SEGA has released numerous new videos through IGN showcasing their newest Sonic the Hedgehog game: Sonic Frontiers. It has been nearly five years since the release of the last mainline 3D Sonic game with Sonic Forces. Forces released to mixed critical reception and since release has become a source of contempt from many fans.
Sonic Forces is marred with problems. The game has become well-known for its automated gameplay, short levels, poor writing and general lack of interesting content. For the Sonic community, the game was a massive disappointment after the resounding success of Sonic Mania.
Now that Sonic the Hedgehog has been in limbo for a few years, the fans now find themselves hoping that Frontiers can remedy the big issues presented by Forces in 2017. Sega has made big promises – claiming that this game will re-define Sonic for years to come. New footage and gameplay details have now made this new direction clear. Is it enough to not only satisfy unhappy long time fans, but also accessible enough to harness a new audience?
Open World, Hidden Automation
Sonic Frontiers starts with a brand new premise for the franchise: What if Sonic was open-world? We see Sonic in an open, island-like space – filled with little things he can interact with. The environment has ruins in it that contain collectables, as well as movement tools like rails that let him traverse the sky.
At first, there is something promising here. I genuinely believe that open world Sonic the Hedgehog is an idea with a lot of potential. My mind wanders to my personal favorite Sonic game, Sonic CD – a game known for its open level design. The game had players use their understanding of the game’s mechanics to explore new spaces. Sonic is known for his simple moveset, with complexity arising from how his speed interacts with the environment’s natural slopes and ramps. By getting creative with the level design and Sonic’s speed, you could use momentum to discover secrets. This potentially provides a basis for how Sonic could work in a big, open space. Combined with the brilliant visuals and sound that the series is known for, an open world Sonic the Hedgehog game could harness speed and freedom in a way unlike anything else offered in the genre right now.
However, Sega have taken a different approach. Instead, Sonic is shown running through empty fields. He will occasionally run into a set of ruins or a tower in the overworld. When Sonic arrives at these formations, he will hit a dash pad that sends him into an automated section. At the end of this section, Sonic gets an item. This loop continues until you run into an enemy. You fight them, and then continue as you did before.
Despite the appearance of non-linearity through the open world, Frontiers’ presents an insane amount of automated gameplay in its level design. Entire sequences play out for extended periods where not a single button press appears to be necessary. The reward for exploring the empty fields is watching the game play itself, and then being given an item.
The potential I had described earlier seems to be completely unrealised. Movement options appear to be basic, but are lacking in any substantive use. The environment doesn’t have natural formations that interact with Sonic’s speed – no ramps or slopes in sight. What is left is an environment that is either empty, or automated by rails and dash pads.
Not a promising start.
Sega Does What Nintendid Already
It is impossible to look at Sonic Frontiers and not instantly draw comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Frontiers takes a lot from Breath of the Wild. Its open world format looks remarkably similar – right down to the aesthetics. The marketing is keen to draw this connection, with somber piano accompanying wide shots of the scenery and gameplay.
It is trite to remark on an open world game’s similarity to Breath of the Wild at this point. It happens to nearly every new attempt at an open world game with a similar aesthetic. However, with Frontiers, the resemblance is impossible to avoid. The open grassy fields are rendered in a realistic way that makes Sonic look out of place. The world design does not seem tailored to Sonic’s moveset. Instead, the world design feels deliberately similar to Breath of the Wild, with small “shrines” scattering the environment. The more I see of the game, the more transparent this connection gets; and the developers actively claiming that their priority is to achieve high scores from reviewers makes this “new reimagining” of Sonic look incredibly cynical.
Furthermore, the game is beginning to look concerning from a technical angle. Every preview has had a notable amount of pop-in that distracts from the exploration and kills any immersion that this game’s exploration might have had. Some animations look blatantly unfinished – especially in combat. The game visually looks solid, with solid lighting and texture quality. However, the world itself has no cohesion. Rails randomly hang in the sky. Springs float in the air for no reason. It looks like a visual mess, especially when combined with the pop-in. The visual clarity in Frontiers is one of my biggest concerns going forward. If this is how the game performs on current generation hardware, the Switch port will have to be notably downgraded. I am hoping for a delay that can hopefully give the game some much needed polish before release.
So, why does it look this way? Why does Sonic Frontiers seem to be taking such a different direction in such a clearly derivative fashion?
The only answer I can give is that it is an attempt to try and right the wrongs of Sonic Forces. With the main critique of Sonic Forces being that it was too limited and automated, it is clear that Sega has listened and instead attempted to try and create something focused on an open environment – using Breath of the Wild as their roadmap.
However, I don’t think they have taken the right lessons from Breath of the Wild’s appeal, nor the criticisms of Sonic Forces. Sega has taken the aesthetics of Breath of the Wild and the basic foundation of an open world, and tried to retrofit it onto Sonic the Hedgehog without serious consideration of how to make it fit the character. Instead of getting a meaningful reinterpretation of Sonic in a non-linear environment, instead I feel as if Sonic is trying to drop himself into an environment that wasn’t built for him.
That’s disappointing – because as a long time fan, all I’ve ever wanted from the franchise was for Sonic to be himself. Yet I worry that Sega has lost track of what made him appealing in the first place.