Sonic Frontiers Review – A Fresh New Formula with Unlimited Potential

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In the recent trend of classic titles re-imagining their game formulas in series like Pokemon and Kirby, Sonic Frontiers‘ recontextualization as an open-world game opens up a new opportunity for the speedy hedgehog to spread his arms out in a new way.

While the more familiar replayable aspects of Sonic Frontiers still reside in the many Cyber Space stages dotting the islands Sonic traverses, Sega’s Sonic Team now offers its players a new gateway between its more stream-lined past and open-world future, perhaps as a way of saying this is the new era for the eponymous blue hedgehog.

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Sonic Frontiers while marketed mainly as being an open-zone experience (rather than the conventional open-world moniker) offers in its vast playground a whole cavalcade of new challenges and ideas previously alien to the series. Sonic can be at one moment speeding through time trial stages, the next be herding critters to safety, and a minute afterward pulling off combos on enemies like a faux Devil May Cry.

Having beaten the game on its hard difficulty and fully completed all the achievements associated, here’s a comprehensive review of Sonic Frontiers.

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Expanding Horizons to Sonic Frontiers

To introduce the Sonic Frontiers’ story without spoiling things, Eggman tampers with an ancient relic, causing a tear to a dimension called Cyber Space leaving him and his new A.I. construct Sage trapped. Time goes by, and Sonic, Tails, and Amy all slip in through a tear while out on a hunt for the Chaos Emeralds. Knuckles, while not present in the opening cutscenes is also caught up in the mess while he was minding his own business as guardian to the ‘Master Emerald’ (check out how that happens here).

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Now stuck on the post-apocalyptic Starfall Islands alone after escaping Cyber Space, Sonic is guided by a disembodied voice to uncover the mystery of the ruins and free his friends from a fate of dimensional confinement.

With writing that revolves around a mysterious species that seemingly got wiped out long ago, Sonic Frontier’s story is arguably the most mature Sonic has ever been in games. Expanding mostly on the lore behind the nature of the Chaos Emeralds and the existence of the ancient beings, the game’s narrative also takes large strides in offering much-needed character-building for most of its casts.

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Though spread out sparingly across the open world, the story of Sonic Frontiers features some of the best character moments and nods to the previous titles. While I won’t spoil them, some of these bring the best qualities out of Sonic and his interactions with his friends. On the other side, series villains Dr. Eggman and newcomer Sage both get a lot of character development in their own little ways.

The overall tonal shift to a more serious story can be credited to the new writer at the helm of Sonic Frontiers, Ian Flynn. Writer for the IDW Sonic the Hedgehog comic books, Flynn’s style of referencing previous game title events and relatively introspective character dialogues shine through in the brief snippets of conversation Sonic shares with other characters.

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Mostly confined to small conversations with his cyber dimension-trapped friends and the mysteriously vindictive A.I. Sage, Sonic’s odyssey through Starfall Islands is a lonesome Journey. Tonally contemplative with its minimalistic music in the open world, the wise-cracking hedgehog this time around finds himself in a much more introspective narrative, with a relatively dreary yet vast environment to accompany its plot.

New Formula, Big Changes

Going into Sonic Frontiers, to say that Sonic Team took atmospheric inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be a no-brainer. From the overall presentation of wide open areas reminiscent of Hyrule fields, exploration being rewarded by challenging shrine-like stages, and more minute design decisions like making the boost bar identical to Link’s stamina bar make the game at least closer to the gangbuster title of 2017 in the visual department.

The degree to which Sonic Frontier’s craftspeople have imagined the reality of its world is a bit of a boggler: as Sonic sprints, slides, grinds, and shoots through its many obstacles, one considers the subjectively odd juxtaposition seen in the landscape of the overworld in Starfall Islands. Dotted throughout the islands are the grind railings and platforming segments that dole out the fruits of your exploration.

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All this to say, simply running around the open zones in Sonic Frontiers is a blast. Sonic controls remarkably well as he runs through the various biomes of the islands, which act as a sandbox for Sonic to grind, boost, and bounce to hit up collectibles and points of interest. The satisfying movement is accentuated by how good it feels to chain these segments together. Sonic Team designed each of these platforming segments to naturally guide its players towards new challenges whether they’re platforming trials, Cyber Space speed gauntlets, or combat encounters with the mysterious inhabitants of Starfall Island.

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Gotta Find Those Emeralds

Sonic Frontiers segments its world and gameplay structure mainly into four parts: open-world collecting of Memory Tokens, Guardian fights for Portal Gears, which open Cyber Space stages that give Vault Keys, that then leads to a boss encounter when Sonic has enough Vault Keys to collect all seven Chaos Emeralds on the island.

Memory Tokens serve as the main collectible as they are placed in all kinds of nooks and crannies in Starfall Island, as many of them are required to unlock conversations with the side characters held captive on each island. Portal Gears and Vault Keys are more directly tied to progress as they act as surmountable roadblocks for Sonic to tackle in the form of Guardians and Cyber Space levels.

