Backlog Review: Sonic Frontiers (Switch)

A bold new era for the Blue Blur that stumbles across the finish line!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 01/11/2023 11:26 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
The open-zone concept provides a fresh mix of Sonic's speed and abilities to provide creative puzzles and challenges for the player; solid soundtrack helps set the mood and compliments gameplay; new move suite makes Sonic feel more versatile than ever; excellent enemy designs
Poison Mushroom for...
Way too many performance problems, including unacceptable amounts of pop-in; not enough changes or variety in the classic stages to warrant yet another rehash of them; controls could have stood to be streamlined a bit

Welcome to another Backlog Review, where we take a look at an older game that fans might have sitting waiting to be played or are still considering giving a purchase. This time we’re looking at Sonic Frontiers.

Sonic Frontiers has been billed by SEGA as an “open zone” adventure. Meaning, for the first time Sonic is able to freely roam an enormous, open overworld. This presents a host of new gameplay ideas for the franchise, ranging from solving puzzles using Sonic’s various speed and agility abilities, to being able to zoom unimpeded through enormous patches of open terrain and really bask in Sonic’s uncanny speed.  Unfortunately, while there’s plenty of positive growth to be found here, there are also a lot of performance and visual problems that hold everything back. Coupled with a move suite that takes some adjusting to learn, Sonic Frontiers can often be as frustrating as it is thrilling.

Sonic Frontiers is set on the Starfall Islands. This abandoned region proves irresistible to Dr. Robotnik, who comes to the islands seeking the abandoned technology of creatures called the Ancients. Robotnik attempts to bend this tech to his will by uploading an AI named Sage into the system, but the process goes haywire and she pulls him into a realm called Cyber Space. Eventually, Sonic, Tails, Amy, and Knuckles find themselves drawn to the same islands thanks to the presence of the Chaos Emeralds, and ultimately they are also all sucked into Cyber Space.

In terms of narrative, Frontiers is a step up from 2017’s Sonic Forces‘ blasé war storyline. Blessedly, the avatar characters from Forces are also gone—this adventure is focused primarily on Sonic. That said, Cyber Space is hardly an inspired name and the retreads of previous Sonic stages feels equally rote. Although Frontiers doesn’t bear an overt anniversary billing in the way that 2011’s Sonic Generations did, the use of old stages here is clearly meant to be in the same spirit as that game. However, where Generations was a true refresh of content from prior series’ entries, in many cases presenting locations in 3D for the first time, in Frontiers there’s little to differentiate present from past outside of a visual aesthetic that sometimes makes the screen look slightly glitchy. Because it’s Cyber Space!

The stages are fun enough to play through, with the ever present red rings back to add an extra touch of challenge for the completionists out there. Still, as though SEGA trotting out Green Hill Zone for the umpteenth times wasn’t uninspiring enough, Sonic’s new abilities don’t do much to spice up the gameplay experiences in these stages, either. A return to Green Hill Zone would have been far more interesting if some of the mechanical ingenuity found in the overworld could have also  made its way into these segments. That said, the stages do serve to prevent any monotony from setting in by focusing on speed and flash, so maybe I’m hand wringing. I can’t help but feel, however, that the lack of any kind of notable twist to the formula was a lost opportunity.

Despite my protestations, one will find that when sitting down and speaking with many diehard Sonic fans about the topic of change, they’ll often say that the familiarity of returning to classic locales like Green Hill Zone, as well as the focus on speedily zooming towards a given stage’s end goal, is exactly what they want. For SEGA it must be quite the conundrum trying to simultaneously appease fans like this writer who would like to see the company do something a little different and the throngs of fans who want more of the same. Regardless, the biggest strides Frontiers has made to advance the series in a new direction come from the aforementioned overworld exploration.

Across the Starfall Islands there are multiple interaction points that are essentially large puzzles to solve or challenges to complete. Many of these interactions involve longtime Sonic gameplay elements like collecting rings, bouncing between bumpers, and grinding rails. In Frontiers, these elements are creatively combined and serve to help Sonic unlock more and more of Starfall to explore. Sadly, while it is definitely enjoyable to open up terrain and fill in the game’s map, the islands feel largely lifeless. Beyond the challenges and puzzles there’s not a whole lot to experience. Sure, Big the Cat offers Sonic the chance to fish (which is well done), and allies pop up to chat with, but the Starfall Islands feel too much like window dressing and not a place where anyone actually lives. It’s a problem that often crops into open world games and Frontiers is one of them.

An area of the game where I struggled somewhat in the early hours of play was learning Sonic’s move suite. To be clear, it’s not that the controls are poorly designed. It was more a matter of having a lot to both learn and, in one case, unlearn. Sonic’s homing attack has traditionally always been mapped to the same button used for jumping. In Frontiers, these attacks are now connected to a separate button, which my muscle reflexes rebelled against for a while. Famously, when working on the original Sonic the Hedgehog for SEGA Genesis, designer Yuji Naka wanted the controls to be limited to a single button. Frontiers moves in the exact opposite direction with a whole elaborate arrangement of button presses and combos to learn. It takes some time to ease into this new control setup for Sonic, but once it does movement and combat both become fluid and engaging.

Visually, this is where Frontiers drops the ball hardest. From a design standpoint, the islands, characters (especially the enormous enemies found throughout the game), and animations all look fine. Where Frontiers stumbles is in the concessions that had to be made to get the game running on Switch. As a multiplatform release, Frontiers is also available on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. On those consoles the game has a much higher visual fidelity. For Switch, a decidedly less powerful system, SEGA has made huge reductions across the board, meaning muddy textures and enough pop-in to make a Nintendo 64 game blush. Performance is mostly locked in at 30 FPS, but the game can glitch out and chug in places, enough to be distracting. A loss in performance is sometimes par for the course when getting a multiplatform title onto Switch, but SEGA really failed to provide an acceptable level of parity in this instance.

Sonic Frontiers deserves credit for being a true departure from previous series installments. The open-zone structure is a great concept that frees the developers up to experiment with Sonic’s speed and abilities in new ways. Where the game comes up short is in its stale rehashing of classic stages, a control setup that could stand to be simplified, and performance woes that suck players out of the gameplay experience. With plenty of DLC and patches on the way, hopefully Frontiers can become a better version of what came out at launch. In the interim, it’s a buggy affair that entertains and frustrates in equal measures.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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