The best 3D Sonic this millennium?
Sonic Frontiers is the sequel that 7-year-old me wanted to Sonic Adventure. That, essentially, is my review. That doesn’t mean that Sonic Frontiers is some perfect game that will reinvent the series, in fact it is crawling with flaws. It doesn’t mean that every 3D Sonic fan will like it, it's arguably at its worst when it is being what 3D Sonic has largely been for the last 20 years. But if you’re like me, Sonic Frontiers may just be an admittedly imperfect look into exactly what 3D Sonic should be.
When I got my Dreamcast on Christmas day 1999 along with a copy of Sonic Adventure, I was entranced. Don’t get me wrong, on a technical level Sonic Adventure is a borderline broken game and entire segments of its multipart campaign ultimately fall short of their ambition, but it was that ambition and scale that kept me coming back. Running around those open “adventure fields” of Station Square and the Mystic Ruins as Sonic felt incredibly free. It gave Sonic what was for the time, a large area to run around it that supported his speed. While Sonic Adventure 2 was in many ways technically superior, it cut out the part that I viewed as the adventure. Exploring the world was gone. Those huge hub areas were lost in exchange for one compact, focused level after another. It wasn’t objectively bad by any means, but it wasn’t what I had enjoyed about Sonic Adventure.
Sonic Frontiers does exactly what I’d initially hoped Sonic Adventure 2 would have. It expands on the concept of Adventure Fields and makes them the focus. The more linear stages are still present, but they aren't’ what Sonic Frontiers is about. Sonic Frontiers is a game about running fast through giant areas, and actually makes doing that fun.
After being pulled through Cyberspace to a series of mysterious islands, Sonic finds his companions, Amy and Tails, are missing. A strange being in the form of a small girl seems determined to defeat Sonic, sending massive machines after him. On his own he’ll be no match for them, luckily the Chaos Emeralds, prime MacGuffins of ultimate power, have also been pulled through to these islands. By rescuing his friends and assembling the seven emeralds Sonic may just have a chance to unravel the history of these islands and defeat whatever it is that is trying to stop him. The story starts out slow with somewhat awkward dialogue in the first few hours but picks up steam as it goes on. It seems more aware than many recent 3D Sonic games of existing lore, making its underlying mystery much more compelling for fans of late 90’s and early 2000’s Sonic.
Sonic Frontiers is not fully open-world, despite appearances, rather it is a series of giant islands that you’ll progress through linearly. Each island itself is entirely open, but you’ll need to clear the boss of each one before moving on to the next. To do this you’ll help one of Sonic’s friends trapped on each island, and together you’ll gather the Chaos Emeralds. At its core Sonic Frontiers is very much a collectathon. Each of Sonic’s friends has a unique collectible that must be gathered to unlock additional conversations in their stories along which you’ll acquire some of the Chaos Emeralds. The other Chaos Emeralds are locked inside vaults across the map. To open these, you’ll need to gather keys which can be earned in Cyberspace stages. These stages make up the more traditional, linear Sonic gameplay. The more sub objectives you complete in a stage the more keys you get. The stages themselves have to be unlocked using gears which are generally acquired by defeating large enemies. On top of this you’ll also gather skill points to level up a fairly simple skill tree, largely focused on giving Sonic more options in combat. Strength and defense can be upgraded through their own unique collectibles which must be turned into a specific character, as can top speed and ring capacity by collecting small creatures called Kocos and trading them into a different specific character.
All of this has the unfortunate side effect of causing progress to often feel vague. Too often gameplay amounts to finding something cool, but not being able to do anything with it until you’ve run around aimlessly collecting shiny objects to meet its specific requirements. Running around the world is fun, but the reward of finding something is lessened by the game telling you that you haven’t run around enough yet. All of this pads out what is a very repetitive experience on each island. Find your friend, gather the emeralds, fight the boss, go to a new island, lose emeralds, repeat. But once again, the simple act of running around these massive islands as Sonic is fun. It is free, it is unstructured, it is exactly what a game about running fast should be, which is why it's so disappointing when the game stops you to say you’re doing it wrong.
Combat has been a huge question mark for Sonic Frontiers, and while early on I found some enemies to be very spongy, I ultimately wound-up enjoying combat much more as Sonic leveled up. By partway through each island, odds are you’ll be able to take out the generic enemies in a hit or two. The mini boss-like large enemies scattered across the islands are overall extremely fun to fight. No two ever feel the same and many encounters feature unique mechanics. Likewise, the massive bosses fought at the end of each island are some of the more interesting large boss fights in the series. These are split into multiple phases, one to simply reach them, another to climb on top of them, and another on actually fighting to take them down. While I’m not terribly fond of the idea of a skill tree in 3D Sonic, I will admit that a more diverse move set makes these and other combat encounters more interesting. My one complaint with the primary bosses is their implementation of Super Sonic. As usual when playing as Super Sonic, your rings will slowly deplete. I initially assumed that running out of rings would simply require me to hit the conditions for Super Sonic once again before I could continue to do damage. Instead, the boss fight instantly ends in a loss. This means that every main boss fight will begin with you farming rings to maximum capacity. This isn’t hard but I’d have appreciated it if Super Sonic simply started with a set number of rings, as it's easy to accidentally start a fight in an almost guaranteed lose state if you don’t remember to spawn yourself a bunch of extra rings first.
On a technical level, Sonic Frontiers won’t be winning any awards, but it is visually functional. The image is soft, especially in handheld mode, but not debilitatingly so. Handheld mode does also remove many of the nicer visual touches such as screen space reflections and lowers shadow resolution to the point of borderline non-existence. Docked the game looks serviceable, though a combination of unavoidable Switch cutbacks to detail and inconsistent art design mean that some areas look much better than others. The more traditional Cyberspace levels hold up much better, with more traditional sonic art and higher quality assets. This is expected given that these are linear stages rather than a large open area, but the difference in quality can be jarring. At the end of the day however, Sonic Frontiers generally holds its target of 30 frames per second, even as you speed across the large environments. I did occasionally see frame rate drops that were usually focused on combat encounters, but they were not the norm.
Sonic Frontiers is a step in the right direction for 3D Sonic. It gives players the freedom to explore and make use of Sonic’s incredible speed. That being said, the game design doesn’t quite seem ready to let you play without training wheels. While you can go anywhere your ability to do anything when you get there is constantly gated behind a large assortment of collectibles, making the story itself feel needlessly padded. Add to this the repetitive nature of each island and Sonic Frontiers ultimately comes off as somewhat poorly paced. Cyberspace levels make for a nice break, though your enjoyment of them will largely depend on how you feel about the more recent 3D Sonic entries. The story is surprisingly engaging for long time fans even if the writing is incredibly awkward at times. Combat especially with larger enemies is engaging even if it could use some basic quality of life changes. Sonic Frontiers has a lot of issues that it is constantly tripping over, but I cannot emphasize enough that I hope the series continues in this direction. For all its rough edges, this is still probably the most fun I’ve had playing 3D Sonic since 1999.