How Sonic Frontiers (Mostly) Gets Sonic Combat Right

Sonic has a…messy history with combat. Starting with Sonic Heroes, the franchise has made multiple attempts to make Sonic work in more combat-oriented games, often with disastrous results. Theoretically, having the player stop to fight enemies during a stage could be an effective way to add some variety to the gameplay while also extending playtime. In practice, however, focus on combat has served to do little more than break the pace of of any game they’re in, by forcing the player to stop and fight hordes of enemies with underbaked combat mechanics before they can progress. 

Sonic Frontiers is the first mainline Sonic game in more than a decade to have a focus on combat. Starting with Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Team (wisely) began to excise combat from Sonic’s platforming stages. By Sonic Colors, nary an enemy lifebar could be found outside of boss encounters, and that was how Sonic Team kept it until, well, now. As Sonic Frontiers seeks to yet again redefine what a Sonic game is, combat has again taken center stage, and for the first time ever…it is genuinely satisfying.

Sonic Frontiers gets a lot right in its combat: it’s polished, discourages button mashing, has solid defensive options, makes use of Sonic’s speed, let’s Sonic feel powerful, looks cool, and most importantly it feels good to play. At its most basic, mashing the X-button for Sonic’s basic combo gets the job done, at least for the easiest enemies. But as enemies become more complex in their capabilities and moves, that very quickly becomes not enough.

Aside from the basic combo, I personally like to divide Sonic’s combat options into four categories: offensive, defensive, ranged, and flashy. “Flashy” moves generally just add some visual variety and power to Sonic’s basic combo, such as the phantom rush (which happens automatically when the combo bar fills up) and wild rush. Ranged moves, like sonic boom, are good for hitting enemies from a distance while staying out of range of some of their attacks, and is good against enemies with area attack moves. 

The cyloop is the game’s offensive move: it allows you to quickly tear down enemy defenses, or delivery damage to multiple enemies without needing to hit them. It’s required for certain, defensive-centric enemies. Later, you can unlock an “auto-cyloop” which lets you pull off cyloops in the middle of combos to quickly take down a single enemy’s defense. Finally, we have the defensive moves: the dodge and the parry. The parry is easy to pull off, and can even be done in mid-air: just hold L1 & R1 and when the enemy attacks you’ll deflect them automatically. Dodges, meanwhile, let you avoid attacks all together, and when timed correctly, allow Sonic to dodge an attack, and move in quickly to deliver a combo attack. While there are certain situations which require these moves, the way you use these moves can also effect your overall playstyle.

For instance, if you like to play offensively and risky, like I do, you can use the cyloop a lot to not just take down enemy defenses, but keep them vulnerable to combos while delivering damage. However, using the cyloop can leave you vulnerable to attack, which can make a fight harder if you make a mistake. Cyloops can also interrupted by uneven terrain, or by area attacks, making it difficult or impractical in certain situations. Likewise, focusing on dodging and parrying, and only pulling off cyloops or combos when an enemy gives you an opening, can be easier, but also slower.

What I appreciate about Frontiers’ combat is that it gives you a decent amount of variety. It forces you to use all of its required moves, while also leaving you room for variety and strategy in how you approach any given enemy encounter. It feels like, for the first time ever, Sonic Team has genuinely put a lot of thought into how Sonic should fight. Even better: the encounters with the non-boss enemies are often quite short, once you rise above the base levels, meaning that combat rarely feels like a slog. And since it’s mostly optional, with none of the infamous enemy rooms of past games, you are largely free to set your own pace.

So the combat has variety, some amount of depth, and FEELS GOOD. So why do I say “mostly?” Well…much like Frontiers as a whole, while the combat is a lot of fun, it also feels like the foundation for something better. While I’m not a huge fan of the Unleashed werehog, it does get one thing right about its combat: it maps two separate kinds of attacks to different buttons, which can be used for a multitude of combos. I don’t really think Frontiers needs anything on the level of the werehog, but somewhere between that and where it is now would be a good sweet spot for the game’s combat, I think. More depth, to keep things from getting repetitive, but not so much so that the combat becomes too dense for people who are here for the platforming action and open world. It seems pretty clear that one goal with the combat was accessibility, since there’s even an unlockable autocombo option for more casual players.

As it stands, Frontiers has the most enthralling combat system I’ve ever experienced in a Sonic game. It blew away my (admittedly low) expectations, and I look forward to seeing what future Sonic games do with these mechanics. While I do think there is some value in keeping the combat more simplistic then, say, Bayonetta (this game doesn’t need to be an outright brawler), I do hope Sonic Team expands on this game’s combat with new moves and more complex combos in the future. Good on you, Sonic Team, you finally made Sonic combat fun! I will no longer look upon an enemy lifebar with dread.

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Nuckles87 has been an editor at Sonic Stadium since 2007, and has been covering events like E3, PAX, and SDCC since 2010. An avid retro gamer, he runs a monthly stream on Twitch where he explores obscure Sonic oddities, and how aspects of the franchise have evolved over the decades.

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