Review – Sonic Frontiers
As a kid, Sonic was the greatest. Mario was for nerds, and real gamers preached the way of the Blue Blur. Sadly, reality didn’t agree and Nintendo’s Mario emerged the victor of gaming’s bloodiest console war, absolutely crushing Sega and Sonic under his brown heel. Ever since then we’ve been subjected to terrible Sonic games, each one making a mockery of a gaming icon’s legacy. Even the bright light of Sonic Mania was dimmed by the subsequent release of Sonic Forces. But that was all set to change. Sonic Frontiers was going to be Sonic’s return to glory, his return ticket to the big leagues. Sonic Team came SO CLOSE to pulling that off that it physically hurts how monotonous and disappointing this game ultimately is. We deserved better.
Sonic Frontiers has been called a Breath of the Wild ripoff, which it both is and isn’t. On one hand the open world design, minimalistic overworld music, and focus on non linearity is clearly inspired by Nintendo’s magnum opus. But in many surprising ways, it also isn’t. For one thing, BotW had simple RPG mechanics and a streamlined progression system. Sonic Frontiers, on the other hand, has way too many unique currencies and a leveling system with a skill tree. A chief criticism of BotW was how it changed up the formula, whereas Sonic Frontiers’ traditional levels are far and away the best part of the game. With a little bit of tuning and polish, this could have been the perfect blend of past and present. It isn’t, but damn could it have been.
Sonic Frontiers opens with Sonic, Tails, and Amy flying around on an airplane. Then plot stuff happens and everyone is thrown into the Cyberverse. Sonic ends up in a Green Hills Zone level, which after completion boots you from the Cyberverse and onto the Starfall Islands. The Starfall Islands are made up of five open areas, which are the frontiers you’ll be exploring. As you explore you’ll discover your friends, old enemies, and a bunch of ridiculous anime nonsense you’ll struggle to understand and struggle even harder to care about. If you’re like me, you’ll ultimately fail to do either. Following the success of the Sonic movies, I don’t understand why Sonic Team thought this was the kind of story and characterization Sonic fans wanted. But this is what we got, and I’m sure someone enjoyed it. Possibly.
Still, the story and characterization were the least of my problems. While sure, I found the narrative and dialogue bewildering (to say nothing of the voice acting), gameplay is king. At the beginning, things were looking good. The opening Green Hills level you start off in really shows how well Sonic can move. The controls are a little floaty and a touch imprecise I’ll admit, but they work. Given this is a Sonic game, working is its own miracle. I was so engrossed I made sure to S-Rank the mission before I moved on, I was genuinely enjoyed myself. My first explorative boosts into Ares Island were much the same. I was optimistic, hopeful, and kind of impressed. Then the open-world part of Sonic Frontiers kicked in.
When people talk about copy and pasting in gaming, Sonic Frontiers is the game they’re thinking of. It features every excess of the formula. It makes every easily missed mistake possible. Plus, it does so while being quite ugly, suffering from frame rate drops and stuttering, and topped off by loads of pop-in. Even worse, the combat is so boring. The actual system and mechanics are fine, if a bit overcomplicated for a Sonic game. But the poor enemy AI and design make it all worthless because it’s such an easily exploitable system. Which I suppose is better then making combat a core part of the gameplay loop, but you have to wonder if any of this was even needed? A thought that extends to much of the game.
Four of the five Islands follow the exact same formula. You get to the Island and discover a friend which starts the main story. In order to progress the main story you have to grind the Island’s unique memory tokens. You get these by exploring, doing question marks, or Cyloops (more on this ridiculous mechanic later). You will also need to collect the Chaos Emeralds, either through mini-games you play during the Island’s story or unlock them from Vaults. In order to unlock the Vaults, you need Keys. Keys you get from Levels, which you sadly need to unlock using Gears. Gears you get from exploring or beating world bosses, which are the worst part of the game due to truly nonsensical mechanics. That’s three separate currencies you’ll be grinding, and each Island is totally separate. Twelve currencies to grind, and it very, very quickly stops being fun.
That’s not all either, as there’s character enhancement currencies to grind. There are red and blue seeds to collect, that raise your attack and defense, respectively. Then there’s the little bird-like Kocos, which you use to increase max speed and ring capacity. Your stats start at 1 and max out at 99. That totals up to fifteen currencies, and each of them is a long arduous grind. Then there’s the Cyloop mechanic. See, you can hold down a button and run in a circle. You complete the circle, and stuff explodes out of nothing. Usually it’s coins, but sometimes it’s character enhancement tokens and memory tokens. Also, there’s no cap on how many you can grind this way. You can literally spend hours running in circles and collect almost everything. You can invalidate swathes of the open world in one go.
The Cyloop mechanic exemplifies everything wrong with Sonic Frontiers for me. It’s an unnecessary idea added in to be something new. Everything Cyloop does is either unnecessary or actively invalidates the very game you’re playing. It can be used in combat to stun enemies or break shields. So can attacking. It can be used to activate some world objectives and open chests. You could also do this by interacting with them like every other game ever. Then there’s its endless stream of materials, which is good to curb the grind, but bad when you think about the base game design. If your game is more fun and efficient to run in circles for hours on end, rather than interacting with the world and mechanics, you’ve clearly screwed something up.
Sonic Frontiers is so frustrating because it was so close to greatness. Despite the story weirdness, I did genuinely enjoy Kronos Island. The mechanics and feeling of speed were great, the levels were fantastic (this carries across the whole game), and the boss fight was absolutely incredible. But then you fly off to Ares Island, something shoots you scattering the Chaos Emeralds, and you crash land realizing that you have to do everything you just did all over again. It’s at that exact point the game falls apart and it never recovers because it pulls this nonsense two more times. The fourth Island does change things up with a focus on tight platforming challenges and exposition dumping. Not exactly what you’re looking for either. Still I have to say, it’s a damn sight more enjoyable then most other Sonic games. For what little that’s worth.
While the open world is bland, empty, and suffers from loads of pop-in, platforming levels are colorful, well-designed, and visually striking.
Core gameplay is solid, with Sonic moving and controlling mostly well and combat featuring a variety of options to engage with enemies.
Voice acting is terrible and the open-world’s near total lack of music is off-putting, but the boss themes absolutely slap (Undefeatable!). The music that plays during levels are generally fun enough.
Fun Factor: 6.0
Sonic Frontiers is the kind of game that quickly overstays its welcome, with a promising opening quickly turning into a grindy, monotonous, and poorly written disappointment.
Final Verdict: 6.5
Sonic Frontiers is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Sonic Frontiers was provided by the publisher.