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Sonic Frontiers hands-on: The massive change that 3D Sonic games needed

Sonic Frontiers actually seems promising.”>
Enlarge / Sonic, seen here slip slidin’ away through the mascot’s most ambitious adventure yet. And so far, while it has its issues, Sonic Frontiers actually seems promising.

LOS ANGELES—Ahead of this week, the next fully 3D Sonic the Hedgehog video game, slated to launch on all console families by the end of 2022, wasn’t looking so hot. Quite frankly, we’ve never seen a Sega gameplay reveal land as poorly as Sonic Frontiers.

Maybe you didn’t see the preview footage, which debuted exclusively at IGN earlier this month, or maybe you blocked it out of your mind. Either way, I can now talk about a different kind of preview experience: going hands-on with something that looks and feels like an actual Sonic video game, as opposed to the zero-UI tech demo that was previously showcased.

Sonic Frontiers delivers fresh ideas that Sonic’s 3D pantheon has sorely lacked for decades. In my brief time with the game, I could already tell that Sega is remixing the Breath of the Wild formula in a way that feels new and Sonic-appropriate. The game seems to fix many of my complaints about every full-3D Sonic game that followed 1999’s Sonic Adventure.

A consensus of jank on Generic Hill Zone

Before I sing this unreleased game’s praises, however, I should clarify that Sega did not bring its technical A-game to this weekend’s press-only Summer Game Fest Play Days event.

Sonic Frontiers is pretty bleak.”>
Enlarge / Look in every direction, and you’ll find Sonic-worthy antics to explore.

Yet even at its jankiest, Sonic Frontiers currently has enough elements in place to resemble a legitimately decent video game. Sonic’s animation frames are plentiful and refined, and they mostly strike the right balance between attractive and responsive. Sega’s mascot looks cool while launching off bounce pads or hopping between grind rails, yet he doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary frames of motion when launching into crucial attack combos.

And Sonic Frontiers‘ open-world environment is filled with clearly readable points of interest, which arguably benefit by being the only neon-colored items in an otherwise drab world. The object of the game is to unravel a mystery that has, among other things, sent Sonic’s good friends to alternate dimensions, and they can only communicate to him in his current world as holograms.

Enlarge / Sonic is seen here using the new “Cyloop” ability to lasso multiple totems and trigger them at the same time.

In Sonic’s quest to find Chaos Emeralds and restore his friends to a normal state, players get the benefit of a top-of-screen compass that quickly points players in the general direction of major objectives. There’s also a massive, icon-filled map in the pause menu. But the game already does a great job of placing noticeable points of interest in the environment, ranging from the obvious (a massive tower that elicits a quote from Sonic suggesting he could climb it) to the subtle (a column of classic Sonic series rings hovering in the sky near a shrub, hinting that maybe we’ll find a useful bounce pad inside the foliage).

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Enlarge / This stronger-than-average foe requires minding the larger shield ring, which moves around and can knock Sonic back. Attack the creature’s head while it’s lower, then use Sonic’s dodge-dash before it can tap you.

Marching forward from the demo’s opening spawn point, I consistently noticed these points of interest. Sometimes, they led me to a puzzle sequence where I had to study the nearby environment to figure out whether I needed to hit switches in a specific order, run over a pattern of colored plates on the ground, or use one of Sonic’s new special abilities to hit a collection of switches simultaneously. One of these abilities, dubbed “Cyloop,” is unlocked early in the game and lets Sonic create a brightly colored “lasso” as a trail behind his steps. Once he closes this loop, it hits every switch or enemy in its radius.

Enlarge / For some enemies, a well-timed dodge won’t do. Sega provided gameplay footage showing Sonic doing some kind of parry in response to this blade-covered robot.

Other points of interest dead-ended in an enemy encounter, which revealed a surprisingly competent new battling system. Sonic’s most basic attack is the classic “homing strike” move he’s used in the game’s 3D versions for years, but certain enemies are a lot tougher and require flurries of punches and kicks. But the longer you stand within punching range of a foe, the more likely your enemy will counter with a massive swipe. So Sonic now has a dedicated dodge button—which offers a God of War-like time slowdown effect when he perfectly dodges a major enemy attack. (It’s all much better than the last time Sega tried to add “real combat” to a Sonic game, which led to the grimdark mess that was Shadow the Hedgehog.)

Shadow (the Hedgehog) of the Colossus?

Sonic Frontiers also has massive boss fights in store, though we’re still not sure how many will be in the final game. I enjoyed the one super-sized boss I faced, at least, which required that I wait for a giant, mechanical beast to slam one of its feet down so that I could sprint up its leg and climb its body. At the top, I found a few weak points to nail with my homing strikes, but some of the points were covered in rotating laser rings. I had to wait out their patterns to zip in, land some punches, and dodge away.

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Enlarge / Sega didn’t provide footage of the fun boss battle I describe above, so instead, take a peek at one of the game’s towers. It includes a few climbing paths, and Sonic has 60 seconds to go from a starting line to the tower’s top to claim a reward.

