Being a fan of the speedy needle mouse, it was inevitable I’d purchase Sonic Frontiers at some point. While I was happy to wait until it was closer to £20, a combination of an Xbox voucher in my Christmas stocking and long lead times on January’s reviews meant I was able to experience Frontiers sooner than expected.
It’s often said that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s own take on the open-world adventure genre. That’s to say, they looked at popular examples to see what worked, and then carefully injected the Zelda formula into that mould. I’d imagine that Monster Hunter World, in particular, was a huge inspiration. Obviously fuelled by the critical and commercial success of Breath of the Wild, SEGA has tried a similar approach with Frontiers. Only, they’ve clearly run into problems when shoehorning the Sonic formula in. It’s a real tight fit, with a lot of flab – much like trying to squeeze into a pair of work trousers come January.
Frontiers sees the blue blur explore a handful of desolate, realistically rendered, islands. An eerie vibe is present – the islands are surrounded by crashing waves, and nature has long reclaimed the ancient ruins left behind by a mysterious civilization. We aren’t in Green Hill Zone anymore, Toto.
Large titans roam the wilderness, awakened by Eggman’s meddling. Taking down a titan often adds a touch of Shadow of the Colossus to the proceedings, with Sonic able to scale their legs and other appendages to reach their weak spots. With their ominous red eyes, angular design, and black metal exteriors, they’re far removed from a typical Sonic adversary.
While Sonic can still take down smaller enemies with a single homing strike, bigger foes see Sonic deliver a barrage of punches, kicks, and projectiles. This new combat system is accompanied by a side-step and parry, adding light nuance. The seamlessness of these mini-boss battles is impressive, especially those that take place in the air.
Defeating a titan bestows a gear token, and it isn’t long until an economy – of sorts – emerges. Gears are used to open portals, taking Sonic to a brief ‘Cyber Space’ platforming stage that feature heavy asset recycling from older games. Beating challenges here awards keys, used to unlock a chaos emerald. Once all six emeralds have been acquired, Sonic can tackle that island’s main boss before heading to the next location.
There’s a handful of other collectables to find too, mostly gained by beating short reaction-based mini-games or simply by whizzing along rails and darting through rings. These include memory tokens, XP boosts (to improve strength and defence stats), map unlocks, small stone beings known as Kocos, and purple coins – currency for fishing with Big the Cat. All these collectables and items help to justify your time in the world. Sonic isn’t just running around at the speed of sound for the sake of it; there’s now an incentive and a purpose behind it too.
Due to the open world structure, it’s quite easy to get ahead of yourself – or overlook a portal entirely. At one point I had collected so many memory tokens that several mission objectives in a row were to simply head from one side of the island, and back again, to find and talk to Tails – who relocated each time. You can also end up in a situation where you have enough portal keys to unlock two emeralds at once, again located at opposite ends of the island. This results in a lot of backtracking, and sometimes confusion: even on Xbox Series X the engine suffers from pop-up, with some vital springs and rails – used to reach smaller islands – not appearing until you’re practically upon them.
A few surprises appear along the way, and even within its final hours new boss types and challenges emerge. To achieve 100% on each island does take considerable time and effort, making the runtime for a full competition more in line with a typical RPG than an action game. While this may sound encouraging, the open-world Sonic formula hasn’t been perfected here. Not quite. There’s a lot of content that could have been stripped back to create a tighter and leaner experience and a lot of content that also feels weak and insubstantial – including a handful of ‘Cyber Space’ platforming stages that are over in around a minute.
Issues aside, it’s still a sturdy enough foundation to build a new generation of Sonic adventures on – it just needs a little refinement in certain areas. Problem is, SEGA has never been one to evaluate and improve. Most Sonic games have ideas with potential…which are then quickly dropped in favour of a new gimmick. We’ve never seen a sequel to Generations even though it was praised, or another Sonic game with level design similar to Lost World.
SEGA’s on the right path with this formula. Let’s hope they don’t deviate.