Sonic Frontiers: these are the voyages of a blue hedgehog. His mission: to explore strange new islands, to seek out new life and old civilizations, to boldly go where no Sonic Team developer has gone before.
As soon as I sat down to play the behind-closed-doors demo of Sonic Frontiers at Gamescom, I realized that appreciating the game would have required keeping an open mind, pretty much like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek.
We’re definitely exploring unknown territory, and the game is very, very different from any linear Sonic we’ve played before, whether it was in 2D or 3D.
Sure. Sonic still goes fast and he’s still blue, but most other elements of the game are different. At least he doesn’t have teeth.
The demo dropped me straight on the second island of the game which is a desert-like environment named Ares full of enemies and (for some reason) suspended rails to grind on, booster pads to speed you up, and bumpers to bounce from.
I was pretty much free to explore (perhaps a bit too freely, because the game did not offer much in terms of guidance) and fight whatever enemies I wanted, from smaller goons to a massive sand shark or an absolutely gigantic boss.
Combat is certainly an interesting aspect of Sonic Frontiers. Not only can you unleash all sorts of flashy moves on your enemies, including melee and ranged ones, but you have a whole skill tree that lets you unlock new ones.
This creates a lot of freedom on how you approach encounters, albeit the “Cyloop” ability that lets you run in circles around enemies to unleash damaging energy and stagger them when you close the circle seems to be an easy “go-to” opener.
While you can approach rank-and-file goons pretty much however you want, larger bosses appear to be a bit more scripted albeit very different from one another.
For instance, the land shark I mentioned above requires grabbing its tail and then hanging on for dear life via QuickTime events, while the giant boss demands mixing platforming and combat.
Personally, I found this completely new approach to Sonic’s gameplay definitely fun and I loved the variety, albeit I can certainly understand those who just want to go fast on linear levels. It’s always challenging to embrace change in a storied and beloved franchise, and this is a big change.
The game includes many of the usual pages from the open-world playbook like a day-night cycle, but it adds original events like a star shower that lets you activate a roulette… I don’t know why, to be honest with you.
Ultimately, there appears to be a lot to do in Sonic Frontiers and plenty of ways to pursue your goals. You can even make up your own goals or simply explore for hours on end, pretty much like in most open-world games. I imagine completionists will love this.
What will make or break this game is whether the storytelling and narrative will be good enough to tie up all that freedom and make you feel like you have clear goals and a clear progression guiding you through the gameplay. Unfortunately, the demo I played doesn’t answer that question.
Ultimately, as I mentioned at the beginning of this preview, Sonic Frontiers will require approaching it with an open mind. If you want to run fast through linear levels and you’re not willing to at least try to embrace an open world, then you’re likely better off sticking with Sonic Origins.
Yet, we did approach the Sonic the Hedgehog movies with an open mind, didn’t we? I don’t think there can be anything more unorthodox than CGI Sonic in a live-action environment even if we set aside the grudge over toothy Sonic.
That paid off. The jury is still out on whether it will in Sonic Frontiers as well, but at the very least the demo I played was fun. So far so good.
Sonic Frontiers will be released this holiday season for PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch. if you’d like to read more, you can enjoy our interview with Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka.