Sonic Frontiers Preview: Open Zone Is Different To Open World (And That’s Good)

Sonic Frontiers Preview: Open Zone Is Different To Open World (And That’s Good)

Sonic is 31 now, which means his knees probably ache a bit in the winter, so it makes sense that Sonic Frontiers, the latest Sonic game, changes the tempo players are used to. He’s still ‘gotta go fast’, but he also does a bunch of exploring now.

The idea of an ‘open world’ Sonic game is an odd one. Sonic’s whole thing is speed, and an open world is generally one where you stop and smell the flowers. Sonic Frontiers, however, is an ‘open zone’ game, and while it’s easy to get the two somewhat confusing terms mixed up, the difference is important. It seems that an open zone game is five open world islands, which still allows for some linear storytelling, and also means that if there’s an island you don’t vibe with, you know you’ll have somewhere new to discover in a few hours.

I recently spent roughly 6 hours with Sonic Frontiers, and while I have no idea what the finished game will be like, and am still a bit mystified about what the story is, I liked most of what I saw.

What Is Sonic Frontiers About?

onic Frontiers game screenshot

In a shocking turn of events, Sonic’s friends have been scattered across various islands in cyberspace because Dr Eggman did something dumb, and now Sonic has to save them by running really fast, finding things, and fighting stuff. There’s more nuance to it than that, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you, and also I don’t know a lot of the details either.

That combat thing is new for Sonic. There are combos now, and when you finally pull a good one off, it’s really satisfying. Most combat in the preview was just “press X a whole bunch until you need to parry or do something special”, but I didn’t find it overly repetitive, because landing special moves felt good, and combat isn’t the whole focus.

The more combat you do, the more skill points you get to unlock stuff in your skill tree, which is even newer for Sonic. I would have preferred it if the skill tree had more branches, so that choice mattered slightly more. However, I was interested to note that the tree was mostly filled by Island 3, so there’s a chance more branches may grow in the late game.

Either way, the tree seems like a good way to introduce younger players to the concept if they haven’t seen one before, which is perhaps why there isn’t quite as much punishing choice in it.

In the preview, I spent roughly 2 hours each with the lush, green Kronos Island (island 1), deserty Ares Island (island 2) and volcanic Chaos Island (island 3). I also got to see a Titan battle, which is the big boss battle at the end of an island with a giant Titan who can be brutal if you forget how to parry (random example). There are two more islands, but I didn’t get to see them.

What’s good about Sonic Frontiers?

Sonic Frontiers screenshot

My favourite part of the game was all the discovery. While I’ve always enjoyed Sonic games, I’ve felt that they lacked the easy fun of Mario titles, as well as much emotional connection. From the opening cut scene of Sonic Frontiers, I liked these characters and felt invested in their well-being.

For Sonic fans worried about being thrust into a totally new style, don’t despair. You’ve still gotta go fast, and at times you get to rediscover classic Sonic levels in Cyberspace. The basic aim of the game is fight enemies –> get portal gear –> use the gear to go through the portal to cyberspace –> do a classic Sonic level with objectives to get vault keys –> use the vault keys to get Chaos Emeralds –> use the emeralds to get to the Titan boss battle.

The classic Cyberspace levels were my favourite, even if some of them felt almost impossible at the time.

My favourite island was a toss up between Island 1, because it felt so lush and green and new, and I really liked the Kocos I met, as well as interacting with Amy. Kocos are the adorable answer to the question “what if EC from lift off was just a head that could bounce and had a child’s xylophone in it”, but with more interesting inter-personal dramas. I also got involved with the most side quests on island 1, which made the journey feel more full.

Chaos Island, island 3, was another stand out. I liked all the lava everywhere, possibly because it reminded me of the Hawaiian island I played the game on, and the dried lava that surrounded the huge volcanoes there. I still don’t vibe with Tails as a character, but the exploration on that island was really interesting, even if I’ll be happy if I don’t have to deal with another grind rail for a little while (good lord are there a lot of grind rails in this game).