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Other than the Memory Tokens needed for story progression, Sonic can also find and collect rock-like critters named Kokos. Tiny but relatively easy to spot due to the distinct sounds they make, these little fellas are another trinket to be collected as they are essential to improving Sonic’s overall performance. The way they gather in front of Sonic when he idles for a moment is a cute little touch.

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Having adopted RPG-like mechanics, Sonic can find Power and Defense Seeds that improve Sonic’s stats accordingly. Found mainly on high-up platforms or as rewards for defeating enemies, these seeds can then be turned into a unique critter called a Hermit Koko who will trade the seeds for stat boosts. Alternatively, the Elder Kokos can be visited to turn in the aforementioned lost Kokos you may have found during your journey in turn for boosts to Sonic’s ring capacity or movement speed.

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Among the many activities, players can find in Sonic Frontiers, is the fishing mini-game accessible via a portal found on each island. Here you can find Big the Cat, making a return from Sonic Adventure. Sonic can borrow a rod from him to play a fairly simple mini-game of QTEs to catch fish in change for a currency that can be traded for upgrade materials such as Kokos and Power Seeds. You can even turn them in for Tower/Vault Keys to circumvent encounters and stages that are giving you trouble.

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While Sonic Frontier compartmentalizes its main gameplay loop down to a T, the abundance of items and the many ways Sonic can pick up these collectibles can throw a wrench in the proverbial gameplay loop wheel. Due to the different methods that the game allows you to collect the necessary items to progress the story whether it’s scrounging the areas for hidden Vault Keys or outright purchasing them off of Big, thoroughly playing through each activity on the island can cause you to be almost drowning in Keys and Portal Gears allowing you to easily get away with ignoring encounters with Guardians entirely.

Though it could arguably be said that Big’s fishing game exacerbates the overall item distribution economy of Sonic Frontiers, the fact of the matter is that the game does offer up different ways of tackling through the game where more non-committal players that DO want to skip the more challenging Cyber Space Levels or want that extra power up for Sonic a more easy-going alternative to collect them by way of fishing.

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What’s more, listening to lo-fi tunes accompanying the Animal Crossing-like fishing mini-game is a nice change of pace from the more fast-paced odyssey out there for Sonic, and the return of Big the Cat of all characters in a main-line title was most definitely a pleasant surprise.

Exhilarating Combat in Sonic Frontiers

Enhabiting the islands of Sonic Frontiers are the Guardians. These un-Sonic-like inorganics serve mainly as enemies in the overworld that Sonic can fight off to rack up skill points for his surprisingly large arsenal of movesets. By pumping experience points and upgrading his skill tree, Sonic gains access to different forms of attacks that open up different ways to tackle enemies, while allowing him to pull off character action-Esque combos.

Chaining hits and racking up combo numbers is incentivized even, as Sonic is able to go into a more powered-up state called Phantom Rush, where your attack damage is increased and combos become altered to fast teleporting moves. Heck, Sonic even has a projectile move that’s unlockable fairly early.

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The highlight of the skill tree is most definitely the new Cyloop ability. Holding down the X button, a blue trail of light appears behind Sonic while running, allowing him to circle around enemies to break enemy defenses, stunning them or even lifting them up into the air for more combo potentials. Unlocked relatively early in the game, however, the Cyloop is mainly utilized for exploration in the overworld where looping around points of interest often leads to uncovering challenges in the world of Sonic Frontiers.

The function even encompasses providing rings when there are none, allowing players to functionally farm up rings to max capacity, perhaps at times trivializing the fairly easygoing combat, yet arguably allowing try-and-error on the more puzzle-like fights against major guardians.

Bookending each of the islands in Sonic Frontiers is a fight against the Titans, towering over Sonic, these bosses see a complete change in pace with Sonic turning into Super Sonic for each encounter. Upon running up the Titan and picking up the final Chaos Emerald, the real fight begins as Sonic soars into the air in his new form with heavy metal music kicking in.

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Unlike the previous iterations of Super Sonic, his ultimate form serves not as a glorified minigame but rather as a suped-up version of the combat in the overworld. Keeping most of his move-set intact, Sonic can throw out punches, homing attacks, and at times even parry his gargantuan enemies leading to stunning set pieces more resembling Metal Gear Rising than anything seen in a Sonic game.

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Cyber Space and the Cracks in its System

Though your main goal is to find the seven Chaos Emeralds, getting to them requires the use of Vault Keys that can typically be found upon completing the Cyber Space Stages in Sonic Frontiers.

As the game’s provider of the more familiar boost-orientated gameplay, the Cyber Space stages offer the more tried and true formula of the “Modern Sonic” formula. Alternating between 3D and 2D perspectives, Cyber Space stages are all associated with four challenges. Reach the end successfully, collecting all 5 red rings, clear the stage holding a set amount of rings, and beating the entire level with a Rank S time.

