Sonic Frontiers has been in the headlines lately, though maybe not for the reasons its developer or Sega would prefer. Fans have expressed skepticism over what they’ve seen of the Sonic the Hedgehog’s next game, even calling for its delay. Sonic Team studio head Takashi Iizuka recently told VGC that these fans simply “don’t understand what this new gameplay is.” And he’s right — until Tuesday, fans haven’t seen the larger scope of Sonic Frontiers, because a large part of the game has been under embargo.
Yes, Sonic Frontiers is an open-world Sonic game, or, as Iizuka calls it, an “open zone” game. But within those open zones are portals that transport Sonic to Cyber Space, an alternate dimension where he gets to sprint, grind, and jump through traditional 2D and 3D Sonic levels that are actually quite fun.
I played Sonic Frontiers earlier this month, exploring the open areas while hunting for portals to Cyber Space. This is the same demo that resulted in a handful of amusingly befuddled previews earlier this month, since reporters were required to keep a major chunk of the game secret. Now, we can finally talk about what may or may not be the full scope of Frontiers’ gameplay.
The demo began with Sonic waking up in a lush green field and being informed by a disembodied voice that he’d successfully escaped Cyber Space. This seemed to be early in the game, after what appeared to be an introductory level that resembled a traditional Sonic course. (The demo was confusing in many ways, including featuring the wrong button prompts for the controller I was given, and being presented in a weirdly low resolution and in windowed format. The booth attendants at the preview event were unable to provide any supplemental information or context about any aspect of the game, so please bear with me through some guesswork.)
This early area of the demo was heavily tutorialized, explaining that I could play in “action” or “high-speed” mode, that I had a map, and that I would need to solve puzzles to earn skill points, collect seeds, vault keys, and little creatures called Kocos, and that I could reclaim Amy Rose’s memories via some kind of tokens. Sonic Frontiers’ demo threw me into the deep end and my half hour with the game didn’t illuminate much.
At some point, I was instructed to use a skill point to unlock an ability called Cyloop, which lets Sonic draw a line behind him as he runs. It can be used to interact with the world in various ways. For example, tracing a circle around some enemies can stun them. At other times, this ability can be used to solve puzzles, I was told. Sometimes, doing it creates a burst of gold rings, though it was never clear in the demo when this would or would not work.
Sonic can jump and slide, run and sprint, accelerating when holding a trigger down. Running around the world feels nice and speedy, especially when you let the hedgehog go into autopilot over consecutive sets of rails, loops, and bumpers. The environment whizzes by in a blur, while you keep an eye on what’s ahead to try and grab as many rings as possible.
During combat, you can lock onto foes, which centers the camera on them and helps aim Sonic’s homing melee attacks. The controls and Sonic’s abilities have been noticeably tweaked for this more open 3D space, but the game will feel largely familiar for anyone who’s played a 3D Sonic game before.
Sonic Frontiers didn’t really start to click until I reached my first Cyber Space level. Portals to Cyber Space are unlocked with portal gears, an item that drops from bosses in the open zones. The bosses I encountered ranged from a relatively small enemy called Ninja that attacked with quick combos while Sonic circled around it; to a large drill that mostly spun in place while Sonic smacked it over and over; to some sort of massive tower whose spinning arms sprouted helpful blue booster rings so Sonic could climb to its head and attack its weak points. These bosses all shared the same otherworldly sterile sci-fi robot aesthetic, and they weren’t exactly challenging. Granted, this was an early area of the game.
I played through three different Cyber Space levels. Two were 3D courses in which the camera raced behind Sonic, similar to the Sonic Adventure games. In the third, the camera spun around to Sonic’s side, turning the 3D course into a side-scrolling 2D level à la classic Sonic the Hedgehog. All three courses were pure Sonic: I strung together jumps and slides to maintain the hedgehog’s speed, bouncing from obstacle to obstacle, dodging enemies, collecting rings, and hurtling through checkpoints to reach the next set of boosters, bumpers, and rails. Granted, Sonic has no roll ability in this game (that we know of, at least), but these levels still felt satisfying and fun to play.
It seems the Cyber Space levels will be the real meat of Sonic Frontiers. I can imagine a gameplay loop where you explore the open world, solve puzzles, and defeat bosses, to access portals that send you to Cyber Space for classic Sonic fun.
But this format does highlight one potential issue with Frontiers: If the classic-style levels are what’s really fun about the game, why not just make that the game? The open-world puzzles will have to become a lot more engaging — and the bosses more challenging — than the ones I played in this demo in order for this “open zone” mash-up to work.
Otherwise, Sonic Frontiers will simply feel like a series of traditional Sonic levels unnecessarily shoehorned into a bland open world, filler in between the moments of fun.