Sonic Frontiers by Sonic Team/SEGA aspires to redefine one of the most historic platform game series, and harmonize it with more modern design trends.
This is neither the first nor the second such effort for Sonic and company. While rival awe-inspiring Super Mario made a successful transition to the 3D era as early as Super Mario 64 in 1996, the super-sonic hedgehog of our hearts has never been able to follow smoothly, with its occasional adventures in old-fashioned 2D always receiving a much warmer reception from audiences and critics alike than its 3D attempts - some of which are often included in lists of the worst games of all time.
Sonic Team with Sonic Frontiers decides to go all-in on the attempt to modernize the series, and delivers not just a 3D platform game, but an open-world 3D game, with all the hallmarks of those games, namely huge maps full of activities, challenges, attractions, enemies and tons of collectibles.
At this point I want to make a small (so to speak) parenthesis with my personal connection with the series, but also with platform gaming in general. When I was in my pre-teen years, the young geeks' discussions had one main conflict, Sonic vs. Mario - other famous rivalries like Street Fighter 2 vs. Mortal Kombat, Doom vs. Duke Nukem, and not to be confused, came later. In this war I was in the SEGA and Sonic camp, having swallowed whole the targeted marketing that wanted to make some amustachus pipsqueaks feel cooler and edgier than some other amustachus pipsqueaks who liked the more family-friendly mysterious Italian plumber. What mattered which was the better game (after all, almost no one had the opportunity to thoroughly engage with both series), the important thing was that Mario was for the babies and Sonic was for the streetwise!
These things today seem as funny as they used to be. But the love I had for Sonic from the age of ten to thirteen (somewhere around there I met Doom and Secret of Monkey Island 2, and changed my gaming path) was maintained for 2D platform gaming in general... which never became a love for 3D platforming, on the contrary I always viewed it with slight dislike, perhaps due to the difficulties the super-sonic hedgehog had with three dimensions early on. So with that in mind, I am now called upon to judge the most recent Sonic game, which is more 3D than ever before.
The story starts relatively simply. Sonic's eternal rival, Dr. Robotnik, is trying to activate a portal he's found on an island. He succeeds but with serious consequences, as the portal completely absorbs him. Almost at the same time, a strange wave of power hits Sonic and company, and while Sonic is seemingly unharmed on an unknown island, Tails, Knuckles and Amy are nowhere to be found, and an ethereal voice informs Sonic that if he wants to save his friends, he must follow her instructions... From there, in the nearly twenty-five hours that Sonic Frontiers runs, the story unfolds with more depth than we probably expect from a Sonic game, and there's also a, quite successful, attempt to lay new, healthier foundations for Sonic's interpersonal relationships with all of his friends - Amy in particular desperately needed it.
But no one plays Sonic to find within the answers to the eternal existential questions of the human species. What about the gameplay, and more importantly, what top speed does our hero reach?
The initial feeling that Sonic Frontiers creates is one of bewilderment. Sonic moving freely across a 3D map, where some keys and some gears matter far more than rings, where a series of simple mini-games to unlock the map are more important to progress than stunts at breakneck speed, however generously the latter are offered? Not my Sonic!
But with a little patience, and with the main helper during the initial period of adaptation being the amazing soundtrack that you just can't get enough of listening to, you slowly get into the mood. Of the game's five islands, four of them share the same pattern - Rhea Island stands out because it only contains a series of platforming challenges. The ultimate goal on each island is to defeat the enormous Titan, against whom Sonic has no chance of winning unless he collects the 7 chaos emeralds that turn him into Super Sonic. To open the pedestals with the emeralds, keys are required, which Sonic collects mostly from portals. Portals are the classic Sonic levels in 2D and on-rails 3D, as we know them from games like Sonic Generations. And to open the portals, gears are required to drop guardian mini-bosses. Alongside these, scattered throughout each map are tokens necessary for communication with other characters and story progression.
As the hierarchy of collectibles and the requirements for progression in the game become clear, the player sets goals and the initial awkwardness turns into an addictive gameplay loop of primarily exploration (at high speeds of course!) that can be fully absorbing for hours. Once again I will emphasize how important for this immersion is the top-notch soundtrack, which during free roaming consists of wonderful, relaxing melodies, unusual for Sonic. The classic tracks and boss fights of course, are accompanied by much more dynamic compositions and songs.
We could be talking about an excellent release, if there were not some problems, both of a technical and a design nature.
With this review being characteristically delayed, it's likely that readers with even the slightest interest in Sonic Frontiers will have seen the videos that flooded YouTube and related platforms upon release, showing grotesque situations with the pop-in of various items. While I didn't see anything that striking, the problem is certainly real, and unfortunately can affect gameplay, as while trying to navigate and figure out how an area becomes accessible, important platforms may not appear until the last millisecond, or second.
In more structural problems, from the second island onwards it is quite common to switch to 2D plane on some routes within the open world. This transition is unfortunately not unproblematic, and mostly creates uncertainty about Sonic's movement when it comes to precision platforming - don't imagine Super Meat Boy requirements, but it's a time in which you really don't want uncertainty in character movement. When the time comes for the platforming challenge on Rhea Island, it can bring the player to the brink of ragequit, and the only thing that saves the day is that the developers, in an oblique acknowledgement of the problem, have made sure to place plenty of shortcuts at key points on the godlike pylons Sonic has to climb.
The camera, one of the most important yet precarious elements of a third-person 3D game, works mostly well, with one specific but important exception, the confrontation with the sometimes huge guardians and Titans. Sonic's necessary climbing over these enemies at top speed often confuses the camera, which points elsewhere for elsewhere, and certainly not on the right path. Sooner or later (usually quickly, truth be told), it gets back on track, but even so, it's frustrating.
The game is generally easy, but there are steep difficulty spikes and skill gates. Big personal complaint is the second Titan, which gives no alternative in how to deal with it. Either the player will execute a series of parries perfectly, to the second and under time pressure, a move that requires a wild combination of keys (either keyboard or gamepad), or never win and progress through the game. Similarly, the pinball minigame at the end of Chaos Island can keep you stuck for hours... or just a few minutes, as it relies too heavily on luck. I know that pinball is part of Sonic's story, but honestly I'd prefer the homage to be purely optional. I don't generally have a problem with git gud, but when the game demands it, I in turn demand better challenge design, not clunky controls and random resets.
One last observation that isn't exactly a drawback, especially since Sonic Frontiers gives alternate options. The player dedicated to exploration will experience a very smooth progression in terms of collecting collectibles. The player who prefers to go nailing from story node to story node, however, will likely feel that the game is overly grindy, especially in terms of the number of tokens needed. Literally in my last hour of engagement with the game, I discovered that this grind can be bypassed through the fishing mini-game, which allows for quick harvesting of a significant number of keys, tokens, gears and other supplies, which led me to increase my rating slightly.
As I already admitted, this review was completed late enough to make it clear that Sonic Frontiers has divided - perhaps the critics more than the audience, who seem ready to forgive their favourite hedgehog a lot. The problems are there, but for me Sonic Frontiers won the bet both as a standalone game and as a marker for the future of the series.
Many thanks to Zegetron for providing the review code.