They say that a work of art tends to be a reflection of the thoughts and feelings of the artist who made it. If that’s the case, then Sonic Team has been a studio seemingly crushed with anxiety for the last five years, because Sonic Frontiers is a game uncharacteristically drenched in melancholy, introspection and sadness.
From the wistful empty fields and abandoned temples of Kronos Island, to the hauntingly isolationist undertones of the soundtrack and even the narratives driving Sonic and his friends (no spoilers here, don’t worry), there’s something strangely unsettling about the vibe of Sonic Frontiers.
This is clearly a game – and a studio – trying to come to terms with an entire franchise’s complex 30-year history, while at the same time attempting to forge a new path forward for the series. Sonic Team has spent a long five years on this project. Burned by the reception of the half-baked Sonic Forces, the developer has been working on the unenviable task of building an experience that tries to please three generations of Sonic the Hedgehog fans all at once.
Sonic Frontiers is the fruit of that labour – introducing new free-roaming play in the form of ‘open zones’, with bite-size throwback stages harking back to classic Sonic games of yesteryear. All wrapped in a story told, in part, by fan-favourite IDW Sonic comics writer Ian Flynn, and an art direction supposedly inspired by the explosive popularity of the Paramount Sonic the Hedgehog movies.
You might think, with so many great sources to pull from, that Sonic Team would have the ingredients for a fun cocktail of hedgehog action. And you’d be right. On the other hand, you might think that this would result in a rather inconsistent and overly-complicated experience. And you’d also be right.
In reality, Sonic Frontiers is a tale of two halves – in more ways than one.
The obvious change to the gameplay loop can be found in the large-scale open zones. These expansive arenas contain puzzles, collectibles (in the form of character tokens and cute Koco creatures), and portals to access more traditional linear Sonic stages. As you can imagine, this is where you will spend the majority of your play time, as unlocking the map and collecting the Chaos Emeralds will be your primary method of progression through the game.
It’s a good thing too, because the Kronos, Ares and Chaos islands are easily the best part of Sonic Frontiers and are really fun to run around in. The blue blur handles very well in these open areas, with his default inertia and speed finely tuned to allow for both exploration and high-paced action.
But the game also offers multiple speed and boost toggles where you can tweak almost every element of Sonic’s movement, in case you want to tool him out better for tricks and speed runs. On next-gen consoles there is even an option to run the game in 4K mode or at a lower resolution at constant 60fps (which I didn’t notice any drops from, playing on a PS5). It’s very considerate of Sonic Team to be offering these kinds of options.
Each landscape offers a huge range of opportunities for Sonic to dash, parkour, grind and trick jump, with a number of power ups laid out to reward the most adventurous players. You’ll have the chance to put those skills to the test at designated challenge points dotted about the island, which involve activities such as point-to-point races, step-square puzzles, parry and dodge-roll objectives and the use of your new Cyloop ability to activate certain objects in the game world.
While the Cyloop is useful in exploration and puzzle-solving, you will be mostly taking advantage of it in combat – another gameplay mechanic that has been introduced to the Sonic series with Frontiers. Sonic Team has given the blue blur a rather comprehensive (for a Sonic game) suite of fighting moves and special attacks, which you’ll need to use in order to take down even the weakest enemies on the Starfall Islands.
Surprisingly, the combat doesn’t feel out of place and can be quite fun! Sonic’s homing attack has been tweaked so that he can execute it on the ground if required – which is a great QOL modification that I didn’t know I needed – and can be used to close the gap between him and his foes. In close quarters, you have a combo-punch attack that can be used to wail onto your enemies when they leave an opening, as well as block, dodge and parry moves on the controller’s trigger buttons. You can also unlock skills that can be activated in battle with different button combinations, and they’re all rather flashy and cool to watch.
The moves on offer can be a little overwhelming at first, but there are some safeguards that can help ease you in. For starters, by default you can play around with parkour and combat training screens while transitioning through worlds, which is a really engaging way to pass the seconds by. Sonic Team has also added an unlockable ‘auto combo’ skill which allows the game to randomly select a special move whenever you build up a combo. For a player like me that just wants to focus on the platforming, this was a welcome addition. But you can turn it off if you want full control.
I was worried that I would get annoyed with fighting bad guys after a while, and bemoan a lack of variety and scale of the enemies on offer. But I was glad to see that different types of ‘bosses’ had unique combat scenarios and each new encounter felt fresh and interesting. Early ‘bosses’, like the Ninja, focus solely on close quarters and the strategy there is all about parrying and dodging attacks, but later in the game you’ll need to deal with sand-surfing on cyber-sharks, colouring grind rails to lower tower defences and even attack totems while an enemy sucks your ring count dry.
