“Sonic Frontiers is loaded with downright puzzling design decisions, making for 2022's most bizarre game.”
- Impressive scale
- Combat is fine
- Poor game feel
- Laughable story
- Busted collectible economy
- Frustrating boss fights
- Ugly graphics
If I had to describe Sonic Frontiers in one word, that word would be “Huh?”.
While not outright broken like Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) or Sonic Boom, Sonic Frontiers is a heavily misguided game that muffles good ideas with questionable narrative, technical, and gameplay design decisions. Sonic Team continues to demonstrate that it’s not quite sure what to do with the blue blur, taking a wild swing with a game that tries to rival open-world games rather than double down on the strengths of newer titles like Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania, or older successes like the Sonic Adventure series.
I’ve reviewed some terrible games this year, but none have left me as confused as Sonic Frontiers. Its jerky gameplay makes for a lackluster Sonic entry, design problems lead to a mediocre open-world game, and weak visuals don’t even position it as a great current-gen showpiece. I had a thoroughly baffled look on my face throughout the entirety of Sonic Frontiers‘ 20-hour runtime, and you probably will too. It’s not unplayable; it’s just unpleasant to play.
Sonic Frontiers‘ long list of problems begins with its narrative. Sonic, Amy, and Tails are all attracted to the Starfall Islands by their Chaos Emeralds. When they arrive, a mysterious force knocks Sonic out and sends his pals (& Knuckles) into a digital dimension. Sonic explores the island from there, discovering that his friends are trapped in Cyberspace and that an unstoppable force that wiped out an alien civilization may soon return. Meanwhile, a mysterious digital girl named Sage, who has a surprising connection to Eggman, taunts Sonic as he explores the world
We’re stuck with a Sonic game narrative aiming to turn the cartoon series into something much more serious and not doing it well.
I get the sense that Sonic Frontiers wants to be a mature, somber game (Roger Craig Smith portrays Sonic with a deeper voice here). Not far into its story, it becomes clear that Sonic Frontiers is a game about death and moving on. Characters constantly muse about love, death, and if they’ve done enough with their life. Sad music plays over flashbacks to cutscenes you watched just hours earlier, and the game’s final shot wants to make you cry. Like Sonic Forces, it’s hard to take any of it seriously unless you’re fully bought in on the franchise’s extensive lore.
With every new dialogue scene, I found myself either completely puzzled or laughing hard at how seriously the game was trying to take itself. The story becomes increasingly nonsensical as it goes on, and it will likely only live on due to viral YouTube compilations of its oddest moments (it’s like someone built a game just for Dunkey). Once again, we’re stuck with a Sonic game narrative aiming to turn the cartoon series into something much more serious and not doing it well. That approach has never worked for Sonic Team, so it’s no surprise that it struggles here.
Then, you actually start playing the game, and things only get worse.
To give Sonic Frontiers credit over games like Sonic 06 or 2014’s Sonic Boom, it is not riddled with glitches (at least on PS5, the only platform we were able to play it on prior to embargo). The worst glitch I ever ran into during my playthrough was a water texture lightly glitching from certain angles. No, the issues here are much harder to resolve than a bug; they’re fundamental design issues. At the most basic level, Sonic just doesn’t feel good to control. He starts moving very slowly (players can upgrade his speed stat with a collectible), aided by a boost button that feels more like Sonic Lost World’s sprint. I was able to tweak Sonic’s speed in the game’s settings, but doing so negated one of the game’s key progression hooks. It was an early moment that highlighted how Sonic Frontiers’ is busted by default.
Jumping and homing attacks feel sluggish and stilted, making seemingly easy jumps more frustrating than they need to be. Sonic doesn’t keep momentum well either, exacerbating all these issues. Even if you’re running fast or using a boost pad, Sonic will abruptly stop the moment your finger leaves the control stick. Short cinematics often butt in to interrupt Sonic while he’s running around (any time he reaches max rings, the game abruptly cuts to a video of him sparking up to indicate that his top speed has raised), and odd camera angle shifts can send Sonic flying off in an unintended direction.
Sonic either moves at full speed or not at all, and when your main character does not control well in a platformer, it’s fundamentally going to hurt the entire game. These are basic things that even Sonic Adventure 2 got right in 2001 that feel like they could be better here.
