What does “good” truly mean? Whether it’s morality or judgment of worth, the answer is never quite so simple. The world, as we see it, is ever changing; limited by our own perspective which is in turn constrained by our circumstances and the perspectives of those who formed the basis of our individual understanding. Some of the worst days of your life might be the best of another’s, your favorite food might taste absolutely horrible to your closest friend. We are all different, but we are all the same and the beauty of the human condition is found within all that chaos.
That all said, I think that Sonic the Hedgehog is really good.
There’s something about Sonic the Hedgehog that evokes a sympathetic understanding within my soul. Where the prettiest and most well polished games can bring out the worst of my critical side, somehow—SOMEHOW—this series that continually makes the most insane decisions in every conceivable way has gotten a near free pass in my heart. While I’ve never been too crazy about the 2D entries in the series (Sonic Adventure 2 Greatest of All Time by the way), if there’s a new Sonic game to be played, you can fucking bet you’ll find me there on the front lines everytime.
But why? I ask myself this each time I experience the next level of madness that Sonic Team has cobbled together seemingly at the last minute, and though I’ve never quite found a convincing answer, I have still reached an acceptance of sorts. Where the Marios of the world quickly optimized their game design process by iterating on what is fundamentally the same base game over and over again with a new gimmick, Sonic has no such loyalty or constraints. The series bounces between 2D and 3D seemingly at random, Sonic becomes a werehog, they giveth the chao garden then taketh away, and (my personal favorite), Sonic gets arrested so you just play as a god damn Sonic OC with a gun. Each game ends up being similar to each other in the sense that Sonic is there and he goes fast (though even this isn’t always true!), but they end up feeling a lot more like a series of ideas that Sonic Team wrote on a napkin 15 minutes before development started, and that owns. There’s been a lot of talk about how modern trends in larger budget titles have resulted in games being locked into a slurry where everything is either:
A) Live Service (Destiny, Warframe, etc)
B) Prestige TV (Anything Sony Puts Out Anymore)
C) Open World (Everything else)
…So imagine my horror when Sonic Frontiers is announced as an open world game!!!
I will not hide my derision for what the expansion of the open world genre in the 2010’s has done to game design. I had to play a god damned open world Shin Megami Tensei, and a Bayonetta that was mostly suffering because it was originally designed to be open world (both of these on the Switch too!!! Why would they do this!), and I’m more than a little done with the sickness GTA V and Breath of the Wild have wrought. While I’ve enjoyed the occasional open world game (Sleeping Dogs, Assassin’s Creed), surely you can understand how terrifying it is to hear that the new Sonic game was actually going to abide by gaming trends for once, and on top of that, go deep into a genre notorious for making games wear out their welcome (the last thing you want from a series that can often feel like it’s stretching itself thin with an average 10 hour playtime). I spent the entire run-up to Sonic Frontiers’ release with this sort of depressive mirth, expecting something either truly bad, or just outright insane, and while I did get roughly what i expected in the sanity department, I was surprised to see…they actually made a pretty good open world Sonic game?
Sonic Frontiers is a game about going fast, which some might say is the core tenant of Sonic. You carouse about a set of five islands, doing all sorts of ridiculous open world puzzles on “Ancient Technology” which mostly amounts to the same sorts of rails and goofy walls that make up your standard Sonic levels of yore, except for some reason this is all taking place on top of a map that feels like it was pulled directly out of Death Stranding. While the initial pitch made things seem a lot more like Breath of the Wild than Frontiers has ended up as, there is still some connective tissue. There are Portals, which lock the old linear Sonic level design behind instanced one-off two minute challenges much like Zelda’s Shrines, and there’s some astoundingly mediocre and subdued music that will exit your mind the second you stop playing (although the Portal music is all bangers).
