I have had a pretty storied history with the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise. It was one of the first games that I remember playing with my older cousins back in the early ’90s; it became a franchise that, regardless of how divided the quality may be from game to game, I never lost my love for. Part of this sustainability is that the franchise has been multimedia for me for most of the last 31 years. The Sonic the Hedgehog comics published by Archie Comics are the longest running continual comic book series based on a video game and cartoons of one form or another have existed from my childhood through to adulthood, meaning that there was always something to latch onto, regardless of how the actual games have been received.

Nothing will ever impact me more than the original games on the Sega Genesis or the Dreamcast entries: Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2. And in recent years, Sonic Mania proved to be the shot in the arm the franchise needed. I’ll even say that the DLC adding new game modes and playable characters had me returning to the game as recently as this year. But sadly in the last five years, there has not been another game that has garnered any acclaim. A lot of people will complain that Sonic Forces was lackluster, a sentiment that I understand, while still finding some enjoyment during my completion of the game late last year.

Understandably, when Sonic Frontiers was announced in December 2021, I approached with a certain amount of trepidation. The game appeared to be taking cues from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Shadow of the Colossus, using the movement of Sonic to recontextualize what an expansive open world could be. And it should also be clear that, to my knowledge, the team behind the game never wanted the audience to see it as “open world” as much as “open zone” as expressed in the trailer released a few months out from the game’s release. And while all of this had the potential to be very exciting, it came with the knowledge that fans were investing this good will into a Sonic game, which meant it was going to come with some expectation to underwhelm.

Sonic overlooking the expansive world of Sonic Frontiers. Text reads “New Era?”

Reflection and Anticipation

Unlike Nintendo’s Mario, who rather consistently gets the love and care needed to put out reasonably well received games year after year, Sonic the Hedgehog does not have that benefit. It is for this reason that it should not be surprising that most people tend to assume the worst when a new game is announced. I did not want to buy into that cynicism this time, having learned my lesson that no game is really worth reviewing in a vacuum and that I should leave myself open to being pleasantly surprised.

To me, Sonic Mania felt like the evolution of 2D Sonic for the 2010s, but 3D Sonic games have not successfully evolved since Sonic Adventure 2. While it’s easy to look at games like Sonic Colors (2010) and Sonic Generations (2011) as strong 3D games, only the models were 3D and the gameplay of both games were mostly linear courses with minimal room for exploration. So, as the final weeks before this game’s release drew near, I began to affirm that I wanted a game where Sonic can use his speed to run through a world and explore at whatever pace felt right.

For the most part, I have loved this game. Since release day, I have struggled to maintain other responsibilities, trying to put another hour or two into gameplay. After I excitedly got my copy and after playing the game, I was pleased to find that Sonic Frontiers consists of numerous expansive maps that are fun to run around and explore. In truth, playing through the game reminds me a lot more of Mario Odyssey than Breath of the Wild. Even the storytelling is strong here, meaning that the whole game feels like a fantastic joining of ambitious story and game play. And for all its shortcomings, and the game has a few, I think the overall package brings the innovation Sonic the Hedgehog has needed.

Sonic soaring through the air after jumping off a grind rail.. Text reads “Successes''

The Highlights

The landscapes of Sonic Frontiers are beautifully designed to feed a desire for exploration using Sonic’s speed, including a lot of verticality. When first diving in, it can come across that the obstacles strewn across the landscape and sky are carelessly placed. Once you become used to how the game designers have set everything up, it becomes really easy to find a location you want to go to in the distance and visually backtrack until you find a main land starting point to begin your traversal. Exploring is also very fair: you have time to react with Sonic’s homing attack and when you fail to complete an obstacle course, you’re generally a few seconds away from where you started it to begin with.

The game play loop you become accustomed to over the course of the first map worked really well for me, speeding around in search of the map-specific collectibles and portals that lead to short levels recent players would be familiar with. Here you will race to meet goals under four different categories; simple completion, time, total rings collected, collection of the five red rings, which award you with keys meant to progress the game on each of the “open stages.” Additionally, the combat of the game is pretty enjoyable, especially when reaching the spectacle-ridden boss fights. The game gives you a range of possible attacks to use, meaning how you choose to fight your way across each stage is individualistic.

Again, it cannot be overstated just how good the story is, especially if you are someone who has played enough of the games to see the connective tissue. And lastly, I never thought I would say, thank god Big the Cat is here. While not immediately apparent, the voluntary mini game you play with Big allows you to circumvent parts of the game. This was a boon to me, when I reached some of the aspects of the game I did not personally want to grind away after hours of enjoyment.

Sonic running through a cyber space level. Text reads “Disappointments''

The Shortcomings

It wouldn’t be a Sonic game without some criticism. The aforementioned traditional-linear levels you find in the portals are easily the worst part of the game by a large margin. While there will inevitably be a segment in the open stages where the physics ruin your immersion, these moments were honestly few and far between. But Sonic’s abilities are either not present in the levels or are not appropriately calibrated for use in them. Far too often, I would air dash right off into the abyss while trying to move through a platforming section and often would try to meet as many of the completion requirements as I could, so that I would not need to come back ever again.

And if I can be entirely honest, I would say that the mandatory progression of the story required the collection of too many of the scattered collectibles. I had so much fun exploring these different biomes, but eventually there would come a point in time when the last mission or two that was assigned in a respective stage would require me to do so many laps around the stage, that I would eventually just default to going to play the Big the Cat mini game and save myself the hour or two of exploring that lay before me. I think that this would not be an issue if the story could be progressed without needing to find such a high ratio of these collectibles and allow me to come back after the fact, to dive into the lore at my own pace.

All in all, I can honestly say that Sonic Frontiers is my favorite 3D Sonic game that I have played since Sonic Adventure 2. For all the successful elements seen in the last 20 years of games, it brings all of those pieces together in a polished game with a gameplay loop that is almost entirely without flaw. Any misgivings I have are answered within the game. If you’re on the fence, know that this is a great pick-up going into the holidays.

Ryan Sainio (he/him) is a Graphic Designer who loves Sonic the Hedgehog. He read the comics for much of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. He has completed most of the games, but has definitely put the most hours into Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Mania. He realized Tails was named after a “miles per hour” pun in approximately 2019.

MTG Content Creator Awards 2022 nominee: Format Specialty Writing & Excellence in Writing Overall

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