PlayStation 56.50
Overall 6.50
After the debacle of Sonic Forces, Sonic Team knew they had to try something different for the next major Sonic release. Seemingly chasing trends they opted for the open world route which is very popular now and has lead to massive sales for many games. I’ve always dreamt of an open world sonic, that classic animated opening of Sonic CD come to life with sonic dashing and hopping is way through beautiful green hills, Frontiers wanted to desperately capture that feel but doesn’t quite get there. Instead we have a game with many half baked ideas and an identity crisis that leaves it not really excelling at any one thing but at least showing promise for the future.

Frontiers eschews the usual level to level structure of past games for giant hub worlds where most of the action takes place. The BOTW influence is noticeable from the start with its wide open fields and minimalistic piano melodies as Sonic runs free to forge his own path in the world. Sonic Team nailed the most important part of this transition to open world, it’s fun to control sonic. If you’ve ever played a boost sonic game you know that stopping and doing something as simple as turning around doesn’t really work, those games are designed to only push forward. Here sonic running in a circle is a key component, being able to stop on a dime and switch directions is fluid and responsive. Bursting at high speeds and hitting a series of boost pads and grind rails in succession gives that rush that I love in sonic games.

Sonic has all kinds of new attack moves; when the first trailers came out it made it seem like combat would be a big part of the game. Sonic can do all kinds of flashy air attacks, shoot beams of light from his hands (why? How? Oh who cares he just does) and do fast punch combos as if he is auditioning for brawler. Ultimately there actually aren’t that many enemies, they are there but most can be avoided and the mini bosses act like small unique events rather than melee fodder so it works out. This is good cause all these new moves amount to a whole lot of nothing, the combat system has the depth of a puddle and basically results in me spamming these special attacks over and over. Defense and “parry” (it’s not a parry if you can just hold the button down forever and deflect the attack, that’s called a block!) is mostly non existent and only really comes into play with the boss battles. Honestly Unleashed werehog combat was better than this, the only saving grace is that this game uses the combat to supplement the rest of the gameplay where unleashed stupidly made it a focus for half the game.

The main new skill is the cyloop which when you hold down a button a blue streak appears behind sonic, circle enemies or objects in this blue energy ribbon and you get a reaction. With enemies it serves as a stun or a block breaker. circling groups of enemies mid fight feels fun, in general running in circles is fun so this is one of the abilities that do make perfect sense for the kind of game they developed. I rather would have had this mechanic be more involved in combat, have Okami like drawings that sonic can make to do different attacks. That would be more mechanically interesting than hold R2 and press a button and sonic automatically does some crazy attack.

This is still a boost sonic game at its core so momentum is created with the push of a button rather than using the environment to create momentum like in the old genesis games. I feel that would have been a far smarter choice, imagine a classic like sonic world, with huge loops and launch points and the core gameplay is to keep momentum going, that would make traversal interesting. Instead you hit a button and sonic goes extremely fast, but not that fast, his speed is capped by his speed level. The leveling up system in this game is weird as hell, so there are four stats, attack and defense are self explanatory, there is also speed and ring capacity. Your max speed is capped by your level but if you reach max rings you enter a blue energy state where you can boost at max speed. Now if you level up ring capacity it’s much harder to reach that powered up state, why would I want to punish myself with more rings. All you need is one ring to survive, why do I need 600 rings? The only time it’s needed are the super sonic levels that count down the rings, but even then with 300 rings there is plenty of time to beat the boss. There is a move set skill tree which grants sonic various new attacks, it’s like 10 moves long and I finished filling the skill tree by the second world, all of a sudden all this “exp” you get from combat was totally useless. These are two of many examples of ideas that feel unfinished or not well thought out.

The gameplay loop is pretty simple, Sonic must defeat minibosses to collect gears, those gears open up classic sonic levels to complete which earns you keys and those keys then open locked away chaos emeralds. Collect six of them and battle the main boss of that world. I wish this formula had a better flow because for me I just ran around, hit a bunch of icons on a map to collect a bunch of stuff and did levels when I found them. As I messed around I naturally collected all I needed to to advance the story. Most of the time I had excessive amounts of the items needed to move on because I always feel the need to explore every inch and do every activity. I felt like this game was severely lacking in any urgency, for hours on end I would simply collect stuff not caring what it was for or needed, I always had enough to move on when I was ready.

