Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Sonic Frontiers


Sonic Frontiers
Sonic and friends decide to investigate activity that has drawn the Chaos Emeralds to the Starfall Islands. Upon approach, their plane is sucked into a wormhole to Cyber Space, from which only Sonic escapes to the islands in the real world while the others are trapped between dimensions. A disembodied voice comments on Sonic’s escape, claiming that he has “done the impossible,” tasking him to find the Chaos Emeralds and destroy the island’s robotic “Titans” to remove the boundary between the real and digital worlds. Believing this will save his friends, Sonic sets out to collect what’s necessary and learn about this mysterious land full of secrets all while a young glitching entity named Sage cautions the blue hedgehog to leave.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a franchise that continues to impress me with its ability to persevere even in the face of constant frustration. Despite revolving around an anthropomorphic hedgehog whose main gimmick is running fast, it’s almost impressive how often Sega has tripped over itself in an attempt to make the franchise thrive. Sonic has almost always had more success as a 2D platformer, whether we’re looking at the original Genesis games, the Rush series, the Advanced series, and even recently with Sonic Mania. But while there are some rare examples of bullshit in there, that is nothing compared to the influx of quality that is Sonic’s 3D adventures. There have been some rather fun and acclaimed games like Sonic Generations or even games that are still filled with a lot of charm despite their issues like the Sonic Adventure series, most 3D Sonic games aren’t looked upon fondly by a lot of fans or Sega themselves.

However, I don’t want to make it seem like translating Sonic’s gameplay into the third dimension is straightforward. Unlike Mario, whose overall design scheme is relatively simple, Sonic’s gameplay has always been a bit more complicated; thus, creating environments that properly take advantage of that speed-addictive gimmick takes a lot of work. Almost every 3D Sonic game has brought something new to the table, nearly all of which are a mix of successes and failures. Levels need to be bigger so that you don’t finish them too quickly, objectives need to feel rewarding, and the physics are complicated. So where does Sonic Frontiers succeed, and where does it falter? Let’s start with some negatives right out of the gate.


The physics in this game are genuinely all over the place. Despite the various games that preceded Sonic Frontiers, Sega hasn’t found a way to make Sonic’s movements feel natural in 3D. There’s not a lot of momentum to Sonic’s movements on the ground as he either accelerates immediately or stops on a dime. This is not much of a problem when grinding on rails or traversing flat surfaces. However, the minute you hit a piece of uneven terrain while accelerating, you end up careening into the air at awkward angles, and where you land can end up being very unpredictable, almost as if Sonic is being yanked off the ground by puppet strings the minute he hits the corner. While this leads to some interesting (and probably unintentional) moments of traversing through areas, it is no less distracting, and it’s even worse during the 2D sections, which honestly felt like the most unnatural parts of the game. In 2D, Sonic could literally walk up a vertical wall without any momentum, making those moments during shuttle loops or bouncing between areas without bumpers feel unnatural.

The gameplay is the most satisfying and fulfilling during the more straightforward 3D boost sections and the mini platforming challenges throughout the overworld. They’re not necessarily difficult, but there is a certain sense of satisfaction in completing the sections as quickly as possible by chaining together homing attacks and boosting at the appropriate moments. While the 2D games focused on momentum-based gameplay and physics, Sonic Frontiers took the timing and combination chaining approach. It’s less about avoiding obstacles to maintain that momentum-based speed from beginning to end and more about adequately chaining moves together while boosting so that the flow state can keep going. I think the problem with games like Sonic Forces was that it gave players access to that speed with almost no consequence, and the linear design made it feel like all you had to do was hit a button and press forward to win a good chunk of the game.

However, the 3D sections and set pieces in Sonic Frontiers, while not the most visually interesting compared to other 3D Sonic games, definitely offer more variety in terms of how players can experiment with that constant access to speed. Most of the challenges aren’t that deep or complicated, but I can’t help but find them addicting. It’s similar to playing in an arcade game where there could be hundreds of bit-sized levels, and the trick is to see how many you can accomplish with just one quarter. Plus, if you’re a longtime Sonic fan, you’ll recognize certain layouts and set pieces pulled from various games throughout the franchise. Unfortunately, the overall aesthetic of these levels is minimal, sticking to maybe three or four different themes, whether it’s Greenhill, Sky Sanctuary, or Chemical Plant. It would’ve been nice to have more visual variety to appreciate these callbacks.

However, Sonic Frontiers isn’t just about speed; it’s also about collecting, with combat and some RPG elements sprinkled throughout. Yes, there are hundreds upon hundreds of different things to acquire, from items necessary to unlock story points to purple coins that can be used as currency for a fishing minigame that lets you fish for items that can be exchanged for even more items. Little stone children scattered throughout the land can be exchanged for speed increases, items to increase your attack and defense capabilities, experience points to gain more abilities, and of course, keys to unlock Chaos Emeralds. There are so many things to collect in this game I was initially getting flashbacks to the early days of playing Donkey Kong 64. Yes, the game is bloated with a sort of “quantity over quality” approach sometimes. Thankfully, you only really need a fraction of these things to actually complete the game, and I found myself collecting more than that by just going through the game normally.


