The Sonic Frontiers demo from this weekend’s Summer Game Fest event in Los Angeles starts with a short cutscene. A bewildered Sonic the Hedgehog finds himself on an unfamiliar island, separated from his friends Tails and Amy. A talking drone gives Sonic some cryptic direction about collecting goobers to save his friends, or something. While they chat, we inexplicably cut to an extreme-closeup of Sonic’s hands. After a few quips and some light exposition, I gain control of Sonic and slam down on the turbo button, which I refuse to let go off for the entire length of the demo. Moments later, I try to run up a stone staircase but instead get launched into the air at a 45, then watch as Sonic helplessly tumbles down a cliff while the screen fades to black. I didn’t play nearly enough to decide whether or not this is a good Sonic game, but it is certainly a Sonic game.
Before I get into the specifics of gameplay, I have to mention the settings menu, which came up automatically at the start of the demo. I don’t know if this will make it into the release version, but the settings include a dozen or so sliders that allow you to customize the way Sonic controls. There are five different sliders related to Sonic’s speed, as well as turning, acceleration, resistance, and more. I can understand why you would want to give players the opportunity to customize the way Sonic handles to some degree – Sonic has an all-ages fanbase, after all – but this felt more like Sega isn’t sure how to tune the physics so it’s just making us figure it out. I just slid every option to the max and honestly, it felt pretty good. There’s not really any harm here, just another thing to add to the long list of Sonic Frontiers’ quirks.
I got the chance to run around the first of several ‘open-zone’ islands (Sega’s term) and check out the different enemies, points of interest, and collectibles Sonic can find. The world is dotted with platforming challenges, combat encounters, puzzles, and more, and you never have to go far to find something new to investigate. While the density of POIs keeps things engaging, there’s a noticeable lack of flow between them. I tried to look for lines that connected all of the different platforming elements together, but I found everything to be pretty segmented. The world feels like it’s made up of lots of little tiles that each have something interesting on them, but they don’t fit together in a cohesive way. Instead of building momentum by navigating the environment with precision like you would in a linear Sonic game, you’re just running from one POI to the next, stopping each time to engage with whatever you find. This could just be a symptom of the early game, which is frequently interrupted by tutorials and tool tips, and I hope later islands have a more handcrafted feel.
It’s a shame that what I played felt so staccato, because controlling Sonic actually felt pretty good. Sonic’s movements are snappy and responsive, and it’s relatively easy to be precise while platforming. Homing attacks lock on predictably and fairly consistently, and you have a lot more control both on the ground and in the air than I expected. While running, the shoulder buttons will make Sonic juke left and right without losing momentum, which is useful for dodging attacks as you approach an enemy. The aforementioned Boost is on the right trigger, which will give you an instant burst of speed followed by a sustained speed until you run out of energy. Sonic can double-jump in the air and use the boost to dash forward long distances. When combined with the homing attack, you can pull off some pretty impressive air combos. I didn’t feel like the boosted speed was nearly fast enough while running around the island, but you’ll upgrade Sonic’s speed throughout the game by finding lost Koco (think Koroks from Breath of the Wild).
Sonic actually has a pretty robust progression path this time around. All of his base stats – speed, attack, defense, and ring capacity – can be incrementally upgraded by finding hidden collectibles. Sonic also gains new abilities throughout the game that can be upgraded by spending skill points. I got to try one of the new abilities called Cycloop. When you hold down Y, Sonic leaves a trail behind him while he runs. If you draw a closed circle, a variety of things can happen. This ability is used to solve puzzles, find hidden items, and stun enemies in combat. I would like to see the camera pull back into a more top-down perspective while you activate Cycloop so you can actually see the circle you’re drawing, but I think it's an interesting and versatile mechanic nonetheless.
Speaking of combat, this was the area that surprised me the most, because I expected very little and came away fairly impressed. The enemies are robotic and have an ancient/alien technology aesthetic. They’re pseudo-organic, like baby's-first-Giger, and I found a lot of appreciation for the way their designs dictate your combat tactics. Homing attacks will only get you so far, and mashing X to unleash a torrent of kicks and punches, while satisfying, will often get you killed. You have to learn attack patterns and wait for the right time to go in, dodge attacks, and resist the temptation to over-commit. Combat is fast, flashy, and a lot more engaging than I was expecting. The camera occasionally turns into the real enemy when you get too fancy with your movement, but overall the combat was one of my favorite parts of the demo.
Aside from fighting robots and collecting lost Kocos, there’s a handful of other activities to do around the map. There are platforming challenges that reward you with the opportunity to reveal parts of the map in a scattered, checkerboard order. You’re also searching for Memory Tokens, which are used to free Sonic’s friends. In the demo, I found all of Amy’s Memory Tokens and released some kind of digital imprint of her from a futuristic jail cell. Tails was also mentioned at the start, but I don’t yet know what other Sonic characters will be in the game. Eggman does make a brief appearance, and I got the impression he’s just as lost and confused as Sonic is.
There’s another core gameplay mechanic in Sonic Frontiers that, according to the NDA I signed, I’m not allowed to talk about until June 29. If you’ve been following the IGN First coverage, however, it’s already been revealed and widely discussed. I’ll have a lot more to say about it in a couple of weeks, because it’s a major part of the game and I think it’s great. Here’s IGN’s Mitchell Saltzman describing the thing I’m not allowed to talk about.
I wanna emphasize this point from the preview, because unfortunately we didn't have footage for it, and thus I didn't focus on it too much in the video, but I think it's the key to understanding why Sonic Frontiers excites me. pic.twitter.com/ECf7jIAEcd
— Mitchell Saltzman (@JurassicRabbit) June 7, 2022
Based on the 30 minutes I played, Sonic Frontiers reminds me a lot of Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Both games are first attempts to reimagine a stagnating series in a modern way, and while there’s some questionable design decisions and plenty of frustrations to be found, they’re both a huge step in the right direction. I don’t think Sonic Frontiers is reaching the full potential of what an ‘open-zone’ Sonic game can be, but playing it inspires me with all the possibilities of where things might go from here. Unlike Legends: Arceus, however, which exhausts itself in the first few hours, I have a feeling there’s still a lot to discover in Sonic Frontiers. And if you’re already indoctrinated into the cult of Sonic, I can say with confidence that you’re going to love it. Let’s be honest, the bar is pretty low. The demo itself was the best 3D Sonic game I’ve played in a decade.
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