Despite its inherent focus on going fast and propelling itself forward, the Sonic franchise has remained fairly stagnant in recent decades. Sonic Team has attempted a big swing here and there, often to no avail - looking at you, Sonic 2006 - meaning the blue blur has undeniably fallen in public stock since the dawn of the 2010s. While his plumber counterpart has continued to push forward 3D platforming with Super Mario Galaxy and Odyssey, it's ironic that the best Sonic game since the turn of the millennium completely undid all the franchise's attempts at progression.
Yes, 2017's Sonic Mania was the unwitting hit that Sonic Team surely can't have expected to make such a splash. Gone were the shiny 3D graphics and increasingly twisty lore, opting instead for an elegy to Sonic's Sega Genesis roots with arcade-style graphics, remixes of original levels, and a much simpler conceit. It was a hit, for sure, but Sonic Team clearly didn't want to rest on its laurels.
Now, say hello to Sonic Frontiers: the big-budget, open-world epic tasked with pushing the hedgehog forward in the same way Super Mario Odyssey did in 2017. It isn't quite as successful as Nintendo's platforming stalwart, but the sheer ambition proves that Sonic's future is much brighter as a result of Frontiers.
Running on empty
The Sonic franchise has never really been famed for interesting, lore-rich stories. The first few Sega Genesis games leaned into that with plenty of self-awareness: next to no narrative aside from the basic premise of Sonic collecting Chaos Emeralds and avoiding the moustached villain, Doctor Eggman. Things got muddier with the 2006 reboot, which attempted a character-driven, sprawling story: one that ultimately ended with Sonic kissing - yes, kissing - a human female. It was tetchy, uncomfortable, and perhaps a suggestion that we don't need Sonic games to revel in narrative complexity.
Frontiers doesn't get quite as weird as other 3D Sonic soft reboots, but it's not a story you'll remember in a hurry, either. Sonic and his friends - this time just the mainstays Tails, Amy, and Knuckles - are sucked into cyberspace via a wormhole, trapping them in the realm of grassy islands inhabited by hulking Titans. At first, it's a matter of pure survival, as Sonic evades an AI threat called Sage. For the first few hours, there's nothing more to it than that: Sonic collecting Chaos Emeralds, chatting with his companions, and avoiding the Titans bearing down upon him.
Things get… muddy towards the latter half of the 12-hour main story. Told almost exclusively through dull cutscenes and flashbacks peppered between engaging platforming sections, there's a narrative arc about ancient societies, wars ravaging interplanetary systems, and an interstellar planet-sized threat at the core of it all. Once the credits roll, you'll be satisfied with the main cast's character work, especially Tails and Doctor Eggman, but left slightly baffled as to what the hell just happened.
Reaching the end zone
But nobody is really playing a Sonic game for its textured and nuanced narrative - least of all one as ambitious in its presentation as Frontiers. Sonic Team is marketing it as the first proper open-world Sonic game, and in that respect, it may be janky, but it's ultimately successful.
I've mentioned it a few times now, but for good reason - Sonic Frontiers feels like it's trying to do the same thing as Super Mario Odyssey. Vast open world, brimming with environmental puzzles, mobs of enemies, and enough busywork to ensure a one-hour play session can easily spiral into four or five. Traversal around each of the five islands is seamless and fluid, even if they don't feel especially different to one another.
Crucially, Sonic Team knows what makes an open-world game tick, and incorporates these elements in a way that feels much more successful than some of its cut-and-paste counterparts. Whether fairly or not, a lot of criticism is levelled at Ubisoft games cramming their open worlds with waypoints, generic enemy encounters, and ceaseless collectibles. Frontiers completely bypasses this problem by making exploration an organic part of progressing through the story, without any of the grind or busywork that makes so many open worlds feel stale. It isn't the best-looking open world you'll see this year - more on that later - but the way Sonic's high-speed gameplay adapts to the open-world formula is genuinely impressive.
That's all alongside portals, which act as mini-levels in which you race to collect Portal Keys required to progress. It's here that the classic Sonic gameplay comes in, with short levels that nail the 3D Sonic formula. It's incredibly rewarding to zip through them, before replaying to collect enough coins, snag tokens, and finish within the target time. After you complete the story you can access all of the portal levels in Arcade Mode, which is perfect if you want something outside of the open world.
But on top of that, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Sonic Frontiers feels like a love letter not only to Sonic, but to retro gaming as a whole. I don't want to ruin the surprise here, but there are a few compulsory levels, as well as some environmental puzzles, that will no doubt bring a smile to those familiar with Sonic's gaming history.
The edge of the (open) world
While the gameplay is immensely satisfying and matches up to the ambition displayed by Sonic Team with Frontiers, it could've used a little more time in the oven. I played on PlayStation 5, and even on next-gen hardware, there were plenty of graphical hitches that briefly take you out of the experience.
The crux of your traversal across the various islands in Sonic Frontiers is using rails that tower above the world, which you unlock by completing puzzles. That's a great idea on paper: a way to speed across islands if you've got a specific objective or waypoint to reach. The problem is the glaring pop-in problems that plague Frontiers, even on next-gen hardware. Rails, obstacles, environments, and enemies will appear out of nowhere right in front of you, and it hugely distracts from the immersion. In a game where your goal is to run as fast as you can, you should never have to watch the open world spawn right in front of you.
It's not a particularly good-looking game, either. Character models are fine, but some of the textures are very muddy, especially when Sonic interacts with the environment. It's not a major problem, but given how Frontiers is meant to be the next generation of Sonic titles, it just needed a bit more time to iron out these minor hiccups.
Sonic Frontiers has been a hugely contentious game since its release. Some admire its ambition and willingness to try something new with the formula, while others think it's a muddled mess with no identity and even less polish. I'm firmly in the former camp: I love how progressive and forward-thinking it feels, even if some of its big swings don't quite come off. I've no doubt that if a sequel sticks to this formula, it'll be even better, but that isn't to say that Frontiers isn't worth playing in its own right.
Fans of the series will adore its drive to bring Sonic back to the pop culture pedestal he deserves to be upon, and the sheer thrill of the high-speed gameplay is enough to paper over some of its technical cracks. It won't be for everyone in its current state, but Sonic Frontiers is one of my favourite games of the year, and proof that Sonic as a gaming titan is going nowhere.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.