Sonic Frontiers shows great potential, but still feels like a Chaos Emerald in the rough
Despite traveling all the way to Hawaii to try the game, I still can't make up my mind about Sonic Frontiers.
The last decade or so has been a bumpy ride for Sonic, so it is perhaps fitting that the upcoming Sonic Frontiers begins with the iconic hedgehog crash landing on a large mysterious island. Luckily, my own travels went much smoother, but I couldn't help feeling a bit like the character himself, confused and slightly out of place, when I landed at Kona Airport in Hawaii for the last hands-on session with the game before the final release.
While you can certainly point to thematic connections (both the game and the preview session itself takes place on isolated islands) or historical ones (Sega was founded in Honolulu back in 1940) the fact that Sega invited a host of journalists from Europe, Japan and the Americas to the tropical paradise mainly illustrates one thing. Sega is banking - hard - on this game becoming a success.
Having now tried three of the games' four "open zones" in a six-hour long session, I should be able to deliver at the very least a qualified guess of whether that will actually be the case. But to be honest, I'm still undecided. Sonic Frontiers keeps eluding me, delivering at times excellent, fast paced gameplay and stunning presentation while at other times feeling a bit sluggish and generic. At the very least, it's a weird beast, and I respect Sega and Sonic Team for doing something completely different with the character instead of settling down knowing that he is past 30 and a major Hollywood star.
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As you might have seen in the previous coverage, Sonic Frontiers opens on a rainy, desolate island with a sombre piano providing a fitting atmospheric backdrop. A lot has been said about the inspiration from Breath of the Wild, but for me at least, this feels way more desolate and uninviting with few signs of current or former habitation.
How does Sonic fit into all of this? That is the question that gamers have asked since Sonic Frontiers was first unveiled earlier this year. Well to put it simply, he doesn't. Even the industrious Robinson Crusoe spent a few hours crying and cursing the heavens before he made the most of his unwanted island vacation. Sonic is still the easy-going, fast-speeded daredevil, and he doesn't seem the least worried that all his friend have gone missing, or that he is stranded, alone in a hostile environment. This tonal dissonance makes the game - at least in the beginning - feel a bit like a mod, where some clever fan managed to transport the iconic character into a completely different game.
It doesn't take long before it all starts feeling more familiar. Sonic's highspeed move set isn't really made for precise platforming in the way of Super Mario or Rayman, so instead of making all the jumps yourself, you are gliding on rails or being shot off ramps in small platform challenges that kind of feel like being inside a Pachinko or Pinball machines. At the end of the high-speed sequences, you will often find some of the many keys, emeralds and other shiny objects that are needed to continue the story. While fun and exciting, the controls can a times be a bit spotty, and due to the open-zone format, you'll will often have to backtrack quite a lot if you miss one of the last platform beats.
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Luckily there are tons of other things to do besides exploring and collecting everything that glitters. The most exciting is probably the portals leading to Cyberspace - small, time attack stages that play like, and are based on, previous Sonic levels, from classic 2D to the newer 3D affairs. With upbeat music and colourful, flashy visual effects these levels provide short adrenaline sparks, and gives the game some much needed variation. The same can be said for the Mario Party like minigame involving the cute mascot creatures called Kocos, or the simple, but neatly presented fishing mini game.
Occasionally, the game also throws a few puzzles your way, and I'm glad that the room we played the game in, in true American fashion had an air conditioning system that could turn the Sahara into the North Pole, as some of them required a cool head. The real brainteasers don't consist of moving stones, extinguishing torches, or any of that stuff though. Instead, just like in Shadow of the Colossus (quite possibly a more prominent inspiration than Breath of the Wild) the giant robots you'll occasionally get to fight, all require you to scale them in various ways and find their weak spot to inflict sufficient damage, such as when I chased the rainbow-like tail of a flying enemy. It's not too challenging, at least in the early stages, but works well particularly as you'll have to use Sonic's full arsenal of tricks to beat them. The same goes for the normal enemies making even standard encounters feel exciting most of the time.
Despite my issues with the controls, I really enjoyed my two and a half hours on Kronos Island that culminated with a frantic battle as Super Sonic. Admittedly, it played like an interactive music video than an actual boss fight, but none the less it was a climatic end to a great chapter. But then it all went downward. Fast.
