You are not limited to a small, carefully selected prix fixe menu at Sonic Frontiers. Instead, it approaches new ideas like an all-you-can-eat buffet, sprinkling them on you from beginning to end without really caring whether they look fresh and appetizing or wilted and limp under the heat lamp. Frontiers kept me guessing even late into the campaign with what it would try next. When I jumped off the starting line of this sprint across Sonic’s first open-world game, I certainly didn’t expect to play jump rope, fight a giant robot, watch a dramatic origin story for an extinct race of beings, or do a lot of fishing. I was almost always glad that Sega gave it a try, even when some of those ideas didn’t work, and as a result, I rarely got bored. Although Sonic Frontiers is, for the most part, a promising first attempt at blazing a new trail for the series, I did find myself feeling blue due to the absurd amount of pop-in that occurs each time this famously fast character does his thing. Despite this, the game is enjoyable overall.
Over the course of about 20 hours, you’ll make your way through Frontiers’ chain of five Starfall Islands, where you’ll meet sonic family favorites like Amy and Knuckles and learn the dark and very predictable history of a long-extinct race. Sage, a strange new foe, will also be introduced to you, and you’ll have to wait a very long time to find out what her deal is. Her main interests seem to be avoiding pointed questions and speaking only in vagaries.
There are a surprising number of cliches about the power of friendship and ancient civilizations using advanced technology in Frontiers, but despite the multitude of plot threads it juggles, none of them offer any surprises. However, Frontiers produces some of the most in-depth Sonic cast characterizations we’ve ever seen in a video game, and they do leave room for some great moments between the furry characters. One piece of the mission focuses on the charitable competition between Sonic and Knuckles, while another works hard at developing Tails as something beyond Sonic’s companion. Between all of the fancy robots kicking and rolling around at the speed of sound, all of that more than satisfied my craving for Sonic’s usual anime-style nonsense.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this open-world adventure is, as you might expect, sprinting around the vast open-world areas. As long as you don’t fall into water or lava that kills you right away, the islands you dash around are big enough for you to test the limits of your road running. The Cyloop, on the other hand, is my favorite new trick because it lets you draw a circle while leaving a trail to create a tornado of death that affects everything in its path. This ability can be misused to cause damage in battle, solve puzzles, and even farm rings because it always produces a few. Additionally, I rarely stopped doing it throughout my playthrough because running circles around your enemies are such an adorable sonic move. Speeding around the map becomes even more fun because you can use running as a deadly weapon.
The only thing that is a little disappointing about whizzing around is that you don’t run as fast as you might like unless you get the speed boost from maxing out your rings. That can be significantly improved by leveling up your speed stat throughout the campaign; however, I would have preferred that the default starting speed be slightly more Roadrunner-like and slightly less hungover hedgehog-like.
After a few laps around the first island, it becomes clear that Sonic Frontiers is an action-adventure game that joins a growing number of old-school series that are trying to reimagine themselves as open-world sandboxes. In this case, it mostly works out. Similar to Pokémon Legends: Metal Gear Solid V and Arceus: Frontiers, like Phantom Pain before it, retains a lot of what makes the Sonic series special and beloved, including some amusing homages. However, it also introduces large areas to explore and fills them with a wild assortment of side distractions and most novel concepts. It works overall even though not all of those activities are created equal. You’re juggling robots like you’re playing Baby’s First Devil May Cry, trying to beat a time trial in a 2D platforming stage, and playing pinball inside of an active volcano in the same minute. You’ll grind some truly epic rails, solve some very easy puzzles, do some puzzle platforming, and, of course, catch some fish. After all, does an open-world game even exist if you can’t fish?
In this bizarre jumble of activities, there were times when I saw signs of genius. Cyber Space levels cleverly break up the open world by teleporting you into typically linear Sonic levels in bite-sized chunks where you race the clock and collect rings in a mad dash for the goal line. Combat, on the other hand, is one of the Frontiers’ major attempts that fail. You are simply pressing buttons to perform straightforward combos and eliminate faceless robotic enemies. Although I enjoyed taking a break from platforming from time to time, I soon grew to resent being thrown out of my lightning-fast racing just to smack another group of dumb toaster-looking fools. Although platforming never proves to be challenging and constantly throws you into almost identical fights, When it comes to the open-world minibosses, who frequently dragged me into unskippable fight sequences that weren’t particularly challenging or interesting, especially when I ran into them multiple times, it’s especially annoying. It was impossible to contain the groan of annoyance at the thought of having the same encounter a third or fourth time.
