I played a bit of Sonic Frontiers earlier this month, and I found it to be as promising as it is confounding. Sonic's new suite of abilities adds a lot of variety to exploration and combat, and the balance between unfettered speed and platforming precision feels spot on. Sonic feels better than ever to play, but the world he inhabits leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of creating a giant playground for Sonic to run around in, Sega has created a scattered open world filled with individual points of interest that don’t feel connected to one another at all. There’s a Ubisoft sensibility to the way Sonic Frontiers’ world has been designed, which doesn’t represent the qualities that have made Sonic such an enduringly popular series. There’s still a lot of Sonic Frontiers we haven’t seen, but I already can’t help but feel like a crucial component of Sonic’s DNA is missing here.
When I saw the Sonic Frontiers gameplay trailer, something looked off to me about the design of Starfall Islands. I wish I could say that getting my hands on it put those concerns to rest, but they proved to be entirely founded. The world of Sonic Frontiers feels like a collection of tiles, each handcrafted with their own POI in the center, then stitched together randomly without any thought or care for the bigger picture. The result is a world that is full of things to see and do, but nothing that really connects them to each other. It almost seems like this fragmented feeling is intentional based on the map-scan mechanic. Instead of revealing small regions or areas to explore, it instead fills in individual modules on the grid-based map in a random, scattershot order.
There are plenty of things to do in Sonic Frontiers. There are boss enemies to kill, puzzles to solve, collectibles to collect, and obstacles to platform. The problem is that everything is sequestered into its own little area. Every time you finish with one POI, you’ll look to the horizon and find another place to go. Then, you’ll simply run full speed through open land until you get there, stop and engage with whatever you find, then move on to the next. Exploring involves constant stops and starts as you move from one place to the next.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is not what Sonic is about. Sonic games, both in 2D and 3D, have always been about building and maintaining momentum as you travel at high speeds through complex, interconnected stages. A loop accelerates you into a spring which launches you into a tube which shoots you out at a badnik which bounces you onto grind rail and so on and so on until you reach the end of the stage. That's not what Sonic Frontiers feels like at all. Shifting Sonic to an open-world structure would necessitate some changes to the format, but Frontiers has largely abandoned the identity of a Sonic level in favor of a Ubisoft-style open-world checklist of things to do.
When I picture an open-zone game that captures the spirit of Sonic, I think of later entries in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. These maps and zones you explore in those games are big open areas with plenty of individual POIs and objectives to complete, but there’s a flow that makes them feel cohesive and purposeful. Part of the joy of exploring and mastering a Tony Hawk map is discovering the routes and lines that connect each ramp, rail, halfpipe, to each other. Tony Hawk games take the design philosophy of a skatepark and apply it to a city map, and the Sonic developers should have taken the same approach when adapting Sonic’s linear levels into an open-world setting. It just doesn’t make any sense to have a loop or a grind rail out in the middle of an open field, and I hope the parts of Sonic Frontiers we haven't seen feel a lot more connected.
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