Sonic Frontiers, you’ve probably already noticed, didn’t look too hot upon its proper reveal earlier this month. With gameplay demos that were rough around the edges and an open world that was strikingly sparse, there’s the hope that a first chance to play it might turn things around but first impressions really aren’t promising. Shakily running on a PC at a low resolution that doesn’t do the visuals any favours, the button prompts for the tutorial are incorrectly labelled and there’s almost a sense of polite embarrassment from the Sega representatives manning the booth, not helped by the car crash quality that drew small crowds when the rough demo was first fired up at Summer Games Fest.
Which is a bit of a shame, given how Sonic Frontiers plays an awful lot better than it looks – faint praise, perhaps, seeing as in its unpolished, unfinished state it looks frankly horrendous, but praise nevertheless for what’s quite easily the boldest, bravest shift the series has seen since 1998’s Sonic Adventure. I think Sonic Frontiers has a fair chance of landing the transition to an all-new style as effectively as that game – faint praise once again seeing as Sonic Adventure had more than its fair share of flaws, but this is Sonic we’re talking about and things haven’t always been straightforward.
Get up and running in Sonic Frontiers, though, and there’s a decent amount of promise in a Sonic game that’s not about simply moving forward. Team Sonic is insistent on using the term ‘Open Zone’ rather than open world (you can read a bit more about what precisely that means in our interview with producer Takashi Iizuka), and it’s certainly a more focussed map that’s on offer, even if you’ve the freedom to explore it at will.
I understand some of the reticence around it, because when viewed as an open world game Sonic Frontiers hardly inspires. It’s an open space liberally littered with various collectibles – there are seeds you can collect that will enhance your attack or defensive powers, tokens to be collected and portal gears obtained from beating bosses that help you unlock new areas, while on your travels you’ll come across small puzzles and platform challenges. It doesn’t sound like much, or look like much.
There is an emptiness to it, as you’ll have noticed in those gameplay videos, and this demo certainly can feel sparse – it’s a small section of the map that’s on offer, within only a handful of challenges and a couple of bosses to take down in order to collect enough portal gears to progress to the next gated off area with the vague promise that as you progress there’ll be more unlocked and more to play with. That emptiness, though, lets you feel through Sonic’s new moveset for Frontiers – one that’s a joy to play with, and promises a fun toolset should be in place for the final game.
Sonic can dash (there’s even a sprint button you activate by clicking the left stick), he can perform his floor slide and he can now boost drift through the air, describing a lazier arc when doing so while the homing jump is used to string together combos and snap you towards grind rails in the open zone.
It feels like a much more fully-fledged 3D moveset than the likes of Sonic Adventure’s small open fields, and most importantly it’s fun to fiddle with, chaining moves and trying to traverse the world with as much style as possible. The camera can be a hindrance at times and it’s not quite the dream of 3D Sonic as an extreme sports game but it does invite experimentation, and it’s enough to make me anticipate Sonic Frontiers’ more fleshed out world with some excitement. (Iizuka suggests in our interview that the world will become more populated as you progress, with new grind rails and platforming interludes being introduced as you become more familiar with this new style of Sonic).
There’s the new combat, too – and the incongruous sight of a Sonic game with hit points and enemies that come with extended health bars. For all that, though – and the presence of skill trees and upgrade paths that let you choose whether to invest in your platforming or pummelling skills, something Iizuka says is simply down to offering more player choice – this Sonic does a fairly effective job of its 3D fighting action, equipping the player with dodges and even a parry to make for encounters that are engaging.
And it’s emboldened by some moves of Sonic Frontiers’ own, such as the cyloop that lets you hold down a button to sketch a patch around groups of enemies, linking up each end of the circle to deal out damage to everything encircled within. It’s a new move that feels in keeping with classic Sonic, and it feels fantastic sketching out circles painted by lines of dancing colour as you quite literally run rings around your enemies.
It’s at once faithful while also forward thinking, and suggests that for all the lack of polish around Sonic Frontiers – something which can hopefully be remedied in the months leading up to release – it is at least investing some of the imagination that was sorely lacking from the likes of Sonic Forces. Indeed, for all its issues it looks like it could be Sonic Team’s most interesting take on the series since Sonic Adventure – something to be wary of, perhaps, but having got to try it out for myself it’s now something I’m also cautiously optimistic about too.