Back in the 1990’s, Sonic the Hedgehog games were a beloved loop-de-loop staple on the SEGA Genesis gaming systems. The fantastically colorful courses, the eminently appealing earwig music and Sonic’s zipping, bouncing and dashing abilities all worked together perfectly.
Since those 2-D and 8-bit days, Sonic’s gamemakers have tried to recapture that magic, but with mixed results.
Sonic Frontiers is SEGA’s latest attempt to bring their little speedy hedgehog into the current generation of graphics and consoles. They plop Sonic down in a wide-open world (think Zelda: Breath of the Wild) filled with built-in rails, looping pathways, gold ring-gathering challenges and huge big-boss battles.
The story gets up and running with another failed experiment by a certain Dr. Robotnik. While trying to grasp great power, the round and heavily mustachioed baddie is sucked into a digitalized alternate dimension: Sonic and friends follow soon after.
Of the Sonic crew, only our blue hero comes out unscathed. The rest are caught between dimensions. And it’s up to him to speed through the vast Starfall Islands; gather keys and gears and other collectables; navigate environmental puzzles; battle dangerous robotic foes; and find a way to pull his friends from their middle-dimension prisons. And, of course, the key to it all will be gathering the Chaos Emeralds that are locked away on the islands.
Gameplay is made up of many brief missions that flesh out maps of each of the Starfall Islands. There’s quite a bit of collecting in the mix, too. Players gather keys for Chaos Emerald vaults, character memories for Sonic’s pals, sustaining stars and rings, and even little lost creatures that can be used to upgrade Sonic’s various abilities (ie: speed, ring capacity, etc.) Scaling those skill trees of abilities will, of course, help Sonic vanquish huge mechanical Titans and Towers.
The game’s constant running-and-gathering demands can sometimes feel a tad grinding, but other levels harken back to some old-school Sonic fun. Players are sent into Cyber Space from time to time, which recreates some classic Sonic stages in a new third-person, 3-D format. Those are the purest expressions of Sonic joy.
But those moments are relatively rare. Otherwise, for some reason, Sonic Frontiers’tone feels a little somber and dramatic. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that the bouncy and catchy music of yesteryear does not make a reappearance, instead being replaced by a pleasant but much more subdued soundtrack.
There’s a lot to explore here and a lot of fun to find. The digital world is large and beautiful and the game’s open-world format gives this much more of an action/adventure feel for those who enjoy that genre. In addition, the classic stage recreations are very smile-worthy for old fans.
For those who are altogether new to a Sonic the Hedgehog domain, this game also offers repeated tutorial practice screens (during stage-loading moments) that younger players can access and use to sharpen their Hedgehog button-mashing skills.
There are many, many foes to take on. And some battles require that Sonic climb up huge robots or towers while avoiding lasers, blasts and sharp spikes. In addition, Sonic earns special abilities that duplicate his presence, power up punches and send out balls of zapping energy. But there’s nothing messy in any of the bashing and sometimes explosive combat.
(When Sonic is bested—after being zapped or hit enough to lose all his collected rings, or falling off an elevated course—he simply regenerates at the beginning of the area for another try.)
I sure did miss the old tunes, and the game has a few other speed bumps in the form of some grinding moments that slow our blue hero down. But the scenery is pretty and the new open-world vibe of Sonic Frontiers gives an old franchise a chance to blaze a path to family-friendly fun once more.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.