Sonic Frontiers is the latest entry in the Sonic series, with Sega putting a lot of emphasis on this new take on the decades long franchise. Like other notable Japanese series, like The Legend of Zelda, Sonic is set in an open world in what is arguably one of Sega’s most experimental titles in the series. While there are a lot of great ideas thrown into this eclectic, hybrid open world platformer, it doesn’t always stick the landing. That said, what Sega attempted is an ambitious step forward in the series in the race to try something new.
The story of Sonic Frontiers is fairly stock and standard. Sonic and friends are whisked away into an unfamiliar world after investigating the disappearance of the Chaos Emeralds. (These remain a staple plot device in the series.) After being sucked into this alternate dimension, Sonic is tasked with restoring his friends from their now mostly incorporeal forms. They are stuck somewhere between Cyber Space and reality. Its narrative is typical fare. Sonic needs to recover the Chaos Emeralds and save his friends. But it sets itself apart is in its open world gameplay.
The overworld map in Sonic Frontiers feels surprisingly sparse. Handfuls of trees dot the horizon or sometimes break up fields of sparse fields of short grass. The color palette also does it little favors. The scenery features swatches of washed out greens, browns, and grays. Of course there are ruins scattered throughout the map (with the same muted color palette), and more interesting sleek, futuristic platforms and railways that create short environmental puzzles. But these felt like they more or less were placed around the map at random, rarely leading me to anywhere significant or to a Portal Gate. These “doorways” would bring me to the more focused content the game provided.
My experience with the open world was a mostly empty one, with textures popping in and out as I raced at breakneck speeds through the aforementioned areas littered with a few rails, bounce pads, and platforms here and there. There are also overworld bosses that spawn at specific points on the map. These require you to dash through color-coordinated rings to boost your speed in the Asura’s case, or time the use of your now stamina-laden dash to reach a weak spot on its body.
Everything is relatively simple. The more challenging aspects of the game are mostly found through its general difficulty selection or padded out by Sonic now having to unlock skills through the acquisition of Skill Pieces. Getting these skill points isn’t exactly hard, but it’s more or less the tedium in acquiring them when in previous Sonic games most of these unlocks were tied to story progression in the form of items. It isn’t egregious in Sonic Frontiers, but it also makes the now combo-based combat fall into a lull fairly early on in the game, since you unlock the best stuff later on.
But where Sonic Frontiers truly shines isn’t in its open world exploration or mostly mindless combat. It’s in the small, contained Cyber Space segments. Cyber Space levels in Sonic Frontiers appear in two forms — the classic, side-scrolling platformer levels from earlier Sonic games and the 3D rail riding affairs found in the Adventure titles. Both of these types of levels are great! They are often punctuated with vibrant scenery and fast-paced electronic music punctuated with vocals that feel like they were pulled from Sonic R. Because of their constrained nature, these levels feel concise in the experience they deliver. It makes them probably one of the best parts of the game. The music is excellent all around and is also one of the stronger points.
There are a few other activities Sonic can engage in too, like fishing with the notorious (or beloved, depending on who you talk to) Big the Cat. This was one of my favorite pastimes, mostly because I just enjoy fishing and it was a little more involved than I expected it to be. You can also get some pretty decent rewards as well. This makes it more than just a leisurely activity to do on the side if you’ve gotten a bit tired of racing back and forth across the map. There is also a “pinball mini-game” that is available further in that’s also pretty fun.
Unfortunately, outside of these mostly enjoyable gameplay segments Sonic Frontiers suffers from major performance issues on the Nintendo Switch. In addition to texture popping and environments not loading properly, load times are fairly long. There were also instances in which I would be challenging a world boss and, when hit by an attack, major issues would occur. I would either get stuck under it until my invincibility wore off, which would result in a prolonged game over, or I’d rubber band through it and sometimes under the map. Paired with the long load times, this became increasingly frustrating. I wouldn’t recommend this version of the game for this reason, along with the fact that playing the game in handheld mode isn’t ideal. The camera sits so far behind Sonic that it can be hard to actually make things out on the map if you don’t swivel your camera around to try and zoom in.
Sonic Frontiers is a game that is made up of a thousand different interesting ideas, all threaded together in a way that should create something good. But for all it manages to accomplish and for all the great ideas that lurch just beyond the horizon, Sonic Frontiers skids to a halt as it sprints to the finish line. The result is a fragmented and sometimes disjointed mess. Paired with its performance issues, it makes this a tough game to recommend, even if it has pockets of truly enjoyable gameplay that make me excited to see what the developers will come up with next.
Sonic Frontiers is available for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows PC, and Nintendo Switch.