My review of Sonic FrontiersRead time in minutes: 20
Sonic Frontiers was released recently and I've got a lot of thoughts about it. I think that it's a good game with implementation flaws, but overally it's probably one of the best takes on the Sonic formula that Sonic Team has done in years. Overall, I give it an 8/10 score on that arbitrary scale that you expect from reviewers. Here's why:
Sonic Adventure 2
I've always been a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog since I was exposed to it on the Nintendo Gamecube with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. The Sonic game series is built on the foundation of high-speed momentum-based gameplay. This has been accented by the latest and greatest technology, allowing you to run faster than the camera can scroll. Over the years, Sega and Sonic Team have been so successful with this basic formula that Sonic The Hedgehog is about as famous as Mario from Nintendo.
shadowhis a reference to Shadow the Hedgehog, one of the main characters in Sonic Adventure 2.
Sonic Adventure 2 is nowhere near a perfect game. It has numerous flaws in its camera control and I don't know if it would review very well if it was released today. The version I've been playing for years on Steam only got a MetaCritic score of 60 for the Xbox 360 version. However, the Steam reviews are overall "Very Positive". I love it. It's one of the games that I go back to time and time again because I like it. It's in my top games of all time.
Now with that in mind, let's take a look at one of the most recent 3D Sonic releases: Sonic Forces. Sonic Forces was released in 2017 and was the first sign of the "Sonic Cycle" being broken. Here are the steps in the Sonic Cycle:
- New Sonic game teasers/trailers get dropped, people say it's going to be Sonic's comeback
- Hype is generated as more information is released, people start getting optimistic that this may actually be the comeback of Sonic the Hedgehog
- First reviews of the game drop and they are terrible, the fanbase rallies by saying that reviewers are bad at games and can't rate Sonic games accurately (this is actually unironically the truth)
- The game drops and everyone's optimism is shattered instantly
- Some people look back at older Sonic games that they hated upon release and then realize that there's something good there
The place where the Sonic Cycle was creaking at the seams was that last bit. I cannot see a world in which Sonic Forces is seen as actually being genius in the future. Sonic Forces is objectively a terrible game, but the reasons why are very hard to demonstrate without video. Here is a video of me playing the first level of Sonic Forces:
Scrubbing through the video and from my memory of playing through the level, here are the sins that I see:
- The first sin is that it's Green Hill Zone. Sonic team has been overusing the asethetics of Green Hill Zone since it was very popular with Sonic Generations. At some level, this makes sense from a color theory standpoint. Sonic is blue and that contrasts very well with the greens, browns and oranges of Green Hill Zone. It's just that we've seen this aesthetic so goddamn much over the years. I'm getting sick of it.
- It's worth noting that I chose the "yes I have played a Sonic game before" difficulty in the menu. I'm still forced to read a help box that explains core mechanics of the game series that haven't changed since the first game on the Genesis.
- It's not demonstrated very well in this video, but those enemies that I boosted through do nothing when Sonic is standing right in front of them doing nothing. At some level I get it, this is the tutorial level and it attempts to explain the game mechanics in an interactive way, probably a bit like how Super Metroid has an invisible tutorial at Ceres Station. But overall it's just a bit bland to have enemies that do no damage to you. This should have been a bad omen for me.
- Sonic and Tails won't shut up. This makes sense from a story standpoint, but I am replaying this level. The story is irrelevant to me at the moment.
- The homing attack reticle shows up constantly, even when it's irrelevant from a gameplay standpoint. Sonic cannot homing attack unless he is airborne. Showing the reticle like that constantly is just insulting to the player's intelligence. I can tell there's an enemy there. I don't need to be told that constantly.
- The level appears to have multiple paths, but it's ultimately a dichotomy of false choice. The route that I went through is one of the fastest. I also barely did anything but jump and hit the boost button. I set a record for the fastest playthrough of that level on my save file. I wasn't even trying.
- The level is over in a minute. Most levels of the game are like this.
