Sonic Frontiers: Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue
Sonic the Hedgehog, the iconic blue blur, races back onto our consoles this November with Sonic Frontiers, where he explores the Starfall Islands and the mysterious Cyber Space.
I do have to preface this by saying that despite being a Sonic fan (in my younger days I was an avid reader of the Archie comic series, even had my own OC at one point) I never actually played any of the modern 3D Sonic titles. I would have passing encounters with the likes of Unleashed, Generations, and Lost World but without having owned any of them I never had the chance to create any lasting impressions. Despite lack of personal experience, it's not hard to parse the consensus on Sonic's contemporary 3D adventures: they suck dick. So with Frontiers stepping up to bat as not only Sonic's newest 3D game but also the very first open world installment into the franchise, it's not surprising that this has become one of the most divisive releases of the year. Has Sonic Frontiers broken the curse or are we doomed to what might look like another decade of lame Sonic games?
To start things off, I want to address the blatantly obvious. This game shares a LOT of similarities with Nintendo's 2017 genre-redefining open world classic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Even before I had the chance to get my hands on the game it was obvious when we got our first look at the game with the announcement trailer almost a year ago now. It even boasted the very same oft-parodied "player character seen from behind as they stare wistfully over a cliffside at a sprawling open world scene while the camera pans" shot. Now that the game is officially out, were we right to assume Breath of the Wild had heavy influence over Frontiers or were we all just being a bit assumptive? Well, Sonic sure can run fast but not fast enough to outrun the Breath of the Wild allegations. From the somber piano melodies to the mossy little scrimblos scattered across the land for you to find so much of this game shares it's DNA with Breath of the Wild. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. And as someone who personally adored Breath of the Wild, I wouldn't say so at all. In fact, the BOTW style open world benefits this game and elevates it's gameplay loop significantly.
The game has a very solid sense of progression. Even if at first glance the world seems a bit awkward with grind-pipes and bounce pads scattered about across the sky, the thrill of rounding each and every corner to find the next new thing felt consistent throughout. There are collectibles EVERYWHERE (I've even seen some say they're almost too abundant) and there's never a shortage on obstacle courses for Sonic to trapeze through, either. There are a multitude of minigames to engage in to expand the range of your map which I enjoyed hunting down and completing for their brevity and feeling of progression. The minigames can be a veritable grab bag of quick activities that range from fun to sometimes dubious. For an example on the dubious end of the spectrum, one minigame is a ball and hoop affair that's sometimes snappy and simple and takes no time at all and sometimes an annoying game of chance where you've just got to pray for the janky physics of Sonic hitting the ball to work correctly.
The Cyber Space stages are the BOTW equivalent of shrine dungeons, setting the player on a track much more in line with Sonic's classic fast-paced gameplay in iconic locations from Sonic's past adventures. At first, I wasn't too happy about these segments but I can admit to having warmed up to them significantly by the end of the game. Some can be pretty aggravating with a lot more choppy and awkward platforming than one would expect from a game all about velocity and fluid movement. Some are definitely bigger offenders than others but each Cyber Space level has a set of four achievement-like missions that tied into the game's healthy sense of progression and kept me pushing to check off the objectives list even when I was pissed off by how annoying the Sonic level design could be. And as much as these sections can be ire-inducing, they sure do have some awesome music. This whole game has a really strong OST but the Cyber Space levels high-tempo breakcore beats are a definite standout with their tracks. Probably the best this franchise has sounded since Hideki Naganuma.
The overworld combat was surprisingly compelling, even if it is easily arguable how button-mashing-adjacent it is. The skill tree provides Sonic plenty of different combat techniques to make fighting unique across all the different encounters you'll have. The different enemy types also cleverly encourage you to utilize the different techniques to defeat specific enemy types. The guardians are a fun challenge with unique and very cool designs that push you to experiment with Sonic's move set. The enemies are rarely a threat if you keep your stats consistently updated (which isn't too difficult with how easy it is to get upgrade materials) yet I still found myself engaging them just for that kickass rush of seeing Sonic do some acrobatic fucking pirouette on their asses. The boss battles are a little less nuanced in their combat. However, what they lack in nuance they make up for in spades with spectacle. Accompanied by heavy rock songs and some truly badass designs for the titans that I seriously love, these are the kind of boss battles that invoke the cinematic feeling of a final boss even with the very first boss of the game. That kind of spectacle is never a bad sign. However, the Super Sonic form the game allows you for these fights feels janky and has a tendency to clip through the titans mid-fight. It was never anything game-breaking in my experience but it was still a bit off-putting.
Whether or not it's a well-made game, Sonic Frontiers did have one very strong factor going for it, a hallmark of any good game: I found myself consistently coming back for more. Maybe it's the BOTW conventions or maybe it's just Sonic truly tapping into a 3D formula that really works for him but I would anticipate coming back and exploring the Starfall Islands any time I wasn't playing. The game is occasionally janky and sometimes annoying with it's physics and it's definitely missing a layer or two of polish but even with those technical issues Sonic Frontiers offers an experience I genuinely enjoyed and had fun with. Which is a pretty big deal for a Sonic game! It's by no means perfect, but I see it catch a lot of flack for having bugs and flaws. I feel like it's become common that a lot of game journalists and players will overlook the actual experience of a game to dismiss it for technicalities like that and a lot of games, Frontiers being a prime example, catch a lot of grief for it. Like, how much does it REALLY take away from the game if there's a bit of pop-in or some awkward texturing here and there when the game as a whole is really enjoyable. That's what I think Sonic Frontiers is. It's an imperfect game with a lot of jank but at the end of the day it's still a lot of fun despite it's issues. I'd recommend giving it a shot even if you're a bit wary of it. If you're looking for a sign to get you over the fence on whether or not you should try it, here it is. Go play Sonic Frontiers, if not to enjoy it then to come up with an opinion of your own. For me it was a lot of fun and I can confidently say that it's taken the crown as my new favorite Sonic titles. So for whatever that's worth, go out and have some fun with it. :)