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  • TSS @ SAGE '23: Sonic Horizons - Frontiers with Less Homing and More Rolling

    Fan Physics Finds Frontiers

    Let’s be clear about something: Sonic Frontiers isn’t even a year old yet. It hasn’t completed its content update roadmap. And yet so accelerated is the fan developer community that we already have a full 3D alternate take with multiple hours of content. And it even addresses a major gap that Frontiers has in its design: Sonic Horizons is, above all else, a momentum-driven platformer where the act of exploration feels rewarding.

    Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Sonic wakes up on a mysterious island and is tasked to complete challenges, collect doodads, and unlock otherworldly portals. Where Sonic Horizons splits from Frontiers is trading boosting for liberal use of the spin dash and drop dash. With no combat in the overworld, you'll have to unlock gates by hunting down crystals scattered across the map, some hidden off the beaten path and others within platforming challenges.


    In an early-demo example of how this works, Sonic must hit a button located on a high cliff ledge to remove a stone wall in his way. Nearby is a ramp and a very steep slope that can be a struggle to ascend without building initial speed or repeatedly using the drop dash. The most direct solution is to launch a spin dash from the top of the cliff, build speed down the hill, and hit the ramp to launch yourself to the button. No boost pads, no springs. Just an understanding of the world’s physics and topography.


    In a later example, I could see a remote island in the distance with no clear path to get to. My solution was to fully rev a spin dash towards the shore, jump at the last second, double jump at the apex, and air dash. I was skimming water by the end of that leap, but I did make it. I’m not sure if that was how I was expected to get there, and that uncertainty is what I want from open world design: I want to craft a solution with ingenuity and skill, not homing-attack five enemies in a row.


    The Cyberspace-style stages have a similar feeling. These levels are more sprawling than those in Frontiers with plenty of diverging paths. While one path might ask you to bounce-jump onto high platforms, maybe you’d rather try skillfully launching off a ramp and onto a grind rail, saving a handful of seconds. Those seconds will be important. The game will gate your progress if you can’t achieve A rank or better, and that A rank won’t be easy.


    In fact, difficulty is my biggest criticism. While I appreciate that the demo offers challenges for master players, it often feels like the tolerance for success is too narrow. An A rank feels achievable after several tries, but demanding it over a very achievable B rank kills the pacing. I beat my head against the overworld speed challenges dozens of times in hopes to eek out just a few more much-needed experience points (which are also required to progress). Even platforms themselves are just a little bit too high, asking me to bounce jump more often than I found fun. I like that the demo asks me to use all of Sonic’s moves. But it asks me to use all his moves to their max all the time. If you’re the type of person who wants that degree of difficulty, more power to you. For me, I was fatigued long before I exhausted the demo’s content.


    Horizons is definitely one of the most polished 3D fan demos I’ve played, but there are still a few noteworthy issues. The landscape has a lot of invisible walls to prevent you from landing on “decorative” terrain. This can be misleading when you’re looking for a safe foothold. The demo takes place at night, and I dig the ambiance, but the reduced lighting makes it hard to navigate the environment and see hazards on the ground.


    I also struggled with the wall running mechanic. It’s a skill that’s really cool in theory, where using the shoulder buttons near a metal wall lets you to immediately snap to it. But every time I was required to use the skill, I found targeting to be temperamental and movement incredibly difficult to control. Several late-demo platforming challenges require you to chain these wall-runs together repeatedly and at dramatic angles, and all were practically impossible for me to complete.


    All that said, any of my complaints don't reduce how well the core ideas work. There’s room for growth, but the foundation is solid. Sonic Horizons is a strong formula, and a project worth keeping an eye on. Even without Sonic Frontiers’ island-spanning scope, Horizons stands as a solid example of how rewarding momentum-focused platforming can be in an exploration-focused structure. Check it out here.

    Sonic Horizons - Treetops.jpg

    The Sonic Stadium may link to retailers and earn a small commission on purchases made from users who click those links. These links will only appear in articles related to the product, in an unobtrusive manner, and do not influence our editorial decisions in any way. All proceeds will go to supporting our community and continued coverage of Sonic the Hedgehog. Thank you in advance for your kind support!
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