Sonic Frontiers had a bit of a wild ride ahead of its release. Since the initial announcement and subsequent trailer reveals, public opinion of the blue blur’s latest outing has been all over the place, going from lingering dread to a more optimistic “hey, maybe this will actually be okay, after all”. Well, after sinking over 20 hours into Sonic Frontiers on Switch and exploring everything the game has to offer, we have just two words that can adequately describe our feelings for this game: oh dear.
The game starts off with a brief introduction to our heroes Sonic, Tails, and Amy (don't worry, Knuckles shows up too). After some digital hocus pocus, Sonic mysteriously winds up in one of the game’s ‘Cyberspace’ levels which, surprise surprise, is based on Green Hill Zone. This linear stage acts as a tutorial for Sonic’s basic moveset, but you’ll be able to revisit it later on to complete the optional objectives and gain extra items, if you wish. After you’re done, you’re dropped into the first of five “open-zone” locations: Kronos Island. It turns out that Sonic’s friends are missing and it’s up to you to find and rescue them.
The plot for Frontiers is about as bonkers as you can reasonably expect from a 3D Sonic title, but the overall tone of the game has been, well, toned down when compared to previous titles; it’s a lot less bombastic and in-your-face. That said, it also makes for some pretty boring cutscenes: 90% of these are made up of two-way conversations between Sonic and one of his chums, with very little action in between to add some much-needed variety. The story ramps up nicely towards the end, however, and the game even makes some pretty satisfying callbacks to earlier titles in the franchise.
Once you’re on Kronos Island, the game takes you down a brief, linear path and introduces various gameplay aspects like combat and the ‘Cyloop’ ability. Cyloop effectively lets you run circles around objects and enemies, leaving behind a trail which, when reconnected to form a loop, will either deal damage, activate switches, or grant you a sizeable dose of rings. You can more or less cheat the game into giving you infinite numbers of rings by just running around in tiny circles at any point; each completed circle gives you about 15 or so rings, and there’s no limit to how many times you can do it.
Before too long, the game opens up and you're given free rein to go wherever you want. The sheer size of each island is genuinely quite impressive, though it's not so large as to become overwhelming. It's tempting, of course, to liken the overall approach to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and we've no doubt that while Sonic Team has taken inspiration from Nintendo, its own approach is a bit more restrained and you can quite easily go from one end of the map to the other in just a minute or two. Having said that, the game requires you to unlock the map bit by bit by completing minigames, opening up random sections that will eventually fill in to form a complete image. Although the islands aren't overly big, it's still possible to get a bit lost if you haven't unlocked much of the map.
As for how Sonic controls, it’s all a bit hit-and-miss. Running around the world feels pretty good for the most part; Sonic will turn fairly accurately even at high speeds, and hitting ‘ZR’ will result in an immediate speed boost that feels immensely satisfying in practice. The issues arise when the game expects you to complete any kind of precise platforming. Sonic’s jumping has always been pretty 'floaty', for lack of a better word, but here it’s been taken to the extreme. Trying to navigate certain routes can often feel infuriatingly sluggish; you can try to course-correct by hitting ‘ZR’ to give yourself a bit of a boost, but the game will frequently overcompensate, sending you flying off into the abyss. To exacerbate the matter, glitches occur more often than we’d like, sending Sonic tearing through platforms or getting caught up in the camera.
It’s almost like the game is actively aware that its own platforming controls are poor, because most of the sections that require you to grind on rails or bounce between springboards are almost entirely automatic. You’ll start off by running or jumping onto a boost pad and then you can just sit back and watch as Sonic gracefully grinds through loops, bounces back and forth, before flying back onto the ground to continue on his way. The game countlessly wrenches control away from the player, because it knows that if it hands complete control over, then that’s where the mechanics start to fall apart.
Now, while there's absolutely no doubt that this has been the case since Sonic joined the 3D realm with Sonic Adventure back in 1998, its prevalence here is taken to the absolute extreme and it's arguably antithetical to the freedom that Frontiers supposedly offers. With this in mind, while you can absolutely go anywhere and do anything while exploring each of the five islands, it never quite feels like the sandbox elements ever reach their true potential, because the game doggedly refuses to give you total control during its many, many platforming segments.
As for what you’ll be doing during your time on Starfall Islands, Sonic Frontiers is basically one giant collectathon from start to finish. You’ll have two main goals on each island: locate and obtain the Chaos Emeralds and collect memory tokens to unlock story cutscenes with Sonic’s allies. Collecting memory tokens is quite enough as it is, because there are absolutely loads of the beggers; pretty much every miniature platforming segment will result in a memory token, so you’ll be piling up dozens of them before long.