The rest of the game, surprisingly, is not focused on cultivating the oppressive air of tedium and routine that most open world games fall into. There’s no crafting, there’s an incredibly minimalistic skill tree of tangibly different combat skills, there’s no currency or shops, and mercifully, there is actual variety when it comes to enemy design and traversal. Instead, the core gameplay loop is simplistic and to the point. You go around the open-world collecting items from the various Ancient Technology puzzles, which range from simple ramps and rails to more focused stuff like a parry challenge or a tile puzzle. These items range from seeds that help you improve Sonic’s attack or defense, gears that let you open the various Portals around the map, keys that let you open Chaos Emerald Vaults, and map-specific memory tokens used for interacting with Sonic’s friends who have been imprisoned in cyberspace because ???
There are also Kocos, which are little haniwa type guys scattered all around the map. They’re very cute and make little baby noises, and while they definitely feel a bit like a barefaced rip-off of Breath of the Wild’s Koroks, they’re a lot easier to find and they have a lot more personality to them. Bringing these guys back to a Koco Elder will let you increase Sonic’s speed (insane notion but sure why not), or ring capacity, which is a baffling thing to increase in general, because the higher your ring capacity is, the harder it is to reach max rings, which in-turn, limits your ability to reach the max speed state Sonic enters at ring cap. It’s also really quite annoying to actually level these stats up. Whereas the seeds you find can be turned in at a similarly functioning Koco Hermit, who automatically raises your level of attack or defense proportionally based on how many you have, the Koco Elder makes you choose which stat you want to increase, by one level, every single time you reach a Koco threshold. This means, if you are insane like me and want to max out all your stats, you need to click on the Koco Elder’s wretched UI, which starts defaulted at “No Thanks!” 198 total times, and it is excruciating. There’s a cute little feature where when you idle it makes all the Koco you’ve currently collected come out and cheer around Sonic, so I ended up not turning any of them in until the end of the game so I could see this animation more often, and not deal with that tedium until I really had to.
Most of the game is built around that sense of option. You don’t have to actually do all of the portals in any given area to get all the Chaos Emeralds, and you don’t even have to do all the open-world challenges to progress through the main story. There’s a light element of “forced” exploration at times in the later islands, as the amount of tokens you need to interact with Sonic’s friends increases, but it’s still fundamentally not that bad, because again, Sonic goes so fast everywhere.
Which is really the appeal of the game in general! Sonic goes so fast, and you barely have to slow down for anything. While there is the occasional frustration with going too fast, and sometimes things grind to a halt for some silly little puzzle solving or some light combat, most of your time is spent absolutely blowing past everything, launching through the air, and sliding from grind rail to grind rail in a way that’s incredibly satisfying. When it comes to open world games, a lot of development time is spent on fidelity and realism, so much of the design becomes focused around having you move at a very deliberate pace to discover where all those man-hours went. There is something liberating about the maps in Frontiers being absolutely nothing that matters whatsoever (just a means to the end of Sonic having ground to run on), and not having to stop and climb a beautifully rendered cliff face based off of a real cliff face in Iceland for 2 minutes.
There is one snag in the design of Frontiers that ends up slowing things down quite a bit, however: the Cyloop mechanic. Cyloop is a move where Sonic enters a sort of painting mode where you control him very stiffly to draw circles around various things to varying effects. This ranges from circling torches in the right order to solve puzzles, to circling enemies in the midst of combat to break their defenses. While the concept behind this mechanic is fun in theory—it does seem like a fun idea to make Sonic’s iconic blue speed trail actually have a tangible gameplay use—in practice it’s just sort of a slog. Sonic slows down extremely while you do it to enable more precise shaping and placement, and, especially in combat, this makes what would have been a really quick and fun time to use a bunch of the combat moves you unlocked from the skill tree, into a slightly drawn out rinse and repeat mechanic that feels antithetical to the rest of the way you’re playing the game. Sonic Team seems to have realized that this was the case, and added a “quick cyloop” gauge that lets you instantly circle an enemy every so often, but with how fast the rest of the game is going, it doesn’t really solve the core problem of cyloop’s monotony.
