Sonic Frontiers is already one of 2022’s most talked-about games. And not necessarily in a good way.
In early June, Sega shared a first look at the upcoming open-world Sonic game via an exclusive IGN reveal. The early reactions on social media weren’t terribly enthusiastic. Some observers drew unflattering comparisons to a tech demo, critical of what they saw as the empty-seeming environments. Others called for the developers to take the project back to the drawing board with a hefty production delay, not unlike what happened with the first Sonic the Hedgehog movie, after the initial CGI model for the blue blur prompted widespread backlash and derision.
But don’t get on the hater bandwagon just yet. Sure, the latest installment of Sega’s venerable platforming franchise isn’t what many players were expecting. But after spending 30 minutes with Sonic Frontiers at Summer Game Fest Play Days, I came away pleasantly surprised and a bit confused, but very eager to see more.
We find our hero in a rain-sodden, dreary landscape dotted with futuristic ruins. Imagine, if you will, something vaguely akin to the crumbling architecture of Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West. Then stick those structures in a landscape reminiscent of Wales, or Scotland, or Ahch-To from The Last Jedi, and you’ve kind of got the idea.
It’s a lonely place with few living things. When you do stumble upon another being, they’re usually hostile — angular, expressionless metallic ciphers that clearly hail from another world. They attack Sonic without explanation. Naturally, you fight back.
My demo didn’t dive particularly deep into the game’s story, but there are a couple of things we do know. Sonic is a stranger in a strange land. He materializes in Space Wales seemingly out of nowhere, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. He calls out to his faithful buddies, Tails and Amy, who are nowhere to be seen. That means it’s time time to explore. And the one thing that immediately becomes clear, even if the section of the game I played didn’t come out and say it, is that something very bad happened here a long time ago. And those angular alien guys probably had something to do with it.
There’s a somber mood to Sonic Frontiers that admittedly feels rather at odds with the whole “talking cartoon hedgehog” thing. It seems like a pointed attempt to distance the games from the movies, which go all-in on the series’ fast, loud, in-your-face qualities. It reminded me a bit of Sega’s oddball gems from the past, like Ecco the Dolphin meets Nights Into Dreams. At times, though, Frontiers seems to teeter uncomfortably on the edge of overly serious fan-fiction, but it’s too early to make a definitive call there.
The familiar gotta-go-fast elements are scattered sparingly across this lonely landscape. You can fling yourself through a speed boost, a grind rail, or a loop-de-loop to snag some coins. Or not. There are clearly story reasons for the state of this world that my demo didn’t reveal, and Space Wales isn’t the only environment you’ll explore during Sonic Frontiers, even if it’s the bulk of what Sega has revealed so far. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about that stuff just yet, but it was my favorite part of the demo.
As someone who’s mostly familiar with the old-school 2D Sonic game, Sonic’s got a skill tree and a few new moves up his non-existent sleeves (including a lite version of the classic FromSoft roll-dodge mechanic) but boss fights are speedy and straightforward, with just enough strategy required to keep things interesting without feeling like you stumbled into a different game.
Navigating environments at Sonic velocity takes a bit of trial and error. (I did a few oopsies and flung myself to a watery grave more than once.) You can reduce Sonic’s speed, along with the combat difficulty, at any time in the options menu. It’s not exactly a Last of Us 2 level of accessibility customization, but it’s heartening to see Sonic Team’s effort to accommodate a variety of playstyles here.
Sonic Frontiers is an intriguing riff on an beloved formula, even if Sega hasn’t done the game many favors with its bizarre approach to revealing information. Still, there’s definitely more than meets the eye here. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the success of the Sonic movies, it’s that you can’t count an icon out.
Sonic Frontiers comes to PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, and PC in 2022.