It helps that almost all of these items were usually the reward for either completing a mini-challenge or defeating enemies, with the latter now having a multitude of different options thanks to Sonic’s now expanding combat system. It isn’t anything complex and, in many ways, can be seen as “Baby’s First .” There’s even an option that allows the game to automatically go into a combo finisher if you don’t want to time the inputs themselves. The parry mechanic requires no timing whatsoever, acting as a counter that destroys most forms of challenge in the game. Because of this, increasing your strength and your combat abilities might seem pointless, but I would argue that only really applies to the small fodder. There are a plethora of unique enemies with different counters and shields that all have unique requirements to defeat. Some of them are definitely more annoying than others. Ironically, I found them less of a nuisance as I increased my abilities since I could apply speed to chain things as fast as possible from the mini-challenges.

However, this appeal reaches its peak when it comes to the bosses and mini-bosses of the game, as they can combine those set pieces and combat more organically. It’s during these moments where pattern recognition, augmenting your abilities, and taking advantage of that pure adrenaline-focused speed truly come into play. These are, without a doubt, the high point of the game. It helps that many of these moments are accompanied by the usual high point of most Sonic games: the incredibly energetic and catchy music. When exploring the overworld, things are generally more subdued and atmospheric, but during set pieces and intense action scenes, the music flares up and energizes you for the encounter. My only real complaint during these moments is that I wish I didn’t clip through the bosses as often as I did.


We can talk about the appeal of the physics or the quality of the gameplay until we’re blue in the face, but everyone should be able to see that this game does not perform nearly as well as it should, especially on the PS5. Don’t worry; the game isn’t a bug-riddled mess, and I didn’t come across anything game-breaking in my 20 hours of gameplay, but there were a lot of visual hiccups that noticeably distracted me. Outside of occasionally phasing through particular objects, there were some wonky collision detection moments. The game couldn’t always decide whether to have a free-roaming camera or a fixed one, leaving me very disoriented. Thankfully, the game remains pretty consistent at 60 FPS, even during those high-octane moments. It comes down to the fact that the overall art design direction is extremely simple. I go so far as to say that quite a few models don’t look that different from what we saw two generations ago, just in a higher resolution. That didn’t stop the game from having an almost disgusting amount of pop-in, with some moments feeling like leaps of faith because I was going too fast for the game to load what I was heading towards. In some ways, it’s impressive; in others, it makes me wish that the game had another year to be better optimized. The most visually distinct thing about the game is the glitching digital effects and background aesthetics of the cyber world, which are striking. They are the most appealing during cutscenes when the game draws you in with its more somber narrative.


I wouldn’t say that the story is dark, but it feels like we are watching more mature versions of these pre-established characters slightly. This might have to do with the fact that the characters refer to many past events as if this is the most recent game in a chronology, and it is a rather refreshing change of pace. You feel the weight of the fact that these characters have been through a lot. The dialogue holds this up as some of the most insightful these characters have ever been while still keeping up a lot of that charming back-and-forth. There was never a moment where things felt forced or annoying, whether it be Amy and Sonic talking about helping others, Knuckles and Sonic having a sort of brotherly rivalry, or Tails contemplating his insecurities. Even Sonic feels a lot more mature in this game. He has his usual quips and dry snark, but it feels a lot more thoughtful, as if he’s trying his best to make sure that nobody is anxious and that he has everything under control, even if that might not be the case. This slightly somber take on the characters was well complemented by the voice acting and overall voice direction, with many characters sounding deeper and older. It can be jarring, but given the subject matter, I can appreciate the actors going in a less forceful direction. My only real complaint is Cindy Robinson as Amy, who sometimes sounds a bit too nasally.

As for the story itself, with some moments tied behind reaching collectible goals and the story presented with a general air of mystery, the pacing isn’t always the strongest, and admittedly, the game did not need to be as long as it did. It ultimately came down to a relatively simple story revolving around this new character in Cyber Space. However, the story was still worth experiencing for the handful of mature and thoughtful moments brought up by these characters. Some scenes strike a rather prominent emotional core and feel like a good reward for overcoming a difficult challenge. It’s not much, but it’s been a long time since any Sonic property made me feel this way. I know that Ian Flynn was brought on as a writer for the game, and I would love to see him return to future games if this is the more nuanced take he will have with these characters.

Overall, Sonic Frontiers is an excellent starting point for what I hope to be the next generation of 3D Sonic games. It could be better, with a lack of polish and a structure that simultaneously gives you too much and not enough at the same time. However, I am genuinely impressed that this game came together as well as it did by taking on the monumental task of trying to do something bigger with this character and his gameplay. It’s hard to see what the future will hold for the Blue Blur, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Still, between the overall good impression this game left me with, alongside the plethora of additional Sonic content we fans are getting in the form of movies and television shows, I can’t say it’s a wrong time to be a Sonic fan and am genuinely curious what comes next.



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