I'll tell you honestly: being able to talk about Sonic Frontiers today seems surreal. Not so much because the blue hedgehog series, since 2011 with Generations, has seen a significant qualitative and creative drop, but because there are elements of the title that they work especially well. Seeing a chapter in the main Sonic series with the potential to be remembered for posterity as a great game is something more unique than rare, unfortunately. But let's take a step back.
We are in 1998. SEGA and the Sonic Team launch Sonic Adventure on the SEGA Dreamcast, the first true 3D chapter of the franchise, which promised to catapult Sonic into an entirely new future. It was a gamble, but it was a necessary step in the evolution of the hedgehog and the results decreed that this was the right direction to follow. Over the years, however, reframing that game system has often proven to be harder work than anticipated, and the list of failures since then is longer than I'd like to admit.
In 2008 came Sonic Unleashed which introduced, in addition to the combat with the werewolf Sonic, also the formula boost, making the gameplay more frenetic and linear. Once again, with a bit of luck and a lot of good level design, SEGA managed to find a new path for the hedgehog, consolidated with the excellent Generations in 2011. From here on, the void. The series, instead of getting even better, reached a ragnarok point and kept getting worse. It was only Sonic Mania that gave a ray of hope to hardcore fans, but it wasn't a 3D chapter and the failure of Forces made it much missed.
Sonic Frontiers, today, is everything good that has been done in the series. From gameplay to level design, up to the narrative structure and animations. Precisely for this reason, returning to the incipit of the review, I can say that it seems surreal to be able to say this about a Sonic game, also because 11 years have passed since the last title that deserved such praise. Months ago I told you about how the work had been miscommunicated by the publisher's marketing department and today I can confirm that Sonic Frontiers is absolutely not what we saw during the first presentation.
Does "open zone" make sense?
The absolute protagonist of the presentation, together with the new commands and controls of Sonic, which we will discuss later, was the new approach to level design that Takashi Iizuka has renamed as "open zone”. Although it may seem like an excuse to rename the term "open world" - and in part it is - I can confirm that the reality is significantly different. On the one hand it is true that we will find ourselves catapulted into a much larger map than any other seen in the past, on the other the characteristic level design of the series is felt with a certain arrogance.
The five islands present in the story are in fact seasoned with a rather large amount of platforms, rails, trampolines, ramps and boosters of all kinds, or rather those platforms that accelerate the protagonist. The studied connection of each being is very visible and the care in their positioning is also noted. This means that moving from one part of the map to another is never linear but, on the contrary, always results as a reworking of the frenetic level design characteristic of the aforementioned boost formula.
Consequently, more or less lightning-fast reflexes are required in order to be able to perform spectacular actions and to move with great speed. However, even those who are not fond of the rapidity characteristic of the series will be able to appreciate the new “open zones” as they are able to offer even moments of calm. In fact, the exploration of the islands, seasoned with high-speed phases, is also structured in such a way as to give the player moments of pause.
The Sonic Team has succeeded by placing environmental puzzles in some points that must be completed using all the techniques at our disposal. Calling them "puzzles", to be honest, is also slightly incorrect in that there is no real cognitive challenge, since a capacity in terms of real skills is more required. These points of interest are quite varied, I can't deny it, but after a few hours of gameplay it becomes easy (perhaps too much) to understand how they work and therefore they end up becoming rather redundant, although never really boring.
Upon their completion we will unlock distinct pieces of the map and a small enhancement of Sonic's defense or attack, which however do not have real detailed numerical characteristics and it is therefore difficult to understand how much the hedgehog's capabilities improve. One of the first real flaws of Sonic Frontiers is in fact the quantity and diversity of the objects that we must obtain to advance in the story.
Let me give you an example: by obtaining specific collectibles we will be able to talk to one of Sonic's friends, who will make us progress in the story; by defeating the bosses we will get our hands on gears necessary to enter the cyber space (which we will tell you about shortly); inside it, by completing specific challenges, we will be rewarded with keys; the latter in turn are the only way to get your hands on Chaos Emeralds, urgent to fight the boss of the island.
This vicious circle, as much as it is confusing in the first hours of the game, ends up being a necessary part of the adventure and is a good way to entice the user to focus on exploration rather than fast-forwarding to the end of the story. Overall, in fact, I can say without problems that the progression system in the plot is much less linear than I would have expected, resulting instead dynamic, slow and generally well calculated.
Playing Sonic Frontiers no longer means proceeding from point A to point B to achieve a specific objective, but for the first time we are offered the possibility of let ourselves be cradled by exploration and from the search for points of interest that could offer us useful collectibles to deepen the plot.
Too bad there aren't really specific locations that shed light on the mysterious past of the civilization that lived on those islands, just as it isn't explained why there are some structures scattered around the map. Some environments, albeit mysterious, leave the time they find and they are not contextualized either in terms of gameplay or narration.
