Sonic Frontiers review – breaking the cycle of failure

Sega has done the one thing most fans had given up any hope of: they’ve made not just a good 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game but a great one.

Ring the bells! Blow the trumpets (of the apocalypse)! Sega has done it; they’ve finally done it! It’s only taken 24 years, but Sonic Team has finally made a good 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game. They’ve released so many over the years that they were due a good one simply by the law of averages, but Sonic Frontiers is the real deal. It’s very far from perfect but the ifs and buts don’t spoil the fact that it’s a ton of fun and, to some degree at least, the sort of game Sega fans have been dreaming of for all these very long years.

Since the end of the Mega Drive era there has been precisely one unequivocally great Sonic game: Sonic Mania. But that was both 2D, a quasi-remaster, and primarily developed by fan groups and not Sonic Team themselves. Sonic Frontiers is not quite as good as that game, but it is a lot more ambitious, being an open world game that, mostly, lets you explore in any direction at any time.

From the moment the first screenshots were released everyone noticed that it seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to Zelda: Breath Of The Wild – a game that under normal circumstances you’d expect to have precisely zero in common with Sonic the Hedgehog. In core gameplay terms it doesn’t but despite Sega’s recent attempts to deny it, the way the open world works, and the delivery of classic Sonic gameplay in a constant stream of bite-sized nuggets, is extremely similar… and it is marvellous.

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Sonic Frontiers is split between two very different styles of gameplay. The principal one is a series of large, open world environments, where you’re trying to acquire the Chaos Emeralds which, for increasingly unlikely reasons, are snatched away from you as you enter each new world. To get them you need the keys to their vaults, which are primarily gained by playing more traditional, linear 3D Sonic levels via ‘Cyber Space’ portals. These in turn require a specific number of tokens to enter, which are most commonly obtained by defeating mini-bosses.

There is a story to explain all this but it is, as you’d expect, paper thin, with Doctor Robotnik getting trapped in Cyber Space while investigating ancient ruins that may be related to Knuckles’ home of Angel Island. As usual, the script is a peculiar mix of twee Saturday morning cartoon nonsense and grimdark plot details (the genocide of an entire race, in this instance), with very little in the way of knowing humour to keep it ticking over.

Very little is still better than none at all though and we did like the gag where Robotnik’s floating AI avatar asks Sonic what his end goals are – which has an unexpectedly funny punchline.

Each of the open world areas is rendered in a fairly realistic style but they’re all covered in complex collections of railings and platforms. There are dozens upon dozens of these mini-set pieces on every map, with each segment generally only lasting a minute or two until you emerge on the other side. The sky is filled with massive loop the loops and other platform elements, creating little pinball vignettes for you to dip into, to either get where you’re going more quickly or have fun picking up collectables. It must’ve been a nightmare to design and yet it all connects together extremely well, like the world’s most expansive roller-coaster.

Sonic has four stats determining his speed, ring capacity, attack, and defence, which can be increased by one of three different items. The speed and ring capacity run on the same currency, of cute little critters called Koroks Kocos, that can be found dotted around the landscape. These stats can also be rebalanced by visiting the head Koco, for when you gotta go fast (or gotta have health for a boss battle).

This makes for a bewildering array of collectables, that includes different seeds that increase attack and defence, memory items used to restore a different ally in each world, rings (which, as ever, are essentially your health), and skill point fragments. The latter is for what may be gaming’s smallest skill tree, which we managed to complete by the end of the second world, leaving us to play the rest of the game with 99+ skill points and nothing to spend them on.

All these different items are found in the world and dropped from the various enemies that you encounter, which come in two varieties: cannon fodder and what amounts to mini-bosses. No enemy ever stays dead permanently though as, despite what Sega claims about this not being influenced by Breath Of The Wild, there’s what amounts to a Blood Moon every half hour or so, that brings them all back to life.

In terms of structure, the first three worlds are all very similar, although the game does try to mix things up a bit towards the end, with a series of massive towers that very successfully reinterpret classic Sonic platforming into a more modern and slightly more complex form. Sonic also has a lot more fighting moves than usual, especially once you’ve unlocked the tiny skill tree, including dodges and a parry, but they don’t overwhelm and are all very easy to use.

The new Cyloop move is especially fun, as it draws a line on the ground behind you and if you make a complete circle with it, it’ll either uncover hidden items or you’ll break the shields of any enemies trapped within.

