As I travelled to EGX 2022, no game hung more in my mind as a mystery as to its quality, but no game also felt more important to get my hands on, than Sonic Frontiers. Fans of the franchise have been burned too many times with lacklustre entries and the best of the IP coming in the decent cinematic adaptations. I remember being underwhelmed playing the Sonic Forces demo at EGX previously, so I was there day one this year with both excitement to try what is clearly a new approach with the blue hedgehog’s latest entry, and fear – given some of the shaky trailers thus far.
The demo at EGX saw us tackling the opening moments of Sonic Frontiers, getting to grips with the open world and its relevant battles with the game’s advertised new combat system. From within the world, players can dash everywhere with the typical rails and bounce pads to navigate the world. Within this world, players can gather gears which are used to unlock stages in “Cyber Space” according to the vague entity guiding Sonic. These linear stages are much more familiar (perhaps a little too familiar) to Sonic fans in the traditional runner levels.
I sat and played the demo, left and felt genuine relief, mostly because in Sonic Frontiers we may finally have a properly good new game in this storied franchise. There are worries – something that we’ll get into – but there were plenty of positives to take away.
For one, those traditional stages have the excellence that the best 3D Sonic levels are known for, those that thrived in Sonic Generations. These thrived mainly through the plentiful space and time that allows Sonic to get into full flow and avoid awkward stopping. Coupled with the level design to keep things interesting with elevation, these levels have the familiar bells and whistles but crucially the room and time to give players ample opportunity to improve.
Additionally, completing the levels in certain times, getting S rankings and collectibles, gives the player additional rewards to then use outside, bringing in additional combat abilities in the world. Much has been made of the reuse of level designs from previous games, but these linear entries may well benefit with that familiarity given the much more publicised open-world section.
I must admit, I sniffed early on when this element was revealed to the world. Maybe because I generally tire of every franchise making open-world entries. However, what is here certainly is promising. For one, the combat seems to have plenty of potential and scope, with combos allowing Sonic to attack from air or ground with his array of moves, and abilities that unlock that will certainly give additional complexity. The demo saw us get access to the Cyloop ability, where dashing draws a line that you use to form an area, then all enemies in the area are damaged. The ability can also be used to activate switches in puzzles in the open world, but also finds good use in an early boss fight against a Tower boss, where it’s easier to use that instead of risking damage from the close range ring of spikes the Tower possesses. The combat also controls easily, tying most actions to jump and the face buttons, and has enough speed whilst maintaining a punchiness and impact. The result is satisfying combat with some scope for abilities and combos to give difficulty.
Perhaps most importantly, Sonic Frontiers feels like a Sonic game; a game that allows the player to properly dictate the pace. The open world can be navigated at the player’s choice, the combat gives the player room and the abilities to tackle it quickly through button mashing and jumping attacks, or slowly with Cyloop and isolating enemies. Players can tackle the linear levels to progress but also replay them to get better and choose when to do so. Some of the poorer entries in the series have seized that control and forced the pace on the player through one-dimensional gameplay loops with little variation (Sonic Forces) or rigid changes between gameplay elements (Sonic Unleashed). It certainly helps that the open-world of Frontiers has a serene atmosphere with gorgeous skies and a bright colour palette that makes it easy on the eye with a tranquil score massively kicking it up a notch in combat. That calmness can – at times – make some of the walking between things a bit tedious. But from the demo, these sections seemed rare.
Sonic Frontiers, from its demo shown off at EGX 2022, sees gameplay that is varied and with plenty of potential. However, I can’t help but still worry. It may be me being a jaded fan but I do think that the potential could go unfulfilled. Revealing the map showed us that Kronos Island didn’t seem massively populated with side quests or things to do. This may mean that whilst the gameplay loop was certainly fun in the context of the demo, there’s a real wonder that if the game stretches to some thirty hours, whether it will be able to sustain that variation. My worry is that it wouldn’t, but given my surprise at this demo, I wouldn’t be surprised if the full game was able to do more.
Sonic Frontiers releases on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch and PC on November 8th 2022. You can grab a preorder from £49.99 over at the Xbox Store right now.