Sonic Frontiers – Ground(Hedge)hog Day
After the 15 hours it took to hit credits on Sonic Frontiers, I feel confident in saying less than half of those were what I would consider ‘well spent’ or ‘enjoyable’. The rest were pushed through in a haze, mindlessly completing the same routine in vaguely differing locations for the same end result, a thematically fitting yet interminable loop of gameplay stretched to breaking point. A suspicion forms that at one point in development, perhaps more recent than Sega would like to admit, Sonic Frontiers was much leaner, clocking in at half its current runtime. Evidence of this is littered throughout, with three of the five open world island areas having near identical visual design and at least one of them feeling completely out of step with the rest of the game. There are some shimmering moments of brilliance scattered throughout, but the Sisyphean game loop dominates much of what Sonic Frontiers offers.
Like many open-world titles of recent years, Sonic Frontiers starts strong with shots of sweeping vistas and the potential they offer beckoning the player forward – think Horizon: Zero Dawn, Breath of the Wild, Dying Light 2. Where Sonic Frontiers drops the ball is in showing nearly all of its tricks in the first few hours and then failing to iterate on them in any meaningful way. Hour 3, hour 6, hour 9, hour 12….outside of the biome in which you’re operating, very little changes in terms of what the game asks of the player. A litany of in-game currencies gate progress around each island, resulting in a lengthy fetch quest interspersed with mini-games and some exciting platforming sections which are the highlight of otherwise pedestrian traversal. All islands follow the same basic pattern; Sonic will be directed to collect Memory Tokens which allow him to speak to Tails/Knuckles/Amy depending on the current island, who will invariably direct Sonic to collect Gears to unlock Portals which unlock Vault Keys, a number of which will then unlock a Chaos Gem. Once all six Chaos Gems are acquired, the Evangelion-esque mecha final boss can be confronted. While not a terrible formula at the outset, it’s one that wears incredibly thin by the third and fourth go-arounds.
Akin to a Tony Hawk title, Sonic needs to jump, soar and grind his way to pickups on ‘lines’ littered throughout the open world that range from the obvious to the arcane, testing players patience and reflexes. In these moments the game cedes and wrests control from the player in equal measure, sometimes frustratingly so – many of the most ‘Epic’ moments in Sonic Frontiers are quite literally on rails, while at some junctures or during particular lines a sudden camera change can ruin a run, many becoming trial and error rather than pure reflex. Sonic Team have never quite managed to make moving Sonic in 3D spaces feel as smooth as their direct competitors, unable to balance the speed and momentum with precision controls and a somewhat ‘floaty’ jump which lacks the heft of a certain Italian plumber and his companions. While glaringly obvious in the often-unfocused open world areas, these issues recede somewhat into the background when players are accessing the Portals, which contain 30 ‘Cyber Space’ Arcade levels in total that throwback to the more linear gameplay of older 2D and 3D Sonic titles. Classic Sonic zones like Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary and City are revisited, tasking players with completing four goals in each level; collect a set number of rings, finish with an S-rank time, collect all five Red Stars and reach the end goal. Mercifully, a player doesn’t need to hit every goal in a single run, but I can see that becoming an aspirational achievement for very dedicated Sonic fans. Upon completion of the main story, these levels are directly accessible via the main menu of Sonic Frontiers which is a mercy, as they are the sections most worth replaying once players have had their fill of the open world islands.
While the open world itself is fairly lacklustre, the combat in Sonic Frontiers is used sparingly to good effect. Each enemy is a puzzle to be solved – use the correct moves in the correct order to take them down with maximum efficiency, or flail around needlessly. One example are the pillar-style enemies, who can be chipped away at their base or taken down almost instantly if players can scale them quickly enough to target their head. Some enemies require a fair amount of traversal and very little attacking, while each final area boss tends to ask players to demonstrate some capability with both movement and attacking. Sonic himself has a decent arsenal of combat manoeuvres unlocked via Skill Points, a somewhat tacked on RPG element which also sees Sonic needing other items to level up his Attack, Defence, Speed and Hit Points. While Skills can be unlocked straight from an in-game menu, Sonics other traits can only be upgraded by visiting one of two characters, Elder Koco and Hermit Koco, who appear spread throughout the islands. While Hermit Koco will simply upgrade Sonic’s attack power and defence based upon how many items he has collected, Elder Koco, responsible for Speed and HP bafflingly allows only a single level upgrade at a time, forcing players to sit through their dialogue nearly 200 times if they wish to hit the 99 cap on both. Both Hermit and Elder Koco eventually become Fast Travel locations on the Map screen, but only if players do enough Fishing.
Yes, that’s right – Sega won’t let the legacy of Bass Fishing die, so Sonic Frontiers also includes a fairly pedestrian fishing minigame which is itself another QTE dependent distraction. Fishing costs Purple Coins, which convert to Tokens and Gold Tickets depending on the catch, which then convert to….every other currency in the game. Players who don’t really feel like digging around the open world for more Vault Keys or Memory Tokens can shortcut them via fishing, but the key items to be gained are a set of scrolls, one for each Elder, that unlock Fast Travel for the island on which they were caught. There appears to be no randomness to the Fishing mini-game outside of the order in which items come up, so it’s less of a time-sink than it could be.
Perhaps it’s a distinct lack of James Marsden, or indeed playability of any other character in the franchise, but Sonic Frontiers isn’t likely to win any awards for its storyline. There are a few moments that were touching as a long-time Sonic player, but a combination of pacing and fairly limited story sequences hold it back from reaching its full impact. Sonic Frontiers isn’t helped by its subpar performance on the PlayStation 5 with both loading times and graphical pop-in feeling excessive given what the system is capable of. Players can choose between either a 60fps or 4K 30fps mode, the latter a total abomination which should be avoided at all costs. The low-fi textures and limited detail level of the gameworld in general contribute to its sparse aesthetics but to be unable to render what is on-screen at both a decent framerate and resolution has me questioning not only the engine choice here but also how much optimisation has taken place. If this is the PS5 release, I have strong doubts as to the viability of the Switch version.
Sonic Frontiers is a game out of step with the current generation, feeling like a hold-over from the early PS3/360 era in which it’s repetitive game design, spartan aesthetics and technical issues would have been less glaringly obvious. In 2022, after experiencing Super Mario Odyssey, Ratchet & Clank and a number of other contemporaries it feels dated and undercooked. A more confident Sega would have sacrificed a ’15-25 hour’ playtime for a shorter, superior product. Instead, players are left living the same three-hour gameplay loop again and again until the credits roll.
Sonic Frontier’s was reviewed on PS5 using a code kindly provided by the publisher