“The land feels sad and empty,” bemoans Sonic’s pink sidekick, Amy. Usually cheery, Amy is filled with melancholy as she surveys the islands of Sonic Frontiers – and as the hours go by in Sega‘s open-world experiment, her words echo with a painful truth.
Frontiers is a strange hodge-podge of the standard Sonic experience, and something…different. You’re still going to race around as the beloved blue hedgehog, bouncing off jump pads and grinding along rails, but this is Sonic’s first open-world game – despite Sonic Team’s insistence it is an open-world game – meaning that once you’ve dusted off Frontiers‘ brief tutorial, you’re free to zip around the mysterious Starfall Islands and begin rescuing Sonic’s pals, who are trapped in cyberspace. Confusingly.
Unfortunately, Frontiers‘ world serves as nothing more than a hunting ground for mindless currencies. To complete each of the game’s islands, Sonic needs to hunt down Chaos Emeralds – all par for the course, sure. But to do so, he needs to collect Vault Keys from Portals – and they in turn need Portal Gears to function. Between all of that, each island’s main quest locks its missions behind yet another currency, Memory Tokens. See where this is going? It wouldn’t be so tiring if Frontiers‘ islands were a bit more engaging, but each locale feels drab and lifeless. There’s very little to do, and taking the time to explore can feel counterintuitive when you scale a giant platforming setpiece only to find a Chaos Emerald that you can’t access yet.
The enemies across the game look fantastic, but combat in Frontiers‘ opening hours usually boils down to repeatedly mashing just one button. As you spend skill points to expand Sonic’s kit with new abilities, brawls become far more engaging but going out of your way to kill a group of baddies rarely feels worthwhile. The world’s roaming mini-bosses are different beasts altogether, and usually require a bit more thought: to kill the hulking Sumo you’ll need to ricochet off the walls of its arena to bounce it into an electrified fence, while taking down a Shark means grasping onto its tail for dear life as it swims frantically beneath the desert sand. But even these are a mixed bag – in particular, some of the larger minibosses struggle with finicky cameras which are a nightmare for keeping track of the fast-moving Sonic or any incoming attacks. In truth, nothing in Frontiers‘ open-world sprawl is interesting enough to justify its tiresome treasure hunt.
Beneath Sonic’s drastic makeover, some familiarity remains. By finding Portals strewn across the land, you can lose yourself in linear bliss. Sonic’s traditional 2D and 3D levels are still here, and boast another phenomenal success for Sega’s music team, filled with thumping electronic beats. As usual, your goal is to race through these bite-size levels at absurd speeds, but each Portal comes with a series of side challenges for unlocking Vault Keys – like reaching the finish line with a certain number of rings, or achieving a coveted S-rank. These objectives bring some much-needed purpose to Frontiers, and each Portal’s fast-paced thrills are a welcome escape from Frontiers‘ open-world purgatory.
That being said, when Frontiers‘ bigger picture clicks, drifting through the Starfall Islands doesn’t feel so bad. Aimlessly grinding along whatever rails take your fancy, or clambering up mini platforming challenges, is an easy way to kill time. It’s enjoyable, yet always fleeting – as soon as you set your eyes on making some actual progress, you’re back to scrounging through a world that holds no interest in entertaining you.
There are a few other times when Frontiers‘ potential feels within grasping distance. Each island’s boss fights see Super Sonic face off against colossal Titans, usually to a banging metal soundtrack. A personal highlight was the game’s second boss, a cyborg Wyvern that can be parried to have Sonic grab it by the tail and hammer it off a cliff face.
The game’s main story is also fantastic. Broken up into short missions, Sonic’s quest plumbs surprising emotional depth – there’s a heart-breaking backstory that explains why the Starfall Islands are so desolate, and many of Sonic’s one-on-one scenes with Knuckles, Tails and Amy are lovely to watch. But the real winner is Eggman (Robotnik if you’re old enough to know better), whose over-the-top villainy plays second fiddle to a quieter, humanising story. It’s a shame that Frontiers‘ main quest is locked behind a grind, because it’s easily the game’s strongest element, and shouldn’t be subjected to Frontiers’ currency-chasing.
Since it was announced, fans have joked that Frontiers is Sega’s attempt at replicating The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s vast success. After playing Frontiers, some of that sentiment still rings true – there’s an undeniable familiarity to certain design choices – but it would be disingenuous to write Frontiers off as a bandwagon ploy. Threading Sonic’s stage-based escapades through an open-world is a genuinely solid idea, but it feels like too many ideas were thrown into Frontiers without enough substance to realise their full potential.
Going forward, some iteration on Frontiers’ formula could lead to an exciting new direction for Sonic – but for now, Amy said it best: sad and empty.
A game caught between ideas, Sonic Frontiers is bland and unfulfilling. Despite an emotional story and thrilling Portal stages, Sega’s open-world format falls flat due to repetitive grinding and a lack of substance.
- A brilliant soundtrack that ranges from orchestral to electronic and metal
- Portals and boss fights are fantastic
- A compelling plot
- The open-world feels empty and repetitive
- Combat can be let down by awkward camera angles
- An occasional Celestial Rain event makes trying to do anything completely pointless, as it covers your screen in bright streaks and a giant slot machine. Why?