Despite Sonic the Hedgehog being a franchise nearly constantly dunked on for its multitude of subpar video game releases since its transition to 3D back in the late 90’s, I’ve been a Sonic fan for as long as I can remember.
Sonic Adventure 2 was the first 3D Sonic to have me hooked, and I have fond memories playing other titles such as the original Sonic Adventure, Sonic Colours, and Sonic Generations. Other than this select few, the greater majority of Sonic’s 3D catalogue have ranged from simply average to downright abysmal (I’m looking at you Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric), and it’s been a far while now since Sonic fans have had a 3D adventure worth embarking upon.
Thankfully, Sonic Frontiers is a welcome return to form and the best 3D Sonic game of arguably the last decade, however it still has its fair share of issues that hold it back from being a truly great experience.
Sonic Frontiers kicks off with Eggman scheming as he usually does, as he attempts to gather information on a lost civilization known as the Ancients. As he attempts to upload an AI into one of the ancient towers, he finds himself sucked in and trapped in a realm known as Cyberspace.
Not after Sonic and friends also manage to find themselves sucked into Cyberspace while investigating Starfall Islands and the reason the Chaos Emeralds had mysteriously been drawn there. Sonic manages to escape, but Amy, Tails, and Knuckles find themselves trapped, leaving Sonic no choice but to rescue them. He returns to the Starfall Islands and quickly sets out to collect the Chaos Emeralds, learning more about the ancients that are long gone, the race of cute stone creatures known as Koco that still remains, and the enormous mechanical enemies known as the Titans in the process.
It’s a decent little opening to the story that provides reasoning for Sonic’s latest adventure, and despite the story being hard to follow in some instances as the narrative progresses (unless you’re actively engaging in all side missions), it’s a more than decent Sonic story overall.
One of the more likeable aspects of the storytelling is its more serious tone and writing than more recent Sonic titles. Conversations with side characters like Amy and Tails feel a lot more meaningful and worthwhile, and provide welcome character to them. Tails for example at one point mentions that he’s struggling with the feeling that he’s holding Sonic and friends back, as he’s always the one being rescued, and instead wants to mature and be the hero, which in turn leads to an engaging conversation between himself and Sonic. Moments like these are great, and the story greatly benefits from them.
Sage, the humanoid floating girl character who constantly advises Sonic to leave the Starfall Islands is also a great new addition to the Sonic franchise. Despite initially not feeling much for her initially, her development throughout the story made her a character I grew to love by the end.
When it comes to presentation and performance, Sonic Frontiers isn’t too bad, however there is one glaring issue. Graphically, the game looks very nice and the overworld can look quite pretty when you’re not encountering a heap of texture pop-in. The bad news though is you’re going to witness plenty of pop-in, regardless of what system you play on, in what is the most egregious example of texture pop-in that I’ve arguably ever seen in a video game.
Speeding through the overworld at sonic speed is where this issue becomes laughably apparent, as the various grind rails, walls and bounce pads seemingly appear and then vanish out of thin air. It severely hampers the games overall visual look, which is hugely unfortunate given that when pop-in isn’t a problem, the game looks brilliant on the PS5.
The Cyberspace levels that function as your traditional linear 3D Sonic levels thankfully aren’t let down by the texture pop-in debacle, and as a result are very pretty. Sonic Team’s insistence to rehash the same Sonic locations such as Green Hill, Chemical Plant and Sky Sanctuary is frustrating, but the story explains why Sonic is revisiting familiar locations once again. It’s not the biggest deal, but I am eager for some new locations to boost my way through.
The default 4K mode and its 30fps cap isn’t really the best for Sonic and his blistering speed however, so I wholeheartedly recommend switching to the 60fps mode for the much smoother framerate and still solid looking visuals.
Sonic Frontiers continues the trend of Sonic games having killer soundtracks, packing in an array of tracks across various different genres. From the whimsical and more orchestral tracks present in the open world islands, to the EDM and Dubstep tunes in the Cyberspace levels, they all feel fitting to the levels that they’re in. You even get to listen to some lo-fi beats while fishing with Big the Cat, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write, but here we are.
My favourite tracks in the game by far however are the ones that accompany the Titan boss battles, which nail the epic and high-octane feeling one would expect from a fight between an Evangelion-esque looking mech and Super Sonic. The fact that some of the tracks have vocals from Kellin Quinn of Sleeping with Sirens fame is crazy cool, and his distinct voice really heightens the already banging tracks. It’s absolutely brilliant and I’m sure I’ll be listening to some of its tracks for a fair while.
