Sonic the Hedgehog has had a pretty rough life. He’s had bright spots (original Genesis and Dreamcast games) to pretty horrible failures (Sonic 06, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, Sonic Forces – yep, I went there). The Sonic franchise hasn’t been afraid to experiment but, if we are honest, most of the experiments haven’t worked. Sonic Frontiers looked to take the experiments to their boldest levels ever. Taking inspiration from other franchises transforming themselves into open-world experiences, Sonic Frontiers thrusts Sonic into a big “open-zone” experience. The results are genuinely not at all what I was expecting. While the game has its fair share of glitches and an overall weirdness you can’t always follow, Sonic Frontiers is a surprisingly fun game you should check out. Just know that the Nintendo Switch experience won’t be as strong of a graphical experience as other platforms.
Sonic Frontiers starts off with a brief introduction to our heroes Sonic, Tails, and Amy. After a digital anomaly, Sonic mysteriously gets pulled into the ‘Cyberspace’ or in this case, a tutorial level set in Green Hill Zone. After you’ve completed this, you’re dropped into the first of five open-zone locations: Kronos Island. It turns out that Sonic’s friends are missing and it’s up to you to find and rescue them.
One of the major aspects of Sonic Frontiers is its open-zone gameplay. Why open-zone and not open-world? “Open world” implies a much bigger world to explore, whereas Sonic Frontiers gives you large, contained areas that aren’t connected. It’s a big departure for the series to have so much space to run around in and it surprisingly works. This freedom finally makes Sonic’s speed a pleasure to use all the time (once you’ve upgraded his running speed to be faster than its default. Honestly, it’s never been more fun to just speed around the zones and see every inch of the island or discover a new path to new areas of the map.
This open-world feel gets elevated to a whole new level with the various rails scattered throughout the zone. These rails lead to other platforms, either high in the sky or out over water, which in turn lead to rewards and goodies (like heart pieces, money or hidden treasure). It makes exploring a lot of fun and I highly recommend taking the time to run around each zone.
The zones themselves are interesting to explore, with all sorts of things you can do, interact with or fight in each area. It’s easy to run for a few minutes and bump into all sorts of different challenges, enemies and side quests. Each zone has a variety of locations to discover. From ancient ruins, giant titans (that you may or may not want to fight right away), to hidden paths inside waterfalls, there’s a lot waiting to be found in each zone. Having said that, I should mention that the game requires you to unlock the map bit by bit by completing minigames, which will open random parts of the map. In turn, the more you unlock, the more complete a picture of the island you get. Although the islands aren’t overly big, it’s still possible to get a bit lost if you haven’t unlocked much of the map.
That’s one downside to Sonic Frontiers, its discoverability. Where a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild pulls you in through teasing you with identifiable world markers (shrines, villages, what’s that thing sticking up over there) Sonic Frontiers has issues with pop in. This means that those identifiers can’t be seen unless you are up on top of them. It’s not a major issue as running around the zone is quite fun and it’s great to run up on a surprise, but it does make it challenging to know where you are and where you are going.
There’s also quite a bit of variety in the minigames Sonic Frontiers has thrown throughout its world. Some of these range from simple “race to this marker before time runs out” to fun callbacks to previous Sonic games. Big the Cat returns and you can do a fishing minigame with him. Sonic can also go back and experience a whole minigame set to the Genesis Sonic Spinball, and so much more. It’s fun and honestly the throwback minigames are my favorite, mostly because you don’t know what is until you play it. Sure, you eventually figure out that an hourglass means a race, and fishing takes place closest to the water. Still, there’s enough variety to keep you engaged in these side quest mini-games.
That said, your enjoyment with the mini-games will likely depend on your previous experience with Sonic. If you are someone who has never played previous Sonic titles or you’re relatively new to the series, the throwbacks won’t mean anything to you. You might enjoy them, you might hate them. I know some people who hated fishing minigames in other Sonic outings and, no surprise, they hate them here, too. Finding the minigames might be your biggest challenge, as they are scattered throughout the zone and sometimes aren’t clearly marked. If you manage to unlock the whole map, then you get to experience the “map throw up”, a term I use to describe when the map unlocks and the game “throws up” every icon, marker, character location, treasure location, beacon, puzzle location on the map all at once.
One of my main issues with Sonic Frontiers is something that seems pretty typical of Sonic games: glitches. Sonic Frontiers feels like it could have used another few months for polish because almost every aspect has glitches. It’s common to glitch through platforms, miss rails, have rewards spawn inside objects (looking at you, gear part that glitched INSIDE a boulder), and hit detection that is all over the place. It’s not a deal breaker as you can usually reload or retry a minigame/side quest/mission and avoid the issue. I shouldn’t have to do this of course, but the issue is so common, that’s the only way to progress. Perhaps a future patch will fix these issues, but for now, the glitches are everywhere.
The other issue I have with Sonic Frontiers is its overall weirdness. All Sonic games have a level of strangeness to them but Sonic Frontiers is weird because of how it fails to explain itself. Take, for instance, your interactions with Amy. After releasing her from the Cyberspace prison sphere, you regularly have to talk to Amy by bringing her heart pieces. Why? Unclear. The game says those heart pieces are Amy’s Memory Pieces, and by giving her more hearts you unlock more of her. Except giving her these pieces has her tell you about the island natives, not her memories or information about the enemies you have to defeat. It doesn’t make senses, and that sort of thing consistently happens during your playthrough. Another oddity is that finishing minigames unlocks parts of the map but weirdly not the part of the map where the minigame is located. Even fighting the titans that roam the zones at first have very little explanation besides “because they are the titans.” There are many moments where you say “wait, what?” and it’s genuinely from a place of confusion rather than surprise.
The last thing that should be mentioned is how the game looks and plays on Nintendo Switch. It’s obvious when you play in docked mode that the game took a steep graphical hit to run on Switch. Environments and details are a bit fuzzy and pop-in occurs at nearly every moment (although I hear this issue occurs on even the newer, more powerful hardware on the market). It’s not a major, game-breaking issue but it is quite noticeable at every moment of your gameplay. Usually the pop-in occurs within about 30 feet of Sonic’s location and it’s not just limited to enemies but platforms, buildings and even the titans. The graphics aren’t as major of an issue when played in handheld mode – the smaller screen does help – although you can still tell things have been downgraded. Regardless of which mode you use, the game runs at a very stable framerate throughout your entire playthrough. Ultimately, it’s exactly what you expect from a third-party title on Switch in 2022.
So, is Sonic Frontiers worth a play? Surprisingly, yes. Sonic Frontiers takes a huge gamble on changing up its entire gameplay presentation and the open-zone approach mostly works. It’s a blast running around in these open zones discovering all there is to offer. There’s also plenty of variety in the side quests and minigames, although you won’t truly love the throwbacks unless you’re a long-time Sonic player. That said, Sonic Frontiers suffers from being glitchy, where you run into graphical issues at nearly every section. It also suffers from major pop-in issues, with noticeably fuzzy visuals and downgraded graphics from other hardware counterparts. It’s also a weird game, even by Sonic standards. There’s still a lot of fun to be had in Sonic Frontiers and I recommend checking it out. It’s the first time in years a 3D Sonic outing has been worth playing and, honestly, I can’t wait to see how they build upon this game for a potential sequel.