Sonic Frontiers Review – The New Blueprint

Sonic Frontiers is the Sonic Adventure 3 game we all wanted. The first breath of fresh air in the series for years, Frontiers is a celebration of Sonic’s heart and soul, and proves that the series can shake its bad reputation – even if it still clings to a few old habits.

With its lush environments, tight 3D platforming, and distinct Sonic charm, Frontiers is a brave first step into a new era for the series, and Sega should never look back from here. Yet Frontiers itself betrays its new design philosophy at its lowest points, limiting its own success by looking backwards, unable to escape Sonic’s needless reliance on dull 2D stages that should be left behind for good.

When Sonic Frontiers is at its best, it feels like a modern-day Dreamcast game. It’s a hard feeling to explain. It’s nostalgia and innovation rolled into one. It’s the curiosity of playing Shenmue for the first time, but the safety of falling back into Sonic Adventure.

Much like a Dreamcast game, what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in ambition. Frontiers opens as Sonic, Amy, and Tails crash land on a mysterious, partially digitized island, and it’s up to you to figure out what’s going on. For the first time in a Sonic game, we know just as little as he does, with nothing but open green fields to explore. It’s a beautiful world – if you don’t mind a whole lot of texture pop-ins on last-gen, at least.

Right off the bat, there’s very little guidance on what you should do. The whole first island is accessible to you as soon as you’re done with a short tutorial, albeit with a blank minimap. Completing the various puzzles littered across the world will unlock sections of the map for you, but all you’ll want to do is run around and experiment with the new mechanics, which the game wholeheartedly encourages.

It’s then that you’ll run into your first miniboss, and get your ass kicked. And then get it kicked again. All of these minibosses are optional, only giving out some extra loot you can easily find elsewhere. But they’re also ridiculously enjoyable, and make for some of the best fun you’ll have on the Starfall Islands. The game rarely tells you how to take them down, it just throws some tools at you and tells you to figure it out. Whether you brute force your way through them as soon as you enter the game, or run off to level up first, taking one down is so satisfying that you’ll forget they’re mainly there to grind for loot. It’s hard to care about how many keys you need to unlock a Chaos Emerald when you’re climbing up a 200ft tall robot to find its weak spots.

This is also where the new RPG-style skill tree shines. Doing everything from exploring the map, pulling off tricks in the air, and taking down enemies gives you points that you can use to unlock and upgrade new combat moves. They’re completely over-the-top, and never not fun to pull off in battle. With running around the island being so smooth and satisfying itself, it’s a testament to the combat and bosses that we’re given a good reason to bother slowing down.

Despite all this, there’s one irritating hangover from older Sonic games that is stopping Frontiers from feeling totally fresh and cohesive – the Cyber Space levels. These play like the ordinary linear 3D and 2D Sonic levels, but are tiresomely unimaginative and disappointingly derivative of previous games. The better stages are mercifully short, and play like glorified quick-time events. The worst ones are around three minutes long, and demand precision that the Cyber Space controls just aren’t capable of. Where attempting new strategies and failing feels fresh and experimental in the open world, Cyber Space makes you curse the fact that you need to get an S rank and finish the stage with 30-something Rings just to progress and unlock a new Chaos Emerald.

Cyber Space also makes you realize that, goddamn, this game has an awful lot of collectables. Starting cutscenes, collecting Emeralds, hell, even unlocking the Cyber Space levels in the first place all rely on some form of collectable. While the open zone mostly helps you forget about this, Cyber Space puts it on blast.

This isn’t the only area of the game playing it a little too safe. The story is silly, wonderful, and heartwarming. But the dialogue lets it down too much. Amy, who used to be the life of the party, is now feeling pretty soulless with little of interest to say. Give me Adventure 2 cheese any day – the supporting cast really could do with some more personality. The newest addition, Sage, makes up for this a little, but it’s a worrying sign that the beautifully tacky dialogue of the 2000s is left in the past along with Sonic’s personality.

All Sonic Frontiers wants to do is give us a relatively simple and charming story, and a few playgrounds to run around in. On that front, there’s very little getting in the way, especially when you realize the fishing stages can be used to (mostly) skip Cyber Space levels. The only way the open zone really puts a foot wrong is when it stops you from doing what Frontiers does best: going fast.

This is at its worst on the third island, which is made up of smaller, separated islets. With every area on the map looking the same, and very few landmarks to help you find your way, it was never clear how to get from one sub-island to another. So much of my playtime in this area was spent aimlessly running around, looking for bridges, and then falling into a lava pit I had no way of spotting before it was too late. On other maps, trying to figure out how to reach a certain location without any signposting was extremely satisfying – especially on the second island. But on the third, it was a frustrating and needlessly slow experience. Definitely not what you want in an open-world game when its main gimmick is going fast.

With the game being so free, it’s easy enough to ditch the most frustrating parts and speed away to find something Frontiers has managed to pull off. Right after tearing my hair out trying to find the last Chaos Emerald on island three, island four gave me the series’ best platforming since Sonic CD. Frontiers is a great ride, it’s just a bumpy one too.

Ultimately, that’s what Sonic Frontiers is all about. It’s not Breath of the Wild or Mario Galaxy. It’s its own unique experiment with the genre, and a very successful one at that. So much has been chucked into the game – new combat, RPG stats, open zones, fishing, collectables, puzzles – and it all works. Sonic Team should have confidence that those parts were enough to carry a game instead of wedging in a poor facsimile of 2D Sonic.

There are teething issues and a reluctance to let go of the past, but it’s also a daft Sonic game with a charming story told in the most competent way we’ve seen in years. Sonic might not be back in the big leagues yet, but he’s catching up. Like Sonic Adventure all the way back in 1999, Frontiers could give the series a new lease on life – Sega has to ditch the old ways and let it happen.

4/5. Sega provided a PlayStation code for the purposes of this review.

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