After a rough half-decade for the franchise in the wake of 2017’s superb Sonic Mania, Sonic Frontiers bears the unenviable burden of expectation. Despite a few brief stumbles, the game sticks the landing and rockets past the goalposts at Mach 1 speed.
Frontiers’ premise may be simple, but it offers a great entry to this new open-world style of Sonic game. Sonic, along with pals Tails and Amy, must work to restore balance to the mysterious Starfall Islands where the Chaos Emeralds – iconic series macguffins – have congregated. I won’t spoil any more of the story here, just know that it’s refreshingly rich with hints to older Sonic lore, and gave this longtime fan enough reason to play through the entire game.
Sonic’s transition to a 3D open-world is reassuringly smooth, as Sonic Frontiers is almost always pure joy to play. The hedgehog controls wonderfully, feeling more responsive than ever in a 3D setting. Even better, Sonic Team has gone one step further and allowed players to change some elements of Sonic’s physics and speed in the options menu. Want to increase his turning speed or even lower his running speed? The game will let you do that. It’s an awesome quality-of-life addition that lets you fine-tune your hog if the default isn’t to your liking.
The returning Boost mechanic finally feels like it’s got its speed just right. While I miss the face-meltingly fast boosting of Unleashed and Generations, in Frontiers there’s a perfect balance between speed and a clear view of obstacles ahead. This makes the litany of Cyber Space stages feel fast and intense while simultaneously being visually readable at all times.
The Cyber Space realm itself is incorporated into Sonic Frontiers smartly, too. You’ll find a handful of portals dotted across each island, all containing one Cyber Space level. These short stages use classic Sonic zones as a backdrop, occasionally calling in the unique gimmicks of those zones, too, like Green Hill’s sweeping loops or Sky Sanctuary’s crumbling floors. Completing at least some of these is required to collect Chaos Emeralds and progress.
Cyber Space levels are great fun, offering satisfying, bite-sized platforming challenges. I love blasting through each one, setting S rank times, and collecting Red Star Rings to earn a greater share of Vault Keys (the ‘currency’ you’ll use to obtain Chaos Emeralds). They do fall short in visual variety, though. You’re getting stalwarts Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary, and City Escape. And that’s the lot. I hope future DLC will add new Cyber Space levels with more interesting visuals, but as it stands, it’s pretty barren.
The same can’t be said for Sonic Frontiers’ islands. Cyber Space portals are just the tip of the iceberg. Areas are littered with platforming challenges that you’ll spring, slide, boost and grind through to obtain Memory Tokens that’ll unlock story scenes with the game’s various characters.
Then there are the colossal mini-bosses scattered throughout the map. Each requires a different strategy to overcome, and they’re surprisingly different from one another. You’ll need to take down a good number of these to access Cyber Space portals in the first place. Throw in miniature puzzle challenges – pushing you to press buttons in a certain order or maintaining an extra long boost – and you’ll find that each island will keep you busy.
Despite all this activity, Sonic Frontiers never feels overwhelming or overstuffed. At roughly 20 hours (pushing 30 if you’re going for 100% completion) it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Think of each island as a large playground. You’ll need to fulfill a collectible quota, but once you have, you’re free to progress whenever you like. Plus, you can fast-travel between islands if you want to shoot for full completion.
Though, if you are aiming for 100% completion, don’t hope for a big payoff for doing so. At a certain point, Sonic Frontiers’ collectibles become largely redundant. You’ll likely fill out Sonic’s skill tree of abilities before you’ve even finished the second of five islands. That renders your accumulating skill points, well, pointless. Most other collectibles suffer this fate, too, becoming surplus once you’ve completed an island.
These new frontiers
Still, issues with collectibles don’t stop Sonic Frontiers’ from being utterly exhilarating to play. Darting across the islands and completing the various platforming challenges is its own satisfying reward. And I appreciate that the game is interested in keeping a brisk pace despite its open-world nature. Ubisoft should take note for its next Assassin’s Creed, to be completely honest.
Throughout it all, pumping alongside your adventure, is Sonic Frontiers’ phenomenal soundtrack. Sonic and banger music typically go hand in hand, and returning composer Tomoya Ohtani doesn’t disappoint. The soft, melancholic melodies of the islands form a perfectly chill backdrop for casual exploration. But Ohtani and team aren’t afraid to kick it up a gear. Cyber Space levels feature head-bopping EDM tracks, and playing them in quick succession made me feel like I was shuffling through an old Liquicity mixtape.
The stars of the show, though, are the thunderous boss tracks. The fusion of metal and vocals brought to mind games like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Devil May Cry 5. And like those games, Sonic Frontiers succeeds in making its boss encounters goosebump-raising, adrenaline-loaded affairs that effortlessly marries music with gameplay. My only wish is that Sonic Team adds a boss rush mode somewhere down the line, as it’s criminal that I can’t replay these bosses just to hear their soundtracks a second time.
Despite issues like redundant collectibles and some noticeable object pop-in, Sonic Frontiers is a triumph. The game successfully blends fast, yet casual open-ended exploration with tight platforming gameplay. All wrapped up in a compelling story with an unforgettable soundtrack. Believe it: Sonic Frontiers is the return to form the franchise sorely needed.