The game doesn't get much better from there. The first level in Sonic games is usually notable at being the most polished from a QA testing standpoint and in the Sonic fanbase we've come to see the quality of the first level as an omen for the quality of the rest of the game. This gave bad vibes.
The website How Long to Beat is a good benchmark for how long it will take to complete a game's main story and side content. They estimate Sonic Forces to take about 4 hours. My first playthrough was three hours long. At a $40 game, that was an absolutely awful value for the money. I encountered a bunch of weird bugs and glitches on the first playthrough too, after consulting with experts we realized that the PS4 version was actually the most stable one (and probably was their primary target when developing the game), so I grabbed a copy of that from the Playstation store and started my playthrough over three levels in and I still beat the game in 3 hours. It is not a long game by any stretch of the imagination and playing through it again leaves you feeling empty and sad that the series has stooped to this level.
Going into it, I knew that Forces was going to be a garbage fire but I didn't expect the garbage to go supercritical.
Oh, I forgot this initially, but Sonic Forces was actually tied into another game released that year, Sonic Mania Sonic Mania is an absolute gem of a game. It takes the formula of classic 2D Sonic games (like Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles) and modernizes it without losing out on the aspects of Sonic that people love. It was a love letter to the Sonic fandom and the classic 2D Genesis games that is worth picking up and playing to this day. It was tied into Sonic Forces by a story MacGuffin that is ultimately not really worth mentioning because of how badly it was used in Forces. It was also the excuse for Sonic Forces to add "Classic Sonic" style gameplay to the mix.
By this point, most of the people I know that liked Sonic were anything but optimistic about the future of the mainline 3D Sonic The Hedgehog series. With games like Forces and Sonic Lost World coming out, who can blame them? It was looking like Sonic Team was utterly devoid of new ideas and that they would continue to slowly fade into irrelevance as each release continued to be worse than the previous one.
I don't think this is going to be the case with Sonic Frontiers. Sonic Frontiers is actually good. Here's some footage of my favorite level in Sonic Frontiers, 1-7:
As you watch that, take a moment to really let the flow sink in. Sonic has a few basic moves: jumping, attacking, boosting, and sliding. Every one of these actions is on separate buttons. Attacking while jumping gives you a homing attack. Boosting makes you go fast, but in the air it becomes an air boost. Sliding in the air becomes a stomp, and holding the slide button makes it into a bounce. Everything flows together from there. This is a stark difference from games like Sonic Forces or even Sonic Adventure 2 where multiple actions are shoved on the same button (jumping and doing a homing attack are the same button as well as an "everything button" that is either to do context-sensitive things in Sonic Adventure 2 or the boost button in Forces).
Even though I had to drastically relearn how to play Frontiers compared to past games, it just flows so nicely. This is how Sonic should control. This is how you should play these kinds of games. I feel like I am in control of Sonic without the engine janking me around through scripted sequences.
Sadly, this is one of the only examples of that in the Cyberspace levels. A lot of the other Cyberspace levels are copies of level layouts and aesthetics from older games (with a strangely large amount of them from Sonic Generations) and they do not translate well to the control scheme and gameplay style of Frontiers.
Thankfully these Cyberspace levels are largely optional and mostly used to unlock Chaos Emeralds. The main focus of the game is on the "open zones". This takes the standard Sonic the Hedgehog formula and turns it on its side. Instead of getting to the goal ring with minimum haste, you are dumped into an open world and told to figure out what you need to do.
Sonic can climb walls, fight enemies (with an actual combat system that has real mechanical depth), recover Chaos Emeralds to take out Titans, and even go fishing with Big the Cat.
I'm not kidding. There's a fishing minigame with Big the Cat and it breaks the game in half in the later parts. You can use fishing to skip the Cyberspace levels you don't like playing through. There are also some surreal and realistic 3D models of fish. It is quite bizarre, but somehow a lo-fi hip hop fishing simulator was just that little bit of icing on the top that pushed this game into one that I love.
