LOS ANGELES - Sonic Frontiers is different. Whether it’s “good different” or “bad different” is hard to say. We first saw gameplay from Sonic’s latest adventure a few weeks back, and we got a Breath of the Wild vibe right away. Having played the game for a solid half-hour, I can say that the Zelda comparison is apt – and that Sonic inhabits the “atmospheric open world” genre much less comfortably than does Link.
I went hands-on with Sonic Frontiers at Summer Game Fest, and came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s something new and different for a well-worn character, and the Sonic series could benefit from a few fresh ideas. On the other hand, Sonic tends to do two things well: run fast, and be cool (adjusted for ‘90s conceptions of “cool”). Sonic Frontiers does present some opportunities to run fast, but between the subdued colors, peaceful music and exposed landscapes, the game is way too calm to be cool.
The basic pitch is this: Sonic shows up on a mysterious mountainside, due to plot contrivances that we can’t get into right now. He has to get the lay of the land and seek out his friends, and the only way to do that is to explore his immediate surroundings. Sometimes, you’ll run across open fields, gaining speed as you traverse the straightaways. Other times, you’ll have to do some light platforming, using your homing attack to bounce off of springboards or grind on rails. If you’ve played a 3D Sonic game before, you should feel right at home. The big difference here is that you’re not constrained to a single level at a time; you can pretty much go anywhere, as long as you have the right skills.
I didn’t play Sonic Frontiers long enough to get into the upgrade system, but it seems as though you’ll be able to collect different resources in order to upgrade Sonic’s attributes: speed, maximum number of rings carried and so forth. However, you’ll also unlock new abilities, some of which will help you solve puzzles and find new parts of the map.
The first of these abilities that I found was the Cyloop. By holding down the triangle button on a DualShock 4 controller, I could make colorful circles around enemies or obstacles. By closing these circles, I could solve puzzles, stun enemies, find hidden items and so forth. It gives the game a little variety beyond just platforming and combat.
Combat and exploration
That’s a good thing, as it turns out, as the combat is a bit of a mixed bag. Like other 3D Sonic games, you fight enemies by jumping toward them and performing repeated homing attacks. The trouble is that for weaker enemies, this gets repetitive pretty fast, and for stronger enemies, they can hit back pretty hard while you’re in the middle of a combo.
At least early on, combat doesn’t have much variety, as you fight off angular robots of various sizes, most of whom fall easily enough to an “attack, dodge, repeat” pattern. Some of the bosses can get obnoxious, as they can bounce you off unless you hit them at just the right angle. I imagine the combat system will get more depth later in the game, but it doesn’t put its best red shoe forward.
In terms of exploration, the game does a few things that I appreciated. You’ll occasionally come across markers that denote puzzle locations. When you solve these puzzles, you’ll uncover a chunk of the map – but not all in one piece. The maps are all missing big chunks, so you’ll have to solve multiple puzzles in an area to fill one in completely. It’s a smart way of ensuring that you feel like you’re making progress without giving all of an area’s secrets away. I also appreciate the verticality in each area, as just about every location has huge towers to climb – and Sonic has the handy ability to run up walls.
It's entirely possible that half an hour isn’t enough time to see the breadth of what Sonic Frontiers has to offer. Moreover, since the demo starts a little ways into the game, it’s also possible that the very beginning provides some vital context that would make Sonic’s latest adventure feel a little more cohesive.
For the moment, though, I admire Sonic Frontiers for bringing the Blue Blur into unexplored territory. And now that he’s here, I hope that he can build up and maintain enough momentum to last for a whole open-world game.