Remember when “Mario vs. Sonic” was an actual debate? If you’re around my age, then probably not, but despite this I found myself wondering who the stylish blue hedgehog competing in the Olympics alongside Mario was. It was this spectacle that made me obsess over Sonic. I watched everything I could for that matter — the “Sonic X” anime, “Sonic Let’s Plays,” the “Sonic” cartoons. I played everything I could — the cinematic spectacles of the “Sonic Unleashed” and “Sonic and the Black Knight” intros selling me when I wasn’t immersed in Sonic fan games. I still unironically jam to “Sonic” music, the likes of Crush 40 and NateWantsToBattle covers still getting stuck in my head. But as I grew up, I found out just how far a character that shaped my childhood had fallen. I was in worship of a dying god of the gaming industry, mistaking its rigor mortis for miracles and its dying breaths for gospel. “Sonic Frontiers” makes me want to believe again.
The game thrusts you into a new world with little explanation. The hedgehog’s archnemesis, Dr. Eggman, touches a statue and disappears while Sonic and his friends ride a plane through the sky. The plane crashes, leaving Sonic alone on a stormy, grassy island after a tutorial Green Hill Zone level (like most Sonic games) in something that a mysterious, unidentified voice in the sky calls “Cyber Space.” Sonic finds his friends stuck between realities on the island and is tasked with fixing them while collecting the Chaos Emeralds to take down mysterious and monstrous new enemies.
The first thing you think upon letting Sonic race through the open world (sorry, “open zone”) gameplay of “Frontiers” is how the hell no one thought of this sooner. There is some obvious inspiration from “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” — small challenges help you expand your map. Players can also swap out collecting Korok seeds and spirit stones for Sonic’s new little stone creature friends, “Kocos,” and collect red and blue seeds for upgrades, another ode to Zelda. However, this open-world design is uniquely fitted to his gameplay. To satisfy Sonic’s central conceit — “gotta go fast” — his levels are usually lengthy stretches of obstacles and small bits of spectacle that you clear quickly. This puts a lot of constraint on how the levels can vary and get more difficult without damaging the accelerating experience. There have been two ways to remedy this: the constant building momentum of the Sonic Adventure series or the more modern “Boost” formula, where the click of a button takes you to top speed. Boosting Sonic in these massive, wide-open, pre-loaded areas lets you run fast and free at will, while still leaving room for precise platforming when you slow down. You also interact with the terrain in fun new ways when moving at such speeds; boosting into small inclines launches you into the air and you can often speed up steep slopes. Remember in “Skyrim” when you could glitch a horse up a mountain? In “Frontiers,” you ARE the horse.
“Frontiers” also manages to keep its maps interesting enough for exploration like “Breath of the Wild” by scattering its content throughout the world. Each open zone — alongside access to linear traditional 3D Sonic levels in the form of Cyber Space levels — diversifies exploration with an even distribution of accelerators, small platforming challenges and enemies. These enemies and the system used to combat them are my favorite parts of “Frontiers.” Aside from traditional Sonic enemies seen in “Cyber Space,” each zone is filled with geometric monstrosities with gaming chair color schemes: There are obsidian nightmares with harsh edges like “Ninja,” rounder varieties like an enemy surrounded by bubbles as well as gigantic robots that act as minibosses but feel like compressed boss fights from “Shadow of the Colossus.”
Sonic still has his traditional methods of taking down enemies like the Homing Attack or the Spin Dash, but is granted a variety of unlockable skills and combos like the Cyloop, which does damage to enemies when you find yourself literally running circles around them. This system makes every little encounter feel like honest-to-god “Dragon Ball Z” fights that make me cackle with delight each fight as Sonic takes down swathes of minor enemies in an instant and minibosses with speedy spectacle. The “Titan” boss fights are similarly spectacular, as the expansive areas you explore become backdrops to your battles. You go Super Sonic and fight on a large scale by racing through the terrain in speedy seconds rather than a manner of minutes, all while metal boss themes play (like this one sung by the Sleeping With Sirens frontman, Kellin Quinn).
