I wandered Kronos Island for about three hours, defeating bosses, grinding on rails, and plucking collectables from the map. I periodically stopped at the Elder and the Hermit to convert my stash into gains, then popped over to an Amy or Sage point to get a few lines of characters self-reflecting. When I defeated the Titan of the region, I had to acknowledge a feeling that had been nagging me the whole time: “Is that all there is?”
Thankfully, I felt a little better about Sonic Frontiers once I was able to approach the game on its own terms, but even now there’s a sprinkle of disappointment in my experience. Open game design, be it full open world like Breath of the Wild, Spider-Man, Forza Horizon, or less standard open structures like Mario Odyssey or Bowser’s Fury, light a fire in my brain. I want to chase tasks, I want to discover things I wasn’t expecting, I want to see cool places and meet interesting characters, I want to subvert the expected and find bizarre solutions. I want to feel curious and surprised and rewarded for my efforts.
… and Sonic Frontiers has none of that. Kishimoto’s “Open Zone” doesn’t really feel like a zone. It doesn’t feel like a playable world map. And, honestly, it doesn’t feel especially “open.”
There are a number of reasons for this, from the collectathon-driven progression, to Sonic’s limited and incremental upgrades, to the fact that they built a cosmetics system solely for purchase bonuses and marketing collaborations. But by far the biggest contributing issue is the one that has long dogged the series, automation.
When Sonic entered 3D, it found itself in a constant fight between functionality and spectacle where spectacle most often won. Grind rails, directional springs, and the homing attack allowed for a pace of experience that felt like it could fall apart at any minute, but somehow still held together. Automating loops let the camera zip out to dramatic angles, and boost pads nudged Sonic along the expected path so that you could reasonably escape an orca or military truck while blindly running towards the screen.
It’s a different type of experience: whereas Genesis Sonic asks you to master curves and momentum like a city-wide skatepark, 3D Sonic straps on a jetpack and asks, “Hey, you wanna see something cool?” But as a video game, the series struggles to find a solid balance between showing the player something cool, and letting the player do something cool. This imbalance comes to a head in 2017’s Sonic Forces, a game that would very much like to show you some mid-level cutscenes, and doesn’t really want you mucking them up with full player input.
Sonic Frontiers is better about this, but it still can’t seem to abandon yanking the player by the hand, as if the gravest sin it can commit is letting the player ruin a perfectly good action sequence.
This is a typical platforming challenge in Sonic Frontiers: You find a dash pad on the ground. It zips you to a spring. The spring bounces you to one of the many rails floating in the sky. The rail loops around dramatically and leads you to a boost ring, thrusting you ever higher so that you can homing-attack some balloons and land on a platform with a memory token. Challenge complete. What was your input in all of this? Well, you found a boost pad and pressed the homing attack button a few times. Perhaps you even held the directional stick forward throughout.
There are a thousand variations of this across the span of the game, incorporating a few additional mechanics like wall jumping and air boosting, but it always comes back around to chaining basic inputs in flashy ways. Any challenge the game offers is very guided and very controlled, which feels antithetical to modern open design. This game may have copied Breath of the Wild’s homework, but where Breath of the Wild gives you a playground of mechanics and minimal direction, Frontiers is terrified to let you go outside the boundaries of what it wants you to do and how it wants you to do it.
To give my most disheartening example, the third island contains a drawbridge you will eventually lower in a story event… except the raised end is on your side, giving you a massive ramp that you can absolutely boost off of. If you try to jump the bridge before that story moment, you’ll hit an invisible wall surrounding the island on the other side and fall to your death. The game is clearly saying, “You will not go here until we tell you to go here, no matter how achievable it looks.”
Open game design is built around exploration and discovery, but the game quickly teaches you that it doesn’t have any secrets or surprises up its sleeve. It has springs that lead to grind rails that lead to tiny rewards, and there isn’t much emotional difference between spring-to-rail at the beginning of the game and spring-to-rail 30 hours later.
Like I said, I eventually came around to the game for all its faults, and there are several bright spots. As the game progresses, the complexity of the level design starts to make up for its limited toolset, asking the player to chain more complicated actions to complete the micro-challenges. The wide plains of Kronos Island give way to negotiating cliffs and sub-islands on Ares and Chaos. Combat encounters are diverse and unique, with some enemies needing a strict beat-down and others demanding you to master a specific mechanic. Sonic’s dash and air control feel better tuned to balance pace and precision. And perhaps most importantly, Sonic’s Cyloop represents the best of open design: it’s an analog mechanic that plays into the character’s core abilities and can be used for multiple purposes throughout the game. There’s room to build more Okami-esque line drawing puzzles around it, but it’s a solid idea that makes sense for what Sonic games are about, and I hope it makes a return in future games.
If we’re to believe Kishimoto saying that this is a generational change for the series, there is a solid foundation here that is going to need a lot of work to live up to its peers. For now, Frontiers is not the revolutionary jump it’s being pitched as, and in some places, it’s not evolutionary either. What we have feels more like a proof of concept. A successful proof of concept, but not a fully developed idea built around open game design. If the series isn’t an A-to-B action movie anymore, then the franchise needs to get beyond leading the player by the hand, and instead build more open-ended scenarios around Sonic’s skills. There are certain aspects of this game that feel better than they ever have before, but Frontiers’ open world aspirations can’t shine while they remain shackled to the series’ automated sequences and repetitive challenges.