Against my better judgment and against the so-far very average showing in trailers and gameplay footage, I’ve remained a believer in Sonic Frontiers. I remain unconvinced that the 3D Sonic games should ever have put so much stock in the idea of pure speed but I recognise that that’s where we’re at now, and at least this time Sonic Team is trying something (kinda) new. During my trip to Gamescom this year I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one chat (which you can read here) with the Head of Sonic Team and the game’s Producer, Takashi Iizuka, as well as get my hands on around 40 minutes of the game.
During Gamescom’s public show, SEGA was running a special hands-on demo that attendees could play which showcased the first open zone area (the one we’ve seen in previous marketing) and some Cyberspace levels, but this behind-closed-doors preview session essentially handed me the keys to the game’s second island, Ares, to explore however I wished.
Ares is a desert-like area with a very different feel from the prior one, along with its own unique population of enemies. In fact, the very first thing I came across, after blindly running forward in the first direction I saw, was an enormous Guardian. These boss-like enemies are self-contained encounters combining puzzles, platforming and combat so I figured it’d be a good place to start to try to understand the game’s approach to all of those things. This particular Guardian was a giant platform standing tall about the Ares sands, requiring me to grind along a series of circular rails to reach it, then grind along some much wider circular rails to expose a weak point before wailing on it with Sonic’s basic homing strikes. It was a decent enough challenge, especially once the Guardian started electrifying sections of the grind rails, but I’ll admit I found the grinding aspect slightly finicky until I got used to the nature of Sonic’s “boost” ability.
I had to get my head around that quickly too, because not only is Frontiers’ world packed with grind rails (seriously, why is the sky on Starfall Island full of floating metal beams?) but it’s a big space to traverse and Sonic runs fastest when you’re holding down the right trigger for a boost. It works well enough, but it also comes with a stamina meter that drains while you’re running, which feels really odd for a Sonic game – I gotta go fast, you guys! Thankfully there were plenty of boost pads and other opportunities to speed up dotted around the map, and when you start to hit those intentionally-placed lines of sequential traversal elements it gets real fun, real fast.
Your most valuable ability in Sonic Frontiers seems to be the Cyloop, which is activated by holding down a button and running around in a circle until you close the loop. It’s surprisingly easy and satisfying to pull off, and I found myself looping absolutely anything that looked remotely like it might respond – little hidden treasures are everywhere in the ground. It’s also useful for enemy types that like to burrow or shield themselves, exposing them so you can get to beating them up. I had a lot of fun with the enemies that I came across, more so than I expected. The staple Sonic mechanic of losing rings when hit and only dying if you’re not holding any when it happens works surprisingly well in this context too, not least because you can increase your maximum ring limit as the game goes on.
Where the introductory island in Sonic Frontiers sees you rescuing Amy from being trapped in Cyberspace, this one had me attempting to free none other than Knuckles the Echidna. From a story perspective, that’s slightly intriguing given Knuckles wasn’t with the others when they arrived at Starfall and became trapped, so I’m interested to see where that’s going. Gameplay-wise, freeing your friends is an activity in collecting special tokens to slowly restore them from their Cyberspace forms, which in turn gives you opportunities to engage in new missions with them to further your progress.
That’s not the only way to progress in Sonic Frontiers though, as once I delved into the game for myself I discovered just how many different gameplay paths and collectibles exist to get Sonic towards his goal of collecting the Chaos Emeralds. The SEGA reps on hand explained that the core game flow goes a little something like; defeat Guardians > earn Portal Gear > open Portals > complete Cyberspace stages > earn Vault Keys > open Emerald Vaults, but there are plenty of other ways to collect Chaos Emeralds such as finding them hidden in the world or completing mini-games and optional tasks. I didn’t actually get the time to find any Cyberspace stages in my session but I’m told each of these also contains multiple opportunities to earn Vault Keys.
Outside of collectibles that affect game progression, there are also things like Skill Pieces that contribute towards upgrading your speed, defense and power as well as Koroks Kocos to seek out and return to their Elder Koco for ring capacity upgrades, and then of course the plethora of rings to pick up so that you can take a hit without dying. I also came across a Starfall event, which is incredibly reminiscent of Breath of the Wild’s Blood Moons by way of resetting all of the enemies and items in the world (including Guardians), and also drops Star Bits that activate an on-screen slot machine for… some reason. What this amounts to is that Sonic Frontiers’ islands are packed with things to do and collect in its open world, giving it much more of an old-school collectathon platformer vibe than I was maybe expecting.
After checking it out for myself I still feel hesitantly keen for Sonic Frontiers, if at least as a unique experiment in a few new gameplay ideas for the Blue Blur – although the team at SEGA informed me they absolutely plan on continuing the series in this format. If I have any major reservations, it’s still that the game looks quite rough. Weird junk-in-the-sky designs aside, the build I played was blurry and prone to big drops in framerate and exhibited some of the most noticeable pop-in I’ve experienced with objects appearing and disappearing in Sonic’s direct vicinity. That’s all down to polish though, and with the game feeling otherwise “finished” from a content perspective there’s plenty of time between now and November to smooth out the blemishes.
Sonic Frontiers releases on November 8, 2022 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch and PC.