We need to talk about Sonic’s missteps, however. “Frontiers” is a precarious balancing act: juggling high-speed exploration with precise platforming, creative character designs with semi-photorealistic environments and snarky, sometimes heavy-handed writing with much more mysterious, somber storytelling. The ball is dropped quite a few times — sometimes quite literally as level designs screw you over into an abyss. The design also starts to feel repetitive as you go further into the game. Cyber Space would have benefitted from a wider variety of aesthetics than Green Hill and Chemical Plant Zone. This reliance on past design is evident in the more 2D-heavy sections as the game progresses, which feels especially unnecessary with 2D tributes like “Sonic Mania” and “Sonic Origins.” While the aid in precise platforming is sometimes helpful for traversal, it kills your freedom of movement if a random Bounce Pad launches you into an inescapable 2D section. It’s like Todd Howard said, “See that mountain? You need to do lots of unnecessary and non-immersive platforming to climb it.” There’s also a weird variety to this game that I’m still unsure about, as it distracts from the exploration despite well-executed concepts like pinball games, bullet hell sections and the previously-mentioned short puzzles. However, there’s also a bit of swordplay and a lo-fi fishing minigame with Big the Cat, so those are perfectly welcome additions by my standards.
In addition, “Frontiers” often looks like multiple games at once, the anime-anthropomorphic art style of “Sonic” characters clashing with the robotic edgelord enemies in these Unreal Engine-esque environments. However, it can be argued that this is more intentional than inattentive — the Cyber Space levels give next-gen graphical takes on the classic Sonic-level aesthetics, but the majority of the game is meant to feel unfamiliar to both Sonic and his enemies. The game’s soundtrack reflects this disparity perfectly, swapping between light atmosphere music during your explorations, heavy rock-infused battle themes and somewhat out-of-place EDM in Cyber Space.
There’s a tension between all these elements, hidden in its environmental storytelling of an abandoned civilization presented through its story cutscenes. It’s broken up well at times, with some quips from Eggman and campy moments from Sonic — some making me genuinely snort, with others feeling out of place. My absolute biggest issue is spending hours appreciating these subtle and somber details of the game’s levels only for the game to grind to a halt and make its environmental storytelling explicitly stated. You’ll run past odd, mossy stone structures that’ll pique your curiosity only for Sonic to stop so he can comment that they looked like houses. The characters will discuss how lonely the world feels instead of allowing the player to explore the feeling of every world. It’s the antithesis of “show, don’t tell,” but thankfully doesn’t kill an otherwise amazing story.
That’s right, this “Sonic” game actually has an engaging story! As you traverse lands named for mythological Titans and gods, you come to realize that this place and its people have been lost to time immemorial. Only their spirits and stories remain, and all you can do is put them to rest. Throughout the game, Sonic loses more of himself as well — the more of his friends he frees and the new powers he gains, the more corrupt energy he takes on — think Ashitaka from “Princess Mononoke.” It’s a necessary burden he bears. Sonic’s friends are written more like actual dynamic characters in this game rather than how they have been caricatured in the past, while still drawing on the history of past games and re-contextualizing past writing flaws to enhance present development.
However, each new island wears Sonic down. His idle animation becomes more and more haggard — an interesting subversion of Sonic’s classic impatient stance. Nevertheless, he persists — gotta go fast, y’know? A mysterious antagonist known only as Sage is also introduced as Dr. Eggman’s new AI. However, as the story progresses, she comes to admire Sonic and becomes a daughter figure to Eggman, which shows a completely different side of the series antagonist. The intentions of the mysterious voice in the sky guiding you also become more and more ambiguous as the plot builds up into a cinematic, spectacle-driven story about continuing on with creation in the face of chaotic destruction.
It’s that spectacle — the one that drew me to Sonic in the first place — that’s given substance by the gameplay and story of “Sonic Frontiers” for what feels like the first time in years. As I grew older, I grew less and less defensive of “Sonic.” With the failures of “Sonic Lost World” and “Sonic Forces” I began to forget anything that made “Sonic” special to me in the first place. “Sonic Mania” gave me a hint of that spark again, but not enough to restore my faith in the franchise. However, this game bounced me from speedy level traversal, cinematic combat and spectacular story beats so cleanly I couldn’t escape how close it was to godliness. I was left stunned at the credits upon recognizing NateWantsToBattle singing over them.
Sonic Team has freed Sonic to more of his potential than ever before, after decades of missteps. You have to admire the determination of the developers and Sonic’s devotees, with “Sonic Frontiers” feeling like a triumphant tribute to their tenacity, especially with more on the way. Throughout the entire experience, you trip over a few flaws but the fun and freedom of the game outweigh them enough to keep racing forward. Godspeed, you beautiful blue blur.
Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.