An early favourite of mine was the Squid on Kronos Island, which flies around the open zone until you’re spotted, at which point you can opt to hop onto their ethereal trail and engage in a boost-based chase that circles around the entire island. It’s very cool.
These battles all come to a head when you take on the island’s Titan mega-boss – foes so powerful that you can only stand a chance against them as Super Sonic. Collecting six Chaos Emeralds in an open zone will unlock the way to that area’s Titan, and once you nab that seventh Emerald from them you transition to an epic flying combat sequence. Despite being largely scripted events, I thought the Super Sonic battles were very cool – I really got drawn into the action. It’s a shame that there are only a small number of opportunities to turn Super, as every time I did I didn’t want it to end.
Open zone play is not without its faults, sadly. Strange gameplay glitches can result in random dead stops, or Sonic failing to run across some terrain properly. Some areas will push Sonic onto a 2D plane (for some reason), but the game will at times push you out of perspective during a crucial jump, screwing up your attempt at grabbing a memory token.
And, while there are technically five Starfall Islands in Sonic Frontiers, only three distinct biomes exist. Although these islands do look very pretty, they’re hardly the kinds of iconic locations that you would expect to see in a Sonic the Hedgehog game. These could be the locales of any generic third-rate adventure, and as a result don’t feel like worlds with any kind of identity.
In fact, these environments appear to be a little too similar to the bland and uninteresting designs found in Soleanna – perhaps it’s fitting then that the musical arrangement for Ares Island includes elements of Sonic 2006’s Dusty Desert stage.
The general lack of activities on these vast overworlds, relative to their size, is another issue. Sure, it can be fun trying to find the many memory tokens dotted about each open zone, and there are plenty of opportunities to aimlessly parkour around the place, but all of these floating platforms and grind rails littering the skyline simply mask the fact that there’s not an awful lot else to do in these areas (besides the aforementioned map puzzles). Even less so if you get bored of the enemies and decide to forego combat entirely.
Even then, there is a not-insignificant amount of pop-up in the game (even on a PS5) which makes it difficult to spot goodies from a distance – resulting in an over-reliance on map navigation when players should be spending time admiring the view and being surprised at what treasures lie on the horizon.
You also don’t realise just how forced and scripted some of the open zone areas are until you accidentally run into a dash panel going the opposite way, and you spend precious seconds furiously tapping buttons to try and cancel out of Sonic running gallantly 500 miles to the other side of the map.
A Moment on Momentum
At this point, it is probably worth bringing up the concept of ‘momentum’, as the online discourse surrounding this recently has become warped to the point of nonsense. So let’s talk about whether Sonic Frontiers ‘has momentum’ for a second.
The short answer is ‘yes, of course it has momentum’ – just like every other decent video game on the planet, Sonic has a standard momentum that applies whenever he moves at speed across certain terrains. And it’s really very fun to play around with! But what this game lacks – and what fans actually mean when they talk about ‘momentum’ – is the implementation of mathematical pinball-style rolling physics, and environments that allow for such momentum-based traversal, in the same way you would see in a Mega Drive Sonic game.
Instead, in Frontiers, Sonic – much like he does in Forces and, well, most of his games over the last 20 years – relies on speed boosters, scripted dash panels and boost rings in order to artificially give the player enough speed and lift to carry them to higher areas.
Ironically, the perfect example of the lack of pinball physics here can actually be found in a pinball puzzle that appears during the late stages of the game! A literal pinball game that doesn’t feel like a pinball game! So, if you are wondering whether Frontiers is really a fresh start from a mechanical perspective, keep in mind that ‘momentum’, in the context that actually matters, is not on the menu here.
Having said that, the lack of such physics doesn’t automatically make for a bad game. Just a different one. And despite the frustrations mentioned earlier, for the most part Sonic Frontiers’ open zones do a fine job giving players a fun and interesting gameplay experience. If you’re not focused on pinpoint platforming accuracy and just want to run around aimlessly in a big open environment, the physics present here are definitely well-built to facilitate awesome parkour performances and flashy fast-paced traversal. You could spend hours just having a laugh bombing around, flying into the air and connecting tricks – from wall-run to grind rail to boost ring and beyond – if you’re in that sort of mood.
Trippin’ on Cyberspace
Cyberspace stages represent the other half of the gameplay coin in Sonic Frontiers, and beyond the fantastic presentation it’s a massive disappointment. While Sonic’s movement is responsive when exploring open zones, he is stiff and difficult to control during these more traditional linear action stages.
