I can’t help but feel for Sonic Frontiers. At a glance, it’s almost too easily categorised as Sonic Team’s attempt at Breath of the Wild, a comparison point the team has been quite doggedly avoiding during preview coverage of the game. This is, partly, kind of absurd given how obvious the comparison point is. Sonic Frontiers plops the titular blue blur into large, open-zone environments in which ancient technology has broken down and nature has largely returned to claim its land. Mysteries abound, friends must be rescued and existential questions answered. But Sonic Frontiers is so much more than its surface. It’s deeply strange, often throwing conflicting ideas at the player at breakneck speed, and ultimately not entirely successful. But it makes a bold and earnest attempt at the genre and despite losing a few rings along the way, still clears a comfortable A grade.
Sonic Frontiers sees Sonic and friends thrust into one of the series’ more touching tales. Eggman has meddled with forces far greater than even his genius and inadvertently trapped himself, and Sonic’s best mates, in a digital realm known as Cyber Space. Here, memories are warped by Godly AI processing power and rendered into explorable manifestations (in this case old Sonic levels and subtext-packed cutscenes). With the Chaos Emeralds and his loveable roster of friends and foes trapped on Starfall Islands, Sonic must venture forth into the unknown and explore a series of loosely connected open-zones, solving puzzles, completing levels and generally being a snarky little hero.
These islands arguably serve as Sonic Frontiers’ biggest formula shift since the series’ jump to 3D back in the late 90s. Massive in scale and crammed full of small activities to complete, these spaces are borderline seamless playgrounds designed to push Sonic’s speed and your platforming skills to new limits. Equipped with the divisive Boost mechanic on the right trigger, Sonic is effectively encouraged to tear arse through the five available islands, utilising a simple but engaging loop of momentum, combat and exploration geared toward constantly rewarding the player. To complement the speed of the Boost, Sonic is also able to create whimsical trails of light with the new Cyloop ability that has you hold down a button and draw a loop in any shape you can muster. This is often used to activate puzzles, lower enemy defences or uncover rings and other useful items.
The five islands are an amalgamation of gameplay ideas that individually function quite well but collectively can wear a little thin. There is great fun to be had in simple exploration with approachable momentum-based platforming and rail building for convenient traversal ala Death Stranding. The overworld is littered with springs, platforms and rails to bounce between, offering some form of collectable as a reward for the thirty or so seconds it might take you to complete them. It all works, managing to blend fixed and free camera work in a split second and realising the best of Sonic’s movement. Those collectable rewards are also directly impactful of your progression, as Sonic will need to gather up a surprising number of resources to move the story forward and unlock new things to do.
Cyber Space levels, the game’s small but gorgeously rendered line-up of classic Sonic platforming levels, need to be unlocked using gears that you can nab from harder combat encounters. These levels are all themed around old-school Sonic aesthetics and while not the biggest roster of influences has been drawn from, what’s here is some of the most fun you can have in Sonic Frontiers. Depending on how well you complete each level you’ll be rewarded with keys (one for finishing, S rank time, red coin collection and ring numbers) which are in turn used to unlock Chaos Emerald vaults.
There are also friendship tokens that are given liberally and used to unlock cutscenes with your mates, and some fishing coins you should absolutely keep an eye out for. The game’s fishing economy is wonderfully broken, allowing you to effectively buy your way through an island if you wish, all while chilling with Big and catching random junk as a goof. Along with the skill points to earn, attack and defence tokens to uncover, and the admittedly wonderful Kocos to collect, Sonic Frontiers can often feel a bit much. The tone of the open-zone is so deliberately serene and begs a flowstate from the player but the game’s overarching systems can harsh the vibe as it were, even if they’re relatively harmless individually.
As Sonic Frontiers begins to expand its adventure and you push from five to ten to the roughly twenty or so hours it takes for a first pass, these systems lose some shine. The back end of the game increasingly wrestles camera control away from you in unforgiving platforming sections while the level design itself begins to constrict your speed potential, effectively snuffing out a lot of the fun. There is also the game’s severe pop-in problem that can sometimes snap a new rail into existence mere meters away from you. The speed at which Sonic moves through these environments means I can empathise with the difficulty of rendering it all at once but when you need to be making split-second directional choices, it can be immensely frustrating to not know what might pop in next.
