From the moment it was first revealed, it was clear that Sonic Frontiers is quite unlike any of its predecessors. Sonic's 3D adventures have been more miss than hit throughout the blue hedgehog's 31-year existence. For every Sonic Generations, there's been a Sonic Boom or Sonic '06 leaving behind a bitter taste and further diluting the speedy mascot's appeal. Each new game has offered some variation on the Sonic formula, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and finally give the series a consistent direction moving forward, but none have succeeded--at least until now. Sonic Frontiers is that game.
It certainly has its flaws and still maintains many of the familiar elements you'd expect to find in a game starring the eponymous hedgehog, but it's in the differences where Sonic Frontiers stands out and occasionally excels, making it the best 3D Sonic game in more than a decade.
The biggest and most notable change is the shift to a semi-open world. Sega calls Frontiers "open-zone," meaning the game is split into multiple islands that Sonic is free to explore. Each zone has its own aesthetic, from verdant rolling hills to arid desert plains and a simmering volcanic island floating above the clouds, meshing together natural beauty with ancient alien temples, grind rails, and bounce pads. It's a curious amalgamation but one that works well enough within the game's sci-fi conceit. The environments are also part of a striking tonal shift for the series. The vibrant primary colors of classic Sonic levels like Green Hill Zone have been replaced by a color palette that's low on saturation and high on pastel hues. The obvious inspiration here is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, not just in the way Frontiers looks, but in its use of music and the shift to open-ended world design. It doesn't play anything like Link's five-year-old adventure, but you can see how Sonic Team was influenced by it throughout.
Progression across each island adheres to the same basic gameplay loop. You defeat mini-bosses to collect cogs, use these to open up Cyber Space levels, complete challenges within these more-traditional Sonic stages to earn vault keys, and then use these to unlock Chaos Emeralds so you can transform into Super Sonic and defeat each island's Titan in a massive boss battle. Along the way, you'll also discover bite-sized challenges that reveal more of the map and reward you with upgrade items, and short platforming sections that grant you the memory tokens you need to free Sonic's friends and propel the story forward. All of this may sound a tad convoluted, but there's a satisfying flow to how exploration and progression work, to the point where you don't even need to think about the bigger picture on a moment-to-moment basis.
There's an in-game map complete with a plethora of various markers, but it's not something I ever felt compelled to look at. The game does a fantastic job of gently guiding you toward points of interest, whether it's a structure on the horizon or a set of conveniently placed ramps and boost pads leading to a platforming segment. Advancing the story requires you to collect a certain number of memory tokens at different intervals, but grabbing them comes naturally while traversing the world so they never feel like something you need to go out of your way to track down. The same is true of the quick-fire challenges you'll find dotted around each island. These range from short time trials to Tetris-style puzzles, and each one concludes with a few hopeful piano notes that would feel right at home in Breath of the Wild.
Tedium is a potential downfall of this formulaic approach, since you're going through the same repetitive gameplay loop with each new island you visit. It's not something I felt until reaching the fifth and final island, mainly because the bite-sized nature of each activity helps stave off any monotony, as does the degree of variety that's present in almost everything you engage with--be it enemy types, environments, challenges, and so on. It's still not quite enough to sustain the entire game, though, and it's disappointing that it runs out of steam toward the end.
Combat is infrequent but has at least been expanded upon so you're not just using Sonic's homing attack to lay waste to everything in your path. You start off with a basic one-button combo and a stomp attack, plus you can dodge and parry incoming attacks. Gradually, however, you'll begin to unlock more abilities via Frontiers' skill tree. You can argue that a character like Sonic doesn't necessarily need a skill tree, and its inclusion here does feel rather superfluous considering you simply unlock every move as you progress through the game. There's no deliberating over specific skills to suit a particular play style, so the skill tree comes across like it was added because that's the contemporary thing to do, even if it doesn't quite fit.
The obvious inspiration here is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, not just in the way Frontiers looks, but in its use of music and the shift to open-ended world design. It doesn't play anything like Link's five-year-old adventure, but you can see how Sonic Team was influenced by it throughout
The moves you unlock are fun to use, though, frequently giving you more options when engaging enemies. The first ability you gain access to is called Cyloops, which lets you draw circles around your foes and inflict damage on all of those inside. This can also be used to penetrate and remove armor on certain enemy types, letting you finish them off with a flurry of strikes once they're vulnerable. There are other, more flashy moves, too, allowing you to fire shockwaves from a distance, follow up a successful dodge with a zigzagging attack, or pummel enemies with a flying kick. All of these moves are easy to pull off so you can build up lengthy combos without much effort. This could get tiresome fairly quickly, but what makes combat enjoyable is the variety of enemy types you'll encounter. Each one forces you to think about how you're going to defeat them, and this is especially true when facing off against one of the many Guardians roaming each island.
There are dozens of these mini-bosses, all with self-explanatory names like Spider, Tank, and Sumo. For the most part, these battles are grand in their spectacle and scale, pitting Sonic against huge foes that dwarf his tiny frame, but their quality is uneven. At their best, you'll be grinding around circular discs while avoiding obstacles to reach a weak point, or bouncing off the fences of an enclosed cage to generate momentum and send the Guardian careening into an electrified hazard. But others are protracted, designed around dull mechanics and a flimsy lock-on system. Targeting enemies only works at extremely close range, despite the fact you're regularly fighting in open areas. This makes it difficult to keep an enemy in sight as you close the distance and attempt to avoid the many projectiles they're firing your way. At times, you'll also need to target specific body parts, but this is another lesson in frustration as you fight against Frontiers' cumbersome lock-on.
Cyber Space levels similarly vary in quality. You'll find teleportation points scattered across each island that transport you to these short, traditional Sonic stages. They run the gamut of familiar styles, with some geared towards hitting every boost pad, while others are grind-heavy or shift the perspective to 2D with a focus on more deliberate platforming. Readability in the latter is difficult, however, especially since the camera is zoomed in tight, and Sonic's floaty movement and imprecise jumping aren't particularly conducive to enjoyable platforming.
You can finish most of these Cyber Space levels in a minute or two, but their terse length does lend itself to how replayable they all are. Each level has optional sub-challenges for you to complete, with one of them rewarding you for completing a level under the S-rank time limit. I spent plenty of time going back to find the optimal route through a stage to complete it as fast as possible, and doing so feels like a well-earned victory. It's disappointing that there isn't more variety from a visual standpoint, though. Most of the Cyber Space levels pay homage to classic stages from Sonic's past, with themes based around the likes of Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, and Radical Highway, but it doesn't really deviate so levels near the end of the game still look the same as those at the start.
Running around at the speed of sound might be a mantra of the fleet-footed hedgehog, but Sonic Frontiers is at its best when you're given time to simply explore. The music is calming and also solemn at times--even if it knows when to burst into life with a punk rock energy--and there's even a fishing minigame that lets you earn rewards while slowing down the pace a step further. It's easy to fall into a zen-like flow as you traverse each island, rattling off objectives as you happen upon them. There are frustrations that arise and break the flow, whether it's a middling mini-boss or a struggle with Sonic's floaty movement, and it's a big departure from what Sonic fans are used to. I'm fully on board with this new direction, though. Sonic Adventure set the template for the last 24 years of 3D Sonic games, and I'm hopeful Frontiers will do the same for the next generation. It has its flaws, and there's definite room for improvement, but the spiky mascot is finally moving in the right direction.