Sonic Frontiers Review – More Please

Sonic Team actually did it! Mostly.

Posted By | On 14th, Nov. 2022

Sonic Frontiers Review – More Please

Sonic Frontiers is really, really good. 

It feels almost weird to say this. Sonic as an IP has had a rough few years, particularly when it comes to 3D games, with games such as Sonic Lost World, Sonic Boom, and Sonic Forces all missing the mark. And early showings of this game made people skeptical too (in part because the early showings were baffling). But Sonic Frontiers brings together the franchise’s incredible penchant for ambition, paired with some rather well designed platforming (though the game does stumble here), combined with a sense of speed and spectacle that now end up actually having some substance to them as a result, all mixed with some surprisingly compelling open world exploration and gameplay. It brings back attempts at some of the deeper characterization and storytelling that made (and continue to make) the Sonic universe so popular with so many. More than anything else, Sonic Frontiers is just incredibly fun. Even when you have to deal with the game’s few flaws, you’re going to be having fun with it. In the end, that’s the core quality that Sonic once stood for. Everything else the games did were just a means to an end, and the end was that the games were just incredibly fun and satisfying. Sonic Frontiers is the most fun a 3D Sonic game has been since Adventure 2.

So much of it comes down to the brilliance of the core concept. Sonic is basically one of those franchises (alongside fare such as Zelda or Pokemon) that is literally begging to “go open world”. Just the idea of being able to build up speed and momentum and run through an open playground designed like the best of Sonic’s outings, peppered with the high octane platforming that made the franchise so legendary, is an impossibly alluring proposition. It’s honestly shocking it took this long for Sonic to do something this obvious, but that hasn’t made open world Sonic any less brilliant for the wait. In fact, the long wait appears to have given Sonic Team some ideas on what games to look at for inspiration, as well as on how to merge the best parts of open world games with the best parts of Sonic, while avoiding the common pitfalls of open world games too.

"Sonic Frontiers is the most fun a 3D Sonic game has been since Adventure 2. So much of it comes down to the brilliance of the core concept. Sonic is basically one of those franchises (alongside fare such as Zelda or Pokemon) that is literally begging to “go open world”."

I don’t want to say they were totally successful, and there are some not insignificant misfires in the process, but they get enough right that the brilliance of the elevator pitch is allowed to shine. It is simply fun to run through the Starfall Islands. It’s fun to grind on the rails, to gain speed by navigating to expertly placed boost and jump pads, it is fun to just move in the game, and it is fun to just explore. And exploring at high speed? That leads to some great moments of player-authored spectacle, such as when you might have been building speed with a certain destination in mind, but at the last second you see a boost pad and swerve to that, which puts you on a grind rail, which lead you through boost rings, which sees you cover a shocking amount of distance in the most stylish and bombastic looking way possible. This wasn’t what you  set out to do – remember, you were going somewhere else – but the game tempted you with something shiny, you took the bait, and you were rewarded. 

Sonic Frontiers is full of moments like these, and these are the game at its very best. The five islands in the game are designed incredibly, incredibly well when it comes to encouraging the player to move through them and turn exploration itself into a traversal mechanic. Very literally nothing else in the game could have existed, just the islands with all the platforming design intact, and I would have found it to be worth the price of admission. That said, Sonic Frontiers does a lot more. Actually, it does a ridiculous amount of stuff. There’s an almost alarming “more is good” sensibility to Sonic Frontiers, where it just… constantly keeps on doing new things. Non-stop. Hours and hours and hours into the game, you can be encountering totally new gameplay mechanics or encounter styles. It literally never stops trying something new – and this can be good and bad in the game.