There are various activities to do around these maps, among them are the map markers which have a simple goal to accomplish that then reveals part of the map. These come in various mini activities like dodge side to side a few times, just block something, get on a circular treadmill and run, circle a few objects, and the best one run on lit panels on the floor without stepping on the same panel twice (this one actually requires a person with a functioning brain to complete so it’s an improvement on the others).

Most of the island is populated with floating grind rails or mini obstacles which when competed give a collectable that is used to get side quests from the NPCs. To me this is basically the core gameplay of the entire game, I would run around the map looking for a spring or boost pad which would launch me into the air and into a series of grinds, springs, or enemies which need to be lock on attacked to get to the end and reach the collectable. This is the only time in the open world where the game resembles the other 3D sonic games and frankly without all these small obstacles the world would be barren with nigh anything of note to do. The map screen will show where every collectable is, you only need a very small amount to complete the level, most of it is there if the player just wants to collect stuff. When it works best is when I ignored the map and simply went off and tried to chain as many of these as possible. In what I would call the best example of good level design in this game, many of these obstacles end with sonic being launched to a spot which will start a new obstacle and so on until he reaches a point of interest where multiple branches exist. It is possible to hit a sort of zen state of chaining these obstacles and zoom through the level, this was when I enjoyed the game the most and shows the potential for this formula.

Many of these grind mini courses are extremely simple and require maybe a timed jump or two. Other times they are more complex and take sonic across huge swaths of the land. Some involve massive towers with walls that allow sonic to walk up, these vertical sections are thrilling and I wanted more. In a stroke of genius many of these sections lock you into a 2D plane so it starts to play like a 2D section of the boost sonic games. There are some janky issues when say you want to exit a 2D section and get back to exploring, but as a fan of boost gameplay this actually resembled a goal that takes some skill to achieve. I am baffled at the lack of skill challenges or time trials, these open worlds should have been filled with them. The lack of skill that pervades this game hurt it for me, I play 3D sonic games to get S-ranks, to master the levels, that’s where the fun is. All these grind obstacles have zero consequences to them, you fall oh well, just get back up. They have something here, they could create mini levels built into the world that have actual skill based goals, but instead it’s just busy work that is only there if you want it.

Each island has its collection of mini bosses which at least are varied. One of them is a flying beast that has this giant streak that flows behind it which sonic can run on, you leap onto this thing and dash your way toward the beast while it shoots at you requiring sonic to dodge side to side. In the sand island there is this sand shark which sonic grabs onto and you do a simple QTE mini game. These would be a cool events if it wasn’t for the absurd amount of time taken up by these bosses as they literally do animations for over a minute. You do nothing, you just watch these bosses do a whole dance while you wait for the interactive part to start up again. There are better bosses than those, like a tower that has to be chopped down piece by piece. A giant with huge legs that can be run up to reach its weak point. The very best one comes very late in the game and turns the mini obstacles into a battle. This boss sucks your life away and shoots energy beams at you while you have you navigate a complex series of grinds and jumps to reach a totem that has to be destroyed, there are three of these of increasing difficulty to reach. It only lasts a few minutes but that is exactly the kind of skill based goal oriented gameplay moment that should have filled the game, giving the obstacles a sense of danger.

At the end of every island is a major boss battle in which sonic turns super and an epic clash begins. Usually the super sonic battles are saved for the final boss but in this game they happen a few times, luckily they are mostly great. These bosses are massive in scale, kind of ironic that I finish playing GoW and the game with the larger screen filling boss battles is Sonic. Each of these bosses are unique, all have different flows and patterns to learn. Some of the super sonic final battles from past games are very messy but here they are focused and well designed. Easily one of the highlights of the game… except for the final boss which is a travesty.

I have gone far too long on this review without mentioning the most painful part of the game for me, the classic sonic levels. Each map has at least 7 sonic courses which can be completed to earn keys to unlock the chaos emeralds. This is where I thought I would fall in love with the game, here is a game with 3D boost courses but the in between part is a fun open world as opposed to something terrible. Sadly these courses are clearly an afterthought and basically feel like they were copy pasted on when they realized there wasn’t enough of a game with just the open world. These levels come in one of four different background templates taken from past sonic games. The level design itself is usually a piece of an old sonic course, redesigned and pasted onto one of those four level backgrounds. They justify this in the story because it’s some kind of simulation that is taking elements of sonics memories and building a course out of it, they can try their best to justify it but nothing can hide the fact they they only wanted to reuse assets from Generations and even use old level designs.

