Sonic Frontiers: A Frontier Worth Exploring
For all the flak that Sonic Team has received over the years, you have to admit they are more than happy to experiment with their flagship series. They started this trend all the way back in 1994 with the desire to create an epic platforming adventure the likes of which had never been seen before. While time and technological restraints resulted in the game having to be split in half, bringing these two halves together — Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles — resulted in a huge game and also gave the world Lock-On technology!
The next big change was moving into true 3D with Sonic Adventure, followed by the team structure of Sonic Heroes, the Boost formula coming in with Sonic Rush and then making it to the mainline games with Unleashed, which also introduced the infamous Werehog. We had Lost World with its parkour system and Forces with a player-created avatar. Now, Sonic Frontiers brings us the next big shift in Sonic gameplay with almost open world exploration called Open-Zone.
WARNING: SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT!
Fans have been wanting an open-world Sonic game for some time now. Sonic Adventure had small “Adventure Zones” that could be explored at one’s own pace, such as Station Square and Mystic Ruins. Sadly, these kinds of areas were removed for Sonic Adventure 2 (one of the reasons I prefer the original over its sequel), although they did make a comeback in Sonic Unleashed, but Unleashed’s were nowhere near as interesting. Regardless of which of these two started the fervour in fans for an open-world Sonic, it seemed that Sonic Team may never do it, despite several fan games showing it could be done, and more importantly how fun it could be. So, when it was announced that Sonic Frontiers would be “open-Zone,” it took many fans by surprise.
Sonic Frontiers takes place on Starfall Islands, a set of five islands new to the series. All of them are quite big with plenty to explore and do. However, being islands there are of course “edges” to the explorable area. This is what “open-Zone” means; large explorable areas, but not a true open world in the traditional sense, a la Grand Theft Auto. Still, there is no disappointment here as the islands are huge and it can take Sonic a few minutes to run from one end to the other, even when at full speed. Each island is covered in ancient ruins to explore, giant towers to climb, large fields to traverse and more traditional (for Sonic, anyway) rails and platforms to help you move around at speed and access harder to reach areas.
Throughout there are also puzzles which need to be solved in order to reveal more of each islands’ map to help you navigate their large space. None of these are particularly challenging — Sonic is primarily a kids’ game after all — but they are harmless enough that they don’t spoil the experience. There are also many collectables strewn around each island which can help Sonic increase his speed, defence, power and the number of rings he can carry at any one time. Many of these collectables, especially story centric ones, are obtained via performing tricks and other cool runs through the aforementioned rails and platforms, so even on these open-Zone islands you’ll be able to have some classic Sonic action.
Exploring the open-Zones feels amazing. Sonic handles better than he ever has, and the game swaps seamlessly between behind-Sonic-view to side-on faux 2D for some of the more platform centric sections. Each island is open enough that it’s comfortable to blast across it at speed, but there are still points in which you’ll come across forests and variation in the topography, so it’s not just a flat surface. Indeed, it can be great fun powering down a hill or weaving in and out of trees. The ruins I mentioned before give a wonderful feeling of the islands once being lived on, and this feeling increases the more of the story is revealed to you.
There are of course enemies you’ll come across during your explorations. Each of the enemies you meet on the islands are new, and somewhat creepier and fiercer than what Sonic usually encounters. However, it can sometimes feel like the islands are a bit empty. There will be times where you’ll be running for a good while before you come across any foes. The game provides a story reason to explain this, but one has to wonder what the technical reasons for this could be. Perhaps Sonic Team felt it better to have more room to run rather than constantly having to stop for battle? Perhaps too many enemies pushed the tech too hard? Perhaps they just wanted to get the exploration down pat before adding in lots of other stuff, leaving that for the next game after they’ve already learned the game engine? Whatever the reason, some may feel these environments lack enough NPC interaction, but personally I found that it added to the mystery and sense of abandonment of the islands you explore.
Speaking of enemies, all of the newly designed foes are fun to interact with. The basic minions you’ll find around the islands provide quick, fast battles and each have various weaknesses that need to be exploited. As you get further into the game enemies become better at defending themselves so you need to mix up your attacks. Mid-level-type bosses are also impressive with each being quite inventive and offering some wonderful battles, although sadly they do repeat after a while, albeit in tougher forms. However, the ways in which they incorporate various Sonic staples such as grinding into the fights is really well done.
The stars of the show, however, are the Titans, gigantic guardians of each island. Utterly dwarfing Sonic, each of these requires you to be Super Sonic to take them on. This changes things up as you fly through the air dodging attacks so you can get close enough to deal damage. Interestingly, you can not be hurt while in your Super form, but in keeping with tradition you are on a timer as your Super form uses up the power of the Rings you’ve collected at a rate of one per second. Being hit by a Titan’s attack wastes precious time, so you have to do your best to avoid attacks and make sure you get enough damage in before you revert to a plain old blue hedgehog. It’s an interesting and fun take on the boss fight formula and makes for a gripping, visually dazzling experience. Each of these fights I found incredibly impressive and really enjoyed each one.
Much was made of Sonic’s new combat techniques in the promotion for Frontiers, and I’m happy to say that all of it is a lot of fun. Basic attacks are still mostly a one-button affair, but even these can look pretty cool. As the game progresses, however, you’ll unlock new, flashier attacks that will require you to at most press two buttons at the same time or hold a button down at the correct moment. Sure, it’s not the deepest combat system, but again this is a game aimed at younger players. Still, it makes all of the moves easy to pull off and who really wants to be worrying about complicated button inputs in a Sonic game?