The reason it can be bad is that not everything Sonic throws at you is made equal. A lot of it is great, and leads to some of those glorious player authored moments of spectacle I alluded to earlier, but there’s some that’s just way too janky to be enjoyable, or plain old bad. This leads to a sense of unevenness as you play the game. You can go from very literally the highest high you have felt playing it, to some of the most frustrating time you have had with it. It can almost lead to whiplash, and generally, I think this is an area where Sonic Team either needed more confidence, and focus on fewer mechanics and systems pulled off to perfection, or they needed to make sure everything would be in the same ballpark of quality.

However, even when the game can throw frustrating or bad things at you, I think it ends up coming out ahead overall. Even at the most frustrating moments in the game, I at least initially felt surprised, and I also never really felt angry. I knew that the current annoyance was just limited to this one specific encounter or area, and I also just enjoyed the novelty of the newness. It’s very hard to be angry at something that is so going out of its way to try and surprise you.

Sonic Frontiers_08

"The five islands in the game are designed incredibly, incredibly well when it comes to encouraging the player to move through them and turn exploration itself into a traversal mechanic. Very literally nothing else in the game could have existed, just the islands with all the platforming design intact, and I would have found it to be worth the price of admission. "

I mentioned jank, and yeah, this is a janky game. Even at its best, there is a certain degree of jank you simply have to be willing to put up with. This manifests in pretty much everything. The camera, the lock-on, the combat, even the controls, all have a certain degree of lack of polish. Typically, they are polished more than enough to make up for their few misses (and also, again, are conceptually brilliant enough that it makes you likelier to overlook their stumbles), but fair warning. Don’t go in expecting a hyper-polished game or anything, even at its very best.

This lack of polish extends to even beyond the gameplay. Take, for example, the visuals. 

Now, on one level, I greatly empathize with Sonic Team here. Making a massive AAA game can be difficult. Making it for the first time can be even more difficult. Making it for the first time on multiple platforms can be even more difficult. Making it for the first time on multiple platforms spanning three effective generations of hardware spec is just an insane undertaking, one that I wouldn’t trust most developers with. But ultimately, that’s what Sonic Team had to do here. They were making a AAA open world game for the first time across multiple systems, spanning everything from the Nintendo Switch to the PS5 and Xbox Series X – and everything in between. There was no question of skipping Switch (given that Nintendo platforms sell more Sonic than everything else put together) and no question of skipping next gen systems (where their ambitions would truly get to shine). So they just made it for everything, and, well, it went better than you’d expect, but also it hit a lot of the roadblocks you’d expect too.

The most obvious of these is the pop-in. The pop-in in Sonic Frontiers is insane. Things very literally pop into existence just a few feet ahead of you, and this can be utterly jarring especially at higher speeds, where things can pop into existence only for you to speed past them a half second later and there being nothing there again. I legitimately have no idea how it’s this bad, especially on the PS5 (where I played, and where you’d expect something like this to not be an issue). I want to say it never really disrupts gameplay – but it is, if nothing else, very distracting, and can actually be a jarring break from the sense of atmosphere and immersion the game goers to such lengths to build otherwise.

Sonic Frontiers_01

"Even at its best, there is a certain degree of jank you simply have to be willing to put up with. This manifests in pretty much everything. The camera, the lock-on, the combat, even the controls, all have a certain degree of lack of polish."

Really, the game does do a great job of pulling you into its world, pop in excepted. A lot of credit for this goes to the game’s music, which is incredible. This is, honestly, no surprise to pretty much anyone who has even the least bit of familiarity with Sonic as a franchise because even the worst Sonic games ever (there have been a few contenders for that spot) have had amazing music. Sonic Frontiers continues that tradition, bringing a mix of some incredibly atmospheric, dulcet music, and some more traditional Sonic fare – all done with the signature panache the franchise is known for on this front.

Also great is the art style, surprisingly enough. Early showings of the game had people rightly skeptical that the weirdly photorealistic look the game’s environments were going for would clash with the more cartoonish design of the characters. In the final game, that is absolutely… true? But also sort of the point. Sonic and his friends are outsiders and strangers in this world. You’re not supposed to find them “fitting in”, and so they don’t. But both, the characters, and the environment, are incredibly well realized artistically, and both are a joy to look at.