Sometimes the nostalgia works, I got giddy when I realized I was playing Metal Harbor or White Jungle, flashes of my time playing the far superior SA2 would fill my mind. Some of the levels were genuinely great, especially when it was borrowed from the better sonic games. I LOVE this gameplay, every time I entered a new level I felt that excitement of maybe this is going to be a memorable course. Will I get that adrenaline rush of doing a perfect run, hitting that high score and time for an s rank. Then reality would sink in and I get a tiny level that takes about a minute 20 seconds to complete with almost no skill needed to get the s ranks. The requirements for the extra goals are pathetic, the only reason a level might take a couple of tries is cause some red coins have to be acquired taking different paths. S rank is only tied to time, long gone are the days of needing to execute a perfect run with a high score, ring count, and time to get an s rank; now it’s handed out like candy.  Some of the levels are 2D only levels and for some reason they feel so slow, I can only surmise than they borrowed the feel from the atrocious Forces game. The 3D ones feel fine and when there was a good semi long level I was in heaven but that feeling happened so few times. These levels were like a giant tease, reminding me of the best parts of sonic’s past and making it clear how poorly thought out their inclusion into this game was.

Speaking of poorly executed ideas, fishing with Big returns! It’s awful! Did Sonic Team have a “please share ideas day”, where they asked everyone to come up with gameplay ideas and instead of filtering the bad ones out they kept them all in. In this “fishing” mini game you move a cursor around this small area that always has a bunch of fish around, press x and the lure be cast to that area. It doesn’t matter where you cast it, a fish will always snag it, press X again to hook it and then comes the challenging part… a ring will appear and you time your button press when it reaches the ring. Do that and you catch a random fish or item. There is no skill or any depth at all to this. It’s a time wasting activity with overly long animations but actually has good rewards so I ended up doing it over and over and over again.

To cast a line it costs Big coins which are found around the world which would be rewarding when you find them if they were hard to come by, except there is this completely random event that happens on certain nights where colored rocks cover the map. These rocks shoot huge beams of light through the air making it easy to see where they are and when this happens a slot machine gets plastered in the top part of the screen. For that night the slot machine has random pulls and depending on the results you are gifted and unholy amount of these big coins. Collecting the glowing rocks I think gives you more pulls of the slot, I honestly don’t know, it makes no sense. What’s worse is if you are planning to ignore it and play the game, the slot icon covers a part of the screen. I got locked into a boss battle and this stupid thing was right where the boss was so I couldn’t see what I was fighting. No way to skip it, to ignore it, after two of these events you will probably have max coins making finding the ones around the world useless and the requirement for them to fish also pointless. Just another example of a half baked idea that clearly didn’t get properly developed.

Oh I have to mention this because it’s so infuriatingly dumb. To level up your stats there are two sages, one levels up attack/defense, the other speed/rings. The attack defense guy accepts all the items that level those stats up instantly, so say you have 20 of each you level up both stats by 20 all at once, as it should be. Go to the other sage and he will ask you if you would like to power up either speed or rings, pick it and he levels up that stat by 1. The entire animation to get leveled up by 1 takes 10 seconds… there are 200 levels to reach between them. To max these stats it would take over 30 minutes of DOING NOTHING. Why is this a thing, how did this get past testing? Why does one level you up multiple levels at once but another does it one at a time? What evil developer decided to torture us with these animations?

Let’s get the rest of the negatives out of the way, the pop up in this game needs to go into the video game pop up hall of fame. I’m playing on a PS5, it runs at a good frame rate and looks good but it can’t spawn objects 5 feet away from sonic. This is not good when your game revolves around a very fast character that should see where he is going and where he has to get to. Most of the time on the ground it isn’t much of a problem, it’s the grind rails in the air that don’t appear until you are practically under them. So many times I would look at the map and see where a collectable would be, get there and not see anything because I wasn’t close enough to pop in a massive complex air obstacle course. To find the start of the course I would have to carefully follow it so that it can materialize where the jump point is.

