Sonic Frontiers doesn’t limit you to a small, carefully curated prix fixe menu of things to try. Instead, it takes the all-you-can-eat buffet approach, throwing new ideas at you from start to finish, without really seeming to care if they’re fresh and appetizing or looking wilted and limp under the heat lamp. When I jumped off the starting line of this sprint across Sonic’s first open-world game I certainly didn’t expect to play jump rope, duke it out with a giant robot, watch a dramatic origin story for an extinct race of beings, or do a heck of a lot of fishing, but Frontiers kept me guessing even late into the campaign with what it would try next. Even when some of those ideas didn’t work, I was almost always glad that Sega gave it the old college try, and as a result I rarely found myself bored. I did find myself feeling blue because of the absurd amount of pop-in that happens every time this famously fast character does his thing, but Sonic Frontiers is, for the most part, a promising first attempt at blazing a new trail for the series.
While you’re working your way through Frontiers’ chain of five Starfall Islands over the course of about 20 hours total, you’ll uncover the dark and extremely predictable backstory of a long-extinct race while hanging out with Sonic-family favorites like Amy and Knuckles. You’ll also meet a strange new enemy named Sage and learn what her deal is in the most agonizingly slow way possible, since her main hobbies appear to be dodging pointed questions and speaking exclusively in vagaries.
With all of the different plot threads Frontiers juggles, they do end up feeling oddly disconnected from each other and none of them offer a ton of surprises between their ungodly number of cliches concerning the power of friendship and ancient civilizations wielding advanced technology. But they do leave room for some really good moments between the furry cast of characters – in fact, Frontiers produces some of the most in-depth characterizations of the Sonic cast we’ve ever seen in a game. One part of the campaign hones in on the brotherly rivalry between Sonic and Knuckles, while another does a great job at building Tails up as more than just Sonic’s sidekick. All of that more than sated my ravenous appetite for Sonic’s usual anime-style nonsense in between all of the fancy robot kicking and rolling around at the speed of sound.
Sprinting around the sprawling open-world areas is, as you’d hope, one of the best parts of this open-world odyssey. The islands you dash about on are suitably large playgrounds for you to test the limits of your roadrunning, so long as you don’t fall into water or lava that immediately kills you. My personal favorite new trick, though, is the Cyloop – it lets you draw a circle while blazing a trail to create a tornado of death that impacts everything caught within it. This ability can be used and abused to do damage in combat, solve puzzles, and even farm rings since it generates a few every time. Plus, literally running circles around your enemies is just an incredibly Sonic thing to do, which is why I practically never stopped doing it throughout my playthrough. And since it lets you turn running into a deadly weapon, it makes speeding around the map all the more entertaining.
The only thing that’s a little disappointing about whizzing around is that, unless you’re getting the speed boost that comes with being maxed out of rings, you don’t run quite as fast as you might hope. That can be improved a fair bit by leveling up your speed stat over the course of the campaign, but I still would have preferred the default starting speed be a little more Roadrunner and a little less hungover hedgehog.
What becomes clear after a few laps around the first island is that Sonic Frontiers is an action-adventure game that joins a growing pack of old-school series looking to reimagine themselves as open-world sandboxes – and in this particular case it mostly works out. Just like Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain before it, Frontiers keeps a lot of what makes the Sonic series beloved and unique (including some fun homages) but also throws in big areas to explore and fills them with a wild assortment of side distractions and mostly interesting new ideas. Not all of those activities are created equal, but it works overall just because of the sheer variety. One moment you’re juggling robots like you’re playing Baby’s First Devil May Cry, the next you’re trying to beat a time trial in a 2D platforming stage, and a minute after that you’re playing a game of pinball inside of an active volcano. You’ll grind some truly epic rails, solve extremely simple puzzles, do some puzzle-platforming, and of course, catch some fish – because if you can’t fish, does it even count as an open-world game?
