The IGN coverage thus far has left a lot of unanswered questions. Unsurprisingly, ten minutes of lightly edited gameplay footage without narration or context hasn’t proven itself to be a great way to premiere this game for the first time. We’ve seen a bit of the combat, we’ve seen a little world traversal, and we’ve seen more sky grinding than Final Rush and Rail Canyon’s unholy lovechild. But there’s some BIG aspects we still don’t know about. Big aspects like what the game is.
Before today’s IGN impressions and Sonic Central, writers GX and Nuckles87 are taking stock of the vitally important things that we still need to see from Sonic’s next big outing:
1. The story premise, or at least some world building
Even if Sonic’s moveset is familiar, this is a big departure from previous games on many other fronts, and it needs to be grounded in something. The enemies look bizarre and abstract, the world is going for a more realistically detailed aesthetic, and while it’s implied that other characters are around somewhere, we’ve yet to see an Amy, Eggman, rogue AI, or reason for Sonic to be there at all. This genre is about establishing a world that the player builds a relationship with and cares about. There’s no opening mystery that should be held back at this point. SEGA, you got us excited with Ian Flynn on writing. Now show us the fruits of that decision.
2. Exotic environments and bizarre landscapes
We understand there are supposed to be multiple biomes in the game, but we’re still kind of trapped in Nondescript Grass and Forest Land. This is the first showing, we need to be wowed by unexpected scenery, awe-inspiring landmarks, and in true open world fashion, a mountain that you should definitely not be on. Make the player want to be in that world and see every inch of it.
Further, the geography we’ve been shown thus far has not been especially Sonic-like. Sonic games are known for their twisting, fantastical, completely unrealistic geography, yet everything we’ve seen from Frontiers has been so…mundane. We’ve seen landscapes we’d find in any open world game. Where are the loop-de-loops? The twisting, mobius-strip terrain? That half-pipes? The first Sonic open world game ought to have the sorts of geography iconic to the series!
3. Challenge and room to make terrible, terrible choices
One of the promises this style of open world makes is very little handholding, and the bedfellow to that is giving you the opportunity to get in way over your head. While it may be unintuitive, modern open world design thrives on showing you things that are way beyond what you can do with the promise that at some point you will achieve that which first seemed impossible. What here is meant to scare the player? What is meant to frustrate them? What challenge makes the player feel amazing when they finally get past it? We’ve only been shown some very basic button-mashy combat; is there greater depth later on using sidestep dodges and environmental positioning? And on a similar note…
4. Strength and abilities
Frequent complaints thrown at the initial footage was that Sonic keeps boosting on and off, and enemies take an exhausting number of hits. I’m personally willing to put up with this if, over time, I upgrade to boost longer, get stronger, and discover more effective combat strategies. Sonic and combat very rarely mix well, and if every encounter takes minutes to resolve, it will completely bog down the game’s pace. By completing challenges and gaining new abilities, I want new ways for Sonic to navigate the island and dispatch once formidable foes with ease. That’s the basic ethos of Sonic, isn’t it? Learn the lay of the land and master getting through it?
5. Progression and goals
Over the last week, Sonic Frontiers has been shown in a piecemeal format, showcasing various aspects of the game without the context of how they interact with each other and any as-yet unseen mechanics. All games have a game play loop, where systems interact and each activity flows into the next. Open world games in particular need a well tuned loop; it’s the distinguishing factor between an actual open world and a playground of mechanics.
So what we need more than anything else is a clear cross-section of what it’s like to simply play Sonic Frontiers across its span. What is the player expected to do in these environments? How do exploration, traversal, puzzles and combat connect to one another? How will players be rewarded for playing the game play loop well? What sort of goals will these mechanics help the player achieve, and will those goals be satisfying to accomplish?
6. One more thing…
Frontiers has some interesting ideas on how to augment Sonic’s tried-and-true boost moveset with his circle updraft and this ranged kick, but it just feels like there’s one big thing missing, some sort of unique mechanic that rethinks Sonic or connects him to the open world structure. Open world games like Forza Horizon and Elden Ring succeed through incredibly tuned mechanics, while others forge their unique identity through fresh and versatile mechanics. Breath of the Wild had its chemistry system, and Pokemon Legends: Arceus is built entirely around the concept of throwing. The mechanics shown for Frontiers thus far are just, well, Sonic. It needs a defining, differentiating mechanic. An identity. An element that slowly unwraps depth and demands creativity to master. It’s difficult to say if they’d reasonably keep a mechanic like that under wraps at this point. Usually it’s something you’d want to show off immediately. But on the other hand, it’s been an extremely chaotic and bizarre rollout, so it’s anyone’s guess what they’re still holding onto.
7. An actual trailer
Seriously. I don’t know if they were hoping that the game would speak for itself, but the game really, really needed someone to speak for it.
Transitioning to an open world structure is a difficult task for any developer, and while we’re cautiously optimistic from what we’ve seen thus far, SEGA’s secretive approach to this game has left us more confused than excited. Frontiers has quite a lot to prove to overcome it’s rocky debut, but perhaps this week’s events will help reveal the actual trajectory of this game.