We’re at a new turning point in Sonic’s 30-year history. The cult favourite gaming mascot is once again a mainstage attraction, besting Sony’s Uncharted at the box office and spawning a new Netflix series. And after making the jump from side-scrolling platformer to 3D soap opera, the series is now going open world in its most ambitious entry yet with Sonic Frontiers. But the recent trailers have fans worried, and after 30 minutes demoing the game hands-on it left me unimpressed.
I played the game while attending Summer Game Fest last week in Los Angeles and while I’m not ready to write it off just yet, I do remain incredibly sceptical of what Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka and his crew are attempting. The demo opened with Sonic, separated from furry comrades Tails and Amy Rose, dropping out of a wormhole into a bucolic archipelago called the Starfall Islands and being enlisted by a mysterious AI to go find the Chaos Emeralds. From there I set off to explore puzzles, grind on rails, and fight the occasional boss. My time spent was occasionally fun, often messy, and usually pretty rough-looking.
I’ve put off writing these impressions in part because there was not a ton to actually do in the demo. We panned recently revealed footage of Sonic Frontiers as looking like a bland Unreal Engine project. The game looked better in person, especially when the skies cleared up and the sun began to set (the islands follow your standard abbreviated open-world day and night cycle), but it was still mostly empty.
Pockets of enemies here and there could be demolished via a new combat system that includes a flurry of automatic punches and kicks, defensive dodges, and even a timed parry mechanic. I solved light spatial puzzles like stepping on pressure plates or navigating launch pads to unlock collectibles. And occasionally an open runway with speed boosts let me collect rings while dashing up a small mountain path obstacle course. I quickly got bored.
I wasn’t immediately pulled in by how Sonic feels to control either. Something felt off. It never seemed like he was building up momentum in a satisfying way, and the complex and uneven topography made it hard to go really fast for really long stretches of time (of everything Sonic Frontiers seems to crib from Breath of the Wild, the green stamina ring icon that depletes while boosting is almost one-for-one). Combat and arial traversal rely on a finicky targeting system to make sure Sonic aims his spin-attacks in the right direction.
Toward the end of the demo I faced a giant boss called The Tower and for a moment it felt like I was in Shadow of the Colossus. It was a briefly grand moment cut short by fighting both the camera and Sonic’s jittery move set as I struggled to hit the enemy’s weak spots without continually falling off the side. When the camera, aiming, and movement all line up, Sonic Frontiers gets close to nailing an esoteric but rewarding way of navigating a sprawling map. The rest of the time it felt like a nuisance to navigate.
If I’m sounding harsh it’s because the demo didn’t do a great job of showing how Sonic Frontiers’ open-world elements will unlock new potential for the long running series. It felt rough and incomplete, and didn’t nail any one small thing I could then point to and say “That was fun — let me do that for a whole game!” In fact, the graphics and lacklustre art direction felt like the least of the 2022 holiday game’s problems. To be clear, I think there’s a version of Sonic Frontiers, based on what I was shown, that can all come together and be great. I’m just not confident, based on my limited time with the demo, that Sonic Team will get there soon enough.
Despite some fans rallying around the #DelaySonicFrontiers hashtag, Takashi Iizuka told VGC that there were no plans to do that right now, and that the team is actually quite happy with the results and internal feedback so far. It’s also unclear just how old the build was that I and other journalists played, with IGN reporting that its initial preview was based on a much earlier one. Otherwise, Iizuka and the rest of Team Sonic still have their work cut out for them. Sonic Frontiers is set to launch on Xbox, PlayStation, PC, and Switch before the end of the year.