For a series that’s already waded into racing and pinball, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for Sega’s blue mascot to charge into an open-world — though the team calls it open-zone, but I did not suss out what this means. From our playthrough of Sonic Frontiers though, this entry also seems like another potential foray into tonal whiplash.
- READ MORE: Joey Valence & Brae: “There’s always going to be a huge link between video game culture and music culture”
It’ll be familiar to fans of Link’s adventures in Breath of the Wild: you speed through a rainswept, misty island, where you must open up areas of the map by interacting with ancient, neon-lit, techy obelisks. Like its Nintendo inspiration, Sonic Frontiers is heavy on mystery and light on instruction and UI. To unlock new areas to view on the map, you have to acquire keys from different challenges to use on the obelisks, which function as Assassins Creed towers of sorts. It appeared from the opening area that you wouldn’t necessarily have to conquer each of the area’s activities to obtain all of the keys, meaning that the player will have a lot of options on how to proceed.
While the map at a distance looks somewhat sparse, exploration reveals that the map is littered with collectibles and activities, including collecting little friendly creatures called Kocos, races where you have to get to a specific spot on the map in the allotted time using a variety of options — boosters, momentum from hills, a well-timed jump off of a springs. I also spotted some sort of rail system that a dragon-like creature was flying around, though I didn’t have time to make it over there. There was also an easy puzzle requiring the rotation of a statue, and I saw there was some sort of tile puzzle happening on an adjacent player’s screen. It would be novel if a Sonic title can be filled with interesting and challenging puzzles, but at a glance they looked rudimentary (in the introduction area).
Sonic can also now find Shadow Of The Colossus-esque behemoths to climb and destroy. The creature I encountered was a tripod-like metallic cyborg, and it would slowly come down on Sonic with one of its tripod wings, then beckoning you to run up the enemy so you can attack points on the top of its body. There are blue circles Sonic can run through to go faster, and red ones will slow him down, allowing the behemoth to throw him off.
Having said that, the physics and platforming felt like they needed some serious work. Sonic awkwardly flew 300 feet up in the air when we were attempting to speed up one of the giant robots and ran right off the side. The camera didn’t follow Sonic very fluidly when we were running up one of these wings. Furthermore, many of Sonic’s attacks are reliant on his homing ability, which can feel finicky in terms of locking onto objects. When you’re mid-jump and using the right analog stick to try to frame the next object to home to and continue a jumping sequence, and the target doesn’t lock on, Sonic just falls. This happened more frequently than I would have liked.
During some of the jumping puzzles, it felt like Sonic’s jump would end right below the edge of a platform. Grinding sequences also left a lot to be desired — we repeated a rail sequence a few times because instead of just jumping to another rail to avoid an oncoming obstacle, Sonic would fail to grip the rail, and overshoot it, flying off into the abyss.
Sonic also now has the ability to draw a blue glowing trail behind him that can become a potent weapon when completed into a circle, and then all the enemies within the completed circle receive damage — sort of like wrapping up an AT-AT in a harpoon wire in a Star Wars game. It’s a neat new wrinkle, and ideas like that leave us hopeful with how they will marry the notion of erm…going fast…with the combat and trappings of an open-world title.
However, the open-world also at times looks generic, and I’m curious if all of these activities will be able to sustain a lengthier title. I can cautiously say that the game’s forceful solemnity — in spite of the absurdly silly vibe of the IP as a whole — feels more invigorating and sensible this time around than the failure of the deathly serious 2006 Sonic The Hedgehog. I left the demo wanting to play more and see what the world and story have on offer. The concept and ambition are there — time will tell if the mechanics receive enough polish to make this a must-play in the franchise.