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After playing 6 hours of Sonic Frontiers, I’m sold on the ‘open zone’ pivot

Sonic Frontiers has come a long way since the rough build we saw during the summer, when Sega fully lifted the lid on the mysterious project. When my time came to play a new build of it last week, one that would showcase significantly more content than we’ve seen up to this point, I was expecting that the “open zone” game would be extremely different from what we have seen over the last few months. Sure enough, Sonic Team seems to have polished the game up since then with cleaner graphics and a faster framerate — not to mention fewer rails cluttering the skyline.

Sonic Frontiers - Story Trailer

Sonic’s latest adventure drops in two weeks, and based on my time with it (spanning six hours of playtime), its shaping up to be a breath of fresh air, challenging players who’ve grown accustomed to playing open-world titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Immortals Fenyx Rising, and Genshin Impact. It not only allows players to experience the high-speed action they would usually see in other games, but it also teases their brains with puzzles that have varying degrees of difficulty. The result is a Sonic game that feels totally new while still maintaining the basics of the series. It’s shaping up to be the right balance for newcomers and fans of the series alike.

New skills to expand Sonic’s horizons

As I played through the first three regions of Starfall Islands during my roughly six-hour hands-on preview — Kronos Island, Ares Island, and Chaos Island — I quickly understood that nobody was exaggerating about the Breath of the Wild influence in Frontiers. Sonic has a Boost gauge floating next to his head that acts as stamina when. Most of the time, the Boost gauge is limited, though other times it’s infinite. That meter is necessary to tackle some puzzles and challenges that need to be completed within a set amount of time, though others don’t have a timer.

Sonic attacking Excavator with long-range attack.

Despite Frontiers having all the makings of an open-world game, Sonic Team head and producer Takashi Iizuka said the aforementioned elements and then some — e.g. its linear Cyber Space levels and fishing mini-games with Big the Cat — are what make it stand out from the uber-popular Legend of Zelda title. He sees the open-world element as an extension of the RPG and action genres in which the world is created and expanded to be vast enough for players to explore and collect items that are vital for progression. The “open zone” phrase that’s been attached to Frontiers is where the differences come in.

“Open-world games, like Genshin Impact, like Breath of the Wild — they’re all kind of born from this open-world idea,” Iizuka told Digital Trends. “And the open-world idea, I really see [it] as an extension of the RPG genre or the action genre … However, Sonic Frontiers is different than that. It’s kind of starting from the 3D platform action genre base, and that gameplay and extending it, adding to that gameplay kind of a free-roaming element, and creating a new kind of 3D platform action game in this open-zone experience. So, that’s really the difference between an open-world game where it’s more about exploring the world and all the things happening in the world. And the open-zone gameplay that’s really an extension of the 3D action platforming that Sonic is known for. And that’s really as you start playing it, you’ll see that you’ll feel the differences in how the game is created.”

The only gameplay element that makes Frontiers not so different from other RPG-like open-world games is its skill tree, which makes it the first game in Sonic’s 30+ year history to have such a feature. Sonic gains new combat skills from the tree by grabbing Skill Pieces from fallen enemies and breakable items. The skill tree was implemented in the game in order to not only expand Sonic’s move set beyond the homing attack, spin dash, and stomp attacks, but to make combat with enemies of all sizes more engaging for players. The combat especially worked for me because the enemies wander around the world freely, almost expecting you to come and challenge them.

Iizuka-san said that the skill tree was born out of the “open zone” idea, but whether that feature will become a staple of the Sonic series going forward is up in the air. “From a game design perspective for Sonic Frontiers, it was important to put in the skill tree in order to really make the most out of the open zone gameplay,” he said. “So for future games, maybe we’ll have it, maybe we won’t have it. It’ll be more up to the game design of that game and whether it’s important to have a skill tree or not.”

Sonic’s new voice is like night and day

Throughout my gameplay session, I noticed that Sonic’s deep voice was way more pronounced than it was in the game’s story trailer. The more that Sonic spoke, the more I felt that puberty hit him like a ton of bricks, despite being canonically 15 for most of his career. He sounds less like a cartoon character and more grown up, like an actor reminiscent of Will Smith shifting from comedy to drama. He’s still voiced by Roger Craig Smith, but I understood that Sonic’s voice was deepened to match the gravity of the situation in which the Blue Blur finds himself and the mysteriousness of his new environment. Iizuka established that the vocal shift is circumstantial, if not a permanent change to Sonic’s character.

“For Sonic Frontiers, the kind of game situation it’s different, it’s not the usual, like, fun and pop and really kind of bright cartoony performance that is easily had,” he said. “We wanted to have a much more serious tone, and a lot more mysterious nature to the entire world and the performances. So, we worked with our voice talent to really make sure that was coming across the vocal performances that were given, but it doesn’t mean that Sonic’s voice is going to be deeper from here on out or there’s been some shift in, you know, Sonic as a character. It’s really to make sure that the qualities of the entertainment and what they wanted to reach for with the series in the series were delivered.”

Sonic fights the skeletal Eagle.

Ian Flynn, a writer for the IDW Sonic the Hedgehog comic books and scriptwriter for Frontiers, felt the same when I spoke to him during the preview event. “I was a little surprised with the timbre that Roger is delivering,” Flynn told Digital Trends. “But from the get-go, as it goes on, and Kishimoto said they wanted a story that was more grounded, a little more serious, and a big focus on the mystery side of things. And I feel like that more mature delivery fits that tone better.”

What also fits the new tone of the Frontiers is a feature that didn’t properly manifest in Sonic’s infamous 2006 outing: the day-night cycle. The feature was originally supposed to be in the infamous 15th-anniversary title, but it was left out of the final product due to time constraints. The day-night cycle was used in Sonic Unleashed, but it was only controlled by players in the hub worlds and world map. According to Iizuka, the levels in those two Sonic games and others were dictated by the time of day they were set in depending on the story that is being told.

We wanted to really have people take a journey with Sonic.

The day-night cycle in Frontiers is just as dynamic as it is in most open-world games, if not more so. It felt properly executed as I explored the vastness of Starfall Islands, as it gave me an infinite amount of time to run around with Sonic and collect the Chaos Emeralds, Memory Tokens, Cyber Space levels, and everything else I needed to obtain in order to move the story along. Time flies fast when you’re having fun, and that saying rings especially true with Sonic, as Iizuka explains.

“We really wanted to make sure the player and Sonic were kind of joined together and having the same experience from start to finish,” he said. “And usually, you’ve heard that in most games, games in the past and even our previous games, the story would always dictate the time. So depending on what the story is, what story is being told in the moment, that’s kind of going to determine if it’s daytime or if it’s nighttime. And you’re always stuck because of the story needs in the time that you’re playing. But for Sonic Frontiers, we wanted to really have people take a journey with Sonic. And because you’re traveling around and running around with Sonic, from a very early stage from a conceptual standpoint, they wanted to make sure you felt like you were with Sonic and you were experiencing things as Sonic was experiencing them.”

A nice change of pace

The build of Sonic Frontiers I played ran at 60 frames per second (fps), though the game will run at 30 fps on Nintendo Switch (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story noted that the game runs at 60 fps on all platforms. That detail was made in error, as Sega has not formally confirmed the game’s framerate on last generation consoles. The PS4 version is rumored to run at 30 fps at launch). I tried a PC build of the game complete with an Xbox controller, and I noticed that it felt 10 times smoother than what I saw from footage released earlier this year. I thought I’d seen high-speed gameplay in Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Forces, but Frontiers takes it to the next level for everything that Sonic does. He runs fast no matter how often I press the Boost button (or not), and he throws punches and kicks to his enemies even quicker — all at the speed you’d expect from the character at this point.

As for the world around him, Frontiers has some fun creating enemy animations and behaviors here. A Shark robot I encountered, for example, has Sonic holding onto its tailfin as it furiously swims across the sandy desert in Ares Island. Directional prompts pop up to steer him in the right direction and maintain balance before letting go to attack its head. The Tank whips up a sandstorm tornado that picks Sonic up in the air and stops spinning every few seconds to allow him to perform a homing attack in areas on the shell not covered by the jets. Other enemies that are smaller in stature can get knocked up in the air by the Cyloop ability, allowing Sonic to follow up with close range punches and kicks or attack at a distance with his Sonic Boom skill. I found that a few enemies came at me way too fast for me to parry their attacks in time, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it once I can spend more time with the final version.

Sonic grinding a rail.

Sonic Frontiers looks like its taken every strategy out of Breath of the Wild‘s playbook — and the playbooks of other games inspired by it — and beautifully implemented them into the Sonic formula without taking away the fundamentals the series is known for. Sonic Team has always been known to experiment with different gameplay styles for every Sonic game, from team-based gameplay (Sonic Heroes) to nocturnal transformation (Unleashed) to deviantART-style avatar creation (Forces). Now, it seems the company may catch lightning in a bottle by following the stylistic open-world trend set by a five-year-old game, made by Sonic’s rival company and making it challenging for fans new and old.

If open-world style games are a new era for Sonic — or dare I say, a new frontier — then I’m already ready to welcome it with open arms when Sonic Frontiers launches on November 8 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

Disclosure: Digital Trends was flown to Hawaii to preview Sonic Frontiers, with travel accommodations covered by Sega of America. This did not influence our coverage of the game.

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Cristina Alexander
Cristina Alexander has been writing since 2014, from opining about pop culture on her personal blog in college to reporting…
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