The bleak and uninspired dessert landscape of Ares Island failed to capture my imagination, and with few interesting visuals to distract me, the games' issues started to become more apparent. Robbed of all the previously collected items, the Ares Island started to feel like a huge grind, as I constantly run into soft walls requiring me to collect this or that to advance the story. The mechanic is probably meant to ensure that you don't rush you through the game. But instead of gently pulling me in interesting directions, it felt like it was restraining me.
At other times the opposite is the case. Sonic Frontiers seems very eager to distract you with enemies, pop up tutorials and various other screen filler, while you are trying to stay focused on a single activity. Yes, it's all very well that the world feels dynamic, but when different events compete for the attention of the camera, the at times rather finnicky controls become even worse.
Even the excellent combat starts to run into the sand. A couple of times regular enemies seem to forget that they should also attack me, while also the boss fights begin to feel a bit gimmicky. They are still visually stunning, but the action is less exciting, such as when a sand shark dragged me through the desert, while I clung to it's tail by performing - sadly - quick time events. Worse was a huge beast that I was supposed to defeat by gliding on and jumping between concentric rings. For some reason, Sonic seemed to do the very opposite of what I wanted him to do throughout the fight. My blood was boiling, but as it would perhaps be a bit excessive to punch the screen and jump on the next plane home, I made a rather immature gesture and hurried to the bathroom. Boy, Sonic can at times be uniquely frustrating.
Which really brings me to my main concern with the game. Sonic works really well, when all is flowing, but can get intensely frustrating, much more than other platform games, when it doesn't. So, Sega really, really need to design each element with extreme consideration, and at this point I was really afraid that Sega had wasted all their potential, and the last 75% of the game would be meaningless filler. Then came the third island, and once again I'm confused.
At this time, I was concerned that Sonic Team might have squandered the great potential of the opening are, and that the last 75% would be meaningless filler. Other game series might get away with this, but as Sonic is all about tightly choreographed platforming even a slight dip in quality might have you going from gaming heaven straight to Sonic '06. Fortunately, the last area I played restored my faith in the game. Chaos Island is a dark volcano island not previously shown to neither press nor fans. After my disappointments on Ares Island, this new open zone quickly drew me back in to the world of Sonic Frontiers with a regained focus on mystery and suspense.
Thanks to a new save file, I was about 10 hours into the game. While Sonic had learned a few new tricks, such as a Homing Shot, a rain of fireballs straight out of Dragon Ball, the enemies had also evolved, displaying new tricks of their own and being much more aggressive in their behaviour.
Even the landscape itself seemed hostile. Sonic can still dash over even the tallest mountains, but while trying to traverse pits of lava or other obstacles, the camera at times shifted dynamically to a 2D perspective, making for some surprisingly engaging platform sequences. This leads me to adopt a more careful approach to the various challenges, which made the traversal much more enjoyable, and overall, Chaos Island felt like the game had risen from the ashes of the previous level.
I can't really say much more about Chaos Island as the preview session only covered about an hour of this interesting place. But at least it left me feeling much more optimistic, as it shows that the game, even at the halfway mark, is capable of introducing new ideas.
In conclusion it's hard to form a single opinion about Sonic Frontiers. It's a mad game, a brave game, and just like the fast Hedgehog it often seems to go in several directions at once.
One thing is sure though, series producer Takashi Iizuka didn't have a lot of time to spend on the beaches of Hawaii Island, as his team still have some work to do before the release.
First of all, some of the challenges need to be sharpened a bit, perhaps tweaking a camera angle here, a jump there. The same goes for the AI of some of the enemies. Also, the game has terrible issues with texture popping, even on the high-end PC's we used for the preview build. I'm convinced Sonic Team can, if not fix completely, then at least mitigate the issues with some added fog effect or other clever tricks. But it does leave me wondering how the Switch and last-gen versions will turn out?
That being said, I did enjoy about 80 or 90 percent of my time with the game, and I'm pretty convinced Sonic Frontiers will be regarded as a positive development in the franchise. But it still feels a bit like a diamond - or should I say Chaos Emerald - in the rough, and whether Sonic Frontiers will be able to hold its own against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, God of War: Ragnarök and the other major releases in the coming months is simple too early to tell.