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Sonic Frontiers
Featured: Gamescom 2022 Coverage

I've played Sonic Frontiers at Gamescom and it's looking much better

Coming from a downpour of criticism, the blue hedgehog speeds up before release with a more varied, fun demo.

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To me, Sonic Frontiers was the surprise of the day at last week's Gamescom on Wednesday, easily. I unfortunately didn't have the chance to try it out at Summer Game Fest, but the expectations I took to Germany with me could fit in my contact lenses' case. People were very judgemental, and apparently rightfully so, about the game feeling empty, unconnected, glitchy. About the Zelda: Breath of the Wild-like open world being a terrible fit as Link explored an organic, lively world while the hedgehog ran through a lifeless, desolate wasteland. And with all this in mind I sat with the latest PC code in Cologne and played the game's second island for some good 45 minutes. And it turns out that time flew.

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More Mario Odyssey than Breath of the Wild

The place is called Ares Island, you get there about four hours in, and it reminded me much more of Sand Kingdom than of Gerudo Desert. On the one hand, the new build looks more serious, solid and refined tech-wise. On the other, I found a good number of interesting, entertaining activities, with the occasional truly fun moment. I wasn't expecting any of this coming from the previous showings.

In this "open-zone platformer" (you see what they did there) you have to free Sonic's friends from Cyber Space, the digital world threatening to absorb it all. Even though in the new screenshots below you see Amy Rose, in my case I stumbled upon Knuckles the Echidna, who was trapped into some sort of holographic cybersphere, as disoriented as he was amnesic. The goal is to collect his memory tokens in order to stabilise his condition and let him escape. And to do that you can do plenty of things in the vicinity.

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It's worth noting that, naturally, if you haven't played before, it takes a little while to learn or remember the main moves, more so when you can buy and unlock more skills by means of the cute Koco characters. It's crucial to keep an eye on the stamina meter that drains when you boost (R2), and likewise to realise that it works beyond running or flying, also on rails. This was a must to beat one of the enemies. Then, together with dodges, punches and other combat resources, you end up chaining up some combos that get spiced up with the unlocks. By the way, a must-master action is the so-called Cyloop, like a dog-biting-its-tail circular move that allows Sonic to activate artifacts, make enemies motion-sick, or... generate some extra rings when things get tough.

With warm-up and training behind me, I started kicking some asses and seeking for those 25 tokens for Knux. You can also fish to earn more, but I didn't find the oasis in this desert. The weird fishes were sand-based, including an spectacular, armoured sand shark that cued a special battle. There is a lot of scripted sequences and QTE, which becomes repetitive if you don't beat it at first chance (which is impossible without strengthening Sonic's abilities), but I have to admit that the scripted cams were good enough and the transitions looked movie-like.

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I faced a Strider, a bigger, shielded enemy surrounded by grindeable rings. I had to slide through them to "paint" them white as I kept avoiding hazards, and here boosting was as essential as recalling that you can switch rails by just tilting your stick once or using L and R (don't be like me, as I tried to jump manually at first).

Other than these enemies, I found a few platforming and puzzle-like areas, and they didn't seem as scattered as before. With some of these challenges you get stubbornly hooked until you win the reward, for example nailing jumps in-between ramps or aiming your homing attacks and bombs mid-air.

When the night falls things change and, similar to the Blood Moon in Zelda, every certain number of moons a special meteor-falling event gets activated with a slot machine component to increase the prize. It's cool but the slot prompted graphics were a nuisance during boss fights.

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Along the way, besides collecting Knux's memories, you also earn the Portal Gears upon defeating the guardians, which at the same time unlock the portals taking you to the Cyber Space. In there, the Sonic Team also plays with the idea of memories and the past, as fans will find traditional levels inspired by the whole series, as these are the hedgehog's own recollections. For instance, I entered level 2-1 which looked pretty much like the legendary Green Hill, with a superfast side-scrolling approach. However, there are 3D levels too, harkening back to Sonic Adventure and the likes, and all of them are time-attack with several medal-granting challenges.

What about graphics and performance? Artistically, cyber-constructions fit better with the desert ruins theme than in previous footage, so the whole was more cohesive. Technically, it ran smooth in general, but it is true that the popping with platforms and rails a few meters away didn't make much sense, less so when the draw distance is decent and the rest of the stage loads on time. Again, the scripted cams are pretty ok, but there are some irritating abrupt turns here and there. We'll see how the Nintendo Switch handles all this, something I asked Sonic Team's leader Takashi Iizuka about in an interview a few hours later.

At any rate, as I gotta go fast, I left feeling quite differentto when I entered, as I can see myself playing at home starting November 8. There are just too few platformers in this style, and Sonic Frontier's latest build was much more promising. Even if you don't like combat it feels necessary to make things more varied, and it's true that it's the most complex to date, with many skills to unlock. Then there's a whole lot of collectibles to find, and I enjoyed the variety and moving from one thing to trying out something else, as much as the training tutorials. I wanted to play more to unlock other parts of the map, even though music and voices made me remove my headphones a bit before the demo's end.

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