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"Sonic Frontiers": A Solid Jump Into the Open-Zone

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.

"Sonic Frontiers" PS4 Cover

"Sonic Frontiers" PS4 Cover

Sonic's Redeeming Year

During the 2010s, Sega has constantly succeeded and failed at restoring Sonic's reputation after its embarrassing dark period in the mid-2000s. They reintegrated the Boost gameplay to success with Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, in which the latter was a celebration of the franchise's 20th anniversary. At the same time, they tried experimenting with the series of directions. They tried streamlined controls with Sonic Lost World, along with Westernizing the franchise with Sonic Boom. While Lost World polarized critics and fans, Sonic Boom, with the exception of the television show, earned a new reputation at an all-time low for the series. It wasn't until they celebrated its 25th anniversary with Sonic Mania passionately returning to Sonic's 2D roots and the anticipated Sonic Forces featuring gameplay styles from Generations. That resulted in a completely mixed response with Mania highly praised as one of the best and Forces being anonymously disappointing...to some fans. As you could tell, the franchise continues to ride on this roller coaster of quality. Personally, I am an optimist and always believe there would be some redemption for the Blue Blur.

Thankfully, the 2020s is gradually improving Sonic's legacy. While Sonic Colors: Ultimate and Sonic Origins did not reach high critical praise, the live-action/CGI movies were key factors in gaining Sonic up to speed with critics and fans alike. Heck, they even found a proper use for Sonic's original movie design in, spoiler alert, Disney's Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers movie, appropriately named "Ugly Sonic." Outside of that, both Sega and Sonic Team realize that it was time for Sonic to go beyond these Green Hills and enter a new open world, or in their case "open zone."

When a wormhole separates Sonic from his friends, he ends up on the mysterious Starfall Islands. Now, Sonic must explore the islands, rescue his friends, and discovering ancient secrets along the way.

A Melancholic Yet Thoughtful Story

Going back to the previous decade for a moment, one of the most divisive components during the past games' development was the lighthearted and comedic tone written by Ken Pontac and Warren Graff. While their writing had its moments, it was considered too cheesy for longtime fans to take seriously.

For this game, Sonic Team made a smart choice of hiring veteran Sonic comic writer Ian Flynn to pen the script. For those that were living under a rock, Ian Flynn has been considered the defacto story artist that completely understands the personalities of any character and manages to write engaging stories that keep fans on the edge of their seats. Admittedly, I never read any of the comics, but after playing this game, I should actually check them out.

Sonic Frontiers' story has this vague and desolate tone where the atmosphere lets gamers feel invested and guess what will happen next. Exploring the islands myself gradually grew my curiosity throughout my playthrough. The ruins, the language, the Koco species, etc. It visually helps with world-building, which was rarely touched upon in the previous games. Another factor that made the story so enduring is the characterization. Seeing Sonic interacting with his trapped friends really expands on their personalities and gives character development that builds the heart of the tale. Of course, there are callbacks to past Sonic games but were executed more subtly than humorous. In fact, Sonic is the only character that carries his snarky but serious demeanor, which thankfully keeps the tone in balance. Taking and respecting Sonic Team's confidence, I wish not to give anything away about the plot. All I can say is: If you are a longtime Sonic fan, you will be surprised by a variety of emotions and not be disappointed one bit.

Journey Into the Open-Zone

It is clear that Sonic Team wanted to move on from the Boost gameplay after listening to feedback from fans on Sonic Forces. Since this game was meant to be a celebration of the franchise's thirtieth anniversary, they thought up a new gameplay experience that would be as revolutionary as Sonic Adventure.

In the first "open-zone" game, the goal is simple: find his friends, collect all seven Chaos Emeralds, and defeat the giant bosses known as Titans. Keep in mind: you have to repeat this process a few more times. On the surface, this sounds formulaic and would get tiring to some after a while. I won't lie: I was getting exhausted at some point and wished there was more content that would differentiate itself from others. Not to mention, I was playing this game on Hard mode difficulty. In practice, however, there was a sufficient amount of content that kept me intrigued and rewarded at the same time. As expected from an open-world game, Sonic would travel through giant sandbox areas full of enemies, obstacles, and puzzles for nooks and crannies of collectibles. There are also familiar Sonic gameplay elements that maintained the enthusiastic pacing of high-speed action and platforming.

