Platforms: PC, PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 8, 2022
Sonic Frontiers has no right being as fun, as brilliant or as downright funny as it is at times. Play through the game, and you will find a smorgasbord that’s full to the brim with Sonic mechanics, both new and old — but also, sadly, with outright technical failings. In trying to take Sonic in a much-needed new direction, the developers appear to have thrown just about every possible idea at the wall. Surprisingly, there are more hits than misses. While Sonic Frontiers is the very definition of a mixed bag, it does point to a bright future for the franchise.
If you’ve paid attention to any of the pre-release content for Sonic Frontiers, you’ll find many of the issues you anticipated in the final product. That visual pop-in? It’s some of the worst I’ve ever experienced in a game. The visuals that evoke a tech-demo remake of a Sonic game? They don’t feel much better once you’re actually playing.
What is difficult to convey through trailers and demos, however, is just how much of a blast Sonic Frontiers is to play. Sonic Frontiers is rough as all heck, but meet it halfway and you’ll find a surprisingly competent 3D Sonic game. It's undoubtedly the best one we’ve seen since Sonic Generations. Read on for our full Sonic Frontiers review.
Sonic Frontiers review: Gameplay
Sonic Frontiers absolutely nails its gameplay. Sonic is defined by his speed, and even though that’s played a part in just about every Sonic game, Sonic Frontiers is decidedly different. It’s hard to get across just how freeing it is to finally control Sonic in an open-world space. He’s extremely fast, as expected. But Sonic Frontiers incorporates this speed into everything from combat to exploration, and that's what really makes the game sing.
Sonic Frontiers features five islands. Each one has a slightly different visual palette, as well as its own set of enemies and collectibles. Generally, each island features the same gameplay loop. First, you speed around looking for platforming opportunities, usually marked by thin strands of steel spaghetti that hang in the sky. These grind rails send you zipping around, picking up collectibles, which you need to progress in the story. Every now and then, you will need to enter Cyberspace — more traditional Sonic levels, with a distinctive vibe and mission structure.
Regardless of what you’re doing, Sonic Frontiers does a great job at mixing high-speed platforming with exploration. Sonic has never felt better to control, with a genuinely huge repertoire of abilities, movement skills and combat options. Combat plays out like a hack-and-slash game, as you pull off flashy combos and parries, and run rings around your enemies (literally). The Cyloop ability allows you to paint a line on the ground as you run, then close it as a circle to deal damage and set enemies up for combos. It’s a lot to take in at first, and perhaps Sonic Frontiers could have benefitted from more streamlined traversal and combat. But what’s there works brilliantly most of the time.
Sonic Frontiers review: Story
You might be wondering why you'd care about the story in Sonic Frontiers, but I’m here to tell you to give it a chance. I generally don’t care what Sonic and his pals are up to in other games, but Sonic Frontiers offers perhaps the deepest and most heartfelt study of them in over a decade.
Each island is unique in that it has a different member of the Sonic crew trapped there. Tails, Knuckles and Amy all need saving, and accompany Sonic as he goes about his business in their respective zones. Side quests and cutscenes build out motivations for each character as you go, with some genuinely interesting character development for Tails and co. The villainous Eggman is funnier than he’s ever been, and even transcends the usual mustache-twirling archetype by the time the credits roll.
Sonic Frontiers review: Visuals and performance
Unfortunately, Sonic Frontiers features some of the roughest visuals in any big-budget title this year. It’s not just the visual direction, which looks more like Death Stranding than anything remotely Sonic; the performance leaves a lot to be desired, too. Even on the PS5, graphical fidelity is hopelessly poor, with blurry assets and strangely wobbly environments.
Texture pop-in is the main offender. While that wouldn't usually bother me, in Sonic Frontiers, it poses a particular problem. In a game where going fast is necessary, pop-in goes from an annoyance to a genuine game-altering bug. The third island in particular falls victim to this. Isolated areas are accessible only via small, distant grind rails. Often, these rails simply don’t load in until you’re standing nearby, meaning that it’s almost impossible to plan a route forward.
Graphics aren’t the only visual shortcoming in Sonic Frontiers. Art direction in general is all over the place, with Cyberspace levels bearing no resemblance to the open world. The cartoonish Sonic stands in stark contrast to the realistic environments, feeling like he’s dropped in from a different game entirely. It’s a shame, because the scattershot visuals create a sheer barrier to entry. Many players may not give Sonic Frontiers a second look.
Sonic Frontiers review: Design
Ultimately, Sonic Frontiers is new territory for the series. While Sonic has been allowed to roam in large areas before, he’s never quite had this level of freedom. Sonic Frontiers is a collectathon, and feels more like a PlayStation 2/Dreamcast game than anything from 2022. It’s a bold new direction, which highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of design approach. Running from point to point, collecting keys/medals/cogs and emeralds is a loop that largely pays off, and encourages player exploration and experimentation.
Despite the overall formula largely being a success, it’s evident that Sonic Frontiers is the result of a studio stretching itself too thin. There are many new ideas that don’t quite stick the landing. You'll encounter everything from tower defense to pinball throughout Sonic Frontiers’ almost-20-hour runtime. For every fresh element that works, there’s another one that negates it. The game could have benefited from a bit more development time, primarily to cut out some of the fat.
Sonic Frontiers review: Verdict
While writing this Sonic Frontiers review, I thought about the relentless comparisons to Breath of the Wild that the game has endured since Sega first revealed it. Some of the comparisons are fair, and it would be silly to deny that Sonic Team has taken some inspiration from Zelda.
Playing the game though, I thought much more about another Nintendo Switch game, and that’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Like that game, Sonic Frontiers swings for the fences, and lands on an uneven-but-necessary experiment, which could push the franchise forward. It’s not perfect by any means, and many gamers may be put off by the visuals alone. But the attempt is undeniably admirable.
As a full-fledged game, Sonic Frontiers has its ups and downs. As an experiment, though? Sonic Frontiers is much better than it has to be, and it successfully carves a path forward for the beloved blue hedgehog.
Sonic Frontiers is currently $35 in an Amazon Black Friday sale.