When I was younger, I would play all these inventive, creative, revolutionary video games and then run up to my room, open a notebook full of graph paper that I was ostensibly to use for science class, and start writing down ideas and levels of my own. While these were things that sprung from my mind, they were inherently inspired by what I had just played — sometimes, those new ideas were just carbon copies that never really looked beyond the inspiration superficially.
Based on the very little bit of Sonic Frontiers I have played, it feels like the latter.
I think there will be a lot of discourse about this game, even in the preview cycle, and I imagine a lot of it is going to be a discussion of whether Sonic Frontiers is a train wreck or secretly a great game. It’s likely not either of those things. Sonic Frontiers seems like a game made by people who played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and immediately busted out the graph paper.
The idea of Sonic becoming an open-world game where you traverse vast fields is a good one on paper. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing Breath of the Wild and deciding you should do something similar, but it didn’t work for me here in practice. The planet Sonic has been transported to consists of mostly vast empty areas with soft piano music that plays even while you’re fighting enemies. You’re encouraged to collect little people named weirdly similar names to Koroks (Kocos) to upgrade your stats. Sonic is also tasked with collecting Amy’s memories, visually represented by hearts in the world, to help Amy piece herself back together. I’m not entirely sure why, as the demo did not have a ton of context for this.
It’s hard to tell how old the build I played was, but I suspect it is not the most up-to-date build available to developers. It’s rarely the case that what’s being currently worked on is stable enough to present as a demo, which I point out to say that maybe the demo I played is actually quite old and has been improved upon since. I hope that’s the case, at least, because the game I played was incredibly stiff.
The controls felt like they tried to translate Sonic’s feel from more linear games into an open-world design, and none of it felt good. Running Sonic through open plains should have been a revelatory experience, but instead, it felt like I was trying to navigate an 18-wheeler that desperately wanted to magnetize to whatever springboard happened to be in your way.
To do a homing attack, you would hit the jump button and then X or Square, depending on which controller you were using. This only functions as a homing attack if there is something to be homing attacked with a cursor on it. That’s reasonable! What’s not reasonable is that, when that cursor is not on the screen, the button to do the homing attack becomes a momentum-stopping punch. Like, literally, you just punch in the air and fall like a rock.
Assumed you could home in on a spring or rail you can see but the cursor just isn’t popping up? Sorry, you punched instead! It’s clearly a problem Sega recognizes because there are other parts of the game where punching is disabled, but it remains everywhere else.
Another offensive mechanic that Sonic has is the ability to run a circle around an enemy or an object and have it activate some kind of unexplained power that drops their defenses or stimulates a totem pole or whatever. If you have played Pokemon Rangers, you know what this is. In fact, the demo itself was named Sonic Rangers, and the paperwork I was given also calls the game Sonic Rangers, so I have to suspect that Sega realized this incredibly similar mechanic can’t also share the same name and changed it fairly recently.
The problem with this mechanic is that Sonic runs just agonizingly slow while doing it. I imagine this is so you can accurately close the circle in a pinch, but an upgrade in the skill tree lets you do it faster. If that’s the case, I wonder, why is it ever slower at all? Why is the more fun control a skill that I have to spend points to unlock?
[Update]: I have been informed that you can boost while making the circle, which makes some of that moot. But also, if it gets faster, why does it not just start faster? Boost is a resource you can use, and if the punishment is that the thing you’re doing is more tedious, then I don’t really think the fact that it’s not fun to do is rendered a pointless criticism.
The circle can also be used to solve puzzles; when it’s used on nothing, it just sort of produces rings. I found a fair few areas where I assumed it would solve some kind of puzzle or produce a ̶K̶o̶r̶o̶k̶Koco or something, and instead it just produced rings. I am unsure if it will improve at some point, or if the game will provide more mechanics to engage with, but I was left feeling like it was just a longer button combination to make things happen.
None of this is impossible to fix. There’s little to no chance that Sonic Frontiers ends up in the same league as Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006 or Shadow the Hedgehog in who-the-hell-even-remembers-when. But I was hoping the inspiration that game series like Sonic took from Breath of the Wild would be that reinventing your long-running franchise requires fundamentally thinking and rethinking everything about it. Sonic Frontiers, at least from this preview demo, instead feels like a Frankensteinian reassembly of things the developers believe work well individually.
Sonic Frontiers will be released on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Nintendo Switch this holiday.
Play Days is part of Fanbyte’s Hot Game Summer coverage, where we’re bringing you recaps and commentary on this summer’s game presentations like Xbox’s showcase, the PC Gaming Show, and the all-encompassing Summer Game Fest hosted by Geoff Keighley. If you’re interested in seeing all of Fanbyte’s coverage, check out our Hot Game Summer 2022 hub.