Explained in-game by newcomer character Sage, the Cyber Space stages look and deliberately mimic stages from previous 3D titles deliberately as they are said to be fragmented memories of the blue hedgehog himself. While they sport a different coat of paint series fans will be quick to notice that stage layouts for City Escape, Wind Mill Isles, and other iconic levels make a return in these bite-sized stages.

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These stages, while mimicking the layouts for these stages, definitely don’t look the part, as all 37 Cyber Space levels in the game are themed either after Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Sky Sanctuary, or a City landscape (possibly a nod to Radical Highway from SA2).

Though Sonic Frontiers makes an attempt to vary the aesthetics by changing the lighting from daytime, sunset, or nighttime, the constant reuse of these four tilesets begins to blend into each other, making the stages that much more indistinguishable and lacking in personality. This aesthetical problem is exacerbated much so if players are not versed in the previous games that the levels are even making a nod to.

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2D-only levels in Cyber Space also suffer from the absence of moves like the spin dash, and the ability to boost through enemies. While the homing attacks allow Sonic to keep some of the momenta like the 3D stages, moves like the drop dash (making a surprising return from Sonic Mania!) being functionally moot due to how it kills the momentum built up beforehand, make for a lot of stop-and-go platforming experience.

The real challenge comes in getting the Rank S times, as some Cyber Space stages have very tight time limits requiring precise platforming for some stages. In contrast, others demand boosting at the right timing and deliberately skipping past enemies for faster clear times.

Backed by series composer Tomoya Ohtani’s excellent soundtracks that range from booming EDM rush tracks to more chiptune Running through these Cyber Space levels is generally a blast, with the S Rank time limits offering up a nice bit of challenge. Each of the 37 stages in Sonic Frontiers having its unique track was a surprise for sure.

Untamable Speed and Inescapable Jank

While the overall shift to a more enormous sandbox allows Sonic much-needed leeway in terms of movement opportunities, Sonic Frontiers is not without its flaws. Sonic Team seems to have been unable to completely iron out the more minute wrinkles haunting the blue hedgehog since his first major 3D outing back on the Sega Dreamcast.

The most aggressively game-inhibiting aspect of Sonic Frontiers’ overall experience would be the number of visible pop-ins during gameplay. Sonic Frontiers’ engine barely seems to be able to catch up to how fast Sonic is moving causing walls and rails to regularly not show up until the last second, causing Sonic to bump into obstacles or boost pads that you weren’t anticipating.

This becomes especially problematic in the later islands where the different points of interest are landlocked by large pits that must be traversed with specific sets of platforms and grind rails. Not being able to see distant elements such as these makes navigating from point A to B frustrating, making the process of opening up the map and scouting your path a necessity.

Abrupt camera angle cuts to 2D controls in the overworld can be disorientating as the controls need to shift to the angle the camera decides to lock itself into (marked by a crossed-out camera icon). This often leads to unintentionally falling off platforms or being blindsided by threats. At its worst, Sonic Frontiers seems to struggle with how Sonic should be moving on these sections, where boosting at the wrong time or place can send him careening off the intended path. This can cause the titular hedgehog to fly out of the camera-locked course and free-fall back to square one.

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As a sort of bandaid solution to some players having problems with how fast the camera follows Sonic during the overworld, Sonic Frontiers also offers a way to edit his top speed, turn speed, acceleration, and more in its options screen. Sonic’s movement can be customized to be faster or even slower depending on how players like it. Other accessibility options include putting a reticle in the middle of the screen, and even altering how much the camera zooms in on him.

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While Sonic Frontiers is nowhere near the technical mess that was its predecessors like Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, any improvement to the way-too-frequent pop-ins would have been much appreciated.

Reaching Far Across These New Frontiers

Sonic Frontiers, while rough around its edges, is a brand-new take on the blue blur that was much needed as the series had stagnated for the past few titles. The game truly shows how Sonic Team is willing to take more considerable risks in taking their beloved hedgehog to different genres and is more than willing to experiment to take the franchise to greater heights.

After the universally lambasted Sonic Forces, the series has been fortunately been turning heads with not one but two critically acclaimed films on the big screen. With the comics and cartoon series being praised for their qualities, the multi-media franchises’ weakest link for a long time has been to most fans’ dismay, the video games. Having arguably acquired more eyes on its franchise in recent years due to goodwill produced mostly from the movies, Sonic Frontiers’ had a lot to live up to.

The shift to an open-world formula has improved the overall handling of Sonic, and while the payoff is him going much slower than he could in games like Sonic Unleashed, the boost-to-win criticism of the recent 3D titles are mostly remedied, as Sonic moves and controls like an actual 3D platforming character, more in line with the Adventure games.

Sonic Frontiers indeed fumbles its landing in many aspects, the game sits in an odd teeter of doing radically different things, while in other ways not being different enough. However, if there was one thing for sure, is that Sonic Teams’ latest answer to the question of what exactly the future of Sonic could look like, this might be their best answer yet.

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*This review was played and reviewed on the Steam Release of the game in its 1.01 version. Sonic Frontiers is also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S

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