Going back to the open zone, here's a small video of me playing around in Kronos Island (the first open zone):
You have control in this game. You can move Sonic to places as opposed to vaguely influencing his position like in other games. The open zone gameplay also means that you don't need to be at 100% speed 100% of the time. You can take your time to explore and walk around the islands you find yourself on. You can go out of your way to discover things like the Eggman bases scattered across the islands that you're trapped on for plot reasons or the portal to the lo-fi fishing vibe zone.
One of the biggest things that I think Sonic Frontiers is going to end up solving is the "now what" problem of open world games. After you play through an open world game for some time, you eventually hit the end of the content in there. This ends up leaving the world kinda empty and a lot less magical because those questions you had about "what is over there?" and "what does this do?" have answers.
Sonic Frontiers solves this by having the world be kind of empty out of the gate. You look off into the distance and see just about nothing. As you run around and explore you'll occasionally come across little puzzles. When you complete them, you unlock more view of your map; but more critically you will unlock more game objects in the world. This means that completing the game populates it with rails to grind on, rings to fly through, springs to bounce off of and targets to hit. Over time this gives you more things to do rather than the world just being boring.
This is all accented by the soundtrack. Sonic games have always had absolute bangers in the soundtrack department. This game is no exception. I can't wait for the OST to drop in order to add it to my working music playlist. The lo-fi hip hop beats to relax and fish to are marvelous.
I've been trying to focus on the good parts of Sonic Frontiers because I'm trying to be a more positive person in general. All that's left are the downsides, but please keep in mind that with 20+ years of experience playing Sonic games I have a much more critical view on this than most would.
The game isn't perfect. There's huge problems that either are core to the movement of Sonic or have to do with the level designers seemingly copying and pasting layouts and textures from previous games. The biggest problem is that they seem to think that Sonic has only ever been in 4 levels:
- Green Hill Zone
- Sky Sanctuary Zone
- Chemical Plant Zone
- Some Random City Zone
That's it. The Cyberspace levels only have one of those four themes. It's excusable for the first level (or the tutorial) to have Green Hill Zone vibes, but when over a third of the levels are Green Hill Zone something is horribly wrong. I wish Sega and/or Sonic Team would have a corporate mandate forbidding the aesthetics of Green Hill Zone. They're creative people. There's surely other levels they can use the aesthetics from. They did at least give each Cyberspace level its own song, but overall all of the levels feel like they end too soon. It's not as bad as Sonic Forces' infamous 45 second level with the player only having meaningful input for 15 of them, but I wish I could have heard more of the "Flowing into the light" song in Cyberspace level 1-2.
That Cyberspace level I took a video of was hilariously cherry-picked. There are only a few Cyberspace levels that flow that well. That is one of them. Most of them feel like garbage because they were obviously designed for a different Sonic than the one they use in Frontiers.
Sonic also doesn't seem to have any momentum. You can go at a billionty miles per hour but if you stop pushing the stick forward Sonic stops on a dime. I get that they did this for making the platforming easier (it really does help), but I would have preferred the speed rodent to have a bit more weight and momentum in the equation. At the least I'd like scripted events like homing attack to not cap my speed and slow me down.
The other issues I have with the game boil down to implementation details like Elder Koco not having a good way to upgrade multiple levels of speed and rings at once. It's an implementation issue, not an issue with the game itself. It's not really worth mentioning in my book because there's a PC mod to fix it. It will surely be fixed on the other platforms. Give them time.
Overall, I think that Sonic Frontiers is well worth playing, even if you aren't historically a fan of Sonic games. I enjoyed my time with it. I can easily see myself going back to replay it, especially with the final boss fight that it had. I'd love to see what they can do with this formula next time. There is a lot of promise in an open-world Sonic game.
Just please without Green Hill Zone everywhere.
My clear time was 20 hours. I played most of my playthrough on my Steam Deck. It ran perfectly. I got 4-ish hours of battery with 600p, and a 75% render scale capped at 30 FPS.