Outside of the Starfall Islands, you’ll also be running through Cyberspace levels, which are short stages of more traditional Sonic fare. Some are 3D, boost type levels, while others are platforming -centric 2D levels. At first, I was a little put off by these as Sonic feels heavier in them than in the open-Zone sections. However, I soon realised that this is because platforming is much more important in these levels and the heavier movement helps you not overshoot platforms. Sonic doesn’t feel quite as good here as he did in Sonic Generations’ similar levels, but it’s an improvement on Forces. Forces was also accused of too much hand holding throughout its levels, but that is absent here. The biggest “assistance” the game gives you is locking you to the centre of some tracks so you don’t fall off when zooming along. However, for this to happen you need to nail the landing/ positioning of Sonic and, personally, I found it a wonderful addition.
Each of these Cyberspace levels has several optional objectives such as collecting all the Red Rings or finishing the level in a certain amount of time. Completing each of these is necessary to earn an S-Rank, but as stated they are completely optional. It will depend on how much you enjoy traditional Sonic gameplay as to if the Cyberspace sections will be a boon or a burden, but as a sucker for some great Sonic platforming I S-Ranked them all!
I’ve heaped praise on the game thus far, but unfortunately Sonic Frontiers is not perfect. The many rails and platforms that are strewn across the islands come with a bad case of pop-in. While far from game breaking, it is a bit off putting to see a series of platforms suddenly appear above you while running around and, really, you’d be forgiven for thinking this kind of thing was left behind several console generations ago. Adding to this, these rails and platforms simply hang in the air levitating. While this would be fine in a more traditional Sonic environment, given the island’s more realistic aesthetic it does look a little weird and at times can spoil the otherwise very impressive vistas the game offers. Given that there are large structures such as towers and pyramids strewn across the islands, I have to wonder why Sonic Team opted for this somewhat arbitrary method of adding traditional Sonic elements to the islands. Surely they could have created a few loop-the-loops and corkscrew paths on the scale of those towers? Even if the platforms matched the style of the island rock it would have matched better, rather than having seemingly disconnected architecture just floating in space. Ultimately though this is something of a nitpick as after a few hours I was used to seeing them there and traversing them was so much fun I forgot about the weirdness. Still, I’d like to see this improved upon in future titles.
Graphically, the game is pretty impressive. It has a really unique look in the arena of Sonic games, and a really solid day/night cycle. The Islands look really impressive for the most part, although there are a few dodgy textures here and there, especially on the ground. All in all though, it’s very nice to look at.
I had no instances of Sonic suddenly flying off in a random direction in either the open-Zone or Cyberspace levels, however very occasionally I found that button inputs would not always register and that in the open-Zones, the camera would not always switch to the correct perspective for certain platforming sections. Usually it was simply a matter of leaving the immediate area and returning to the start of where the platforming began to fix the issue, but once the camera didn’t switch from 2D back to behind Sonic. Simply quitting the game and re-loading my save sorted this out. Apart from these I didn’t experience any technical issues.
My biggest problem with the game, however, comes right at its climax. Throughout the game you are required a few times to play this shmup-like mini game. I really don’t enjoy shmups, but these were very quick little asides to unlock more of the map. Well, after defeating the final Titan, you discover you need to also battle the evil force that wiped out the Islands’ original inhabitants. Like most Sonic games, this massive showdown takes place in space. So, to set the scene; a huge, almost omnipotent evil is bearing down on you. You’re in your Super Sonic form. You’ve spent hours making Sonic more powerful and learning all these cool fighting techniques. It’s the game’s final battle, the battle everything has been leading up to and…
It’s a shmup! I mean…what!?! Why the hell would Sonic Team have the player use all these awesome new fighting moves, give them the ability to make Sonic stronger and faster than ever before, only to completely disregard all of it for the final battle? The only connection you’ll have had in your previous 20+ hours of gameplay with this final fight is a throwaway minigame. Seriously?
As you can probably tell I was not at all impressed with the final battle. It should be said that you only have to deal with the shmup bit if you’re playing on hard. However, playing on one of the easier difficulties doesn’t make the end fight any more enjoyable as it simply reduces it to three button inputs you need to time correctly. After all the fun and brilliance of what came before, it feels like a punch to the face.
Thankfully, after you have completed said ridiculous fight, you can reload your save to mop up any collectables or challenges you missed on your play through. I advise you do, if for no other reason as to wipe the horrible taste of that awful boss fight from your mouth.
At this point I feel I should give special mention to the game’s writing. The game script is written by Ian Flynn, author of IDW, and before that Archie’s, monthly Sonic comics. For my money Flynn is by far the best Sonic writer. He just gets these characters perfectly, and it really shows here. Initially I was taken aback as Sonic’s voice is made to sound somewhat older than in other games, and the tone and themes of the game are a little more mature. However, thanks to Flynn’s wonderful writing this jarryness quickly evaporates. The dialogue between Sonic and his friends, as well as new villain Sage, is wonderful, and at times quite moving. Robotnik is no longer an oafish villain manically laughing, instead we see the reasoning in his madness, and he goes on a very surprising, and interesting, character arc. Something that will really please many fans, however, if Flynn fixes the “Tails problem” in a few lines of brilliantly crafted dialog. Suddenly, all those missteps by lesser writers make sense within the bigger picture of the little fox’s experience, and it’s absolutely wonderful!
Sonic Frontiers may have a few small issues, and one huge stumble at the end, but it is a very solid game and certainly the right direction for the Sonic series. While there may be some division about what style of gameplay is better among fans — open-Zone or Cyberspace — it all manages to come together in such a way that it feels familiar yet new. If Sonic Team can better integrate the more Sonic-y gameplay elements more naturally into the open world, keep Ian Flynn on writing duties and not utterly gimp the final boss, the follow up to Frontiers could be something truly brilliant.
Originally published at https://journeyintogeekery.com on November 24, 2022.