There is some work left to be done – for instance, the game makes ample use of grind rails in its open world. This is a great thing, by the way, and the grind rails lead to some fantastic segments, but also, they literally just look like grind rails thrown into the world with no regard for making them actually blend in. The world ends up looking not cohesive, but chaotic. You have grind rails just randomly drawn in mid-air or hanging by in the grass, and it just looks weird. I have absolutely no issue with the grind rails on a mechanical level, but if Sonic Team is going to stick to this formula for future games, which they absolutely must, there is no going back now, then they need to do a far better job of visually contextualizing these gamey elements better with their more naturalistic world. It undermines so much of the quiet contemplative beauty the game is going for, and which you are meant to enjoy as you zip through its world.

Sonic Frontiers_12

"A big stumble – the cyberspace levels. These levels are shorter, more traditional, linear platforming challenges that you complete to gain keys, which help you progress and unlock more of the world. And they are… not very good. "

Another big stumble in the game — probably its biggest, actually — is the cyberspace levels. These levels are shorter, more traditional, linear platforming challenges that you complete to gain keys, which help you progress and unlock more of the world. And they are… not very good. They are absolutely the weakest parts of the game, actually. They’re not just worse than the rest of the game, or other linear platforms we have received, they are worse than Sonic’s own past attempts at linear 3D platforming, such as the highs of Sonic Unleashed, Generations, or Colors. They often  on a degree of really precise platforming the game’s controls don’t support, which ends up undermining their own spectacle. Other times, they almost literally end up playing themselves. Regardless of where on the difficulty spectrum they fall, they never feel satisfying. They are also just not very well designed, seemingly designed around a sense of built up momentum that this game, relying on the so-called “boost” formula for its traversal, simply doesn’t have, so they just end up feeling very… frustrating. 

Thankfully, they are fairly short, and also they don’t make up that much of the game, but given that they are the closest to traditional linear platforming this game has, them being so underwhelming does mean that anyone who was looking for something more traditional will come away very disappointed with this game. There are some good ones – and even I’d admit that they’re very repayable thanks to their short length and the secondary objectives which compel you to go back to them – but on the whole, they are the absolute low point of the game.

There is a lot wrong with Sonic Frontiers, but the things it does right are the ones that matter the most. And it does them just right enough to keep you hooked, and let you truly be drawn in by the sheer brilliance of its core concept. There are also, absolutely, sustained flashes of brilliance in the game’s design, with the open world in particular being an inspired take on Sonic platforming. And more than anything else, it’s just fun to spend time in this game and immerse yourself in it. Yes, Sonic Frontiers isn’t perfect, and it does have a lot of ground to cover in the hopefully inevitable follow-up. But goodness, to me, the things it does right are the ones that will stick with me, and the game’s earnest sense of ambition, and the surprising degree to which it follows through on it, make it a great experience that is, inarguably, some of the best time I have ever had with the Sonic franchise.

Sonic Team and Sega: More please.

This game was reviewed on PS5.


THE GOOD

Movement in the game feels like a joy; the five islands are incredibly well designed speed platforming playgrounds, that are incredibly satisfying to explore and traverse; great music; the world is beautiful and full of things to do; an incredible sense of ambition.

THE BAD

A general degree of jank and lack of polish; extremely bad pop-in, and art style that can often feel chaotic; very varying quality when it comes to all the various things the game has you do; the linear Cyber Space levels are really underwhelming.

Final Verdict:
GREAT
It's not a home run, but Sonic Frontiers does so much of the things that really matter so well that it is easily the most fun 3D Sonic has been in years – maybe even decades – and a genuinely fun and engaging game on its own merits.
A copy of this game was provided by Developer/Publisher/Distributor/PR Agency for review purposes. Click here to know more about our Reviews Policy.

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