator or Metal Sonic here, no you have giant titans which while impressive in scope, have taken maybe a little too much inspiration from other giant world shaking monsters that crop up in games like Shadow of the Colossus, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and God of War.
Sadly the lack of originality has also seeped over to the Cyberspace levels, touted as a love letter to the Sonic franchise they sadly only follow the themes of Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Sky Sanctuary and the new addition which is actually pretty good which is a highway set in Cyberspace. Considering how much history Sega has with Sonic is a shame only 3 classic zones are represented, I would have loved to see Ice Cap Zone or Mushroom Hill Zone getting a little bit of love.
In the gameplay department Sonic Frontiers is absolutely the best “3D” Sonic title I’ve played in terms of movement and combat, while that doesn’t always translate well when it comes to the gameplay loop it’s fortunately broken up with the Cyberspace levels which play as traditional 2D/3D games, going as far as to directly use the stage layouts from classic Sonic adventures.
The bulk of Sonic Frontiers follows a rather formulaic gameplay loop in which you’re thrust onto the island with the goal of gathering enough unique items to activate story quests presented by one of Sonic’s friends then fighting the unique enemies to gather gears which unlock the Cyberspace levels which then in turn unlock some of the Chaos Emeralds which aren’t tied to the story missions. You do this then you fight the big Titan and move onto the next island, wash, rinse and repeat until the credits roll.
The “friendship” icons are gathered either by finding them while exploring or completing the many platforming and grinding challenges strewn across the world. The Keys which unlock via the Cyberspace are gathered by completing the optional side challenges in the areas such as beating the challenge in a set time or “Collect X amount of rings”. This is the closest Sonic has been to a “Collectathon” style platformer and while you don’t have to find every single item it can grate from time to time when you realize you’re not really doing much different from what you did an hour prior.
So long as you don’t get really obsessive with the collection items you can negate alot of the grind but on the flip side there are an awful lot of optional dialogue scenes which can be unlocked via the “Friendship” items so you’ll never truly be free of it.
Because of the open world nature of the game you’ll need a map and while Sonic Frontiers doesn’t quite step into UbiSoft territory it does make you perform side missions such as floor puzzles, bouncing balls through hoops and finding hidden treasures, these in turn unveil more of the map to give you a better idea where stuff could be hidden.
Combat has taken a more hands on approach for this title giving Sonic actual melee attacks, ranged attacks and a fun hurricane spin attack which also becomes an essential puzzle solving technique. While none of it is more than pressing an attack button or buttons they do chain together wonderfully and when you’ve spent enough time unlocking moves via the Skill Tree you’ll feel like a genuine threat to even Dante and Bayonetta!.
The special enemies make the most use of these new abilities and are often quite challenging until you learn their quirks but even then they present some of the more engaging battles presented throughout the Sonic series as a whole.
So I glossed over it but it’s time to bring up the Skill Tree and Sonic needing to level up his Speed and Ring Capacity. Honestly I wasn’t a fan of having to fight many of the smaller mobs to unlock more moves on a skill tree IN A SONIC GAME, also don’t get me started on levelling up Attack, Speed, Defence and Rings. Sadly because it’s a review I have to touch on these and yeah it’s crap, you find items about that level up the Attack and Defence of Spikey, you can then find the NPC who’ll administer the boost, Speed and Rings are tied to finding little creatures reminiscent of the Korok from Zelda, in droves, finding the NPC then manually levelling up either aspect a level at a time, it’s mind numbing, speed doesn’t seem to make you much faster and the attack and defence just auto put you at your highest level, these require you to press the option FOR EVERY SINGLE LEVEL.
On more positive vibes, when you reach max ring capacity Sonic powers up making his top speed much faster and has a neat visual effect and cutscene very similar to that of the recent live action Sonic films which I absolutely adored.
Sonic has never been more responsive, he has momentum and the camera isn’t half as egregious as it has been, this goes absolute leagues to making the game an actual fun Sonic sandbox where you don’t mind running aimlessly, grinding on the random bars and wall running around the place like you could have only dreamed about in the Mega Drive days.
That last statement is really what drove me through Sonic Frontiers, it presents such a fun core Sonic experience that the inner child can’t help but get swept up in. While I won’t spoil much about this the Super Sonic sections (yes there are multiple) never failed to get the blood pumping and makes you wonder how Sonic Team are going to top these scenes in future, even the music here is absolutely top notch though I’m not sure how well received MetalCore would be in more Sonic games.
Ultimately Sonic Frontiers is alot of fun but held down with some tedious grind and a bizarre lack of focus throughout, at times it feels like the concept of a great idea fleshed out with themes and concepts that don’t really fit what has been presented previously within the Sonic games, while they could fit more in-line with the IDW comic series I sadly haven’t gotten around to taking on that particular read just yet.
While this is the best Sonic has played in a long, long time I wouldn’t say the cycle is completely shattered, it still has plenty of bugs and at times can feel a little floaty and jank but, and this is a big but, it’s a damn fun time if you don’t focus on the grind and that distinct lack of personality in the world and enemies.
A unique and slightly unfocused but unashamedly fun Sonic adventure.