To season the exploration, however, there is also pretty good automatic camera handling, in some moments creates very pleasant scenes to watch. Sure, there are times when the camera doesn't quite work as it should, but they aren't nearly as frequent as you might expect. In some phases, however, it is possible to see the view blocked and the movement becomes bidirectional. Being particularly short sections, I don't feel like judging them as boring or, even more wrong, as phases that ruin the exploration. On the contrary, I think they can even give a bit more variety to the gameplay, which doesn't hurt at all.
Another flaw that really left me thrilled concerns the islands available, specifically the last two: the fourth is a simple filler left there for narrative purposes and lasts just under half an hour, it is very small and a mere repetition of the first; analogous discourse for the fifth, where, however, we will spend a few more hours precisely to reach a conclusion of the narrative thread. From the premises of the Sonic Team, to be brutally honest, I expected game areas that were always very extensive and all well diversified from each other.
In reverse, the last two do not shine either in originality or in level design, and so goes for the plot in the final stages, which, however, I will tell you about later. The first three islands, on the other hand, differ quite clearly both in the theme of the environment, and in the soundtrack, and in the complexity of the level design. The third, in particular, presents a much higher level of challenge, just as platforms and rails become more articulated.
Back to the past
Let's remove space from the narrative system to open a small, large parenthesis on the levels of cyberspace. When, in the opening phase of the review, we told you about Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Generations with their relative boost formula, we did not do it by pure chance. This is because the levels I'm telling you about now are a direct recovery of those gameplay dynamics, of that same level design that had made millions of fans fall in love with it all over the world. In fact, I won't hide from you that, as a good speedrunner I am, I placed very high expectations in this element of Sonic Frontiers.
I'll get right to the point: i loved the cyber space levels, probably more than I enjoyed the whole title itself. The reason I'm putting myself out there so much is because of the Sonic Team's decision to lay the foundations of level design on what has been done in the past. I found in my hands levels shamelessly copied from others of the past, only slightly reworked and artistically contextualized on the stages of Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary and a new urban area.
The winning trick to this, however, is the very fact that all those scenarios have been designed with the commands and controls of the titles they came from in mind. As a result, now that they're reimagined in Frontiers - which takes all the mechanics that worked in the past and modernizes them - it's easy to see that the end result is a mix of structurally different levels that always require different skills.
Although almost all sin in the management of the rhythms, and therefore some are either too short or too long, in the end the cyber space levels are every time a perfect way to take your mind away from the open world to focus on a linear area and with different objectives. I'll tell you more: some internships in particular even have some unique game dynamics (but not unpublished for the series) which give them a touch of peculiarity and a respect for the original sources that I would not have expected.
I take this opportunity to open a small parenthesis, winking at those few fools who, like me, love to spend hours trying to beat their record on a particular level. Sonic Frontiers is, as far as I can tell, a new speedrunning masterpiece from the boost formula precisely because it includes an avalanche of well-loved mechanics from past games and integrates them beautifully into the cyber space.
At the time of writing, more than twenty hours of gameplay, I admit that I have not yet fully understood the timing of the animations in terms of frames. There would be much more to say in the field of speedrunning, but if you love exceeding your limit I strongly suggest you try the levels of cyber space trying to beat your record.
Between the past and the future
In terms of commands and controls, naked and raw, I appreciated what was done in Sonic Frontiers, although they have changed quite pronounced compared to the chapters of the past. For example, the guided attack (“homing attack”, to be clear) is no longer performed in the air and by pressing the cross key or A, but is an integral part of Sonic's attacks, with the square key or X. In fact , very substantial changes have been made to the controls, but getting used to them is very easy as there are no complicated keys to remember.
However, it has never been officially presented by SEGA in any marketing campaign super turbo, or the possibility of maximizing Sonic's turbo speed by obtaining the maximum number of transportable rings. I'll be honest with you: I love this addition, but I don't see any specific value in terms of gameplay. Sonic reaches speeds rarely seen in the past and by doing so it is possible to reach distant places in a very short time, so it's probably just a way to please those who like to speed around the map quickly.
The interesting advantage, as we have repeatedly reiterated above, is the presence of many actions present in past games, including the Sonic Mania drop dash, and almost all of them always have an important value when moving around the map. This is also thanks to level design that almost always encourages the player to use different techniques. News with a particularly impact on the gameplay is, however, the cyber loop: it is a new technique that allows Sonic to create a trail with which to define a complete circle in order to interact with some environments, break enemy defenses or even stun opponents.
The combat system
This is a very interesting addition that is often requested to use, although during the combat phases we have often preferred to dedicate ourselves to the more classic attacks. Why yes, Sonic Frontiers is also the first title in the series that introduces a real combat system with an attached skill tree, albeit very bare, and unique abilities. Furthermore, after a certain number of combos it is possible to use some, albeit few, special moves. Although it is an absolute novelty for the franchise, we have not encountered a particular complexity. On the contrary, the entire combat system seemed rather meager and at times superfluous, as enemies can also be defeated with some simpler moves, if repeated over and over again.