Sonic’s most useful power in Sonic Frontiers is the Cyloop, where he runs around enemies and reduces their defences and also finds stuff. Having that ability as well as combat really added to the satisfying nature of the puzzles.

Another classic Sonic trait – losing rings and dying when you run out – works well in this context and makes the stakes feel both higher and lower at the same time in a way that I enjoyed. You could be mid battle, get punched, and suddenly abandon the enemy for a moment to pick up some rings to save your life. It’s kind of how it feels when you’re carrying a lot of random bits of stuff around your apartment and they start falling. Relatable.

After a while in each level, the novelty of repeatedly pressing X wore off and defeating enemies became a merely a means to getting the cogs I needed to go to Cyberspace to get vault keys to get the chaos emeralds. Which is fine, because I loved the cyberspace levels. At this point, a whole game in the classic Sonic style would be a bit much, I don’t want that for 10 hours. However having these Cyberspace levels to beat really broke up the game and made the balance feel good.

It’s going to be a great game for completion-ists, because when you look past the running at its combat, Sonic Frontiers is just a collector platformer (affectionate).

What’s not so good about Sonic Frontiers?

Sonic Frontiers screenshot

I found the difficulty level a bit punishing, which made me wonder exactly who this game is for. The writing is a touch childish for adult Sonic fans, but the gameplay is a bit brutal, making me wonder how well kids will go with it. It feels like a game that would be way better with couch co-op, because it’s one that I think would be better shared with someone, or allowing a parent to help their kid. Being able to play it in co-op with my wife would elevate it to GOTY contention, but solo just feels like a missed opportunity.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy island 2 all that much (even though I love Knuckles), because it felt a little empty. The fun of an open world is walking around and meeting people, and while there was a bit of that on island 1, I didn’t experience much of that on islands 2 or 3. On 3 it was ok because I enjoyed the exploring and traversal so much, but 2 didn’t quite find that balance in my opinion.

I also didn’t feel like it was a game I really wanted to play for 6 hours non-stop. Perhaps this was because after a couple of hours in each island we were yanked out of our save and put into a save with the other island, so I didn’t see how the islands flowed into one another, and I didn’t get the satisfaction of finishing anything over such a long period of time. But it felt more like a game that was suited for snacking a couple of hours at a time. That’s not a bad thing, people have busy lives and snacking games are great, it just feels important to note.

Another thing I was less-than-thrilled-by is that these open zones lacked many of the things that make open worlds feel like places you want to live and never leave. These often felt lonely, harsh and uncomfortable by design because that’s the experience Sonic is having, however that’s not an experience I want to be having. It’ll be interesting to see how it feels when it’s possible to play from beginning to end, because context will make a huge difference to that feeling and sense of purpose.

Sonic Frontiers – I can’t believe it’s not a verdict

Sonic Frontiers screenshot

I can’t give a verdict on a preview. However, I can say that Sonic Frontiers seems to do a really good job of balancing the needs of new Sonic fans with people who have been playing for 30 years. It seems well targeted at kids who like the TV show and movies. This also has something for people who like the idea of Sonic, but get tired of always running.

I’m still a little on the fence, because there are so many gaps in the story that I’ve seen, and I feel that the immersion and investment in the islands will come down to how well that’s executed. This isn’t a Sonic game of old where you come in knowing exactly what to expect and knowing that even if the story doesn’t make sense, you’ll have a good time from start to finish if ‘gotta go fast’ is a style you enjoy. There is a buffet of play styles here, so the connective tissue will be key. But that’s the fun of previews, and why they’re not reviews. The fact that I feel this keen to know how it’s all going to work is a really positive sign. It’s something I would want to play day one, even if it wasn’t my job to do so.

All up, Sonic fans (and, let’s face it, Zelda Breath of the Wild fans) should mark their calendars for November 8 2022, when Sonic Frontiers hits stores.

Alice Clarke travelled to Hawaii as a guest of Sega.


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