Sonic the Hedgehog's 2D video game adventures are widely loved, but the quality of Sega icon's 3D entries has been so variable that they inspired the infamous Sonic Cycle meme: The reveal of each new game is met with hope that's swiftly crushed when we get hold of the disappointing final product.
Sonic Frontiers looked so spectacular that it inspired more excitement than usual because it hinted that our hero would be speeding and leaping around vast open spaces -- the kind of gameplay some of us have dreamed about since the '90s.
And the game, which hit PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC last month and added a fun holiday costume on Dec. 21, absolutely sings when you're zipping through its vast open zones. Playing on PS5, running, hopping and grinding between objectives often proved a joyous experience. (I recommend switching from 4K visuals to 60 FPS in the menu if the option is available in your version.)
Sonic Frontiers lets you explore the vast Starfall Islands in a quest to collect series staple plot device the Chaos Emeralds and rescue his charming buddies after the group falls through a wormhole.
The game capitalizes on its hedgehog hero's abilities beautifully, giving you just enough control that you feel engaged but never overwhelmed as you speed around. It's a natural evolution of the gameplay first seen in 1998's Sonic Adventure and a reminder of how effortlessly cool Sonic is.
It's when I actually reached Sonic Frontiers' objectives that the game's shortcomings became apparent.
Don't slow down
You'll complete countless brief missions to fill out the map of each island; most of these take seconds and prove quite satisfying. Also dotted around each island zone towers and colossal enemies, and climbing these is essential for progress.
Unfortunately, Sonic's movement becomes finicky in these moments -- the poor fella just isn't at his best when he loses momentum -- meaning you'll fall right back down to the bottom on a regular basis.
It's fine the first few times, since you can often zip right back up. But you'll likely mess up a frustrating amount of times, to the point where making your way up a tower or back to a boss' weak point becomes irritatingly dull.
To make matters worse, I climbed to the highest point of one of the first island's towers to find nothing but a lovely view. It was a fun little journey, but some small collectible would have been a nice way to cap it off.
Also baffling are the occasional forced perspective sections, where you'll enter an obstacle course and gameplay will shift from 3D to 2D. It's jarring, especially when there's a collectible directly beside Sonic that you're unable to reach because of the forced perspective. You'll be forced to awkwardly backtrack, which hurts the pacing (it's especially irritating on the game's third island).
Do you like collectibles? I sure hope so, because Sonic Frontiers makes you collect an astounding amount of them. This isn't inherently problematic, since running around to get most of them is fun.
There are just so many different kinds: you'll gather character memories to trigger cutscenes with Sonic's trapped pals, gears to unlock the excellent Cyber Space levels, keys to access the Chaos Emeralds and multiple items used to upgrade your abilities. It's so easy to forget what each one actually does that collecting them can feel mindless.
You can also gather collectibles quickly through a fun fishing minigame, but that gameplay feels a little too simplistic, and the odd graphical glitch effect on the water is off putting.
The combat can feel similarly routine, since tapping the attack button can carry you through most of the Sonic Frontiers' battles. You've got a wide array of combos and moves to use, but there's little incentive to go beyond the basic attacks that batter standard enemies and bosses.
Circling enemies to stun them with Sonic's Cyloop move never gets old though, since it's satisfying to use and the most direct way to incorporate his speedy movement in fights.
This extends to the Titan bosses you'll battle at the end of each island. These are awesome to behold and the music has serious noughties vibes (which should delight Sonic Adventure 2 fans), but lean too heavily on quick time event button presses. I was on autopilot by the time I fought the last one; such an epically presented battle should demand your full attention.
You'll instantly forget any annoyances when you drop into Cyber Space, which allows you to zip through recreations of classic Sonic stages. Dropping the exploration elements almost completely, they're the purest expressions of Sonic Frontier's speedy gameplay and an absolute joy.
Racing through these linear levels, you collect rings and hop on enemies as you try to reach the goal as quickly as possible. They're all visually delightful and beg to be played over and over.
Each one poses the same set of challenges -- gathering a certain number of rings, finding five red coins and beating the par time -- but boast such varying designs that they never get old.
Appropriately, the timed challenge is typically the toughest, so you'll have to figure out the optimal route through the level and shave seconds off your run. It's usually a heap of fun to do so though, to the point where I was a little disappointed if I completed these challenges too easily -- I wanted an excuse to rush through these levels as many times as possible.
The music is the icing on the Cyber Space cake: every track is an absolute banger, adding an intense sense of momentum and rushes of adrenaline to each run. Composer Tomoya Ohtani and his team knocked this game's soundtrack out of the park; everyone who plays will soon be listening to it on repeat.
Sonic and friends
The narrative is standard Sonic fare, with the mystery of the Starfall Islands and an extinct alien species unfolding as you rescue Amy, Knuckles and Tails from captivity between dimensions. It's delivered sparsely in the early hours, but the cutscenes become more frequent in the game's later sections (repetitive animations also play when you complete objectives, but these are mercifully skippable).
You probably won't find the story particularly engaging though, particularly due to the flat voice acting. This aspect seems especially strange after the recentmovies infused this cast of anthropomorphic animals with such a strong sense of fun -- only Tails voice actor Colleen O'Shaughnessey reprises her movie role in Frontiers.
In addition to the Cyber World classic stages, there are clever nods to classic games from Sonic's 31-year history. One nod to Sonic & Knuckles brought a particularly wide grin to my face -- I suspect there's something in here for fans of every era of the franchise.
The environments also owe a great deal to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's wide-open fields and ancient sci-fi tech aesthetic, but Sonic's abilities make the Frontiers' gameplay experience feel different enough that comparisons stop at the visual level.
Despite a few annoyances and weaker gameplay moments, I had fun for the majority of the 21 hours I spent sprinting through Sonic Frontiers' main story (I reckon I'll spend another seven hours exploring beyond this). With tighter climbing mechanics, greater combat variety and more compelling story, it'd be a truly joyous experience.
Part of me was disappointed that Tails, Knuckles and Amy weren't playable (that'll change in next year's free updates), but crafting individual styles for each of them would've been a stretch -- the developers were wise to focus on Sonic as they expanded into open-world gameplay. Hopefully we'll be able to play as them in a sequel though.
On the visual front, Sonic Frontiers is colorful and pleasant but nothing mind-blowing. The open zones are a little bland and character models are basic (though it's cool that Sonic's quills are visible). It's likely these were technical concessions to get the game running on the ageing PS4, Xbox One and Switch hardware.
Sonic Frontiers isn't the disappointment the Sonic Cycle has conditioned us to expect, nor is it the masterpiece Sega fans have been hoping for. It's a super-speedy step in the right direction for the series though, and hopefully lays the foundation for a truly incredible followup.