Moreover, it must be said that the commands needed to implement the skills are often more complex than necessary and therefore it is necessary to memorize the key combinations in order to be able to carry out particular combos. It would have been much more convenient to link the entire activation of skills to the left trigger, perhaps with a radial menu that appears on the screen indicating the type of attack corresponding to each button on the keyboard, but unfortunately this is not the case.
On the other hand, the enemies and the bosses themselves are more convincing, always diversified both from the point of view of moveset and for the aspect that characterizes them, differentiating their strength. Their attacks will always be varied and as a result we will constantly have to use different skills and moves. I admit that I had a lot of fun fighting the enemies in Sonic Frontiers, including the bosses, although sometimes the clashes prove to be longer than expected and some in particular could even bore the players.
What's more interesting are the ability to dodge and counter-attack enemies. This last feature is one of the very few necessary to defeat the bosses and proceed in the story. However, they are not actions that we will have to use to defeat minor opponents, although they allow us to speed up the battle and avoid being hit.
The counterattack, on the other hand, has a rather important problem related to boss fights: it happens all too often that the moments in which the enemy carries out the blow animation, and those in which Sonic is hit, do not match. Consequentially, counterattacking is often more difficult than necessary and we found ourselves in great difficulty in the clashes with the titanic bosses - especially the first one - where it was often not enough to hit only with basic attacks.
A narrative sector that does not convince
The narration is another key element of Sonic Frontiers, which after a long time comes back to touch more or less serious topics, but without going overboard too much. In fact, purely simple dialogues remain, suitable for a younger audience, while we can also listen to slightly more serious, albeit rarer, speeches. Overall, unfortunately, I'm obviously not talking about a particularly complex narrative sector, which in general also performs the task of giving a pinch of context but without ever trying to do something more.
Slightly more interesting, however, is the role of Legend, the mysterious girl who appears several times in promotional materials. Her figure, incredible as it may seem, ends up evolving substantially and gets a completely different role in the final stages of the story. In reverse, we are never really revealed who the antagonist of the plot is, shown in a complex and abstract form only in the last scene of the final boss. I'll be honest with you: I still haven't figured out who Sonic was fighting the whole time, to help you understand how confusing the plot can be at some points.
What I consider the real flaw of Sonic Frontiers is the fact that the last hours of the game seem to have been made in a hurry, and are almost never contextualized with the first moments. As I have already explained, the last two islands, the final ones, appear to be mere repropositions of the first and in the same way the narrative comes to a very hasty conclusion and poorly articulated. In short, a small missed opportunity especially in the case of the final boss, especially when considering that all the other boss fights can turn out to be extremely epic, on par with a Metal Gear Rising.
Music between DOOM and Metal Gear Rising
The reference to the work of Platinum Games and Konami is by no means accidental, on the contrary. After the levels of cyber space, the element that made me fall in love the most is the soundtrack. With some rare exceptions, the entire Sonic Frontiers soundtrack is excellent, but I think it is necessary to divide it into two categories: there are the songs of the islands, which surround the exploration and lull the player like those of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did, and there are the songs of the bosses.
Take DOOM Eternal and Metal Gear Rising, extract the soundtrack and put it as background for Sonic Frontiers. Behold: the songs that accompany the epic fights against the titans are nothing short of phenomenal. Tomoya Ohtani, who has already been working on the franchise for many years, has really raised the bar in the quality of the soundtrack, obtaining the collaboration of some prominent singers, among which none other than the ONE OK ROCK per “Vandalize”.
Although we weren't too blown away by the ambient songs, which are instead already heard, those of the boss fights are instead unique in their kind, rarely seen in a video game. Honorable mention for the pieces of the cyberspace levels, which instead follow a more electronic direction, approaching what was done in Sonic Forces, still managing to be suitable in every situation.
From a technical point of view, I'm quite happy to see that a lot of the shaky animations we told you about in a previous article have been fixed or fixed, as well as some technical problems. I got to try the title on PS4, where it is possible to play 1080p and 30fps. On PS5, however, you can choose whether to prefer performance and therefore reach 60fps, or whether to prioritize image quality and opt for i 1440p and 30fps.
Clearly, since this is a particularly fast title, we advise you to play at 60fps, but if you prefer to enjoy the artistic and graphic sector instead, do not hesitate to opt for 1440p. In any case, if you own a PS5 know that you can take advantage of extremely fast loading, almost zero, and therefore moving from island to island or entering cyber space will be a very fast process.
Almeno su PS4 some pop-up issues still exist, already present in the first trailers although not so pronounced. I'm not talking about a constantly visible flaw, but in some situations it is possible to notice how some platforms, or even the leaves themselves, appear out of nowhere. A bigger problem turned out to be, however, the super turbo, which breaks the game in unimaginable ways.
Firstly, getting it is very simple and furthermore Sonic's speed becomes so high that the structures that appear in front of our eyes will be commonplace. Nothing particularly serious, I repeat. Indeed, as a good lover of Sonic's very high speed, I can only be happy with this addition, but in pursuing the maximum possible objectivity I would like to underline this small detail.