Sonic is without a doubt one of the mainstay franchises within the industry. The blue mascot for Sega launched over thirty years ago and continues to have massive popularity around the world – despite having several road bumps along the way. Sonic Frontiers looks to put our hero back on track. Tapping into some new open world mechanics mixed with the speed we all know him for, can Sonic Frontiers live up to the hype, or is it yet another pothole for this passionate fanbase? Let’s find out.
Sonic has never had it easy when trying to put together a meaningful lore in a 3D setting. Sonic Frontiers doesn’t do a great job of fixing that. The premise follows Sonic and company tracking disturbances within the chaos emeralds. After some kidnappings and minor rescues occur, with Doctor Eggman spun in, you basically have the setup for a odd, if not confusing plot that tries to push new faces into the franchise without much making sense from a franchise standpoint. Sure, the story technically is fine, but it doesn’t really try to make itself accessible enough to be memorable. There is also a very serious tone to the plot, which makes it feel a bit campier than it needs to be. That said, I didn’t hate what Sonic Team did here, but I think Frontiers would be a better game if it would try to capture a lighter tone and tell a story that feels more structured with the blue blur that we all know and love. Simplicity works well with Sonic, and that isn’t exactly what is offered within this title.
While the story is a bit messy, the gameplay within Sonic Frontiers is mostly great. As you would expect, there are two different elements at work here. One is an open world, which allows players to zoom around freely and explore five Starfall Islands as you see fit. The other are dubbed “Cyber Space” levels, condensing the action into much more traditional Sonic fare. The open world is great. Littered with platforms, puzzles, and familiar springs and things, these areas feel spectacular to fly through. Sonic can zoom around enemies and create cyclones to get an edge or solve puzzles, and there are plenty of secrets and things to do littered throughout the land.
The Cyber Space portions are basically polished platforming fare, full of rails and a timer that provides a sense of speed and urgency to finish quickly. Unlike Colors or some later titles in the franchise, these bits feel great as they feature a lot of creative courses. While most are just rails and loops, there is a fine balance within these stages that make for some entertaining and thrilling moments. The open world portion adds in combat, but outside of dashing and bouncing on enemies, nothing really feels like much of a challenge unless you’re facing the flaws within the game itself.
For every bit of brilliance, Sonic Frontiers (at least on the Switch) has some performance challenges that hinder an otherwise fun time. Remember, Sonic is a platformer at heart built on speed. When you are in a rush, lava, water, and other obstacles can pop in out of nowhere and lead to a quick death. The Cyber Space portions do this as well, but due to the large scope of the environment, the open areas see this issue more frequently. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if boss battles and even mini games were not affected, but after just a few encounters, I started to have to take it slow and play more cautiously to progress in an effective manner. For a Sonic game, that is a problem.
I will give Sonic Team credit. Despite such an odd world to explore, the lack of gimmickry and focus on just Sonic’s overall move set benefits the experience greatly. Upgrades are mostly built around minor nuances such as ring collecting and power-ups, rarely feeling intrusive. The stages and world do the work at providing refreshing ideas, and a lot of great (and not so great) features can be found that really show how fun a Sonic game can be without all the distractions.
Sonic Frontiers mostly looks great. The stages are colorful and look fantastic with vivid animations, fitting well with the narrative in play. The Switch version has issues with textures at times, as some areas just seem barren and sparse – even with little details added. Combine that with the generating environments that don’t always seem to finish, and you have a game that feels like it’s struggling to keep up with itself. Sure, the game is still fun to play most of the time, but it feels like this version needed more optimization in order to capture the scope Sonic Team were going for.
The music is fantastic. I might even say that this is the best soundtrack for a Sonic game since the Dreamcast Adventure titles. Featuring exciting and catchy tracks, this certainly sounds like a Sonic game should, blending rock and orchestral fare to capture some thrill within fantasy themed environments. Voice acting is present and done well enough, with characters capturing their new and familiar roles well to give the story a sense of importance.
Sonic Frontiers is not perfect and for most Sonic fans, that will be ok. What it is, however, is a bold step in the right direction, with the focus finally returning to our blue hero himself. Past franchises seem to be in this huge hurry to jump into sandbox adventures and the entire genre is starting to get cluttered as a result. Sonic Frontiers barely clears that leap, even if it feels like it wasn’t without a few stumbles along the way. Centered around well-balanced speed and imagination, this new entry is as refreshing as it is enjoyable, and certainly the best attempt at a 3D Sonic title in years.
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