The way Sonic moves in this space can be frustrating and confusing if you’re tackling stages at speed. Homing attacks are too slow and weighty against simple badniks (but not, bizarrely, against balloons?), making time-attack challenges a chore (a good tip is simply to avoid any enemies if you can help it) – and the recoil from connecting attacks can even push you away from ledges.
The physics here are, again, all out of whack – playing through a Sky Sanctuary-themed stage that lifts level design from Sonic Unleashed’s Dragon Road is an exercise in utter pain, as the rotating disc platforms confuse your character’s momentum and oftentimes sends you flinging into the abyss. I’ve encountered several moments where, expecting to fly upwards after boosting down a curve, Sonic would instead just fall directly down onto the platform (or bottomless pit) beneath him, as if he was wearing lead shoes. It’s irritating to still be playing linear Sonic stages in this way, as these traditional levels can be so much fun if done right.
However, it’s not all bad in Cyberspace. The stages are designed less like the full-length action stages you would have seen in past Sonic games, and more like minute-long bite-sized arcade challenges. Because of this, levels are mercifully short and simple. And for a brief moment, when you’re not fighting Sonic’s tank-like controls or the crummy physics, there are pockets of real platforming joy to be had.
The other nice trick Sonic Team pulled here was to pluck a number of classic 3D Sonic stages and re-use the level design for Sonic Frontiers’ Cyberspace. I could be cynical about that, but honestly it was just nice to replay stages like Sonic Adventure 2’s Metal Harbor again. At least knowing a level layout by memory can help you anticipate areas where the physics may try to fight you.
But no amount of stage length tweaking or nostalgia-fuelled design will hide the fact that this mode is clearly Sonic Forces repackaged in a more palatable fashion. You can choose to avoid playing Cyberspace entirely if it does your head in too much – such is the free-form approach to progression that Sonic Team have adopted here – but it really is worth ploughing through it for the music and stunning environments. Seeing recreations of classic landscapes made so lovingly makes me wonder why I’m not playing a Chemical Plant inspired open zone, instead of whatever generic field I’m pottering about in on Kronos!
Music to My Ears
Whether you’re playing in Cyberspace or on the Starfall Island open zones, one element of the game that is unequivocally good is the soundtrack. Series mainstay Tomoya Ohtani has really understood the assignment here, offering a mix of sombre-yet-reflective overworld themes, energetic 90s-inspired trance for the action stages and blood-pumping hard rock for when you’re smacking the chops out of a Titan as Super Sonic.
Every part of the soundtrack feels in step with the overarching feeling of isolation, anxiety, sadness and introspection that Sonic Frontiers conveys. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling the story too much, but hearing an open zone theme track slowly evolve as you progress and uncover the mystery of what happened within the Starfall Islands adds a real immersion to the narrative experience.
Similarly, even the Cyberspace stage tracks – which pull from a number of 90s rave and dance inspirations – feel appropriate in the context of Sonic literally running through his memories. Not only does it provide older fans like me with an added sense of nostalgia (“it sounds like something from Sonic R!”), but you can tell there are subtle melancholic undertones here as well. This is not the usual pumping hard techno beats of past 3D games, nor the energetic rock of Jun Senoue’s Adventure series work – there’s a softness to the music here that invokes a feeling of Sonic subconsciously pawing through – and perhaps even analysing – his past.
While fans could argue all the live long day whether this kind of music ultimately qualifies as iconically ‘Sonic’ enough (and I made a similar point when Sonic Forces came out), in Frontiers it feels like it adequately suits the narrative that Sonic Team have laid out here. And it’s a fantastic effort from Ohtani-san indeed.
Super Script, Boring Story
Speaking of the narrative running through Sonic Frontiers – that’s a two-sided affair as well. First, the good: Ian Flynn’s involvement in the game’s script is evident in the stellar dialogue found throughout. References to other Sonic games abound but don’t feel cringe or shoehorned in. Rather, it feels like watching characters naturally reflecting on adventures past. And some of the references included really will surprise you.
Characterisation of Sonic and pals are excellent. Seeing Sonic interact with Amy, Tails and Knuckles in Frontiers is a real delight – for those of you looking for some great character development, you’ll love every cutscene in this game. As for the voice acting performances: by and large, they are among the best we’ve had in the series. Although Roger Craig Smith’s new ‘older’ direction on Sonic will take some getting used to.
