Sonic Frontiers Is Big, But It Isn’t Very “Open”

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.

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GX

A podcaster since 2008, GX originally founded The Spindash podcast, until joining Sonic Stadium's monthly Sonic Talk. He currently co-hosts the show and runs weekly streams on Stadium's Twitch channel at https://www.twitch.tv/sonicstadium

7 Comments

  1. I actually dont agree with this. I do think the mini challenges are simple and straight-forward in design. But I found myself time after time obtaining collectibles by tackling it from any direction, often coming from places that clearly werent the “intended” route.. I think any linearity to the challenges can obviously be more attributed to the lack of in-depth focus that each challenge gets. But that, to me, feels like a decision made in hopes of granting freedom rather than taking it away. It feels like they leaned more on the controls and feeling of the game to be the most enjoyable part. That’s what I find fun about it, running around in all directions exploring with physics that feel good for a change. Not perfect, but good. For once, they actually directed their focus on a good aspect of the game instead of trying to hammer in level design they knew was bad.

  2. I half agree. Some challenges can in fact be done without the intended route, best shown on Chaos, where I don’t want to be locked into 2D all the time. With Boost (and the occasional space-launching rock) Sonic can get to many of those collectibles himself without the guidance. Even better when you can skip parts of the map with the Drop Dash or Boost.

    What the game lacks is variety. Most of the stuff you need is in the air, not in some natural space on the ground or underground. When I discovered that tunnel on Ares Island, I got really hopeful there’d be more stuff like this. Doesn’t seem to be though, most stuff is just on some platforms suspended in the air or at the end of launch-rings. We could have gotten some racing minigames to fully utilize the speed upgrades. Not timed, but an actual competition with some Ancient tech. Or we could have had the paths go the wrong way at times, with some identifier of this so the player is focused on the game. I’d also like to see some bigger island, where you can really go ham. A sandbox or a map maker would be great for this game in that case.

    I do like the game, it’s a 7 for me (9 if I count the Sonic fan in me screaming in joy), collectathons just tick something in my brain when I look at the map and it’s cleared. It does feel like a foundation to me and not the whole build though. If this is the new direction, I really hope Sonic Team works on this better than they did on the boost formula. There is genuinely stuff to improve – combat, challenge design, visuals (the game is pretty to me, but there are lighting issues and somewhat lackluster last island), cyberspace difficulty (I don’t mean to make everything 1-2 levels of crazy…though maybe, why not?) and maybe the plot (not characters or lore-writing, those were done pretty well, but the plot was bland). It is also, in theory, a versatile game format and it could give way to some interesting games (maybe with different characters considering Frontiers, hmm?) in the future.

  3. They get better about the automation as the game progresses, and I don’t think it’s too problematic, but I do agree about the general point, that certainly needs improvement. Getting caught in 2D planes I couldn’t get out of in Chaos Island was a particular grievance in traversal, I hope they address that.

    (I also fell for that drawbridge, by the way, I hated that)

  4. this is specifically why it’s called an “open zone”. it’s an extended version of the stages we’re used to with Sonic, with a bigger emphasis on exploration. these are literally meant to be bigger, extended action zones. just look at all the platforming sections that are scattered throughout. ya’ll have a fundamental misunderstanding with the game but enjoy calling your reviews “definitive” because what’s a Sonic fan if not entitled, self-centered and with a massive ego?

  5. This was so well-written, GX. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this game, the Open Zone platforming is only ever at its best when integrated with actual landmarks/structures – which is not often enough.

    From a game development standpoint, it’s obviously much easier to implement hundreds of rails and springs by sprinkling them haphazardly across the islands. But being so disconnected from genuine purpose or structural reality leaves the platforming feeling miles-wide but only an inch-deep.

    In addition, some of the collectibles could have been repurposed in a more meaningful way. For example: instead of being awarded literal keys to unlock emeralds, what if completing Cyber Space levels built up extreme levels of cyber energy in Sonic that he can expel to override Chaos Emerald containers? This would better support the story of Sonic becoming corrupted by the energy as the game progresses, since he’s regularly forced to harness its power against its intended purpose. I think simple decisions like this could have helped give things a little more variety than simply being “another key to collect”.

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