I played a bit of Sonic Frontiers earlier this month and found it to be both promising and confusing. Sonic’s new set of abilities adds a lot of variety to exploration and combat, and the balance between unfettered speed and precision platforming feels perfect. 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 sparse open world filled with individual points of interest that don’t feel connected to each other at all. There’s a Ubisoft sensibility to the way the world of Sonic Frontiers was designed, which doesn’t represent the qualities that have made Sonic such an enduringly popular series. There are still plenty of Sonic Frontiers we haven’t seen, but I can’t help but feel like a crucial component of Sonic’s DNA is missing here.
When I saw the gameplay trailer for Sonic Frontiers, something struck me as strange about the design of Starfall Islands. I wish I could say that getting my hands on it cleared up those concerns, but they turned out to be entirely well founded. The world of Sonic Frontiers feels like a collection of tiles, each crafted with its own POI in the center, then randomly put together without thought or concern for the big picture. The result is a world full of things to see and do, but nothing that really connects them to each other. It almost feels like this fragmented feeling is intentional based on the map exploration mechanic. Instead of revealing small regions or areas to explore, complete individual modules on the grid-based map in a random, scattered order.
There are many things to do in Sonic Frontiers. There are enemy bosses to kill, puzzles to solve, collectibles to collect, and obstacles to platform. The problem is that everything is sequestered in its own little area. Every time you finish a POI, you will look to the horizon and find another place to go. Then you’ll just sprint through open terrain until you get there, stop and tackle whatever you come across, then move on to the next one. Exploring involves constant stops and starts as you move from one place to another.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is not what Sonic is about. Sonic games, both 2D and 3D, have always focused on building and maintaining momentum as you travel at high speeds through complex, interconnected stages. A loop accelerates you into a spring that launches you into a tube that shoots you into a badnik that bounces you off the rail and so on until you reach the end of the stage. That’s not what Sonic Frontiers feels like at all. Changing Sonic to an open-world structure would require some changes to the format, but Frontiers has largely abandoned Sonic’s one-level identity in favor of a Ubisoft-style open-world checklist of things to do.
When I imagine 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 that you explore in those games are big open areas with lots of points of interest and individual objectives to complete, but there’s a flow to them 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 every ramp, rail, half-pipe to each other. The 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 to an open world environment. It just doesn’t make any sense to have a loop or grind rail in the middle of an open field, and I hope that the parts of Sonic Frontiers that we haven’t seen feel a lot more connected.
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