Despite their entanglement with the cyloop mechanic, the enemy variety in Sonic Frontiers was actually one of the more pleasant surprises! Whereas Breath of the Wild straight up makes you fight the same bokoblins and three overworld bosses over and over again throughout the entire 100+ hour game, Frontiers has almost entirely different enemies for each island you visit. There are the standard fare fodder enemies that range from stationary robots that just sort of exist, to more puzzle-oriented ones like a drone that drops balloons you bounce off of to get higher and higher. The real fun enemies, and where the combat feels a lot more crazy, are the larger Guardian enemies (yeah I know again this also sounds very Breath of the Wild but stay with me). Most of the Guardian battles are predicated on executing on some sort of platforming challenge before you fight them normally. There are flying Guardians that make you chase them along an ever expanding trail while you dodge bullets, there are spider-like guardians that launch you into the air to do a HALO-jump-ass dive sequence as you break their defenses. There’s even a silly Sumo guardian who you beat by shooting Sonic off of bouncy walls like a billiard ball; they get fun with it! This was a great change of pace as I progressed through the game, actually looking forward to what sort of enemies I’d run into and what kind of nonsense they’d pull off. We’re not talking character action game nuance here or anything, but having a bunch of different guys to fight is a big step up from the standard Sonic combat of “you are going to use the homing attack on them”.
Boss fights are similarly more interesting! They’re definitely a lot clunkier than most Sonic games (which might scare you quite a bit if you’ve played past Sonic games), but their focus on actual combat and stuff like parrying and attempts at being a ridiculous set piece definitely make them instantly memorable. For once, they realized “maybe we should bust out Super Sonic and the cringe music that rules for more than just the final boss”, and yeah it was a great idea! Much like the other enemies in the game, they do follow a pretty standard script of “this is a giant brutalist robot that you have to fight”, but each fight is meaningfully different. My favorite was against the Wyvern, which flies around the desert firing off a thousand bullet-hell ass projectiles while you try to bait it into some parries and some absolutely insane pop-punk plays. The adrenaline rush from a good Sonic set-piece is one of the things I’ve come to the series for again and again, hell I played the ending of Sonic Adventure 2 more times than I can count because of this, and while the true blessings of Crush 40 are sorely missed here, I was still popping off at every Metal Gear Rising QTE where Sonic just straight up ices these robots.
— Rosarie Maria🦐 (@horngal) November 11, 2022
The writing for Frontiers was done by Ian Flynn, who was best known for his work on Archie’s Sonic comics, and you can see how different that style of writing is from the series’ norm. There’s this sense of interconnectedness that you never really got in older Sonic games. Sure, you knew that Shadow misses Maria who died 50 years ago, and that Silver the Hedgehog is from the future, but that’s as deep as the series throughline ever got. Frontiers, on the other hand, is packed with the sort of insane referential focus that you’d expect from a comics writer. Sonic is constantly popping off one-liners that made me smile more often than not. I’m talking about stuff like Sonic actually referencing Black Doom from Shadow the Hedgehog, or seeing a palm tree and being like “Man, I could use some of that curry I ate in Sonic Unleashed!” It’s absolutely insane, even if you might roll your eyes at stuff like Tails saying “I feel like I let you down, just like I let everyone else down when Infinite attacked” and Sonic replying “That’s not true, remember when you stopped Eggman from nuking Station Square in Sonic Adventure?” They even go out of their way to show screenshots of the games they’re referencing, leading to incredible sequences like Knuckles cursing his past sorrows while they show the sprites from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 just standing around. It’s such a nice little thing to actually feel like a series meaningfully cares about its past like this.
The main plot revolves primarily around figuring out what’s going on in these islands, the ancient civilization that once lived there’s legacy, and interacting with new character Sage. There’s nothing really amazing or mind-bending about the story, it’s fun to see some background and lore for exactly what Chaos from Sonic Adventure was in-universe, and it’s always fun to see Sonic characters talk about death, but otherwise you’ve probably seen exactly what happens time and time again across all sorts of games. Sonic will find the emeralds, he’ll win with the power of friendship, and there will be some sort of insane god fight at the end. The ending to the game is actually pretty funny as far as Sonic final bosses go, with what I would charitably describe as bargain bin Ending E from Nier Automata, but it’s still a lot of fun to see Sonic and his friends do literally anything because they’re just funny little guys!