And when I was forced back to earth to climb the legs again, the monster began shooting repulsive energy waves, which didn’t do damage but did make Sonic run backward. This meant I had to madly and carefully get up his legs through an oversized, pinball-like traversal challenge. It felt like an appropriately Sonic spin on Shadow of the Colossus‘ mega-boss concept, and I hope Sega has other wild bosses in store in the final game.

Enlarge / Another angle of the climb I previously mentioned. Use a loop-de-loop to the left or use a wall climb to the right to keep going upward.

The game seems to have the right idea about how to do Sonic traversal in a big 3D space. Instead of chaining together speed and traversal challenges within linear levels that desperately want to resemble the series’ old-school glory, Sonic Frontiers peppers its landscape with little 3D Sonic carnival rides, and each ends with a useful item.

Enlarge / Look around to find a good upward jump-and-run path, and you may be rewarded with a floating platform covered in goodies.

This way hides a series of tricky jump pads and floating homing-strike bounces that Sonic must carefully navigate to get an item. That way leads to a lengthy corkscrew grind session. Over here is a rudimentary puzzle to slow down the momentum. Over there is a massive tower, which will reward Sonic with an item if he can get to its top from a “starting line” position within 60 seconds—and, even better, players can pick from a few paths, ranging from corkscrew runs to wall climbs to useful-but-hidden bouncing pads, to beat the clock.

My favorite thing about even the most uneven Sonic games has been the memorable, weird environments, whether Sonic is in a surreal fantasyland or being chased down San Francisco-like hills. Does Sonic Frontiers have anything comparable? Well, there’s at least one very cool item-rewarding interruption that appears on a regular basis, but for some reason, Sega of America asked Summer Games Fest attendees not to describe their experience with this content for a few weeks. Sega’s reps said nothing about quoting other outlets’ hints about this content, however, so I will instead share this revealing quote from the aforementioned IGN preview:

Sonic must hunt down and defeat these bosses in order to collect portal gears, which open up portals that lead to bite-sized linear stages, done in the style of previous Sonic games, giving Sonic Frontiers a nice mix of both old and new styles. These classic levels each come with a handful of optional goals, like beating the level under a certain time, collecting all the red rings, and so on, with each goal rewarding you with a vault key, which are needed to unlock the coveted Chaos Emeralds.

That sounds like a cool way for Sega to interrupt a series of open-world mini-challenges, exploit classic Sonic nostalgia, and add much-needed visual highlights, doesn’t it?

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Intelligent homages to other games, put over the top by Sonic’s unique style

Enlarge / A little piano ditty plays whenever Sonic solves a puzzle. This radiating blue-light effect also animates.

A few of Sonic Frontiers‘ systems brazenly crib from Breath of the Wild, with the biggest being a circular “stamina” meter. Instead of pausing and “spin dashing” to build up speed in a pinch, Sonic can now simply tap a gamepad trigger at any time to give his running speed a “nitro” boost, and the stamina meter impacts how much Sonic can maintain high speeds when he’s either moving straight ahead or running vertically up walls. This is a great series addition that not only keeps Sonic moving but also encourages players to explore the world in search of increased stamina points.

The game also plays a very Breath of the Wild-like piano ditty whenever Sonic uncovers new map zones or solves emergent puzzles, and the plot revolves around Sonic uncovering an ethereal mystery that has whisked him away to this desolate open world, which is full of complicated, shielded robots that look beyond the makings of usual series villain Dr. Robotnik. (Speaking of plot, the cut scenes I’ve seen thus far are painfully cheesy stuff that will make series apologists grin and normal human beings mash the “skip” button.)

Sonic Frontiers make it fun to get to the top of a lookout point and marvel at the low-poly fun that you can jump to next.”>Sure, the world below doesn't look great. But the mechanics of <em>Sonic Frontiers</em> make it fun to get to the top of a lookout point and marvel at the low-poly fun that you can jump to next.” src=”×551.jpg” width=”980″ height=”551″></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Sure, the world below doesn’t look great. But the mechanics of Sonic Frontiers make it fun to get to the top of a lookout point and marvel at the low-poly fun that you can jump to next.

Yet I found that the various scattered-across-the-plains challenges felt less like Breath of the Wild and more like a clever spin on Microsoft’s Crackdown series, with a hearty dash of Super Mario Odyssey. These challenges consistently exploit Sonic’s most fun actions, like his homing strikes, his wall runs, and his general proclivity for going fast on loops and corkscrew grinding rails. And they each conclude with useful rewards that move the plot along, give Sonic points to spend on his skill tree (yes, Sonic has skill trees now), or open up new zones to explore.

I appreciated how easily I comprehended Sonic’s selection of abilities, many of which come from 20 years of 3D Sonic games, and I reveled in how the game’s smaller, reward-filled challenges let me feel like a platforming badass with satisfying super-speed runs between each. I liked the network of massive grinding rails that serve as high-speed “warps” between previously completed zones. Most importantly, I wanted to keep playing this 3D Sonic game, which is a sentence that I, a fully grown adult, have not typed in a very long time. You can expect me to return to Sonic Frontiers to review exactly how much of its preview-version promise remains intact, versus how many bugs, technical shortcomings, or even launch delays get in the way of that fun.