Sonic Frontiers attempt at bringing the blue blur into the open world is a novel attempt that has plenty of good ideas, but it’s also in need of a bit of refinement if it’s going to succeed long term. As Sonic, you make your way through various explorable islands, retrieving the Chaos Emeralds and using them to become Super Sonic and defeat that island’s Titan boss, before moving on to the new island. It’s a pretty simple loop, but it’s enjoyable and works quite well.
Some of the Chaos Emeralds are locked away in vaults that can only be opened with keys. Keys can be acquired by tracking them down in the overworld, however the majority of the vault keys are earned by completing the aforementioned Cyberspace stages, which function as linear 2D/3D platforming levels one would expect from prior 3D Sonic titles. They’re often quite short, clocking anywhere from 30 seconds to around 3 minutes, and completion of these and the optional missions within them (collecting a certain amount of rings and finishing the stage with an S rank for example) will reward you with vault keys. The more objectives you complete, the more vault keys are unlocked, and the quicker you can get your grubby little hands on the Chaos Emeralds. The Cyberspace levels may be short and sweet, but they’re inherently replayable given the various completable objectives within them, and they’re a lot of fun too, being where I had the most fun throughout Sonic Frontiers.
What distinguishes them from other 3D Sonic levels of the past few games is the way that Sonic controls, as he isn’t burdened by the insanely fast speeds he’s been exhibiting since the beginning of the boost era of Sonic games. He’s got a greater sense of control than he’s had for years, which in turn eliminates a lot of the frustration with controls that so easily arise when he’s moving at the speed of sound. This greater sense of control extends to the open world islands also. He does still fly off the handle occasionally, and the physics don’t always behave the way you would expect, but I do believe it to be a step in the right direction.
When exploring the island, only a small portion of it will be visible on the map, in order to further expand the map and have a greater sense of where points of interest like Cyberspace Towers are, there are various little activities that can be performed. Some of these missions require you to race to a certain location of the map in time, while some require you to solve tile puzzles where you must walk over each glowing tile once without ever jumping or touching a tile twice. They’re more often than not tasks that can be completed within a minute, and they feel particularly rewarding given what you get for completing them. You often also get blue or red seeds as a reward also, which can be used to level up Sonic’s attack and defensive capabilities when given to a Hermit Koco.
Collecting the various little Koco creatures throughout the overworld and returning them to the Elder Koco will also allow you to level up Sonic’s overall speed, as well as his total ring count, which is important to have beefed up when fighting the Titans as Super Sonic, as this ability requires rings to function.
Speaking of Titans, their boss battles take place once you’ve collect six of the seven Chaos Emeralds, with your job to scale the beast and free the last Emerald from a vault on their body. Once you’ve done so, Sonic goes Super Sonic, and the battle truly commences. These fights as I stated before with their excellent music are epic in scale, however they don’t exactly play that way, largely due to the camera. It never seems to be able to handle Super Sonic, and makes the battles, which can already be confusing given their lack of direction, even more confusing. They’re still fun to watch, but they aren’t exactly the best to play.
Combat against the mini-bosses and minions of the overworld definitely fare better, but you don’t exactly need to make use of Sonic’s array of different moves in order to succeed. Most enemies can be defeated with relatively mindless spam of the attack buttons. Some enemies do require you to use Sonic’s new Cyloop ability in order to break their shields and such, but most don’t require a great deal else. Performing more visually appealing abilities is still satisfying, don’t get me wrong, but their impact is softened a bit when you realise they aren’t particularly necessary.
Sonic Frontiers was a game I was initially very sceptical about, and that scepticism remained for a fair while into the experience, until I grew to appreciate the open world component and the short but sweet array of side activities that you complete with them. Yes, the combat isn’t the best, and the boss battles aren’t particularly fun to play despite being fun to watch, and the issues with texture pop-in dampen what is otherwise a visually impressive looking game, but there’s undeniably some great ideas here as well that can aid in making the next Sonic title a truly excellent experience. Ultimately, Sonic Frontiers is a game worthy of playing despite its shortcomings, and I can’t wait for Sonic Team to take what works from the open world design, and make a truly brilliant Sonic game one day in the near future.
Written by: @GrumpyGoron