Sage is especially great; she’s just the little emo robot daughter of Dr. Eggman who doesn’t quite hate Sonic as much as her dad but has to put on a little show of it. There’s a lot of cute audio logs that you can find later in the game chronicling Eggman’s realization that he really does love his little robot daughter. It’s a charming bit of characterization that he was really missing, since they’ve been stuck on him fucking around with reiterations of the two dumb robots from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog again for the last few games. It’s also nice to see that, for once, it seems like she will actually return in a future Sonic game, since most of the special partner characters end up just dying at the end forever every single time.
The part of the game that got the most love, for some reason, is the fishing mini-game starring Big the Cat. Gameplay-wise it’s completely serviceable stuff, there is no nuance about bait, or types of fishing rods, or so on so forth, you just sort of line up a circle with another circle and bam you caught a fish. What’s surprising, instead, is that there are like, 100 unique fish models, that are all beautifully rendered with custom animations and there’s a degree of duplication protection, meaning you’re just going to keep pulling up new fish after new fish for like an hour and it’s just free dopamine! These fish range from real species like Marlins and Coelacanths, to shit like the Chopper robot fish from the 2D Sonic games, and it’s just like, god damn man, this rules. Big the Cat doesn’t have much to say, but it’s nice to see him regardless, and this entire area, complete with Lo-fi-music-to-study-to-ass music feels like it was made by a man they pulled directly from the Dreamcast. Sega, I think someone over there has been dying ever since you stopped letting him make Sega Bass Fishing, and I need you to help them because they have a beautiful mind.
You can also use fishing to circumvent most of the game’s systems in an insanely weird way. Big the Cat will literally just sell you all of the items you can get in the game for insanely low prices. I did an hour and a half of fishing and I was able to max out every single stat Sonic had, with leftover tokens I could have used to buy things like Gears and Keys. This means you could, theoretically as far as I can tell, skip over interacting with the open world almost entirely if you wanted to, and treat this as a Real Video Game, where Sonic goes fishing and fights bosses, and that’s it, which is really truly beautiful. We can defeat the movie-fication of games if we just believe in people like Big the Cat to show us the way to game again.
Trend chasing isn’t anything new, hell the phrase “Doom-like” is practically as old as Sonic himself, but the open-worldification of modern games is a trend that very easily creates issues with bloat and stagnation. It’s hard to make an open world game! Designing a giant map, making it look cool, making it actually fun to play around in…it’s a tough task that not everyone can pull off! Couple that with the continued focus on graphical fidelity down to the most minute details and having to manage things like crafting systems or cooking to make collecting things in that world have meaning, and you can see why so many games end up becoming reiterative of each other. Like I said before, Sonic’s strengths have always come from Sonic Team’s slapdash ideas and implementation of said ideas. Regardless of the problems you’ll find in any Sonic game, originality is not one of them. Seeing the creative spirit that made me fall in love with the series in the first place still present now after all these years, even when propped on top of the bones of games like Breath of the Wild and Genshin Impact, is the sort of refresher I needed after playing far too many games like the incredibly phoned-in Bayonetta 3.
There are still some issues that you’d probably expect, like performance and controls that take a bit to get used to, but none of that really gets in the way of just how nice and quick everything in the game is. There’s some rough pop-in at times, meaning you sometimes won’t see some of the open-world challenges until you’re right up on it, but we’re talking a frustration of like, one second, so I didn’t mind it too much. If you don’t like Sonic games, this won’t be one to win you over. I’m the type of person who even found joy in the widely derided Sonic Forces, so if you really hated that one, you might not want to trust me on this. That said, if you do like Sonic games, this is probably as good as it gets outside of Sonic Adventure 2, and for its first attempt at a whole new genre, Frontiers delivers in a way I truly wasn’t expecting.
The First Frontier
The Open World genre is a deadly black hole for game design, but Sonic manages to outrun most of the problems because he's really fast.