It’s no controversy to suggest that for over a decade, Sonic the Hedgehog has experienced a major slump in the standard of games produced. Sure, Sonic Colors and Generations garnered praise from the majority and games such as Sonic Riders and Sonic Unleashed had its fair share of admirers, but not to the level of the games launched when the series was at its infancy, not to mention both Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. However, the 2017-released Sonic Forces was universally lambasted, from its lacklustre gameplay, deceptively poor story to mundane character development. This sparked fears across the Sonic fanbase that the abject failure of Sonic Forces could be the beginning of the end for Sonic as a gaming franchise to be reckoned with. However, the surprise success of the Live-Action Sonic movies breathed fresh new life to the blue blur and this success provided a major opportunity for the producers to ride high and create a Sonic game which would go a long way in repairing the damage caused by the mediocrity of recent games. Lo and behold, May 2021 gave us our first tease at a brand-new Sonic game. The teaser was short, but enough to create a high-level of excitement, given the tone set in the teaser and that it highly suggested a major departure from the status quo of mainline Sonic games towards an open-world setting. Fast forward to the release of Sonic Frontiers in November 2022, and upon completion of the game, one thing was clear to me: Sonic as a major gaming franchise was well and truly back with a bang. Below, I shall elaborate on why I came to such a conclusion, however, there will be MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, so I highly recommend you go and complete the game before reading the article.
A Fresh Story Concept
For the most part, Sonic as a franchise has been renowned for colourful and happy-go-lucky storytelling. Sure, some games had their darker moments, but Frontiers took the series down a different direction with a more mature feel. This was a game where the player had to piece together the mysteries of the overall story and figure out why Sonic and his friends were sent to the Starfall Islands, what link the islands had to the ancient aliens from the memories and the motivations behind the actions of the game’s main antagonist, Sage. The interactions between the main characters of the game were of a much different nature than previous games, where conversations went a lot deeper and demonstrated differing ideologies.
True Character Development
A major complaint fans have presented about previous games relates to the lack of character development. This was a particular complaint seen for Sonic Forces, where any essence of character development was severely lacking. However, from the very first moments of Frontiers, it was clear that this was a game which would make up for this deficiency. And it did in spades. For years, the character of Amy Rose has been seen as a one-dimensional Sonic fangirl willing to forego everything in order to protect her crush. In more recent games, the developers seemed to take her character in a drastically different route by turning her into the strong, independent leaderlike character. Both interpretations of the character, however, never really resonated with the majority of fans. However, Frontiers managed to discover the best of both aspects of her portrayals. Here, Amy demonstrated her leaderlike qualities when trying to help the Koco, but really brought a sense of compassion in her actions, even willing to challenge Sonic when trying to convince him to help her out. However, she still clearly shows her feelings for Sonic in more subtle and mature ways. Moving on to Knuckles, and in his one-to-one conversations with Sonic, he shows a desire to learn more about the wider world and acknowledges that there is more to life than merely standing guard of the Master Emerald. But strikingly, Tails comes to a realisation that perhaps he is too dependent on Sonic and vows that, after the current dilemmas are resolved, he would work to become his own person and move out of Sonic’s shadow. As for Sonic himself, there is much more of a maturity to his all-round character. He has more situational awareness and, although retaining much of his trademark wisecracking habits, takes on a much more serious approach to the perils at hand.
A Compelling Antagonist
Of course, the notorious Dr Eggman has been a mainstay within the series, albeit not as the primary big bad of recent games. However, Frontiers finally provided us with something truly different in the form of Sage as the game’s main antagonist. Sure, she was a mere creation of Eggman, but we as the player can see the rationale behind her actions. Sage was by no means the first ever character in the series to misunderstand Sonic, but the level of confliction in her mind throughout the game is as clear as day. This is amplified when we see her secretly hearing Sonic converse with Tails on the concept of friendship and subsequently tear up. Of course, her inevitable transition towards working with Sonic comes to pass in pursuit of defeating the final boss of the game, but at the end of this, it is established that she saw Eggman as her father, and upon her assumed death, seeing Eggman’s mutual feelings towards her as a daughter is one of the most emotional moments in the series, summed up with her words to Sonic: “Take care of father”. Where Forces fell short with Infinite, Frontiers succeeded with Sage.
An Impressive Open World and Slick Gameplay
Many a Sonic fan has clamoured for the series to transition to an open-world style. Frontiers delivered this in spades, and boy was it glorious! The Starfall Islands were clearly designed through inspiration from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and to be able to run through such a scenic open world with the blue blur was truly a thing of beauty. The open world never felt dull. The variation of climates kept things fresh and the music was complementary to boot.
This was the first Sonic game where the titular character was given extensive combat skills. Some were a variation of his trademark rolling attacks, but this time, Sonic could also use his fists and feet to attack the foes at hand. I acknowledge that there were some who weren’t so endeared to this, but I saw these combat skills as very neat and handy additions to the franchise. The tutorials teaching the players how to use these skills were particularly concise and made it easy to learn and execute.
Throughout the open world, there were numerous puzzles and side-questions for Sonic to complete and attain screw pieces for access to cyberspace. These side-quests were well-made by the developers, being neither too easy nor too complicated at any mode, and the segments in cyberspace had a very dream-like feeling, giving the player throwbacks to the glory days of the past
Along with the open world, the game developers went in a very novel direction with the boss fights at the end of each island. These bosses were known as the “Titans”, and the area where you would encounter them had to be unlocked after completing a major chunk of the side-quests and cyberspace levels. Each battle would begin with Sonic bringing together all the Chaos Emeralds he collected on the island to turn Super Sonic, and the time limit would depend on the rings Sonic would have at the time. The boss battle required a combination of some lateral thinking with the combat skills learnt. But the stellar soundtrack truly enhanced the boss battle experience.
Overall, sure there were certain flaws present, including a slightly lacklustre final boss, and the game coming to a rather abrupt ending. However, the producers really pulled off a major comeback for Sonic, and it is apparent that they have discovered the right formula going forward. Taking the best elements of Frontiers and fixing some of the flaws will surely ensure that the franchise is back on track from previous failures.