Sonic Frontiers (PS4, 2022) Review

Another 3D mainline Sonic game dropped. Is it the Hedgehog's long-awaited return to form? Some voices are calling it great, even a legitimate contender for game of the year. That view is far from what I thought of Sonic Frontiers.

The game feels and plays about the way one might expect after having watched one of its earlier trailers. The new open zones are generic maps with Sonic gameplay attractions, consisting of platforms, bumpers, rails and boost rings, scattered about. On first look it appears like a fanmade Sonic playground made in Unity. On second look... it still appears and plays exactly like that. Parallels are being drawn to other open world games (e.g. Breath of the Wild), but Sonic Frontiers actually comes with a twist to the formula. It's got content scattered about with lots of collectibles, but unlike other games involving open worlds the action in Sonic Frontiers is actually all about. The player never feels like they're merely travelling from one spot of interest to another, because points of interest are found all around the maps. Collectibles, save for the memory tokens that are required to advance the story, respawn. There's little downtime in the gameplay loop and one does seldomly (if at all) have to go out of their way looking for goodies to find and collect. In that sense the RPG mechanics that have been tacked onto Frontiers are superficial at best. Unless the player skips right past all the content on purpose they will have very little to worry about being on par with their enemies in terms of power levels. The goodies required to power Sonic up are excuses to get players to engage with the game.

At its core the game is more fun than it has any right to be. There's nothing offensive about bursting through gimmicks, enemies and mini bosses. Especially some of the latter are really fun to fight. However the loop also gets old rather fast. Thankfully a surprisingly relaxing fishing mini game that provides the same benefits as all the other activities Sonic might engage in in the open zones does help a bit with that. If the player gets bored of running around the maps they can go and relax some while fishing, and return to the main loop when they get bored of hanging out with Bigs. Sonic Frontiers open world game works better than I expected it. But it's also not very diverse in terms of how the player can engage with the game. Personally I was hoping for the game to be over soon halfway through the third (of five) major zones. The puzzles aren't worth mentioning. While the open zones are fun enough, they mostly serve to pad playtime - which is always a thorn in my eye because I prefer my action games to be short and straight to the point with quality over quantity to encourage replays.

Minigames feel cheap and could (should!) have been implemented better. Pinball's been a staple of the franchise and has never been done by Sonic Team this badly. Sonic Frontiers may have just about the worst software pinball game in history.

The cyberspace challenge stages were more to my liking and felt like the game's main attraction. For the most part playing those short stages over and over to complete all the missions was really fun. If I'm ever to return to playing Sonic Frontiers it would be to play more of these. That is despite them having incredibly janky physics that have can make them annoying rather than fun at times.

Sonic Frontier's narrative is just good enough to carry the player through the game. It's not much to write home about, but serves its purpose well enough. It's also surprisingly grounded for a Sonic game and has little of the awkwardness that haunted the plots of previous mainline games.

The new combat system involving combos works better for me than I expected. It adds some depth to 3D Sonic's combat without going over board and feeling out of place. Overally a good solution to add some spice to that homing attack button. Now I wish the designs for the open zone enemies wasn't as uninspired as it is. It's just generic alien robots that could fit just as "well" into about any other game.

Other players seem to criticize the Super Sonic boss fights a lot, but they were my favorite part of Frontiers hands down (although the third one was kind of lame to be honest).

Overally Sonic Frontiers does a lot right. It's mostly fun, even has some great moments. However the open zones are mostly bland in terms of sound and visuals. Playing them gets old, the game could need more diversity in terms of gameplay there. Bumpers, platforms and rails shouldn't look so out of place visually - there's nothing good about the islands looking like some fangame developer's Unity playground. There's a lot of jank: in the open zones with 2D courses sometimes not triggering the right game mode, in the cyberspace stages with Sonic feeling way too stiff. Its design feels somewhat aimless, going after what's popular (open worlds, RPG mechanics) instead of building on Sonics' identity. Looking like a prototype it comes off as random chance that it's turned into a fun action platformer.

So, Sonic Frontiers is fun overall but not a great game by any means of measure. Its popularity implies that players are forgetting what quality means because its got exactly the kind of jank that made them dismiss Sonic 2006 (janky physics causing Sonic to drift off course) and Sonic 4 (horrible 2D physics) in the past. I understand 3D Sonic games are difficult and time-consuming to develop, but after five years since Sonic Forces I expected a little more ouf of Frontiers.