Starting with the controls, Sonic feels a lot better and smoother to run around. Additionally, there are also these customizable sliders in the options menu that can adjust his speed, steering, bounce height, acceleration, etc. Any Sonic fan will feel right at home having the freedom to control Sonic any way they want. Most of his moves from the Boost era have returned, including the Light Speed Dash and Bounce from the Adventure era. Sonic's jumping was also tweaked, though rarely, the double jumping would make me miss a platform to land on. To my surprise, they also included the Drop Dash from Sonic Mania. You have to activate it by holding the jump button a third time after double jumping. Having the Drop Dash also shows that physics and momentum, for the most part, were added to Sonic's movement.

Along the way, Sonic would find some inventive yet easy puzzles to solve. Completing them not only grant goodies, but would reveal more of each island’s map to help players where to go. On top of that, filling up the entire map will access fast-travel to previous visited areas without the need of backtracking.

In terms of collectibles, there are Memory Tokens where Sonic has to collect as many as possible to free his respective imprisoned friends and are needed to progress the story. A new spiritual successor to the Wisps is the stone creatures known as Kocos. Besides having plot significance, these tiny creatures can be found in any area and can be exchanged with an elder Koco for increasing Sonic's speed and ring capacity. Additionally, there are the Red Seeds of Power and the Blue Seeds of Defense which upgrade his offense and defense stats when trading with a Hermit Koco. Though a bit time-consuming, the results will make your journey more worth it. Once in a blue moon, there will be falling stars that would appear at night where Sonic would gather them for a slot machine mechanic that would earn him more collectibles.

Fighting at the Speed of Sound

Addressing how disgustingly easy the enemies were in Forces, Sonic Team decided to add combat and challenge into Sonic's moves, inspired by the first Sonic movie. Compared to the Werehog from Sonic Unleashed, Sonic's newfound combo moves and attacks are more fast-paced and effectively fun. In the beginning, it would start out slow and tedious with the typical Homing Attack and standard punches and kicks similar to Shadow the Hedgehog's attacks. But, once you collect Skill Points and complete story objectives, you will acquire a series of moves and combo finishers that would make fighting more energetic and exhilarating to use. My personal favorite attack is the Sonic Boom, where Sonic would launch shockwaves at enemies in range, racking up combos much faster than before. There is also a Parry mechanic where you have to hold both front shoulder buttons to guard against an enemy attack and would quickly defeat the affected opponent while time temporarily slows down, based on the "Witch Time" move in the Bayonetta series. Speaking of which, there is a training simulator where players could freely practice the moves while the game loads side levels.

An essential technique added to Sonic's moves is the Cyloop where he could run in a circle and create an updraft from various methods. Not only it can weaken enemies' defenses, but it is also used for puzzle-solving. You can even circle many times in an empty field and earn a bunch of rings and collectibles. Consider this ability a godsend.

Speaking of enemies, Sonic would encounter a class of enemies known as Guardians that require skill and strategy to defeat. A few examples include the shifty Ninja, the heavy-armed Sumo, and the giant towering Asura.

Familiar Yet Optional Side Quests

In order to collect the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic needs a series of vault keys to unlock each area holding the emeralds. First, you have to beat a certain enemy or perform a platforming objective to earn a Portal Gears. You will then use a certain amount of Portal Gears to open these stone gates and enter Cyberspace.

Cyberspace is a series of bite-sized, linear levels based on the Boost stages from Sonic Colors, Generations, and Forces. In there, Sonic can complete a series of missions that would earn him multiple Vault Keys (i.e., getting an "S" Rank or collecting all the hidden Red Star Rings). As much as they offer replay value, this is where things get complicated during my experience. Conceptually speaking, I find the Cyberspace levels to be interesting, in theory, being constructed based on Sonic's memories and would sometimes mix things up a bit with different layouts. Yes, the first island's levels are short and would take a minute to complete. But, to their credit, the other islands' levels do get longer and offer multiple pathways for anyone that would like to speed-run through. In fact, some of the longer-level designs are constructed from a few stages from Sonic Adventure 2, mostly. Some of them were actually fun to play along with some catchy music that kept me replaying them.

