James Stephanie Sterling
Sonic Frontiers - A Load Of Blue Balls (Review)
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
Sonic Frontiers Released: November 8, 2022 Developer: Sonic Team Publisher: Sega Systems: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One/XS (reviewed)
It’s been a long time since a game has worn out its welcome as swiftly and comprehensively as Sonic Frontiers. I began playing it with such hope, a hope dashed in totality as what could have been a fresh start for the series revealed itself to be the same old garbage we’ve seen from Sonic before - now amplified to the point of hateful self-parody.
My first clue came within an hour of play. After having a nice time exploring the starting area and discovering surprisingly enjoyable combat, I was introduced to the first large-scale miniboss - a hulking robot that I was supposed to run up the arms of before attacking a target atop its head.
The fight was a fucking mess. The videogame equivalent of gibberish.
I need to stress that I really, really wanted to like this game. I tried to see the positives. I tried my hardest. At its best, there’s a glimpse of fun environmental puzzles that trade in the cluttered chaos of an average Sonic title for a laid back, even relaxing time. That’s how Frontiers introduces itself - a chill experience in which you search for speed boosters, springs, and grind rails to get around the world and gather treasures.
The fighting system - at least for small scale enemies - is refreshing for a series that long ago trivialized combat and turned enemies into glorified stepping stones. Opponents actually have hit points now, requiring fast-paced combos rather than one-hit homing kills. There’s dodging, rudimentary parrying, unlockable special moves. It’s rather fun… when it works.
These few positive elements are sadly twisted by the corrupting influence of Sonic Frontiers’ gargantuan ineptitude. Any potential for quality is perverted in short order owing to the fact that so little of this game isn’t astoundingly fucking broken.
Sonic’s physics are unreliable, randomly sending him flying off in random directions as he attempts to dash along an intended path. Said physics are downright useless for any platforming requiring an ounce of intricacy, what with his tendency to overshoot jumps and unpredictably slide around surfaces. Locking onto a target sometimes doesn’t work or erratically flits between multiple competing options. Special attacks can fail to trigger for no discernible reason. The environment and everything in it is mechanically glitchy - grind rails and platforms can be fallen through, scalable surfaces may fail to activate Sonic’s climbing animation, etcetera. I’ve needed to reload a level because collapsible floors kept falling apart before I reached them. Sonic feels horrible to control in general - his momentum is capricious, his jumps are stodgy, everything he does is unresponsive as a baseline.
Some of these criticisms apply to dozens of prior Sonic games, but whether new or not, Frontiers brings every flaw to a melting point. It manages to represent all things wrong with Sonic games as a series while maintaining its own uniquely horrendous flavor of wreckage.
Frontiers’ camera is possibly the biggest offender. Defective to the point of legitimate antagonism, it’s the most dangerous threat any player could face. It’s confused by literally anything that happens. It shakes and zooms at a sickening pace, often rips itself out of the player’s control to distractingly focus on any number of surrounding targetable objects. At times, it’s fixed in place at a slight angle, making it difficult to work out exactly where Sonic’s stood relative to the world. It can spontaneously shift while you’re in the middle of a jump, completely throwing off your sense of direction and causing you to fall. The litany of ways in which it can fail hark back to the earliest days of 3D game design, long before standardization made such games work properly. It’s astounding how far back Sonic Frontiers has regressed.
Fights against enemies that fire projectiles along a linear track can deal unavoidable damage when the path bends and the camera doesn’t follow it fast enough to show you what’s coming. This kind of bullshit is a Frontiers favorite - making a legitimate enemy of the camera, one that cannot be fought and capable of screwing you over without warning. I don’t know what would be worse - if it was this useless out of sheer bumbling stupidity, or if the game was actively designed to take malicious advantage of its own inadequacy in a bid to contrive extra difficulty.
Boss fights have the insulting audacity to ape Shadow of the Colossus, and this is where Frontiers’ shitty controls and shittier camera get to really shine. You’re dealing with a Sonic who literally cannot be trusted to run in a straight fucking line, shaky collision detection among many shifting surfaces, and a screen that violently thrashes around in its attempts to follow such high speed volatility. Not one battle against anything bigger than a common enemy could be considered tight, sensible, or lacking in the potential for eye strain.
There’s a particularly despicable miniboss that you must orbit by grinding on three circular rails while jumping from track to track. The screen perpetually spins alongside Sonic at an angle that does a poor job of showing what’s on each track including various fireballs that appear, disappear, and instantly switch rails to home in on you from multiple directions. As if that wasn’t enough (and it really is), the enemy’s three massive legs are fixed outside those circular tracks, standing between Sonic and the perpetually rotating camera. The legs constantly obscure your vision and allow fireballs to smack you while you have literally no chance of seeing them.
