‘Sonic Frontiers’ can’t outrun mediocrity

Illustration by Tj Favela
Illustration by Tj Favela

campus editor

SEGA has finally brought its iconic mascot up to speed with the rest of the gaming industry in “Sonic Frontiers” – the latest 3D “Sonic the Hedgehog” outing.

“Frontiers” had a lot to prove to fans of the series since it’s the first mainline Sonic title following 2017s “Sonic Forces.” The game saw the titular character experience the horrors of war alongside a custom-made player avatar who zipped through levels to the beat of vocal J-Pop tracks. It was not well-received.

The game left fans and critics scratching their heads. No one knew why SEGA couldn’t produce a 3D Sonic game that scored higher than a 5/10, or why they insisted on characterizing a 3-foot-tall talking animal as a wartorn prisoner.

It seemed as if SEGA didn’t even know why people liked the series to begin with. But Frontiers aimed to get the franchise back on track by implementing a new open-ended approach.

The game sees Sonic’s cast of colorful friends getting trapped and corrupted in a digital dimension. The only way Sonic can free them is by running fast and doing other Sonic-y things like dismantling robots.

Frontiers takes a hands-off approach to its design compared to previous titles. Instead of propelling players down carefully constructed corridors, the game gives players the freedom to zip around how they want. It’s an interesting pivot, and it has a lot of potential assuming SEGA sticks with it.

The basic idea is to collect tokens to save Sonic’s friends, then collect gears to unlock levels, then play the levels to collect keys, then use the keys to collect the Chaos Emeralds – a series staple.

There’s fun to be had running around the open-ended levels and chaining together various actions like sliding on rails, launching off bounce pads and speeding across ramps.

This type of freeform design feels fresh and easily eclipses anything the series has done before – when the game functions.

The game has a strange way of thanking its players for having fun by actively going out of its way to sabotage them at nearly every turn.

One of the biggest drawbacks of this game is the abundance of technical issues. Sonic games have garnered a reputation for being generally unpolished and technically unstable. But good God, it’s never been this bad.

Sonic gets stuck on certain parts of the environment frequently. Often, running into a crack in the ground will either stop him dead in his tracks or launch him into the ozone layer with no warning. It’s moments like this that make it difficult to justify the game being $60.

The levels aren’t just semi-functional but also pretty ugly. This adventure tries its hand at photorealism, and the result is muddy and lifeless. The levels lack the style of previous Sonic games, and they all blend together by the end.

If players get tired of racing photorealistic seagulls as a blue cartoon rat, then they can take a detour to Cyberspace. This is where players can race against the clock through the traditional corridor-like Sonic levels.

These levels provide a sense of familiarity that contrasts the new open-ended levels well. Despite this, they don’t give longtime fans much to chew on. The layouts and aesthetics are taken from past Sonic games and Sonic’s physics are more inconsistent than in the open-ended levels – somehow.

Cyberspace provides the style the open-ended levels lack, but worse physics and shamelessly recycled content hold it back from being more than a cheap gimmick. Miraculously, making it even harder to justify this game being $60.

That’s the hardest pill to swallow about “Sonic Frontiers.” It just doesn’t feel worth the wait. The game falls short of expectations in far too many areas and struggles to maintain consistent highs. There’s lots of untapped potential in the open-ended format, and when the game is at its best, it’s some of the most fun Sonic has ever been.

The problem is – the game is rarely at its best.