Sonic Frontiers

I was a Genesis kid when I was growing up, so I still have fond memories of the early Sonic games. In fact, I still go back to Sonic CD frequently, because it’s an absolute masterpiece. And Sonic Spinball? Come on, that’s a tragically under-appreciated video game that’s incredible, despite its almost criminally short runtime.

So I’ve spent the past two and a half decades just feeling bad for the Blue Blur. I’ve always wanted Sonic to break out of the trappings of the 1990s; he just can’t seem to do it. I just want the old spikey speedball to be happy, and it hurts to see how cruel the relentless march of time has been to him, especially when his rival Mario just keeps on glowing up.

Now, I admit that Sonic did score a major win with Sonic Mania, which is so good that it almost doesn’t feel real. Sonic Mania brought back all the joy of the 2D era in a pixel-perfect package that does absolutely everything right. It’s clear that there’s at least someone at Sega who understands what made Sonic great in the first place, but they’ve never been able to translate that to the modern 3D gaming landscape.

Sonic Frontiers

I spent most of Election Day playing Sonic Frontiers (don’t worry; I did get out and vote first), which is the first Sonic game I actually felt any sort of investment in since, well, Sonic Mania, I guess. Before that, I was hardcore burned by the travesty that was the never-finished Sonic 4, and I wasn’t sure I could ever learn to love the Blue Blur again. So Sonic Mania was a huge turning point with me.

But with Sonic Frontiers, I think Sega finally has a clear direction for future 3D Sonic games. This feels like a weird mix between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Shadow of the Colossus, and Mario 64, but with a heaping load of Sonic spice thrown into the mix.

And yeah, I know there are plenty of other 3D Mario games to compare this with (and I’ve played almost every one of them), but Mario 64 is the most apt point of comparison for me. If you look at Super Mario Odyssey, or even the way-too-short Bowser’s Fury, you’ll find a polished-to-perfection blend of level design and set-piece spectacle that’s pretty much unrivaled in the world of 3D platformers. But Mario 64, bless its heart, feels rough around the edges — especially if you try to play it in 2022. Part of what I love about Mario 64 is that it’s a snapshot of this tiny sliver of time where Nintendo’s confidence was a little bit shaky. Mario 64 feels a little bit unsure of itself.

Sonic Frontiers

And Sonic Frontiers has that same feeling. You can almost feel Sega’s hesitation with this one, where they’re not quite sure what they’ve stumbled into, and they have a multi-decade history of black eyes and chipped teeth when it comes to this specific franchise.

So no, Sonic Frontiers isn’t a bombastic, super sure-of-itself venture for Sonic and friends; it’s kind of a quiet experiment, one that the developers at Sega have nervously released into the wild and are biting their nails in anticipation of how this one might fare. It almost feels like they set this one to release the day before God of War Ragnarök just so they had some cover in case the game was a serious flop. If Sonic bombs hardcore, it doesn’t matter because everyone’s having too much fun with Ragnarök to even notice.

But I can’t deny that Sonic Frontiers is actually pretty fun. This game features a massive overworld (or several smaller overworlds, more accurately) with access points to more linear stages. In the overworld, you’ll solve puzzles to reveal more of the map, grind on rails to access hard-to-reach places, fight towering colossi, and go fishing. Yes, this game has fishing… In the linear stages, you’ll speed through more traditionally designed Sonic stages, many of which are deliberate throwbacks to the hedgehog’s earlier days.

Sonic Frontiers

The colossus-sized battles are great. As you’re exploring the world, you’ll encounter these massive robotic creatures that tower over the landscape, and you’ll have to figure out how to climb them to take out their weak points. Unfortunately, there’s not enough variety in these encounters, and the game ends up reusing the same monsters over and over again, but the general idea is a really solid one.

And do you remember those Blood Moon events that would happen in Breath of the Wild, where you’d see an ominous cutscene of the moon and all the enemies would spawn back into the world? Well, Sonic Frontiers has its own version of this called a Starfall, But on top of resetting all of the enemies you’d destroyed, it scatters multicolored glowing gemstones across the land. By collecting them, you get spins in a slot machine that pays out in purple coins. This is a seriously cool take on the Blood Moon mechanic that also serves as a throwback to classic stages like Sonic 2‘s infamous Casino Night. I wasn’t expecting this at all, but I kind of love it.

Sonic Frontiers

That’s not to say its all good. There are a lot of technical issues, like a frustrating amount of pop-in, even on the PS5. The open-world design lacks the magic and mystery of games like Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring, and you’ll sometimes feel like you’re exploring the setting because the game wants you to rather than because you actually want to. There’s way too much text that tries to explain everything to you, sometimes popping up at the worst possible moments.

I actually want to linger on this last point for a little bit. See, there’s a ton of stuff in the game where you’ll encounter something new, then the game will explain that thing to you in excessive amounts of detail. A lot of this could have just been shaved off — for example, the first time you encounter a colossus, the camera should just briefly pan to its weak point, then leave you to figure out the rest on your own. I think this tiny change could have made so many parts of the game feel more satisfying.

Sonic Frontiers

But what’s here is still genuinely enjoyable. While it does have problems, it also has a lot of really good ideas — ideas that I would love to see expanded upon in future Sonic games.

Sonic Frontiers feels like an experiment. I hope that what Sega learns from it is that they’ve finally found a 3D format that works for Sonic, one that they can hone and improve in time for the next release. Because if Sonic Frontiers is anything, it’s a not-quite-there peek into a brighter future for the Blue Blur and mascot platformers in general. Sega should work on refining this format, because if there’s a Sonic Frontiers 2, it has a ton of potential to finally be the Sonic game we’ve been hoping for ever since Mario 64.

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