Sonic the Hedgehog is a game series that is older than many who may be reading this. While the blue blur dominated the gaming landscape in the 90s, the transition to 3D wasn’t too kind to him, as evidenced by previous Sonic games that deviated from the original formula. Still, Sonic Team perseveres, and here we have the release of Sonic Frontiers. Can Sonic and company really find success in an open-ended setup, or is this a franchise that should stick to its roots?
A strange tale
Sonic Frontiers has a semi-serious story going on here, where Dr. Robotnik (or “Eggman” as Sonic and crew refer to him) links his latest invention to an ancient portal, awakening some robots while accidentally getting sucked into oneself and others. Cyberspace. It’s up to Sonic to free his friends, who are trapped in some kind of floating containment device. Conveniently, he is teleported into a world that has springs to jump on, rails to grind, balloons to bounce, and other things he can quickly jump on.
By exploring the world, you can find keys, along with memory symbols for which friend he is trying to free from the cyber world. Meanwhile, each world is inhabited by these creatures called Koco, which are these little stone statues brought to life. Although they sound like babies, they are revealed to be inhabited by the spirits of the ancient humans who used to roam these lands, and their stories take many dark turns as Sonic and his friends try to help these creatures out.
Sonic was never really an RPG series, and yet Sonic Frontiers has such mechanics in spades. The said Koco can be collected by simply getting close enough to them, and then handed over to an Elder Koco, who is much larger than these collected Koco. If you punch in enough, Sonic can choose whether to upgrade his speed level or ring carrying capacity.
Certain special seeds can also be found and collected, and delivered to another Elder Koco, which automatically upgrades Sonic’s attack and defense stats. Each of these four core stats can be upgraded to level 99, and they actually affect how quickly Sonic can dispatch most enemies, or how many rings he’ll lose each time he’s hit – for all but the toughest of enemies, it’s no longer so one hit causes you to lose all your rings.
Continuing the RPG elements is an unlockable skill tree that gives Sonic additional abilities. Beyond the tutorial, players can spend as much or as little of their levels on these skills. This includes abilities such as Cyloop, where the player holds Triangle to run around and leave a trail of energy behind them. If they complete a circle with this path and release the button, different effects can happen depending on the context – shielded enemies will lose protection, others will be stunned. It can also be used on the environment in certain obvious places to reveal hidden memory symbols, seeds, or just a collection of rings.
If Sonic ever has as many rings as he can currently hold, starting at 400, then a short cutscene plays where blue lightning fills the background, and Sonic’s eyes glow blue. Now his boost speed is slightly increased, with some crackling electricity left in its wake. It feels odd that Sonic is some kind of action RPG in these overworld areas, but it’s also strangely rewarding to figure out all these disjointed options and combine different strategies to take on some of the game’s more formidable opponents.
Meet the Titans
At key moments in the story, Sonic takes on the Titans, which are these huge creatures brought to life by a mysterious character apparently created by Dr. Robotnik. He usually fights them as Super Sonic, once he’s temporarily collected all seven Chaos Emeralds, and these staged boss fights feel like a completely different game. Dare I say it, between the Titan battles and the ancient ruins, Sonic Frontiers kind of feels like a Sonic Adventure game, and I think I mean that in a good way.
Outside of Titan battles, you can encounter mini-bosses, marked with an X on the current world map. These are usually massive enemies in their own right, often requiring multiple stages to defeat. They reward gears, which are used to unlock portals, and these portals are gateways to the game’s actual levels, which are more traditional Sonic levels we’re all used to – both 2D and 3D levels that have classic enemies to stomp on, rails to grind. , speed boosts to zoom through, and while they’re usually over in under two minutes, they represent some of the most fun you’ll have in Sonic Frontiers.
Depending on how many of each level’s objectives you meet or exceed, you will receive a series of portal keys upon your return to the overworld. Obtaining enough of these keys can unlock a nearby Chaos Emerald. Usually you don’t need to clear too many targets to earn enough keys to progress in the story. However, at certain points the game requires you to collect enough memory tokens to talk to another character.
Collecting these isn’t a problem, but at least once per world you’ll be forced into a mini-game with little instructions, and you’ll have to clear it to progress in the story. This slows down the pace of the game, as it is sometimes not clear what you have to do in the minigame. A few tries will usually clear it up as you’re forced to improvise a solution, but having these mini-games as a requirement to continue the adventure gives a bad impression.
An internal engine called Hedgehog Engine 2 powers Sonic Frontiers. It’s apparently a good engine, capable of presenting large open areas and, at least in the PS5’s case, offering a toggle for 60 fps or 4K priority. It seemed to keep up with the action on screen in both modes, and while the higher frame rate is nice, the world just looks better when in 4K mode. Quixel Megascans are also used, which is a tile set of very high resolution scans of environments, potentially freeing up environment artists when creating worlds. It is evident in the various boulders, trees and other scenery and gets the job done.
jump in the sea
The gang are all here in Sonic Frontiers, as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and others encounter Dr. Robotnik in his latest scheme involving the “Old Ones” and some sort of Cyber Space area controlled by a character he created. Hell, even Big shows up. Everyone is voiced, and even though Sonic sounds almost too mature for his character, you eventually get used to it.
The soundtrack to the game’s individual levels is actually surprisingly varied and even pulsating at times. Amplification causes a filter to be applied to the sound, to help sell the sense of speed. But in the overworld, the music takes on a more somber tone, and as Sonic rampages through each new abandoned world he falls into, things start out melancholic, but as more memories are played, the music becomes more lively and builds into what’s being heard out as the entire soundtrack intended for each area. In fact, outside of a strange dance that Sonic occasionally performs when helping Koco, none of the sounds sound like a Sonic game at all.
It’s one thing that has stuck with me throughout my time with Sonic Frontiers. Since so much of your time is spent outside of the main, fast-paced levels, this doesn’t really feel like a Sonic game. It feels like an RPG with an incredibly strange story, one filled with a ton of sadness and loneliness. Most of these worlds are abandoned, and Sonic is seemingly alone with his friends just out of reach as they are stuck between worlds. Despite this, Sonic remains optimistic and resolute in his goal to save his friends once again from the clutches of evil. There’s a lot to unpack in this story, much of it whimsically nonsensical, but when even Dr. Robotnik comes out with a little deeper insight into how he respects Sonic as an opponent, it’s clear that Sonic Team wanted you to maybe feel something about the world and the history they present.
Sonic Frontiers is a strange, yet fun time. The individual levels show Sonic at his fast-paced, ring-hoarding best, and some of the overworld’s sporting exploration mechanics. Sonic Team’s insistence on jamming in minigames that block the progression of the story is frustrating to say the least, and some of the larger maps’ designs feel a little random. Overall, though, the weirdness of the story will keep anyone going just to see, well, where the hell it’s all going. It’s strange how much this doesn’t feel like a Sonic game outside of the individual levels, but this is an interesting direction that Sonic Team has taken their blue blur, and hopefully we’ll see continued development that coalesces into something big.