Sonic’s movement has always relied on a lot of friction, that makes him slow to speed up and difficult to stop, but the balance that Sonic Team has found here works perfectly, in that it’s still recognisably Sonic but you are now able to be fairly precise in your platforming. The camera can be an issue at times, making it sometimes difficult to judge distance and height, but we rarely blamed a death on it and it’s obvious that what Sega is trying to do here is very difficult.

There may only be a few direct similarities with Breath Of The Wild but what the two games do have in common is that there’s a secret around every corner and whether it’s worth finding or not it’s always fun getting there. We constantly found ourselves getting sidetracked, investigating a newly discovered set of platforms and having a go on them – rarely because we needed to, or expected any unusual rewards, but simply because it’s always so fun seeing how it all works and where the next bit goes.

The mini-bosses are all very good, even though most are optional, with new ones introduced for each new world. The actual bosses are even better, as while the open worlds are accompanied by some very subdued, melancholic music the boss battles and Cyber Space stages are all either surprisingly good club tunes or some marvellously cheeseball soft rock tracks. The bosses are all uniformly great too, even if it’s frustrating that technically they work on a time limit (you’re transformed into Super Sonic at the time) that the game makes little effort to highlight.

We said the game was flawed though and there are some issues that do bring it down, the most peculiar being that the tokens and keys that are essential to your progress aren’t just found in Cyber Space or by killing mini-bosses. You can also find them randomly when fighting smaller enemies or even just digging up treasure or playing a fishing mini-game with Big the Cat.

Some of the Cyber Space stage are really quite hard, so just bumbling across the exact same item from digging up a hole can be very dispiriting. It also means there’s almost never any real need to fight enemies unless they’re attacking you, which seems a terrible waste for such good designs.

One’s a squid where you have to chase along the trial it leaves behind (that one is at least reused in mandatory set pieces), another is a giant robot spider that throws you in the air like a trampoline so you can freefall through the air to land on top of him, and another is a robot sumo wrestler who you have to bounce into electric fences. And that’s not even half of them.

It’s also a shame that the side quest missions that are something other than just defeating an enemy are usually the worst. They’re all relatively imaginative, like skydiving onto a sea of pinball bumpers or smashing up crates of machine parts as quickly as you can, but for some reason they all run on ultra strict time limits that drain all the fun out of them.

It’s also a cheek that most of the Cyber Space levels are just remastered versions of ones from previous games, reskinned to look like Green Hill Zone levels or what resembles Apotos from Sonic Unleashed. Most are entertaining, and they’re a good palette cleanser, but you do get the impression that Sega was hoping nobody would notice they’re technically old content.

On a technical level, the game works fine in terms of frame rate and has a good lick of speed once you get Sonic powered up enough, but the actual graphics are incredibly poor on PlayStation 5. The game has obviously been designed to ensure that it will still work on the Switch, where the majority of Sonic’s fans are, but absolutely no attempt has been made to optimise things for the more powerful consoles.

Some of the textures, particularly on the first world, wouldn’t look out of place in a PlayStation 2 game, with a shocking amount of object pop-in. It never directly interferes with the gameplay but that’s not really an excuse. A high-res texture pack should have been the absolute minimum for the next gen versions, but the game doesn’t even take proper advantage of the PlayStation 5’s hard drive, as there’s awkward one second pauses during scene changes in some of the boss battles, that threatens to ruin the magic.

Sonic Frontiers is a scrappily made game, but it’s one’s that’s hard not to love, not least for the sheer relief that Sonic Team has finally done something right. Not only that but the game itself is something genuinely original and ambitious. The Breath Of The Wild similarities are odd but the core gameplay is completely dissimilar, so it’s certainly not a clone.

With this success under their belt Sega needs to make sure that this is a new foundation for the future, since the worst thing they could do now is knock out a bunch of identi-kit sequels for the next 10 years. If the next game, and the game after that, shows just as much effort then not only will Sega have successfully reinvigorated the franchise but one of game’s most beloved mascots will finally be famous for something more than just appearing on lunchboxes and movie posters.

Sonic Frontiers review summary

In Short: After decades of miserable failure, Sonic Team has finally made a good 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game, and it’s one of the best open world platformers ever seen.

Pros: The world design is great, with a secret or fun bit of gameplay around every corner. Great boss battles and combat. Surprisingly precise controls for Sonic, and tons of content and Cyber Space levels.

Cons: The randomised rewards for combat greatly undermine the excellent enemy designs. Very poor on a technical level, no doubt thanks to the Switch. Some frustrating side quests.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: 8th November 2022
Age Rating: 7

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