To give Sonic Frontiers some credit, its scale is impressive. The five Starfall Islands are the largest Sonic levels we’ve ever gotten, and the game took me about 20 hours to beat with a healthy amount of exploration. But bigger doesn’t always mean better, as each island is bizarrely constructed. While people have been calling this Sonic’s version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s more comparable to a Ubisoft open-world game.
This is a game of objectives and collectibles. Players traverse large environments to collect various currencies, all of which have different functions. Playground-like rail and platform obstacles populate the islands and getting to the end of those often rewards Sonic with Memory Tokens used to talk with characters and progress the story. Players will also encounter minibosses called Guardians that grant Gears which let players access linear Cyberspace levels. Beating Cyberspace levels and completing bonus objectives grants Keys, which players redeem to collect Chaos Emeralds, also needed to progress the story.
On top of that, players can also find collectibles that raise Sonic’s attack power, defense, speed, and ring count, find purple coins for use in a fishing minigame, and acquire Skill Pieces that will eventually accrue into Skill Points. While there’s always something to collect, all these collectibles are poorly distributed. Obstacles are laid around the open world in a haphazard manner, so it’s easy to enter one halfway through its setup (imagine stepping onto a rollercoaster backward).
The map isn’t helpful either because of how it’s unveiled to players. Sonic can find and complete various mini-challenges to reveal some of the map, but that’ll only reveal scattered squares of the grid-like map rather than everything in the surrounding area, bungling something that most basic open-world games get right. Even when you can get the map to reveal the location of a Cyberspace level or miniboss, those parts of the game come with their own caveats.
The entire collectible economy is broken.
Cyberspace levels are linear stages structured in a way that will be familiar to those who’ve played recent Sonic games. These more focused stages that call back to classic Sonic areas like Green Hill Zone initially seem like they could be a high point of the game. Unfortunately, those too are marred by Sonic’s poor momentum, which feels even worse in smaller spaces where players are supposed to constantly boost and go as fast as possible. On the miniboss front, players can defeat some very quickly while others are five-plus minute fights. Coupled with the lackluster physics, it’s rare to ever get into Sonic Frontiers’ open-world flow.
That doesn’t matter, though, as the entire collectible economy is broken for two reasons. First, players can obtain important items through random enemies and Cyloop (a new ability where Sonic can create a streak of energy while running) drops. Alternatively, Sonic can buy these collectibles en masse from Big the Cat with tickets earned in a simple button-timing fishing minigame, which I always had more than enough Purple Coins to access. What would take you over an hour to grind for in the open world can be earned in mere minutes by fishing.
Would you rather wrestle with difficult physics, long boss fights, and frustrating Cyberspace levels for hours on end as I did at first, or fish for 15 minutes and buy everything required to progress the plot? By the end of the game, I wanted to do the latter. In an attempt to give players the tools to play their own way, the developers made parts of their game redundant by design.
One aspect of Sonic Frontiers that isn’t immediately weak is combat, which this game emphasizes with its miniboss Guardian fights, enemies scattered throughout the islands, and colossal boss fights at the end of each island’s story. Sonic has a few basic attacks and the ability to parry and evade from the start, and players can unlock the Cyloop and more skills through the skill tree with points. Combat is simple, and many of the animations just don’t look good, but this part of the experience is at least comprehensible and works as intended when Sonic engages in a fight.
While combat’s enjoyable with basic enemies and miniboss Guardians, it does not fair as well during Super Sonic fights with the Titan bosses of each world. These Titans are gigantic mechanical creatures that Super Sonic must defeat, and initially, their hulking size is impressive. These battles quickly deteriorate, though. Instead of being based on skill, the fights are on an arbitrary timer determined solely by how many rings Sonic has when entering the battle. Throughout these fights, Sonic’s rings will drain, and you’ll automatically lose if they all run out, even if you’re in the middle of an animation, a quick time event, or one hit away from a final blow. If you don’t upgrade Sonic’s coin-carrying capacity and grind coins with Cyloops before you fight bosses, you’ll likely struggle to beat them.
Tying off all of those gripes, presentation is a problem here too. The camera often can’t handle the scale of these fights and will lose track of Super Sonic or aim in an unhelpful direction. Some boss animations feel borderline unfinished too. In particular, the third boss spins around in quick circles that look like a character model being dragged around by an invisible hand. These both indicate another problem with Sonic Frontiers: it’s just not a good-looking game.