Given the shift to freestyle adventuring, Sonic is also forced to engage in combat more directly than ever before. Sonic Frontiers certainly understands the need for style and flair, often making you feel like a badarse with its flurry of hyper-speed, vibrant animations as Sonic lobs energy balls and booms at foes. Better still that all of this can be achieved in a remarkably approachable way, whether actively through basic button combinations or passively through the auto-skill ability you can toggle on and off once unlocked. Like exploration, combat just feels good to use, and just like exploration, it can wear thin over the game’s run.
You’ll be unlocking high-level skills quite late in the game, though these are just additional button combinations to add to your roster, combat itself only fundamentally evolves based on what you’re fighting. Sonic Frontiers’ roster of robotic foes is largely a delight, a hobbled-together assortment of vaguely humanoid/animal creatures that require slightly different approaches to defeat without incident. The islands are also home to several larger-scale fights that utilise platforming and tighter timing to take down, often serving as a nice precursor to the game’s exceptionally cool major boss fights, the Titans.
Sonic Frontier’s Titan bosses are a standout of the game and are best experienced firsthand for a multitude of reasons. The first of these fights, Giganto, has been featured in marketing so I’m at least comfortable enough to talk about this walking anime cutscene of a monster. The Titans tower over the islands, using that scale to implement platforming segments before and sometimes during moment-to-moment, intensely cinematic combat sequences. All of this towering scale kicks off with unique, pop-rock tracks that bellow earnest lyrics about hope and new horizons while you effectively fight mecha-God. It rules so incredibly hard and I’m glad we have creators in the AAA space willing to be this dorky.
It’s a sense of style the rest of the game largely carries too, with a vibrant, if sensible, art direction and a general understanding of the power of going really fast through well lit-environments. The islands themselves aren’t anywhere near as varied as I would have liked though, with the initial greenery of Kronos dominating the palette for much. Ares was my favourite play space, with its harsh topography and small oasis pockets to discover in the arid deserts, but Chaos’ volcanic slopes and fragmented land mass left me a little cold. The final two islands, one of which is more of a gimmick, do lean back into forestation but the last one is a wonderful spot that made me wistful to be wrapping up.
Sonic Frontiers presents its story in a rather odd way though, which is especially sad given that the narrative beats and character interactions are all fairly compelling and fun. In an attempt to harness the power of the Chaos Emeralds, Eggman has made himself a daughter in the form of an AI project named Sage. As Sonic races against time to save his trapped friends, Sage will frequently show up to observe or interact with the gang and their impact on her is not inconsiderable. It’s a simple tale but ends with surprising weight, made all the more impactful by the game’s background narrative that doesn’t shy away from some pretty heavy stuff.
The game’s final moments had me cheering a little, and the cut to credits is shockingly poignant (even with the mid and post-credits scenes evening out the tone a little). The moment-to-moment writing is clumsily pronounced but again in an endearing way—Sage’s ruminations on what a “real” family is, Knuckles lamenting his life of service, Amy pondering love and Tails fighting imposter syndrome. The only one without a clear arc is Sonic but he works as a mirror to the cast in many ways and is more of an observer to the game’s true story. Which is all wonderful and good, but pacing issues and obfuscation dull its best qualities. There are some great Sonic lore elements at play here but you wouldn’t know it from what the main story gives you alone, instead, you’ll need to dive into menus and memos to find out.
All of these disparate systems and uneven feelings can’t fully derail this ride though and despite my many small grievances, I still look back fondly on my time with Sonic Frontiers. Its open-world adolescence is awkward, yes, but endearingly so— you can feel how badly this game wants to impress and that carries it far further than I imagined it could. Its moment to moment gameplay remains fun from start to finish and while the middle section slumps somewhat, it pulls up just in time to deliver a gorgeous and absurd final act. At some point in the story Sage observes Sonic trying to help his friends and shakes her head, “He never stops. Clarification, he never gives up”. And yeah, Sonic Frontiers stumbles often, but just like its titular hero, it never gives up.
Sonic Frontiers is an unsteady first run at the open-world genre for the blue blur but Sonic Team has crafted something endearing and immensely enjoyable all the same. Its core systems are fun, making Sonic’s iconic speed an integral part of traversal and combat alike while paying homage to what has come before in its Cyber Space levels. It’s not perfect, but it tries its heart out and I come away with warm memories of an uneven game.
Fun and easy-to-pick-up traversal and combat mechanics
Surprisingly effective story and character moments
Enemy variety and boss fights are a blast
Crisp and vibrant art direction
Advanced platforming isn’t particularly fun or approachable
Technical issues like pop in and poorly animated cutscenes
Not enough variety in combat to support 20 hours of gameplay