“Sonic Frontiers” was supposed to release in 2021, but it was delayed to 2022 in order to improve its quality. After the two “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie adaptations did well at the box office and received generally positive feedback, it makes sense that SEGA would like the next big “Sonic” game to exceed commercial and critical expectations, too.
“Sonic Frontiers” is a crockpot of a bunch of different game mechanics that work just fine individually, but the game itself lacks an overall identity. It’s very obvious that the team took Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” open-world concept and shoved in as many features from past “Sonic” games as they possibly could. “Sonic Frontiers” is the most peculiar game I’ve played in 2022.
The story begins with Sonic and his friends Amy and Tails falling through a wormhole and crash-landing on the Starfall Islands. Separated from his friends, Sonic must reunite with them by visiting all five of the islands while also unraveling the mystery surrounding the area’s ancient civilization. It’s a really interesting premise, but by the end of the game, the story just flew over my head. The ending was baffling as well, but I won’t spoil that here.
The “Sonic Frontiers” development team doesn’t like the “Breath of the Wild” comparisons, but the game actually plays much more like “Super Mario Odyssey.” Sonic goes around collecting rings on the open-world island much like Mario does with coins in his game.
The progression system revolves around Sonic running around and collecting a variety of different items. The islands are littered with platforming challenges filled with rails and bumpers that Sonic can ride on that have rewards at the end, such as stat upgrades and tokens. Collecting a certain number of tokens is needed to unlock new cutscenes with characters that further the main story.
Players are incentivized to keep exploring every nook and cranny of the islands for these collectibles, but they all feel somewhat lifeless. There aren’t any interesting characters to talk to, and there’s not really a sense of wonder like in “Breath of the Wild.” Running all over the place doesn’t uncover more of the island’s map. Instead, Sonic can complete specific platforming challenges that unlock a portion of it. You’re then treated with a bunch of icons on the map like a typical Ubisoft game such as “Assassin’s Creed.” As a result, exploration doesn’t feel as organic as it could be.
The game’s controls also leave a bit to be desired. While running, playing as Sonic feels exhilarating, but when he has to steer or turn, he feels off. There are mini-bosses that can be found throughout the islands, including gigantic enemies that Sonic has to scale, like something out of “Shadow of the Colossus.” The issue here is that I often found myself completely falling off while running on their body parts because, for some reason, Sonic can’t stay in a straight line. The slightest curve would send him tumbling all the way down and I’d have to start over again.
Sonic can also enter “Cyberspace” at various portals scattered across the islands, which are short, linear levels similar to those found in previous “Sonic” games — they’re either presented in a third-person or side-scrolling perspective. Completing different objectives, like finishing the level within a certain time limit, or collecting a set amount of rings earns you Vault Keys, which are also required for story progression.
I actually quite enjoyed these as they reminded me of the different 2D and 3D levels in “Sonic Generations.” They’re fast-paced and fun. The controls work better here than in the open world because of how much more linear the levels are. My only real complaint here is that the checkpoints on some levels are too spread apart. So if you fall off the level, you might have to start all the way from the beginning again.
Combat and skill progression, however, feel natural. Sonic learns 15 combat skills in this game, such as being able to shoot balls of light and counterattacking when he gets hit. Initially, I thought that the number was a bit low, but given how powerful some of these skills are changed my mind.
For example, Sonic’s counterattack recovery is most likely the last skill unlocked, and it’s staggering how much it elevates the flow of combat when you don’t have to wait for him to get up after getting hit. By the time you reach the end and thoroughly explored the different islands, you’ll have enough skill points to unlock all of Sonic’s abilities.
During boss fights, Sonic transforms into Super Sonic, where he’s immune to damage but your ring meter slowly decreases. If you don’t defeat the boss before your ring count hits zero, you have to play through the entire battle again. Additionally, when you restart the fight, you start off with zero rings. Not only do you have to start over, but you’re also punished for losing, which feels unfair.
That means you’re also incentivized to upgrade your ring capacity size over increasing Sonic’s overall running speed so that you can last longer during boss battles. This makes this particular aspect of progression feel a bit lopsided.
However, my favorite parts about “Sonic Frontiers” are its music and over-the-top cinematics. The Starfall Islands feature gorgeous and smooth piano melodies that make exploring them feel meditative. In contrast, the boss fights have the edgiest pop-punk tunes. During the second island’s boss battle against a dragon, hearing the female vocalist sing reminded me of being in high school again jamming out to Paramore. Sonic even deflects giant attacks from bosses like they were moments out of “Dragon Ball Z.” These instances are so corny that they’re endearing.
“Sonic Frontiers” is an amalgamation of the franchise’s past iconic mechanics that tries to reinvent itself in a new direction. It’s an admirable attempt, but I’m not entirely sure what it wants to be. However, longtime Sonic fans may want check out “Frontiers,” despite its bizarre features, to recapture some zen nostalgia.