Our concerns and hopes for Sonic Frontiers

I think we need to talk about Sonic Frontiers. When I recall the things I grew up with and adored as a child, Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the first characters that pops into my head. I was obsessed with the games on the Sega Mega Drive, and my parents could attest to just how much I loved the character — they were pretty damn sick of me talking about him all the time!

Unfortunately, Sonic hasn’t had the greatest success since moving over to the realms of 3D back in the early 2000s. Sure, there were some games I remember enjoying, such as the Sonic Adventure series, but looking back on them can be a pretty depressing experience sometimes. 

Now here we are in 2022 and we’re about to do something we’ve never seen the blue blur go through before: an open-world game. In the last month, we’ve seen quite a bit of gameplay from Sonic Frontiers, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns.

Our Concerns About Sonic Frontiers

Why open world?

Breath of the Wild really had a lasting impression on open-world RPGs eh? I’m joking, of course; there were many open-world RPGs that came before it — indeed, the RPG genre is one most suited to open-world gameplay — however, you can’t deny that Breath of the Wild had quite the impact on gaming in general.

Breath of the Wild showed how purposeful an open world can be; everywhere you looked, there was something that had a reason to be there, and the tools you had at your disposal gave you a ton of freedom. You see a camp of enemies, sure, you could just run in sword-a-swinging and throw caution to the wind as you take them all on at the same time. Or maybe you could take advantage of that boulder over there by blasting it into the camp at rocket speed using your time-stop power. 

Now let’s get back to Sonic Frontiers, a game where our focal character’s whole thing is moving fast. My kneejerk response was that Sonic and open world aren’t something that should ever be mixed together. One of the most important things in a Sonic game — the thing that has always made the games feel good in both 2D and 3D — was careful level design.

Sonic Generations was probably my favourite Sonic game since his 3D debut, and it’s because the levels felt so carefully crafted and designed with the sole intent of a character moving through them at breakneck speeds. I will happily eat my words if this isn’t the case for Sonic Frontiers, but I just can’t imagine an open-world terrain working in a Sonic title. 

Sonic Frontiers

The lack of Sonic aesthetics

One of the biggest issues I have with Sonic Frontiers is the overall aesthetic. Sonic games are known for levels like Green Hill, Chemical Plant Zone, Casino Night Zone: vibrant and beautiful levels full of life and colour. So why on Earth does this game look like someone just plonked Sonic into a world made by Bethesda? If they were dead set on making the game open world, surely going with a world that looks like Sonic fits in would have been a better idea.

What makes this choice even more bizarre is all of the speed boost pads, jump pads, and grind rails that are just randomly dotted around Sonic Frontiers’ world completely clash with the realistic look that they’ve opted to go with. Again, I don’t think this problem would even exist if they had just decided to create a huge expansive version of something like Green Hill Zone rather than Skyrim — though since the initial reveal we have, at least, seen that there will be some return to classic form through the “Cyber Space” stages, both in terms of linear stage design and aesthetic. 

Next up is the enemy design, and I can’t help but feel like the enemies we’ve seen from the Sonic Frontiers trailers so far just look like random shapes with zero personality to them. When I think of random jobber enemies from Sonic games, I picture the angry robot piranhas or the goofy-looking wasps. While you only see them for a second and then forget them, they had colour and were certainly more memorable than the geometric baddies that Frontiers seems to be sporting. 

One of the trailers also showed off something that reminded me a little bit of the large guardians from Breath of the Wild, and while it definitely looked quite cool at first, it looks like it could get quite repetitive. The fight is against a huge enemy with three arms which Sonic needs to run up and then destroy three weak points on the enemy’s head.

As I was watching the fight against this enemy, it suddenly dawned on me that this enemy almost looked like it was designed specifically to be defeated by our favourite fast hedgehog. I get that it’s an enemy in a Sonic game, but it has ramps for arms and even shoots out rings that speed Sonic up. Could well be fun once — but what happens if you encounter more over the course of the game?

Sonic was a large piece of my childhood and it really sucks to see things going in a direction that I don’t think will end well. With the surprising success of the Sonic movies — which I don’t think anyone was expecting — I think I had a glimmer of hope for future Sonic games. Hey, maybe I’ve just outgrown Sonic and I’m just desperately trying to hold onto a piece of my youth. If that’s the case, I really hope all the kids adore this new adventure for a character near and dear to my heart.

A second opinion

Hello! Editor Pete here. While I agree with a lot of Conor’s points on Sonic Frontiers above — particularly the incredibly bland-looking open world scenery — I thought I’d stick my oar in on a few points that I think are still worth considering, and which might provide some hope for the game yet.

I speak as someone who deliberately marathoned most of the mainline non-handheld Sonic games a few years back, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the vast majority of them being considered “bad” was little more than a meme — people being told that “Sonic in 3D was always bad” and then just accepting it without question or attempts to explore them for themselves.

There are a few folks to blame for this. Game journalists, for one, who seem to have always had trouble engaging with Sonic games beyond Adventure 2 on Dreamcast, and have all too often dismissed more recent 3D Sonic games without really putting any time or effort into them. (Generations was the sole exception, interestingly, despite it doing a lot of things very similarly to the games immediately either side of it.)

Then there’s a few specific people who have done a fair amount of damage to public perception of the Sonic series. I’m a big fan of the YouTubers Game Grumps, but even I can’t deny that Arin’s attitude towards the Sonic series over the years really hasn’t helped public perception of it; we live in an age where if someone’s favourite YouTuber doesn’t like something, they don’t like it either. And that’s particularly frustrating if said YouTuber sometimes deliberately tries to play up a game’s flaws.

Anyway, I won’t get too hung up on that point, but suffice to say I’ve always been someone who prefers to make my own mind up about things, even stuff commonly regarded to be “bad”. I even enjoyed Sonic 2006 when I played it; I recognised some of the issues it had, sure (most notably its atrocious load times) but I genuinely enjoyed the experience as a whole a lot more than I had been led to believe I would.

With this in mind, I’m skeptical but hopeful about Sonic Frontiers. Like Conor, I feel like open world is not a great direction for Sonic to go in — but I can also see how it might work if done well. Question is: have they done it well? The unsuspended floating rails and randomly placed pads all over the place don’t fill me with confidence, but I think it’s important for us to reserve our judgement until we see the finished thing.

More positively, the recently revealed Cyber Space stages look fantastic — precisely what we should be having in a 3D Sonic game. I sincerely hope that these make up a fairly substantial, important part of the game, because they look like a lot of fun that remains truly authentic to the classic Sonic look and feel.

So I guess we’ll have to wait and see. This could be a grand new dawn for our favourite blue hedgehog — or it could be consigned to the dustbin of history. Either way, I’m going to play it, and if nothing else, it’s going to be an interesting experience!

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Conor Evans
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