I was having a blast just running around as Sonic — until the worst pinball mini-game ever brought a screeching halt to my fun.
Sonic Frontiers is a fascinating game, mostly because of how little it actually feels like the rest of the series. The game’s marketing has called it an “evolution” of the Sonic formula, and that’s certainly accurate, but it’s still hampered by some growing pains. Sublime exploration and intuitive mechanics constantly clash with Sonic Frontiers’ insistence on introducing mandatory mini-games and one-off gimmicks, many of which simply aren’t engaging.
For better or worse, Sonic Frontiers feels like an experiment, almost like a robust tech demo transformed into a full game.
The Final Frontier
Sonic Frontiers opens with the blue blur, Tails, and Amy flying to the Starfall Islands to recover the Chaos Emeralds. The trio crash-lands and discovers a set of mysterious ruins, along with an alternate world called Cyber Space and a mysterious girl named Sage.
Over the course of the game, Sonic and his friends reflect on their past adventures and figure out what they want from their futures. The story of Sonic Frontiers is an enjoyable, straightforward romp that occasionally dives surprisingly deep into the lore of the series and hits some memorable emotional notes.
But the story isn’t going to be what most people talk about with Sonic Frontiers, as Sonic Team has crafted an interesting formula for the franchise moving forward, although it still needs refinement. Sonic Frontiers is essentially the first open-world Sonic game (even if Sega really doesn’t want people to call it that), presenting its world as a series of “open zones.” Sonic explores five different islands to collect the seven Chaos Emeralds and take on a variety of hulking bosses known as Titans.
Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay revolves around exploration, and you’ll need to gather collectibles to progress the story. To unlock the vaults containing Chaos Emeralds, you need Vault Keys, which are gathered by completing missions in “traditional” Sonic 2D and 3D platforming levels. These portals are unlocked by using Gears, which you need to gather by defeating enemies that roam the world. Separately, there are tokens assigned to a character on each island that are used to speak to that character at specific locations. Occasionally these conversations will be mandatory, but many are simply side conversations that flesh out the story.
The collect-a-thon doesn’t stop there, though. Sonic can also find Offense and Defense seeds to raise his stats, as well as little Korok-like creatures called Koco who can raise his speed and ring capacity. There’s also a skill tree for the first time in the series, letting you unlock additional moves Sonic can use in combat.
It sounds like a lot on paper, but Sonic Frontiers is surprisingly generous with its collectibles and exploration. Each island is absolutely littered with grind rails, bounce pads, other traversal mechanics, and enemies. There’s easily double or triple the items you actually need to progress, so there’s no pressure to do everything unless you want to.
Sonic Frontiers also provides an alternate option for players that may not want to spend copious amounts of time running around. Each zone has a portal that leads to a fishing mini-game with Big the Cat. You can play this mini-game by spending the purple coins that are easily found throughout the world. By catching fish, you rack up points that you can spend to buy collectibles, and you can essentially get everything you need to progress the story. Because the fishing is entirely optional, it ends up feeling like a nice alternative to the exploration. Sonic, as a series, hasn’t traditionally been heavy on exploration elements, so it seems like a wise move to provide an out for players that might simply want to progress the story and keep the action going.
Instead of using towers to uncover the map like many open-world games, Sonic Frontiers uses puzzles. Question mark signs on the map are your cue to look out for a little environmental riddle — you might need to hit a ball through some hoops, or race to a specific point before time runs out. Once solved, you’ll reveal a portion of the map, earn a stat seed, and learn the location of the next puzzle In general these puzzles tend to help add to the mysterious feeling of Sonic Frontiers’ island, and the quick one or two minutes solutions help encourage that feeling of exploration.
What I really didn’t expect from Sonic Frontiers was for the exploration to feel so calming, almost meditative.
Amidst all the big action games of the fall, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II or God of War Ragnarok, running around islands filled with vegetation and wandering wherever I wanted was quite soothing. This quiet exploration, backed up by a moody soundtrack, struck a chord that worked for me.
The problem that arises, then, is that the formula doesn’t really grow and change in a meaningful way across the game’s five islands, outside of throwing in the occasional offputting yet mandatory mini-game. At one point, you’ll have to carry Koco while avoiding spiked towers that slam the ground. There’s also that frustrating pinball game that took me nearly two hours to beat, simply because it was based on luck and didn’t work very well. The ball straight up fell through my flippers a few times for no clear reason, so getting past it wasn’t satisfying, it was just a relief.
More often than not, these mini-games detract from the overall experience, making me wish I could get back to the exploration and basic combat. The one exception is the boss battles that end each island, which are hilariously absurd affairs that go full-on anime in the best possible way. Each battle even has its own unique rock theme, in a style I can only think to compare to Metal Gear Rising.
Sonic Frontiers feels like a game fighting itself, and that conflict is present throughout its gameplay and presentation. The core controls for Sonic generally feel good, but jumping often feels a little imprecise for the platforming that’s demanded. While Sonic Frontiers does a great job of capturing that feeling of speed Sonic needs, sometimes you move so fast that you’ll inadvertently hit a bounce pad or a grind rail, then get locked into an animation that sends you in a different direction than you intended.
Presentation-wise, Sonic Frontiers’ environments look lush and diverse, but on a technical level, there’s a lot of pop-in. Especially as Sonic is speeding over hills, traversal objects will suddenly pop into view, forcing you to stop suddenly if you see something of interest. As you’re cruising around, the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, with a wonderful mix of quiet, pensive tracks and abrasive rock music. The music is always supporting what’s happening on-screen, and it genuinely enhances the overall experience.
In many ways, Sonic Frontiers feels like a concept for the future of the franchise rather than a fully realized experience in its own right. The game’s disparate elements often push and pull against each other, but there’s still a good time to be had, even amid that friction. I’m excited to see what Sonic Team can do with this formula if they hone it down and focus on what works.
Sonic Frontiers launches on November 8 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PS5.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.