Of all the things I never expected to find myself enjoying this week, battling giant robots as an oversized blue hedgehog wasn’t one of them.
But hey, Sonic Frontiers is full of surprises. It very much has the feel of a franchise reboot: for one thing, this is the first Sonic game to find our ’hog in an open-world setting.
That would be the island of Kronos, where he ends up stranded and alone after an airplane joyride with friends Tails and Amy goes badly wrong. They’ve been hunting the ever-pesky Chaos Emeralds, which seem to have ended up on Kronos – but the problem is, so has the evil Dr Robotnik.
As Sonic, your task is to gradually explore this island (and four others) to do… what? Even the game developers can’t really decide.
Over the course of 20-odd hours, Sonic will add so many items to his to-do list that I struggled to keep track of them all. He’s a modern-day polymath: capable of saving lives, matchmaking the islands’ locals, and beating the ever-loving daylight out of a succession of mini-bosses (massive robots with very well-telegraphed weaknesses). There’s even a spot of fishing involved, and a whole lot of lore dumps about Sonic, his friends, and the inhabitants of the Starfall Islands.
Oh, and that’s before we meet Sage, the second Big Bad, an evil spirit whose motives remain rather vague for most of the game’s playtime.
However, the Breath of the Wild-style open world makes a refreshing change for a Sonic game, offering puzzles, bounce pads, enemies, and even a couple of friendly inhabitants you can visit to level up your abilities. As you unlock new areas of the island, you can essentially fast-travel via a set of ancient grind rails that spring up wherever you go. Plus, there’s also Sonic’s handy super-speed – and using that never gets old.
For those hankering for a bit of traditional Sonic action, the game also offers one-off Cyber Space levels where Sonic can enter the “digital realm” to collect rings and make it to the finish line within a strict time limit. It makes a nice change from the open-world action and lets you road-test Sonic’s abilities in fun new ways.
Sonic Frontiers is like one long, never-ending shopping list
That said, Sonic Frontiers has flaws. One of the less important ones is the way Sonic speaks – very much in the style of Friends’ Chandler crossed with an awkward teenager. Yes, he always speaks like that. But it doesn’t make saying lines like, “Careful? Where’s the fun in that?” any less cringe-worthy.
Plus the elephant in the room has to be the hunter-gatherer element of the game. Sonic Frontiers is like one long, never-ending shopping list: you kill bosses to gain “gears” to unlock digital realm levels; you complete digital realm levels to get keys to access the Chaos Emeralds; you’re eternally on the hunt for your missing friends.
After a while, the repetitive grinding (the rail-less variety) becomes rather exhausting – especially as there’s not a whole lot of variety to the bosses, the fight sequences, or the puzzles you have to solve to unlock new parts of the island or grab more rings.
Having said that, let’s dive into the gameplay a little more. There’s a rudimentary skill tree here, where you can unlock a couple of fun new abilities, including the “Cyloop”, where Sonic runs a literal ring around his enemies to create an earthquake that breaks through their defences. Handily, it also generates rings, meaning you can keep yourself in a fight for longer, if needed.
That’s good fun – what’s less so is the fact that every boss fight comes down to mashing the attack button repeatedly and praying for the best. There are combos you can do – but they require you to press a sequence of keys to execute and, in the heat of battle, panic tended to make me forget what I needed to press and when.
So Sonic Frontiers is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. However, its ambition should be applauded: Sega has managed not only to create an open-world Sonic, but do it in a way that seems promising, if a little rough around the edges.
There’s potential here. Here’s hoping the next game manages to polish the diamond a little more.