When it comes to the Chaos Emeralds, it’s not just a case of finding these and scooping them up. First, you’ll need to gather gears which can be obtained by defeating enemies and solving puzzles. Then you’ll need to use these gears to unlock the various Cyberspace levels, within which you’ll have five specific objectives to complete. When they're ticked off, you’ll be rewarded with a vault key. Gather up enough vault keys and then you’ll finally be able to collect a Chaos Emerald. Now do that several more times over. Per island. To say that Sonic Frontiers can get quite repetitive would be somewhat of an understatement.
The aforementioned Cyberspace levels are your more traditional, linear '2D' and 3D Sonic stages and are accessed by locating portals dotted around each of the five islands. Although there are quite a few dotted about each island, they’re only based on four key themes: Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary, and a City theme (based loosely on another game, which we won't spoil here). What’s more, the actual layouts of these stages have been lifted straight out of previous games; some might call this a loving homage to Sonic’s past, but we’re a bit baffled that Team Sonic didn’t put make some original levels based around the theme.
Visually, they’re pretty flashy and look quite nice for the most part, but there’s an odd CRT filter applied, which we assume is to indicate that you’re in some sort of digital space; it's pretty subtle and not offensively intrusive, but it just makes everything look a bit washed out in a version of the game which already looks fuzzy — more on that later. As for the controls, it’s frequently messy since there’s an increased focus on platforming in these Cyberspace levels; move even slightly in the wrong direction and you’ll likely need to start over from the last checkpoint, wiping out any hope of clearing the stage in a decent time.
One major thing that Sonic Frontiers introduces is a new combat system that’s utilised pretty frequently throughout. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more shallow than the game would have you believe. Most of the time, defeating enemies is a simple case of button mashing your way to victory, as tapping ‘Y’ will unleash a flurry of automatic combos that will do the job quite nicely. You’ll be introduced to new moves as your progress, but actually using them isn’t necessary for the most part. Glitches rear their heads during combat, too, particularly when you’re flying about as Super Sonic during boss battles. The camera simply can’t keep up with what’s going on, so you’ll tear through enemy assets and end up punching at thin air; it’s quite infuriating and we sincerely wish this aspect of the game was more polished.
Aside from that core collection-combat loop, Sonic Frontiers features a whole bunch of side missions and minigames. Some of these are decent, such as having to walk across a patterned set of tiles without stepping on one twice or walking diagonally, but sadly there are more misses than hits. One particularly egregious minigame involves herding a bunch of Kocos — the islands’ natives — from point A to point B, like a sheepdog (sheep 'hog..?). Sonic Team clearly thought that this on its own would be too easy, so thought it prudent to have the very same creatures you’re supposed to be saving fart out a bunch of bombs to stop you in your tracks. It’s completely nonsensical from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.
One minigame that we did quite enjoy, however, was fishing (come on, when is fishing in a video game ever a bad thing?). You’ll access this the same way as the Cyberspace levels and wind up at a pleasant fishing hole with Big the Cat. Although mechanically quite simplistic — you simply need to press ‘A’ when an inner circle meets with an outer circle — catching the wide variety of fish is pretty satisfying, and it’s a great way of gaining additional memory tokens and vault keys.
In terms of how Sonic Frontiers looks and performs on the Switch, it can really only be described as disappointing. On the plus side, the frame rate is serviceably smooth and solid, with a 30FPS target which it hits for the most part. However, the compromises made to achieve that decent frame rate on Nintendo’s platform are frankly mind-blowing. You’ll notice from the very moment that you set foot on Kronos Island that the game’s assets pop in and out all the time; we’re not just talking about small bits of foliage or rocks, either, but huge platforms, grind rails, enemies, and even entire cliff sides. Tufts of grass snap out of existence not only as you run away but also, inexplicably, as you approach them, apparently only visible briefly when Sonic is neither too close nor too far away. It’s genuinely quite nauseating to run through the environment only to see everything jitter and warp around you as the game tries to keep up. Gaze across the landscape from a distance and you'll see nothing but plain textures; no trees, no rocks, just a flat surface. It's only until you move closer that details start to seep into view.
Aside from the pop-in, the visuals just simply look incredibly grainy and muddy; weather effects like rain look more like static than actual raindrops on Switch, and character models look arguably worse than the likes of Sonic Forces. It’s a real shame how poor everything looks and it begs the question as to whether Sega should have bothered with a Switch release at all.
All in all, while there’s definitely potential for a good game to eventually arise from Sonic Frontiers’ bold shift into a semi-open world, this first attempt isn't it. Maybe next time, though.
Sonic Frontiers is a brave new direction for the series, but this first ‘open-zone’ entry misses the mark by quite a margin. Traversal and combat annoyances plague the experience from start to finish, while structurally the game offers up very little variety, instead leaning on repetitive fetch quests that get exasperating after the first island. As far as the Switch version goes, it’s quite comfortably the worst option available to fans, with graphical compromises that make it impossible to recommend if you're able to play it anywhere else at all. If you’re going to get this game, we implore you to try it out elsewhere.