Even playing on PS5, Sonic Frontiers is an ugly game. Animations are weak across the board, with Sonic and his enemies snapping into certain positions rather than looking dynamically animated, even when moving. Sonic Team also decided that the Starfall Islands should look “realistic” (in quotes because these environments do not look like they’re from a AAA game in 2022) rather than the stylistically cartoony like most Sonic games, and that choice does not work well on multiple levels.
Textures are blurry, the lighting is poor, and the obstacles that populate each island look off. While that may be the point, as these objects are from Cyberspace, they also look like they were laid about without any real rhyme or reason. They end up feeling unnatural rather than foreign, which isn’t the intended effect. It looks like an amateur Unreal Engine 4 or Unity Sonic tech demo, but it’s not. This is a AAA mainline Sonic game made on a proprietary engine by Sonic Team (and some fan-made 3D Sonic games even look better).
Sonic Frontiers also suffers from terrible pop-in, even on a current-gen console (I can’t imagine how it performs on a Nintendo Switch). Running around the five Starfall Islands, you’ll constantly see lighting, enemies, and objects that are mere feet away pop in right in front of your eyes. Not only does this make the game look low quality, but it also stunts open-world exploration, as it’s often difficult to see an entire platforming gauntlet. The best part of games like Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring, or even The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is seeing something in the distance, thinking “I want to go there,” and doing it. Sonic’s visual shortcomings make this an impossibility.
At its best, Sonic Frontiers is middling … and it’s not often at its best.
The camera doesn’t help in that sense. Not only is it a pain in boss fights, but it isn’t good when exploring the world as well. When Sonic gets into a small crowded space, the camera has trouble focusing on him. That’s a common issue in platformers, but what’s less forgivable are camera issues while exploring the open world. When running around, the camera will sometimes lock on to random enemies or minibosses as it expects you to fight them.
Sonic Team also decided that some obstacles would work better from a 2D perspective, so the camera will shift to that and lock itself in place, even when you are only near these obstacles. This makes it very easy to get disoriented during both fights and exploration, as you won’t be able to exit a platforming section that you’ve accidentally stumbled into. 3D Sonic games are no strangers to bad cameras, but Sonic Frontiers doesn’t have the pretty world design, memorable set pieces, or fun gameplay to make up for it.
Even with all of those complaints, I still don’t feel like I’m covering the full breadth of disappointment here. Here’s a bulleted list of some of the game’s weirder moments, so you can get an even better sense of how perplexing this game is (light Spoilers for the game follow):
- Every night, a poorly explained slot machine minigame pops up that lets Sonic accrue purple coins. It covers the screen as Sonic runs around the world for the duration of the night, making a constant cloying sound while obscuring key UI.
- Bizarre minigames punctuate key story points, some of which play like the frustrating herding missions from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
- At the end of a third world, there’s a rage-inducing pinball minigame that forces players to score a whopping 5,000,000 points to progress. You only have three balls.
- I soft-locked myself in a Cyberspace level by losing my momentum on a loop-de-loop and was also able to walk up 90-degree slopes if I moved slowly enough.
- A late-game world ditches the open-zone idea and has Sonic scaling massive towers. One, in particular, is incredibly difficult to navigate due to the game’s poor momentum.
- Characters bring up previous Sonic game final bosses in conversations that sound like Family Guy characters setting up cutaway gags.
At its best, Sonic Frontiers is middling … and it’s not often at its best. In 2022, there’s no reason to pick up Sonic Frontiers unless you’re a lifelong fan already sold on the game (those players have been through worse). If you want a fast-paced game with a great sense of momentum, I recommend OlliOlli World. If you want a story that’s all over the place and incoherent but eventually comes together in a satisfying way, play Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Want to lose yourself in an open world? Play Elden Ring. Sonic Frontiers is not the best at anything it does, even within 2022 alone.
It might not be as much of a technical mess as some other Sonic games, but that’s not a very high compliment. Sonic Team tried to do something radically different with Sonic Frontiers, which is a respectable direction for a creative team to go in, but the basic design decisions here just don’t feel well thought out. Even if Sonic felt good to control, a plethora of other poorly executed issues would’ve held the game back. The best thing I can say about this game is that it’s playable on PS5 — not exactly a glowing point of praise.
Digital Trends reviewed Sonic Frontiers on PS5.
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