However, when it comes to playing them, the physics feels...different than how Sonic controls well in the open world. His movement feels stiff, the jumps felt heavy and my bad timing lead to cheap deaths, the boosting felt awkward at times, and the Drop Dash was tricky to handle in 2D perspective levels. Granted, it took me some time to get used to them with a couple of tricks I've learned, but I guarantee, it will not please everyone. Plus, as ambitious as the concept is, the level aesthetics like Green Hill Zone or Sky Sanctuary did get visually repetitive after a while. Fortunately, the Cyberstages are completely optional and hopefully, they would patch the physics later on. In other words, Cyberspace was a mixed bag.

Another portal leads to fishing mini-games hosted by Big the Cat of all people. In the open world, Sonic would find purple coins scattered throughout. Once you enter the fishing portal, Sonic uses the coins to basically go fishing with much easier quick-time-event controls. Unlike Sonic Adventure where fishing was deemed the worst part of the game, this minigame felt quite awarding and quite funny to an extent. These could range from a classes of sea creatures to joke items from previous Sonic games. When you are done either smiling or laughing at what Sonic would reel out, you will earn plenty of tokens which you can swap with Big as currency for any power-up you have trouble looking for in the Open World. I'd highly recommend buying the entire voice memos recorded by a certain character, I dare not to reveal. But again, it's completely optional for some. For me, I'm glad that fishing in a Sonic game felt useful for once.

Impressive Presentation and Intense Music

While the Hedgehog Engine 2 continues to be used as their game engine, the game developers had to rework the game from scratch and the results came out visually impressive, especially for the latest video game consoles. The Starfall Islands are beautifully massive in scope with so much detail put into the ancient ruins and architecture. Because of the new day-to-night system, the lighting and shadows definitely give out excellent lighting and shadows to make the islands more luminous than they already are. The Koco creatures have cute plush-toy vibes to them. The computer coding and flickering effects on the mysterious character Sage really give a sense of an unclear yet threatening nature to her character. The Guardian minibosses, besides their simplistic names and later variants, fit well into the ancient technology motif alongside the Titan bosses being creatively designed, given their own distinctive look and power that distinguish them from one another.

As for Sonic and the others, the character designs and animations are more detailed and expressive than they were previously. Even though there are no pre-rendered CGI cutscenes, the in-game cutscenes are more cinematic and dynamic than before. On top of that, this is, by far, the most significantly improved voice acting in any Sonic game in such a long time. It was more shocking to discover the voice direction is still handled by Jack Fletcher since Sonic Free Riders. The characters sound and act more genuine that highlighting the growth and emotional sides of their personalities. Without giving much detail, anime voice actress Ryan Bartley makes a compelling and memorable performance as Sage.

Of course, what's a Sonic game without great and catchy music? With over a hundred and fifty songs, the soundtrack offers more diversity than any past Sonic title. There will be tracks that act more atmospheric like getting a feeling of nature while venturing through the open zone. Some tracks will convey a fittingly digitized rush when going through Cyberspace with occasional vocals. Or straightforwardly going heavy metal whether fighting a Titan boss or listening to the ending theme "Vandalize." Either way, you will walk out some favorites in your head.

The only issues I have with the presentation are very minor but comprehensible. Since this was made for newer hardware, there are moments when there would be pop-ins whenever Sonic would run close to a nearby platform or obstacle. Personally, it was never a bother to me, but some actually have a beef with it. I also applaud Sonic Team for having extra time to polish the game during development. Outside of one frozen screen, the game barely crashed and functions well.

Sonic's Big Comeback

Overall, after 22 hours of completing the game, Sonic Frontiers was an experience worth the wait. In spite of the technical issues and the redundancy, I had a lot of fun playing the game. The story is well-written with heartfelt and unexpected moments, there is a lot you could do in the open-zone for rewards, the combat is stimulating and fittingly fast, the presentation is majorly polished with graphical detail and bonafide voice acting, and the soundtrack is undoubtedly incredible to listen to.

If you are a diehard Sonic game that misses the glory days, this is a must-buy for your collection. For casual Sonic fans, lower your expectations or wait after a price drop and/or the game gets patched.

It may not reach the critical appraisal as Colors and Generations, but it definitely shows Sonic Team has learned from its mistakes and evolved into something unique for the franchise. Sure, not everything in this game hit bullseyes. But, they are now listening to feedback more prominently since the early days of development. Everything else is a positive sign that we are now entering a new era for Sonic and hopefully in the future, Sonic will reach new frontiers in quality.