It was this nasty little fight that traded in the last droplets of my goodwill. Truly one of the worst single combat encounters I’ve ever had to play. Such constant spinning coupled with rapid blind spots left me feeling physically nauseous.
As for this shitshow of a game’s biggest selling point, I’m reminded of Dynasty Warriors 9 in the sense that Sonic Frontiers’ open world has no creative justification and is simply a hodgepodge collection of cloned props scattered around a largely featureless map. The so-called “Open Zones” are split into several wide areas that lack any sort of personality. There’s an empty field. There’s an empty desert. There’s another empty desert. The unifying feature of these zones is a lack of fucking features.
Each one is a desolate, barren, drably colored landscape with objects mindlessly strewn about without context. Platforms and rails float in the sky devoid of any surrounding architecture to make them feel like they’re supposed to be part of the world. There’s no artistic cohesion at all. Characters and items such as springs or boost pads stand in cartoonish contrast to the more realistically detailed terrain. Frontiers has a flimsy plot about going to a cyber world, and as weakly implemented as that idea is, I suspect it’s a pathetic attempt to narratively explain why Sonic looks like he’s from a totally different game to the environment. Visual dissonance could have been an effective tool if it was done in a way that didn’t look so bloody slapdash.
I’ll tell you exactly what these “Open Zones” resemble - they look like a bunch of premade Unreal Engine assets that had a handful of Sonic shit sloppily tossed into them.
I’m not saying Sonic Frontiers is anything like an asset flip. I’m saying it doesn’t matter because the effect is exactly the same - artistic incoherence in a world that feels randomly thrown together by lazy hack fucks. Hell, Sonic can even fall through the floor and out of bounds, which is something that happens so commonly in asset flips that the occurrence is practically a hallmark. Once Sonic pitifully slipped into oblivion below the world map, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for Steam Greenlight.
Creative bankruptcy coupled with penny-pinching is the only way to explain Sonic Frontiers’ distinctly un-Sonic landscape. An open world Sonic game that actually looked like a Sonic game would be incredible - imagine Green Hill Zone or Casino Night Zone as a massive sandbox. That would be amazing, but instead we get something more at home in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. It's a massive red flag suggesting a complete lack of effort or budget.
Things get more suspicious when you learn the only environments matching Sonic’s visual style are a bunch of levels that have been literally recycled from previous Sonic games and presented as separate playable areas. These shamelessly reused stages are, tellingly, the best parts of the game. At least they’re the only parts that feel thoughtfully designed rather than hastily cobbled together.
Sonic Team could think of so little to do with its sprawling non-linear portion that 90% of it is spent performing a handful of repetitive puzzles to make the in-game map visible. Some of these “puzzles” consist of literally just holding a button, such as watching Sonic get in a hamster wheel and holding the dash trigger for a few seconds. That’s literally it, puzzle solved. If an objective isn’t immediately clear, it’ll almost always mean you need to do a “Cyloop” - run around something while holding a button to draw a circle. It’s as thrilling as it sounds.
The kind of meaningless busywork that would be side content in other open world games is instead the core of Sonic Frontiers. Once you realize that almost every point of interest in the world is little more than an upjumped Ubisoft radio tower, it’s hard not to feel utterly cheated. The few moments where Frontiers might be entertaining, the handful of platforming sections that aren’t carelessly produced, just aren’t enough to make up for how fuckawful the rest of it is… and even those highlights fall victim to the litany of glitches and flaws that have been hardwired into every facet of play.
(I mentioned a throwaway line here about the director calling the game a "global playtest. Enough people insist on the story being mistranslated that I've taken it out).
Sonic Frontiers is broken beyond belief with mechanics that barely work and a camera so disastrous it’s literally sickening. The “Open Zones” are disjointed, unpopulated wastelands that do less than nothing to justify their depressing existence. An unpleasant mess, looking and feeling like a mishmash of disparate assets duct taped together, and that’s before we consider the damning amount of recycled content. It’s honestly embarrassing that any professional studio could have made something so cheap, so sad, and so thoroughly incompetent. Even by Sonic Team’s low standards, this is pathetic.
Yep, that’s the word for it.
Sonic Frontiers is fucking pathetic.
Updated to add: there's a lot of outrage over my saying the world resembles one thrown together by "lazy hack fucks." Much of it performative, some of it simply an excuse to launch bitter personal attacks at me. Not all of it's bad faith, but either way there's a lot of anger over a statement I don't think is wrong.
The visual dissonance makes it look like an asset flip, which are games made by lazy hack fucks. I'm sure developers on Frontiers worked hard on it and that the studio is a cut or two above said hacks. This doesn't change how utterly hacky the map looks. Whether it's a lazy asset flip or not, that's what it looks like, and that's the point.
I realize this clarification won't stop people being angry over how "rude" the comment is, and that's fine. I'm not even going to deny it was rude. It ain't wrong though.