TUCSON, Ariz. — Bolstered by recent success in the cinematic world and a retro roundup, Sonic the Hedgehog is out to take on the nemesis that has dogged him for decades — a 3D open world.
"Sonic Frontiers" sets the Blue Blur loose on a giant map filled with open-area courses reminiscent of "Super Mario Odyssey."
Phil Villarreal: I always approach 3D Sonic games with mistrust and trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised how smooth this game was. I appreciated the ability to select between two modes that favor speed or precision and of course opted for the high-octane mode. While a bit tough to control amid tight platforming areas, I had fun jump-dashing, air-parrying, and launching through the levels. The game seems geared toward speedrunners who don't mind taking on the same challenges repeatedly to shave milliseconds off their top times.
A lengthy tutorial island helps get you up to speed, so to speak, when you start your adventure, and I felt well-equipped to start exploring and taking on myriad challenges. While this is no "Super Mario Odyssey," I found it one of Sonic's more vigorous efforts in the 3D realm. What did you think, Sean?
Sean Newgent: If there's one franchise I know too much about, it's Sonic the Hedgehog. A childhood mired in the dumpster fire that was the GameCube-era 3D Sonic games has prepared me for my life's bombardment of disappointments. How can I ever forget when my parents bought me Shadow the Hedgehog to get good grades at school? Shadow is the reason I never excelled again.
I had a morbid excitement for "Sonic Frontiers" because it was being hyped up as the beginning of a new era, an excellent Sonic game after years of mediocre to bad platformers featuring a character who somehow continues to exist as a video game icon in the same pantheon as characters like Mario and Link who, let's be honest, actually deserve their seats at that table.
From the beginning, "Frontiers" has the jank I expect. The opening cutscene looks awful with PS2-era rain effects that had me laughing. From there, you realize this open world only exists because every other game franchise is doing the same. "Sonic Frontiers" has several massive zones to explore throughout its story, but they are all so empty and dull. The first one looks like some Irish cliffside area, and there are no villages or memorable icons anywhere. It's just copied and pasted grey ruins, a bunch of rails and jump pads that pop in with an alarming regularity that takes you right out of the game, and a menagerie of tedious open-world chores like collecting things performing tasks to for the map.
It feels so uninspired and may have resonated more with me if this open world were as lively and fun as New Donk City in Mario Odyssey. Instead we have the mechanics of "Assassins Creed 2" in "Nier Automata's" world with Sonic trying not to trip and fall off cliffs in typical 3D Sonic style.
Phil, you had a better time with this game than I did. What kept you coming back for more?
Phil: My expectations were low enough that I managed to appreciate what the game managed to do well. Sonic fans have always dreamed of a 3D game that would let them rush, romp and soar through an open world, and this is one of the more substantial efforts toward that vision.
The knocks that held you back didn't detract from the experience for me. The unimaginative backgrounds and bland story, in particular, didn't mean much to me when I was racing through levels, knocking off enemies, and racking up collectibles.
However, I agree that this is a largely lifeless and unnecessary "Sonic" effort. Please give me the 3D retro games any time. 3D continues to be an awkward, marginally excessive round hole through which to ram the square peg that is Sonic.
I'm mildly impressed that "Sonic Frontiers" avoided complete disaster, which is not what you can say for most previous "Sonic" efforts. By in large, this is a relatively polished, rigorous, and deep Sonic effort. But nothing here truly sticks to your ribs or will give gamers an experience that resonates as those games in Sonic's glory days did.
Final thoughts, Sean?
Sean: The seagulls in this game are faster than Sonic Phil. Seeing that made me realize how this game wants to be a new direction for the character but doesn't understand what makes Sonic work. And I think Sonic's identity crisis has been a two-decade problem. Shadow with the guns. Sonic the werehog. The inexplicable romance between a human princess and a blue anthropomorphic animal. Now we have an edgier attempt at being relevant that may appeal to fans of the series desperate enough for a playable and exciting new Sonic experience but for anyone else who will come across a cheap, unfinished mess.
Everything about the design and the story, and the enemies is wrong. The way you can't talk to your friends or progress the story without doing these repetitive chores to collect enough of a sure thing that Sonic then regurgitates in Amy or Knuckles or Tail face to keep the game going kills all momentum in a game that should be all about forward momentum.
The VR sections, which are just copies/pastes of levels from previous games like "Generations," are the most fun I had with the game. They're colorful, the enemies are more interesting, and the music is so much better, (wow is the music and voice acting in this game atrocious, by the way). Everything outside those short sections is a hollow shell, with Sonic meandering around trying to make some fun of it.
"Sonic Frontiers" is trying to keep up with modern game trends, but like the age-old tale of the hedgehog and the seagull, Sonic always seems to fall behind.
The publisher provided review codes. Phil played on Xbox Series X. Sean played on PS5.
Past game reviews by Sean and Phil:
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Diablo II, Resurrected
NEO: The World Ends with You
Rainbow Six: Extraction
King of Fighters XV
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
TMNT: Shredder's Revenge
Capcom Fighting Collection
Capcom Arcade: 2nd Stadium
Cult of the Lamb
TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Star Ocean: The Divine Force