We are at a new turning point in Sonic’s 30-year history. The cult favorite game mascot is once again a major attraction, surpassing Sony’s Uncharted at the box office and spawning a new Netflix series. And after making the leap from the side-scrolling platformer game to the 3D soap opera, the series is now opening up to the world at its most ambitious entry to date with Sonic Frontiers. But recent trailers have fans worried, and after 30 minutes of practical demonstration of the game, it impressed me.
I played the game while attending the Summer Game Fest last week in Los Angeles, and while I’m not yet ready to cancel it, I’m still incredibly skeptical about what Sonic Team boss Takashi Iizuka and its crew. The show opened with Sonic, separated from hairy comrades Tails and Amy Rose, coming out of a wormhole in a bucolic archipelago called Starfall Islands and being recruited by a mysterious AI to go in search of the Emeralds of Chaos. From there I set out to explore puzzles, grind on rails and fight with some occasional head. The time I spent there was sometimes fun, often messy, and usually quite rough-looking.
I postponed the writing of these impressions in part because there was not much to do in the demonstration. We’ve taken a look at the recently revealed images of Sonic Frontiers as an insipid Unreal Engine project. The game looked better in person, especially when the sky cleared and the sun began to set (the islands follow your standard abbreviated open day and night cycle), but it was still almost empty.
Enemy pockets here and there could be knocked down by a new combat system that includes a series of automatic punches and kicks, defensive dodges, and even a timed stop mechanic. I solved light space puzzles like stepping on pressure plates or navigating launch pads to unlock collectibles. And from time to time, an open track with speed increases allowed me to pick up rings as I climbed a small mountain hurdles. I got bored quickly.
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Nor was it immediately appealing to me how Sonic feels about controlling. Something was wrong. It never seemed to be accumulating momentum in a satisfactory way, and the complex and uneven topography made it difficult to go very fast for very long periods of time (from everything Sonic Frontiers seems to take from Breath of the Wild, the resistance green). the ring icon that runs out as it increases is almost one by one). Combat and air crossing are based on a demanding guidance system to ensure that Sonic directs his rotating attacks in the right direction.
Towards the end of the show I was confronted by a giant boss named The Tower and for a moment I felt like I was in Shadow of the Colossus. It was a briefly grand moment that was interrupted by fighting with both the camera and Sonic’s restless movement as he struggled to hit the enemy’s weaknesses without continually falling to the side. As the camera, lens, and movement line up, Sonic Frontiers is about to find an esoteric but rewarding way to navigate an extensive map. The rest of the time I found it a nuisance to surf.
If I’m sounding hard it’s because the demo didn’t do a great job of showing how the open world elements of Sonic Frontiers will unlock new potential for the long-running series. It seemed rough and incomplete to me, and he didn’t nail any small thing that I could then point out and say “It was fun, let me do it for a whole game!” In fact, the graphics and poor art direction felt like the least of the 2022 holiday game problems. To be clear, I think there’s a version of Sonic Frontiers, based on what I was shown, which can come together and be great. I’m not sure, given my limited time with the demo, that Sonic Team will be there soon.
Although some fans gathered around the hashtag #DelaySonicFrontiers, Takashi Iizuka told VGC that there were no plans to do so right now and that the team is very happy with the results and internal comments until now. It is also unclear how old the construction that other journalists and I played was, and IGN reported that its initial preview was based on a much earlier one. Otherwise, Iizuka and the rest of Team Sonic still have work to do. Sonic Frontiers will be released on Xbox, PlayStation, PC and Switch before the end of the year.