Sonic still has some of his patented jank. I have careened off of platforms, missed easy jumps cause the camera would freak out on me and many times couldn’t even see the direction I wanted to go. At least it isn’t too glitchy, I fell through the level only a few times, that’s better than most sonic games. A big pet peeve of mine returns to rear it’s ugly head, the totally random QTE that appears at the very end of a major boss and if you miss the tiny window you automatically die and have to start the entire fight game, good times. As a sonic veteran I almost come to expect these flaws, they are familiar and easy for me to ignore. It might be some stinky shit but it’s my stinky shit. So despite all these issues I still have a great time controlling sonic and enjoyed most of my time exploring, these nagging issues come with the territory.

Another indication of a limited development cycle shows up in the final act of the game. The game clearly shows you there will be five islands, the first three are all distinct offering a forest, desert and lava themed level. Cliche environments to be sure but at least the islands looked and felt different with new mini games, bosses and activities in each. The third island in particular was great, I felt the game hits a great groove with well designed grind courses, inventive mini bosses and some of the best classic levels. Then the fourth island happens and wait a minute, it’s not a real island. This section is a timed rush through a small area with multiple towers. Honestly I loved this section, the towers were all well designed and it had urgency, it felt like a proper level. It really felt like that island would be the buildup to the final boss battle but for whatever reason there is a final fifth island which looks IDENTICAL to the first island. Yes it had some great grinding and springing but it felt more tacked on for padding than a proper final send off. The grand finale hits like a dead fish with terrible cutscenes that don’t properly frame the gravitas of the moment and a final boss so random it’s one of the strangest moments of any sonic game (to be fair a mini game introduced in the final island does prep you for this but still results in a huge letdown). It probably should have ended after the tower rush sequence, once again more examples of a game that had too many random ideas.

I guess I should talk about the story, it’s crap, but I guess it’s to be expected. I have been a fan of the melodramatic sonic stories of old, usually because they play up super hero fantasies and dive into anime tropes. Frontiers’ story has all that but the plot is nonsensical, I found it hard to care about anything. Basically Sonic and friends end up stuck on an island where an ancient alien race built a home after an unspecified threat destroyed their planet. This location has extremely advanced technology which sucks in sonic and friends into some cyberspace thing, sonic escapes and must free his friends while a new AI created by Robotnik acts as a foil. It’s not as light hearted as the last few sonic games, which I enjoy, quippy Sonic is best Sonic. Here everything is so bleak, even the moments of triumph end quick and go back to impending doom. I will say some of the characters have some decent development, mainly Tails, Robotnik and the new character Sage. There are tons of Easter eggs for Sonic lore masters to eat up, some name or event from nearly every game gets mentioned, I think that alone will please a lot of the die hards. I found it hard to care about the nameless threat and a lot of the plot lines go nowhere.

I must commend the incredible music, it’s a mix of techno pop and classic sonic cheese rock. While exploring the world there is only ambient piano music but once a battle kicks in the music compliments and enhances the moment. Some mini bosses even have remixed music from past sonic games which brought a big smile to my face. But the best of the best are the classic stage tracks, all original music with some certifiable bangers. There is this dance pop song in the second level that is still stuck in my head. This might be my gaming soundtrack of the year.

Graphically the game is just fine. A lot of the environments are rather plain, there isn’t much detail in anything. The classic levels look great… cause they come from a different game. The character models look about the same as they have looked for a while now, nothing about this really screams top of the line graphics. Performance is where it excels as it ran at a smooth 60fps on PS5 with rarely a hitch.

Ultimately Frontiers is a let down for me, there is something fun in the core gameplay loop but this game fails to explore that in any meaningful ways. It’s a hodge podge of poorly executed ideas, a game that feels directionless with no conviction to commit to any one kind of game. Once again I find myself confused at the overwhelming positive reaction a big open world setting gets a franchise, yes I get that this is probably the most accessible sonic game in many many years. If someone didn’t care for the 3D boost formula there is finally something new to try out, but this is clearly not executed well. It’s a fun game, don’t get me wrong, for the 30 plus hours it took I generally enjoyed my time because it’s so relaxing, which is the opposite of what I want from my sonic games. Sonic Team should focus on what really works and makes this game memorable, they nailed controlling sonic through an open world, they just need to fill that open world with better, more cohesive content that builds on the core Sonic move set.
Posted by Dvader Thu, 05 Jan 2023 14:20:49
Thu, 05 Jan 2023 15:52:54
I've seen some generally positive reviews on this game.

For me it looks a bit odd. The art style doesn't really feel the way I want a sonic game to be.

And the game looks a bit directionless.
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