There were moments where I saw glimpses of genius in this bizarre hodgepodge of activities. Sections called Cyber Space levels smartly break up the open world by teleporting you into bite-sized, traditionally linear Sonic levels where you’re racing the clock and collecting rings as you make a mad dash for the goal line. On the other hand, one of the big things Frontiers tries that doesn’t work well is combat. You’re just mashing buttons to pull off simple combos and knock the snot out of faceless robotic enemies. I appreciated the occasional break from platforming, but since it never proves to be a challenge and throws you into almost identical fights again and again, I soon came to resent being yanked out of my lightning-speed racing just to smack down another bunch of dumb toaster-looking fools. It’s especially annoying when it comes to the minibosses roaming the open world, who often dragged me into unskippable fight sequences that weren’t particularly challenging or interesting, especially when I ran into them multiple times. The groan of irritation at the prospect of repeating the same encounter a third or fourth time was impossible to contain.
The larger goal of each zone is to collect Chaos Emeralds to power you up for a big, over-the-top boss fight, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. In order to find all those delicious gems you’ll have to first collect portal gears out in the world, use those gears to open portals that lead to Cyber Space levels where you can collect vault keys, then finally use those vault keys to unlock the emeralds. If that sounds at all confusing to you, it’s because it definitely can be – but by the time I completed my first island or two, I felt completely comfortable with all the different weird currencies and collectibles on my checklist. The big boss fights at the end of each island fare a bit better than the regular combat too, especially when you go full Sonic Saiyan and take on a giant, evil robot. Sometimes they’re a little awkward because of repeated animations and weird camera issues where the boss boops you outside of the arena and knocks you into a frustrating viewing angle, but flying around as an invincible rodent god and pulling off sweet butt-kicking moves makes collecting all those Chaos Emeralds worth the effort.
I also really enjoyed how the perspective will automatically shift between 2D and 3D when you’re out in the open world, depending on the activity you’re engaging with. If I was grinding a rail and entered an area that required platforming, it would switch me to a 2D perspective so I could zip around like it was 1991, but when I got into a fight a moment later it would switch back to three dimensions so I could run literal circles around the enemy. The only issue is that occasionally I’d accidentally step on a spring or a rail while running around the island and find myself trapped in 2D, which was sometimes hard to get out of. It’s a bit like stubbing your toe on a board game, then having to complete a full playthrough of Chutes and Ladders before getting to go back about your business.
There are other things Frontiers has you do, like solving very easy puzzles that range from mildly amusing minigames to completely braindead chores, or dipping your toes into RPG mechanics by gathering collectibles to raise your stats. These aren’t terrible additions, but they also don’t feel like they’re fully fleshed out. The upgrades in particular are a bit odd since they do things like let you carry more rings or increase your attack and defense stats by such minor amounts that they barely have an impact on gameplay. It’s almost like the developers shrugged and said “Sure, why not?” and threw a half-baked first draft of every idea they could come up with into the mix just for the heck of it.
It’s also kind of insane how much progression can be earned through the fishing minigame, especially since it’s only mildly amusing for a few minutes before it starts feeling like an errand. But I can’t argue that it’s not worth my while; without even trying I quickly found it could be farmed for an enormous amount of resources that are much more difficult to acquire out in the open world. On one island, I fished with my boy Big the Cat for half an hour and gained so many portal gears, vault keys, and memory tokens that I could have chosen to bypass an enormous chunk of platforming, exploration, and combat. I was also able to level up my character over 60 times in a matter of minutes using this method, which just felt… wrong. It would be one thing if Sonic had a canonical love of seafood or something, but this is ridiculous.
The biggest shortcoming with this new open-world design, though, has nothing to do with the buffet of mostly amusing activities – it’s simply that Frontiers is not at all able to keep up with Sonic’s godlike speed on a technical level. My immersion was broken about every five seconds when large objects, like a section of a floating loop-de-loop or a huge tree, popped into view right in front of me. Granted, that’s sometimes hilarious but it’s always jarring and just plain ugly. Most of the time it’s a railing or platform that blips into existence a couple feet away from you, but sometimes it’s entire areas of the world. For all of its amazing quick-loading capabilities, the PS5 just couldn’t seem to handle how hilariously fast Frontiers let me go. Whether I was playing in the 4K resolution mode at 30fps or the much more desirable 60fps mode (seriously, what are we even doing here playing a game this fast at any less?), the pop-in was always an issue. In one case I even ran so fast the ground hadn’t loaded yet and I fell through the map. It’s not a unique problem for an open-world game to have, but Frontiers’ inability to load in a timely manner is so common that it just makes everything feel flimsy and unpolished.
Source: IGN Video Games All