For the longest time, Sonic the Hedgehog has been merely existing, relying very much on nostalgia and past successes. There are solid installments out there, such as Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania (both definitely rely on nostalgia). However, there have been undoubtedly more negatives than positives for the past 20 years. With Sonic Frontiers, Sega can finally complete the resurgence of our favourite spiky mammal following two successful films. So, does Sonic Frontiers make up for past blemishes, painting a promising path for the future?
Sonic Frontiers provides the context to our journey in our opening cutscene. We see Dr. Eggman up to no good once again. Next, we see Sonic, Tails and Amy, who have tracked the Chaos Emeralds to the Starfall Islands. They are attacked; Sonic is transported into Cyberspace to a brief yet enjoyable first level.
Generally, Cyberspace levels are entertaining. Most levels are completed within a short spell of 90 seconds or under, but if anything, this is for the best because they never outstay their welcome. While I wish they hadn’t used Green Hill Zone for what feels like the millionth time, Cyberspace is here to offer the traditional Sonic gameplay and, subsequently, traditional Sonic environments. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition to the open-world gameplay that covers the majority of Sonic Frontiers.
Once the preliminaries are concluded – including a slightly tedious tutorial – the first Starfall Island is there to explore! It’s swiftly evident that this is the most beautiful Sonic the Hedgehog game to date! While certainly not on par with God of War, Death Stranding or Red Dead Redemption II among others, the landscapes are mesmerising at times. Thus, it’s a pleasure to stand at the top of a mountain and simply look out at the horizon.
Initially, it appears bizarre; sky rails and jump pads occupy the skyline (we’ll come back to this), but in the context of a Sonic game, this hardly feels out of place. Having landscapes render so far in the distance is impressive, improving the aesthetic and atmospheric design. Thus, Sonic feels appropriately minute in this vast world. With regards to the expansive landscape, being able to explore anywhere in sight makes the world feel evermore open – something that many video games still struggle to accomplish.
As I rolled around at the speed of sound, I was impressed with the sheer detail across all five Starfall Islands. Scepticism was rife in the early gameplay footage of Sonic Frontiers due to the world’s sheer emptiness. Fortunately, the space is utilised thanks to puzzles, enemies and obstacles. Could the environments feel more lively? Sure. Could obstacles and puzzles have been integrated better into said environments? Of course. But, it’s nonetheless fun to take part in mostly everything throughout the Starfall Islands. Believe me, there’s content galore.
Jump pads, rails and other obstacles combine for a sublime flow. They often connect so sharply and precisely, and before you know it, you’ve traversed half of an island! It’s so easy to be lost in the flow of climbing a tower or reaching a Chaos Emerald too. Integrally, this prevents the adventure from being a chore. Sonic Team have somehow laced these layers of gameplay together so that a player can seamlessly explore.
Sonic Frontiers experiments a bunch in relation to its gameplay loop. Most prior Sonic games are straightforward: complete this series of levels to advance the story – and maybe attempt to beat your previous times. While there’s some variety in terms of paths to take, for the longest time this has remained the Sonic formula; it’s far too linear to maintain any longer. While Cyberspace is certainly this, there is so much more meat on the bones of Sonic Frontiers. From a plethora of boss and sub-boss battles (some of which have you play as Super Sonic) to puzzles, to the traversal of towers to fishing with Big the Cat, the gameplay loop is impressively varied.
Variation is key because it showcases a level of ambition and experimentation that we’ve rarely seen from Sonic Team previously. With Sonic Forces, as an example, a darker tone together with character customisation were advertised changes that promised to mix up the Sonic formula, yet Sonic Forces lacked a true identity, failing to provide a unique or engaging lens. The 2017 title fell to mediocrity as a result, taking few risks and having little substance. In contrast, Sonic Frontiers has several identities, several gameplay formats moulded into one project. As a result, this layered piece of art has a real identity to it.
Sure, elements of gameplay do fail to hit the mark and/or become repetitive – I for one am not a fan of herding Koco like sheep, and the combat can become samey at times – although I was kept busy and rarely questioned if I enjoyed the experience. A plethora of enemy types helped somewhat to ease the feeling of repetition, with different abilities being necessary depending on the foe. These abilities bring us into another significant change: skill points. Throughout the adventure, skill points unlock abilities, transforming Sonic into more than merely a speed demon.
No longer is the Sonic formula simply platformer-adventure. Adventure is further emphasised due to the expansive world, and combat awards the action genre, but a role-playing game? Yes, Sonic Frontiers offers an RPG experience too, with the skill points being just one factor. Through finding collectibles across the Starfall Islands, Sonic can upgrade his attack, defence, speed and ring capacity. Importantly, you can feel the impact of these improvements to Sonic’s stats; the Blue Blur feels more powerful with every upgrade!
Part of the fun with regards to Sonic becoming stronger is gathering the required collectibles. For ring capacity and speed, finding Koco among the environments is hardly difficult; it’s often accomplished by focusing on other tasks. As for attack and defence, you’re encouraged to defeat enemies as you explore the world. When exploration itself is so enjoyable, this is light work.
Narratives in Sonic games have never exactly been strong points, but Sonic Frontiers is an exception. Dr. Eggman is at the centre of villainy once again, but there’s a conflicted character working alongside the nefarious scientist. Flashbacks paint the picture and build the context of Starfall Islands, some of which are surprisingly deep for a Sonic game.
Thematically, Sonic Frontiers purposefully feels more sombre, flashbacks leading the way with this tone. Sonic’s interactions with the Koco, alongside Knuckles, Tails and Amy emphasise this further, with touching moments and solid character building to flesh out Sonic and his friends. Music contributes massively to the atmosphere too, creating this melancholic tone as Sonic explores the Starfall Islands almost alone. You feel as though this title is not upbeat simply through the music, with the narrative providing further reason. One consistently solid element of Sonic games is music; Sonic Frontiers‘ soundtrack is wonderfully crafted with the desired effect on myself as a player.
As I had hoped, “Sonic Frontiers could be a fantastic addition and revival of the franchise”; indeed, it is! After years of the occasional decent game at best, Sonic Team have successfully reinvented the Blue Blur’s formula. While the combination of Sonic and open world requires better blending in the next installment, this is a fantastic step forward to providing a future for one of gaming’s original mascots. Sonic Team and Sega have made an admirable attempt and will have learned about what works for a Sonic game and what doesn’t. There are several minor problems, of course, but the many things Sonic Frontiers gets right more than make up for the shortcomings, some of which naturally come from taking a sizable risk.
Developer: Sonic Team
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Release date: 8th November 2022
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Sonic Frontiers was provided by the publisher.