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Sonic Frontiers hands-on: It's new, but at what cost?

Sonic Frontiers on rails
(Image credit: Sega)

Arguably, the biggest and most intriguing demo at the Summer Game Fest Play Day, rounding up media to try out games announced during the online event, was Sonic Frontiers. It’s easy to see why; the Sonic franchise has been struggling for a long time, and Sega has said that it hopes it’ll revitalize the series for years to come. 

“Sonic Adventure laid the foundation for 20 years of Sonic titles after its release, so in the same way I really hope that this new title releasing in 2022 lays the foundation for the following future Sonic titles,” Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka said during a recent investors call as reported on by VGC.

High review scores and massive sales are the goals, and while they're something most video game publishers strive to achieve, it seems more important for Sonic. While the property is doing extremely well in other forms of entertainment right now, it hasn’t had its own foothold in games for quite some time.

Sonic Frontiers was announced with little information but over time, we’ve learned more details that have had some mixed reactions online. It’s clear that this is a different kind of Sonic game from what players are used to. It takes place in an open world filled with trees and strange, brutalist monsters — not in the impossible cityscapes of the past, filled with coins, rails, and boost platforms.

Needless to say, we're left wanting to know what was going on and why Sega chose to take the risk. The demo at Summer Game Fest was a prime opportunity.

I went into the preview, which lasted 30 minutes, with this question in mind. What even was Sonic Frontiers and what made it a Sonic game? It has Sonic elements in it — Sonic, of course, Chaos Emeralds, rings — but does it have a central point that can bring a lot of the new and old elements together? I’m still not sure if Sega was able to balance that new gameplay with the classic Sonic that has defined the blue hedgehog for nearly 30 years.

'Running' into a new, empty world

Sonic Frontiers Towers boss

Sonic fights a spinning tower in Sonic Frontiers. (Image credit: Sega)

The demo starts out with Sonic landing in an unfamiliar world. He’s been separated from Tails and Amy and finds himself in a mostly barren place filled with trees and grass. An unfamiliar artificial intelligence pipes in and tells Sonic what he needs to do, which is travel across this land and find emeralds and other items to help him get back to his friends. Along the way to the first boss, it’ll chime in with other helpful hints and objectives.

You’re immediately thrown into a long tutorial that goes over some basic attacks and how to use the controls. It’s worth noting that you also get the option to choose between two kinds of gameplay. One focuses on fast movement while the other balances that with action gameplay. I chose the latter, but I’m not sure if that was the correct choice. Despite the tutorial, Sonic still moves slowly. There is a boost button, but it only makes Sonic move about as fast as he should be naturally. There are skills that you can unlock over time that make movement and certain abilities faster, but it’s unclear how long it’ll take to get to a satisfactory point.

I spent a lot of my preview session walking, and I mean walking across the landscape.

I spent a lot of my preview session walking, and I mean walking across the landscape. The game attempts to break this up by including optional platforming sections based on classic Sonic mechanics. If you see rings in the distance, you know you’ll have the opportunity to actually move. These are placed regularly along routes and vary in difficulty. They typically involve moving across platforms, bouncing off of balls, and zooming across rails to collect rings and cut through slow walking areas. This is the closest Frontiers gets to Sonic in this open world. It also feels the most like Sonic, but they’re so short-lived. You just go back to walking, hoping to run into another reprieve. 

It's possible if I had chosen the other gameplay option I would've experienced that Sonic speed, but I don't know if that matters. Sonic should be Sonic, no matter the circumstances.

Also breaking up the landscape are puzzles that, when completed, will reveal new parts of the map, and battles with various stone and sculptural creatures. You can skip over some of them, but defeating enemies will grant you currency to upgrade your skills, along with various items. Defeating bosses rewards you with pieces that are super important to progress, although I can’t explain more about what that means just yet. I was able to fight two bosses during my demo, one of which was a spinning tower where Sonic had to bump off different layers of it without getting hit. Fighting the regular enemies felt repetitive, but at least having to defeat bosses required different strategies for completion and actually felt interesting.

It’s worth noting there was a lot I missed while I playing the demo due to the build itself. I have to assume a lot of these issues will be fixed before release, but it’s worrying that the version showed to the press wasn’t primed for this preview. For example, I got stuck multiple times in a tutorial section, designed to try out various moves and combos as the game loaded. I spent a lot of time learning various combos without realizing the game wouldn’t automatically move forward to the next section. 

Even though I knew by the end what a lot of combos did, I still couldn't complete a lot of what the game asked. It's unclear if locking on isn't quite optimized, but there were times when I would hit the button at the right time to bounce off an object and I fell to my death anyway.

It was also clear that the build presented at the event was older. It contained a lot of the same muddy, blurry graphics seen in various recent trailers, and at the top still billed itself as “Sonic Rangers,” which was the project's original title. The screenshots used in this article, provided by Sega, don’t accurately reflect my experience playing the game and look a lot better than the build presented. I’m hoping that some of the loading screen issues will be fixed and the graphics will see vast improvements by the next round of previews, if there are any.

Final thoughts: Sonic Frontiers feels unfinished

Sonic Frontiers puzzles

(Image credit: Sega)

My concerns for Sonic Frontiers go beyond just the older build and the bugs. It’s a preview, and no game is going to be perfect months ahead of release. What stuck with me after my demo, however, was that the game felt woefully unfinished. This is very worrying for a game that's supposed to be coming out this year.

Sega wanted to throw Sonic into a new type of world, one that the franchise had never seen before. It wanted to build a new, more modern structure that the series can build off of for years to come. I get wanting to take risks when something clearly wasn’t working in the Sonic franchise. Why not try something new? 

The company definitely did something new here, but whether it knows how to make that work isn’t clear. Sonic is in a type of open world, but Sonic himself doesn’t work the way he should. He often walks instead of runs, and while you can boost his speed, it never feels like he’s running at Sonic speeds. It also feels like he’s walking around in a world filled with nothing. Developers try to break up this emptiness with battles and segments where you can be Sonic again, but none of it adds anything to the experience. It all feels like filler, something to break up the monotony without feeling like a natural part of the environment.

Developers have taken franchise icons and tweaked them for the modern era. Some of these figures, like Kratos in God of War, have seen drastic changes. The Mario universe has been tested out across multiple genres. However, they’ve been successful because they still feel familiar and cohesive. Some of the best games on the market right now have taken these risks, and it's paid off because they found that balance between old and new, and let the characters breathe. In Sonic Frontiers, Sonic feels trapped, and I wonder if he can be freed in time.

Sonic Frontiers is set to launch in late 2022 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, and PC.

Carli is the Gaming Editor across Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore. Her last name also will remind you of a dinosaur. Follow her on Twitter or email her at carli.velocci@futurenet.com.