Sonic Frontiersseems like a weird game. A bold new step for one of the longest-running franchises in gaming. An immediately noticeable bit of immitative open-world design. Another silly adventure for Sonic and his friends. A strangely melancholic bit of tone work. New and old, colliding at high speed. Thanks to our friends at Sega I was recently able to hop over to Hawaii to play about six hours of the upcoming title. Our preview session ran us through three of the game’s islands and gave us access to late-game builds for combat and exploration. I’ve come away from my time with Sonic Frontiers both impressed and puzzled, intrigued to play more but cautious of its limitations.
In terms of premise and plot, I’m not much more informed than you if you’ve seen the trailers for the game. Sonic and friends are tracking the Chaos Emeralds to Starfall Island when a mysterious wormhole snatches Tails and Amy before stranding Sonic in a digital Hellscape. In this “Cyberspace”, Sonic’s memories are extracted and reworked into remastered classic levels, rippling with digital glitches, mildly concerning distortions and a banger soundtrack. Once completed, the blue dude is dropped onto Kronos, a lush green island plagued by robotic monstrosities, and Sonic Frontier’s open-world adventure sprawls out before you. After a disembodied voice informs Sonic that he is the key to solving the island’s digitised woes, you’re set free in large-scale open-play areas with a set of loose goals.
Each island has an array of currencies to find, from friendship tokens to restore the memories of your captured friends, Portal Gears to unlock Cyberspace levels, keys to unlock Chaos Emeralds, Skill Pieces, purple coins and much more. Gathering these resources forms the main gameplay loop, whether through platforming exploration, combat or Cyberspace S Rank chasing. What I can’t quite tell yet is if this push into 3D-world collectathon design is at odds with Sonic Frontiers’ very clear inspiration points. This is a play space that is stylistically riffing on slower exploration with less specificity of goals. I’m hesitant to make the direct comparison we all know I want to make but let’s just say I wonder about the breathing room in this wild.
Sonic Frontiers is undeniably fun to control so far though, perfectly capturing the “gotta go fast” spirit and transplanting it into an open-world. The islands are overflowing with platforming challenges, rails to grind, new wall-running mechanics to use and an absurd amount of precision jumps to make. These micro-challenges are enjoyable in their own right but also serve as vital traversal tools to help get you around often quite-large play areas. Sonic is equipped with a speed boost on the right trigger that propels him forward rapidly at the cost of a stamina wheel, but just straight running between objectives can be a little dry. Utilising the platforming elements in the world can often slingshot you toward a goal much faster, though occasionally will spit you out in the wrong direction if you’re not careful.
It makes traversal an active part of the experience, not too dissimilar to Death Stranding’s deliberate walking mechanics only in Sonic Frontiers the gameplay is geared toward speed and fun, as opposed to plodding and meditative. Conversely, the pace at which you blast through these islands is somewhat hiding how empty they can feel. There is always something to jump on of course, but there is a distinct lack of character to the spaces between, almost no one to talk to or cultural signifiers to discover. There is a day/night cycle that changes puzzle availability, and some small native creatures to guide home, but these spaces still feel a little too empty. It doesn’t help that uncovering the map is a glacially slow task at times, requiring you to complete fun-enough puzzles to uncover woefully small sections of it at a time.
Using the narrative conceit that the Cyberspace levels are specifically based on Sonic’s memories has allowed the Frontiers team to bask in the best of the series though and as a result these are explosively full of life. The upgraded visuals, along with Frontiers own glitch-punk-adjacent aesthetic, make for visually stunning sequences at blistering speeds and the precision gameplay had me fixated on getting the best outcome each and every time. Achieving an S Rank time, collecting all the red coins and so on will reward you with more keys for the overworld locks so you’re incentivised to spend time in Cyberspace, as well as the gameplay itself being naturally addictive.
Once back on the islands, Sonic will also face down a surprisingly rich roster of foes in combat that works, most of the time. There is a simplicity to Sonic Frontiers’ translation of hedgehog combat into a 3D space, primarily relying on X button smashing and the occasional dodge or generous parry. There is skill tree that can be used to flesh out your approach, typically building up combos with X before tossing in one of the other face buttons to unleash a flurry of sonic booms, spin kicks and more. Sonic’s new Cyloop, which has you hold down Y and trailing light behind you until you close the loop, can also be used blast through enemy shields and discover secrets in the overworld.
It’s a decent set of tools, impactful to use and easy to pick up, but balancing is holding back its potential. Enemy health seems largely stagnant across the three islands I played, ranging from hour one to roughly eleven of the game, according to the save data. There were mild changes to movement complexity but each foe went down just as easy as the last, even after I bumped the difficulty up to Hard. Ostensibly I understand the need for approachability but without any noticeable means of making these engagements more complex, I worry about the longevity of combat over five islands.
Players can also unlock a skill that will automatically unleash higher level skills without the need for button combinations, which I thought was a really neat way of allowing all players to feel cool during combat, regardless of skill level. When you first start up Sonic Frontiers it gives you the standard difficulty options but also prompts you to choose between distinct gameplay styles geared around familiarity with 3D play spaces. You can even tweak Sonic’s boost speed in the options menu, making for a game that is clearly trying to make itself as approachable as possible to old and new fans.
Elsewhere, boss encounters are phenomenally fun and frequently goofy in the best way possible. The islands are littered with Guardian bosses of varying scale and complexity, most of which incorporate some platforming elements for good measure. These fights are entirely optional, with each robotic beast roaming the lands in their own way, waiting for you to enter into the danger zone before attacking. Likewise, if you feel underpowered or even disinterested, just slam that boost and run Sonic in the other direction to disengage the fight – the damage you deal will even be there when you come back. It’s a remarkably relaxed approach to open-world combat that makes the boss designs, an eclectic collection of capital A anime concepts, all the sweeter for it.
The presiding design ethos of Sonic Frontiers being one of relaxed approachability is also felt in its tone and aesthetic choices. This is a more serious adventure than we’ve seen before for the blue hedgehog group, with the initial island in particular feeling quite sombre at times, but Cyberspace allows for a constant balance of light and “dark” vibes. While players have seen Kronos and Ares before, we got time with Chaos, a volcanic wasteland island that hints that this game’s art direction holds much more potential than we know. The soundtrack, from what I’ve heard, is immaculate too, boasting some truly beautiful overworld themes and outright banger rock-pop tracks.
After half a dozen hours with Sonic Frontiers I can’t deny that I have reservations but I’ve been itching to play more of it ever since. There’s a gem (emerald, if you will) of joy in its multi-layered design choices, a compelling core amid potentially clashing vibes and ideas that compels me to come back to it. As we noted in our initial hands-on preview, there are still technical concerns here too with noticeable pop-in and visual issues, but hopefully these will be ironed out in the weeks to come before release. For now, Sonic Frontiers has at the very least proved its concept and makes for an approachable, light on its feet adventure that may just take 2022 entirely by surprise after all.
Sonic Frontiers releases on November 8th, 2022 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch and PC.