The larger objective of each zone is to gather Chaos Emeralds, which will prepare you for a large, over-the-top boss fight. However, this is not as simple as it sounds. You will first need to collect portal gear out in the world, use those gears to open portals that take you to Cyber Space levels where you can collect vault keys, and then use those vault keys to unlock the emeralds to find all of the delicious gems. If that seems a little bit off to you, that’s because it definitely can be. However, by the time I had completed the first of two islands on my checklist, I felt completely at ease with all of the various strange currencies and collectibles. When you go full Sonic Saiyan and take on a massive, evil robot, the big boss fights at the end of each island fare a little better than the regular combat. Although flying around as an invincible rodent god and performing sweet butt-kicking moves make collecting all those Chaos Emeralds worth the effort, they are occasionally a little awkward due to repeated animations and strange camera issues in which the boss knocks you outside of the arena and into a frustrating viewing angle.
I also really liked how, depending on what you’re doing, the perspective will automatically switch between 2D and 3D when you’re out in the open world. When I was grinding rails and entered an area that required platforming, it would switch me to a perspective in two dimensions, allowing me to zip around like I was in 1991. However, when I got into a fight, it would switch back to a perspective in three dimensions, allowing me to practice circling the enemy. The only drawback was that I occasionally found myself stuck in 2D and unable to escape when I ran around the island and accidentally stepped on a spring or rail. It’s similar to breaking your toe on a board game and then having to play through Chutes and Ladders all the way through before you can get back to doing your business.
You can also try your hand at RPG mechanics by collecting collectibles to boost your stats or solve very easy puzzles that range from mildly amusing minigames to completely brain-dead chores in Frontiers. Although these aren’t bad additions, they don’t feel like they’re fully developed. The upgrades, in particular, are a little off-putting because they allow you to carry more rings or boost your attack and defense stats by so little that they barely affect gameplay. It almost seems as though the programmers just shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?” and, just for fun, threw in a half-finished draft of every idea they could think of.
It’s likewise sort of crazy how much movement can be procured through the fishing minigame, particularly since it’s just somewhat entertaining for a couple of moments before it begins feeling like a task. However, I cannot claim that it is not worthwhile; without attempting I immediately found it very well may be cultivated for a huge measure of assets that are significantly more challenging to obtain out in the open world. I could have skipped a significant portion of the platforming, exploration, and combat on one island because I spent half an hour fishing with Big the Cat, my boy, and obtained so many portal gears, vault keys, and memory tokens. This method also allowed me to level up my character more than 60 times in a matter of minutes, which just felt… wrong. It would be one thing if Sonic were famous for his love of seafood, but this is absurd.
Frontiers are simply unable to keep up with Sonic’s godlike speed on a technical level, which is the biggest flaw in this new open-world design. This has nothing to do with the buffet of mostly amusing activities; rather, it is the most significant flaw. Every five seconds, big things like a section of a floating loop-de-loop or a huge tree came into view right in front of me, breaking my immersion. That may occasionally be funny, but it is always jarring and just plain ugly. The majority of the time, it’s a platform or railing that appears just a few feet away, but sometimes it’s entire regions of the world. All for its astounding speedy stacking capacities, the PS5 just couldn’t deal with how divertingly quick Wildernesses let me go. Whether I was playing at 30 frames per second in the 4K resolution mode or at 60 frames per second in the much more desirable mode (seriously, what are we even doing here playing a game this quickly at any slower frame rate?), The pop-in had always been a problem. I even ran so quickly in one case that the ground hadn’t yet loaded, and I fell through the map. Frontiers’ inability to load promptly is so common that it just makes everything feel flimsy and unpolished it is not a problem that is unique to open-world games.
Many of us grew up playing sonic games, and Sonic Frontiers is a delightfully bizarre and experimental sequel to those games. Even though the awful graphical pop-in is a constant hedgehog spine in your side, its series of open-world islands are filled with so much variety and pieces of sonic history, from classic platforming stages to silly minigames, that they are enjoyable to explore. The smart switching between 2D and 3D perspectives in the open world and Cyber Space levels in Frontiers are great ways to pack as much sonic goodness into one package as possible. However, other new features, particularly combat, are boring experiments that went wrong. Nevertheless, Frontiers felt like a very promising start to what could be a bright new era for Sonic and friends because I largely enjoyed my time running around.