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Sonic Frontiers: A Stumble in the Right Direction

The Blue Blur is back, and this time with a new spin on the open world genre. Open world games have become increasingly popular across many different franchises over the past couple of years, but back in November, it was Sega’s turn with their iconic mascot, Sonic. The new “Open Zone” gameplay Sega designed allows for players to speed around with their favorite blue hedgehog across five vast islands. While I appreciate Sega trying out the open world format with Sonic Frontiers, its execution is disappointing.


Before the main events of the game, Dr. Eggman, the series’s main antagonist, finds a mysterious artifact on an island. He then uploads his AI into said device, activating its protection protocol, and getting himself sucked into the artifact itself. Sometime later, Sonic and his friends venture to the Starfall Islands in order to investigate the disappearance of the Chaos Emeralds. Things soon go awry as, upon closing in on the island, they too are sucked into a wormhole. Sonic must explore each of the Starfall Islands, finding the Chaos Emeralds while also helping his friends escape from Cyber Space.


Being an “open zone” game, Sonic Frontiers aims to give players a sense of freedom, paired with the speed that only Sonic can reach. Putting Sonic into an open world environment was a great idea on paper, but in motion, it just doesn’t feel as great as one may expect. Sonic still has the Boost from past games, acting as an efficient mode of transportation, and even has the drop dash ability, which the Sonic Team brought back from Sonic Mania. While it’s exciting to have this ability from a great Sonic game back in 3D, it is completely useless. It would be nice to use the drop dash to build speed going up or down slopes, but Sonic moves mostly at a fixed flat speed regardless of the ground’s slope. At best, this element lets players utilize Sonic’s speed consistently throughout each area, but at worst, you could be traveling on a plane or running down a hill, and Sonic unnaturally sticks to the ground. In the past, Sonic games have utilized momentum as a key level design component. This created innovative ways to complete levels, adding to each level's replay value by enticing players to find new ways to beat levels as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Image Credit: Sega

Throughout the game, players will come across portals that whisk them away into Cyber Space. Each of these Cyber Space portals act as miniature levels to be completed. Lots of these levels take not only aesthetic designs from Green Hill, Chemical Plant, and Sky Sanctuary zones from past Sonic games, but they also reuse the layout from some of the stages. Seeing as how Cyber Space is explained to be created using Sonic’s memories, it can be argued that, narratively, reusing assets from past games wouldn’t be a big deal. I could sympathize with that sentiment if it was always fun to play. Sonic controls pretty smoothly out on the Starfall Islands, but as soon as you hit Cyber Space, his controls somehow malfunction. His movement feels much stiffer than normal making turning much harder than it needs to be. In addition to the stiff controls, Sonic also feels much heavier, which can result in multiple over or undershot jumps.


Momentum has been a hanging point for fans of the series for a while since it was something that allowed for innovative and fun ways to get through levels in some of the first 3D Sonic games. In the games where Sonic only has access to his Boost, momentum was not necessary since a player could build speed with the press of a button. While this allows for high speed through individual levels that were designed around the boost Sonic has, taking that same boost and putting it into an “Open Zone” makes it feel a bit hollow. Why would you want to run normally when you could just boost everywhere you need to go? The hills and mountains feel like they lose their purpose when you can’t even use your speed to dash up them. It doesn’t help that this problem is exacerbated by the lack of meaningful things to do in each of the islands. To progress the main story, players will need to collect special items that correspond to Sonic’s digitized friends, Amy, Knuckles, and Tails. Once they find a given number of these items, they must run them back to the friend and initiate a cutscene. This usually plays out with some banter between Sonic and his friends, which is easily one of the best parts of the entire game. That is almost definitely due to the work Ian Flynn, a long-time chief writer for Archie Comics Sonic, did for this game. His love for the series shines through in almost every single one of these cutscenes, and if you are already familiar with the series, you can’t help but smile. If you aren’t already a fan though, I couldn’t imagine the writing sticking as much.


Although Frontiers may have the most complex combat in any Sonic game, it still boils down to button mashing. Even in a game where the player can unlock more combat abilities through leveling up after destroying enemies, there is little to no incentive of trying out different combos. For an action game with different button combinations required to pull off special moves, there is no reason to have an ability where mashing the attack button will perform all of the special moves for you. Sonic can also perform a parry in the game, but the execution is just holding two buttons down and waiting to get hit. There is no risk involved in a usually very risky combat mechanism. Most fights in the overworld can be easily beaten by mashing the attack button and parrying when an enemy launches a very obvious attack. The best fights in the game are against the Titans in each island. These fights are spectacles in and of themselves, where the main point of each battle is a victory lap for players finishing an island. Transforming into Super Sonic while some of the best music in the entire franchise blasts is exhilarating.


Sonic Frontiers is a great Sonic game and a good step in the right direction for the next batch of Sonic games; however, it falls flat for me as a video game in general. Despite the fun aspects of the game, like the interactions between Sonic and his friends and flashy boss fights, there are strange design decisions like Sonic’s control in Cyber Space or the last two islands. While it may not be a completely buggy mess or a forgettable two-hour romp, Sonic Frontiers doesn’t land as an all-around fun experience, and I personally would not recommend it to anyone who is not already a big fan of games within the Sonic universe.


Rating: IN

 

Marcus Trawick IV is an undeclared freshman in the College.


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