There is some fantastic lore-building going on, that adds real depth to the series’ 30-year history (although I wasn’t keen on one particular reveal involving a classic Sonic macguffin). As Sonic explores the Starfall Islands and tries to understand its history, you can’t help but feel that Flynn and Sonic Team are at the same time conducting an examination of the Sonic series’ own past – evident in the retro Cyberspace stages and how they fit into the narrative.
That said, the general premise and overarching plot of Frontiers is mostly a confusing, incoherent mess, making it hard to feel engaged with any of the action on screen. Sonic is tasked with fighting a myriad of uninspiring alien-looking cyber creatures, but despite how fun they may be to fight, you’re never really given a reason to care about them or understand the supposed threat they cause. There is a voice ‘guiding’ Sonic from time to time, but its narrative impact is weak and quickly forgettable given Sonic already decides by himself to battle the mega-sized Titans and rescue his friends trapped in Cyberspace. He’s hardly being led by the hand here.
The Titan boss battles with Super Sonic are the only times you really feel any energy while battling these enemies, and that’s more down to the presentation and the excellent combination of hard rock music and Super’s cool-as-heck animations. Strip that away, and you just have some H.R. Giger-esque robots that look like they took a wrong turn trying to find a Final Fantasy game.
There is constant mention of a vague ‘evil’ behind the Starfall Islands’ digital corruption, that not even Super Sonic can defeat, but despite all the panicked talk from the supporting characters you never feel like there are any real stakes at play. It’s hard to get invested and motivated to take a stand against an enemy that you never see.
Without spoiling anything: if you’re wondering whether it gets any better towards the end, well it doesn’t. A few pivotal scenes in the final act that help Sonic along make little sense, and the ending is one of the worst, most un-engaging I’ve ever seen in a Sonic game. And not just because I was so maxed out on stats that the final Super Sonic Titan boss became a quick and easy 30-second job. I played and completed it in hard mode, and… I can’t beat around the bush here. Everything about that final boss in particular absolutely sucked.
I can only guess that Sonic Team ran out of development time to fully implement some of its planned ideas, but it’s a real shame that the ending is one of the areas where this feels painfully apparent. Very disappointing.
Take Your Time
All that said, Sonic Frontiers is a game that you can still enjoy if you ignore the story and just focus on the side-quests and dialogue. There are riches of narrative and gameplay fun if you choose not to rush through the game – from unlocking island maps, collecting memory tokens (although gathering all of them does nothing, so consider it optional), attempting S Ranks on Cyberspace stages, finding Koco and trading them in to level up your abilities…
There are even fishing areas featuring Big the Cat where you can reel in real-world fish (and some surprising bonus items) and trade in your hauls to farm level-up tokens and unlock special Eggman memos, which are a treat to listen to. When you consider it all, this is one of those games where the journey itself is far, far more important than the destination.
Overall, Sonic Frontiers is a bit of a mess. The gameplay is half-decent, yet half-disappointing; the script is one of the best seen in a Sonic game, but the general plot one of the worst; environments are fun to play, but the art design lacks any real identity…
You know what though? It’s a fun and interesting mess, that I largely enjoyed my time with – the good elements outweighing the bad by a large margin.
It’s surely a marked improvement over Sonic Forces, and the new open zone concept is executed well, laying a solid foundation for future games to improve upon. What kind of improvements? Well, it would be great to see more varied open zone biomes, with an art direction that better connects with Sonic’s brand identity (we want to be running around interesting, colourful zones like Sky Sanctuary, Seaside Hill, Grand Metropolis and Aquarium Park please).
Perhaps smaller, more focused open zones could also allow for a greater number of activities to be included and give Sonic Team the space to build more of these zones in the next game. I would love to see this new era of Sonic games include a reworked physics engine that allows for the kind of momentum-based pinball play that the classic games were best known for.
But one thing I think Sonic Frontiers has proved beyond a doubt? That there is value in a (semi-)open world Sonic the Hedgehog game. The concept works and has potential – and there’s a real opportunity here to break away from the clunky old Sonic Forces-style physics for good.
There has been a popular community phrase associated with this game – ‘The Wait Will Be Worth It’. Now that Sonic Frontiers is here, we can now finally answer the question, “Was the wait really worth it?”
On balance, I’d say: Yes. Sort of. Let’s see what happens in the next game.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. Review copy for this game was provided by SEGA. During our playthrough (30+ hours) we completed the game’s main story with 100% island maps uncovered and all memory tokens collected, with every Cyberspace stage challenge accomplished and S-Ranked (both in main story mode and in Arcade Mode).