It's 2022 and Sonic fans have spent 4 years waiting, chanting their catchphrase of "Maybe this one will be good?" as Sega's most popular franchise divides fans with every new entry since 2006's "Sonic the Hedgehog." Was this the game that will finally break the modern Sonic problem of perceived declining quality? Let's discuss. Caution: there will be spoilers for the game throughout this review!
An ancient alien civilization provides the backdrop for this game. Much like a documentary from the History Channel, Sonic Frontiers teaches us that ancient aliens were behind the Starfall Islands' current state of mechanical disrepair and unnatural eco-system. It then centers them around the origins of the Chaos Emeralds, or, as I like to call them: the eternal Duracell batteries. The majority of the story is uncovering the mysteries behind the aliens' disappearance and their creation of a cyberspace within the islands.Therefore, lore-wise, this game plays out like a quite detailed documentary, where you uncover the mysteries of the Kocos and the unexplored landscape. It's heavily detailed, and well executed.
Starting the game, you, as Sonic, are told by a mysterious sky voice how to save your friends from being trapped in the aliens' prehistoric internet by beating up giant robots known as "Titans." All the while, series antagonist Eggman's new AI creation attempts to thwart Sonic's progress. This game is purpose-heavy in tone without providing any sort of clear answer to what would be the reason behind it. Sonic's take-life-as-it-comes attitude genuinely meshes well with the endless possibilities provided through dialogue.
The story finds its strengths in its supporting characters. Amy, Tails, and Knuckles' lives, motivations, and feelings are explored in depth. The Sonic series has rarely explored them in any sort of nuance aside from surface level character traits. Accompanying media on YouTube also helped this.
But the true triumph of this game's story is with SAGE, an AI created by Eggman to communicate with the alien technology, who gains advanced sentience as a result. Sage manifests as a young girl born with too much knowledge but no emotional base. Her path goes from frightened and nihilistic to hopeful and brave. Her development through observing Sonic's actions and her creator's praise is written incredibly well. Her constant changes of heart in the face of conflicting feelings, coupled with her genuine nature despite the technology's power, makes her a very sympathetic and welcome new addition to the franchise.
Eggman spends most of the game trapped, relying on Sage, and forming a bond slowly. A new spin on a classic villain, their surprisingly wholesome relationship makes the story feel far more emotionally anchored.
Dialogue can still be disappointing, sadly, with rich nuance being routinely ruined by Sonic quipping. Sonic is the only character that doesn't progress aside from a deeper voice. He's still the same cocky but heroic figure. While the supporting cast got great additions to their character, I find it sad that Sonic himself didn't get the same treatment. It feels like Ian Flynn's strengths as a writer weren't allowed to shine with the blue blur like they did with the rest of the cast.
Let's start with the positives:
The open world sections are beautifully made and tailored to provide a fast paced and fun time, you can't move without finding something interesting as you travel the islands, all with unique quirks, challenges, and collectibles. It was a joy to zip around these areas, especially after boosting speed levels.
The combat makes you feel powerful. Sonic has moves that, once you unlock them, feel incredibly satisfying. Kicking, wind slashes, parrying, and the "cyloop" system makes you feel like you're filled to the brim with power. Every map contains well-designed enemies that sometimes require a specific part of Sonic's kit to counter.
Finally, the Super Sonic boss segments are the best part of this game by far. It's you versus a titanic robotic leviathan with action time events, very visceral noises, and using their own destructive force against themselves as a golden force of nature. These sections were just amazing, and you have to experience them for yourself.
Other gameplay elements get a little dicey:
First is the camera angles. Going too fast can cause a sudden camera jerk during stages and force you into deaths. Also, in an open world segment, get too close to a flying boss without engaging it and you're stuck squinting at the screen as your tiny Sonic tries to get out of its aggro range.
Secondly, if you happen to be in the open world and stumble into a 2D section, you can be diverted from your current journey and forced into a skill segment you didn't want to be inside. It gets irritating very quickly.
Thirdly, the fishing area is the most cookie-cutter part of the game. It's basic to the point of being a boring grind, or it would be if the fish models weren't absurdly detailed and funny when it's not a fish. Fishing also allows for you to farm too many collectibles making most open world sections obsolete in terms of stat increase efficiency.
Finally, leveling up your speed and ring amount in this game is torturous. You have to go through a 10-second character interaction for every level you want to upgrade. If you wish to gain levels in speed and rings you will need to take 33 minutes of game time mindlessly clicking a talking rock. I'm sure Dwayne will not appreciate that.
Aesthetically, this game is gorgeous, like I could happily eat most of the scenery here. All the islands have symbolic ties to the friend Sonic interacts with, with large verdant pastures covered in rainfall and clouds, sandy wastelands and a raging volcano. The open areas are intensely beautiful.
The cyber gate levels, while nicely designed, are reusing old assets and are relying on nostalgia to carry them, with only 4 designs for almost 40 levels. The repetitive scenery starts to become dull and lifeless as you go on.
Enemy designs are incredibly cool and edgy. I felt inspirations of Nier Automata's robotic neon, Code Lyoko's virtual menacing nature, and Horizon Zero Dawn's sleek looks, which elevated the design choices.
The only graphical bugs I encountered was at the fishing area on PC where the water started to glitch out continuously. Rain physics also seemed to be poor when looked at from close up in certain cutscenes. No other complaints about graphics, though.
So there's a universal truth in the gaming world: no matter what happens, a Sonic game will have a killer soundtrack. This game is no exception. Every one of the cyberspace levels has a Trance-like,fast-paced and rhythmic feel that helps when you have to retry something over and over because you missed a single red ring.
The real treat is in the Titan boss battles hearing vocalized, epic rock pieces while taking on a kaiju-level robotic god of destruction as Super Sonic. There is no debate in my eyes, this soundtrack goes way beyond what it should reasonably be.
Does Frontiers solve the modern Sonic problem? No, because this isn't modern Sonic anymore. Frontiers is the beginning of a new era. Throughout the story, Sega makes reference to everything they made in the past as if giving it a final send-off. Director Morio Kishimoto even went so far as to label the game as a "Global Playtest." I believe this is a keystone moment where the series pushes from modern Sonic to Post-Modern Sonic. Having flaws is natural at this stage, and I truly applaud this new direction.
Final score: 8.5/10