Sonic Frontiers review: A baffling mixed bag

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When Sonic Frontiers was first unveiled Sega was very clearly going for a certain mood - one that aped the hugely successful The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with plinking pianos and wide-open fields to race through.

That's an impression and a style that has made it through to the finished game, but it's fair to say that it also brings with it some tonal whiplash compared to other parts of Frontiers. Here's our take on the latest 3D Sonic game.

A forgotten world

Sonic Frontiers kicks things off quickly, with Sonic, Tails and Amy all sucked into a dimensional vortex as they're out hunting Chaos Emeralds, all orchestrated by Dr Eggman - although he too has found himself stuck in this new dimension.

So it's a simple matter of trying to find out how to get home, although Sonic is the only one of his friends who seems to actually be physically present, the others flitting in and out as holograms.

It's a straightforward story template but Sega and Sonic Team have decided to inject a classic dose of weird Sonic angst into the mix.

You'll get ruminations on grief and loss, discussions about friendship and loyalty and much more besides, all delivered almost entirely straight-faced by our cast of cartoon hedgehogs.

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If you're deeply into your Sonic lore, this won't be too much of a surprise, but it's still tonally very weird for most players, and Frontiers' predilection for cut-scenes means that some players may find themselves leaning on the skip button.

We can forgive this weirdness, to be honest, although it does make for some moments of real whiplash when you transition from a serious story moment to a bright and zippy stage with rock music as its backing, all in a heartbeat.

There are also major questions of originality here, with the re-use of Breath of the Wild's ideas a little obvious. The ruins of a technologically advanced civilisation littering a sparse and clean natural world is one thing, but when even Breath of the Wild's Koroks are replicated almost exactly, things are getting a bit too brazen.

Gotta go fast

So the story's a little weird, then - that's not the newest circumstance for a Sonic game, especially a 3D one - but where Frontiers pulls things mostly back from the brink is in terms of actual gameplay.

It breaks out Sonic's momentum and rail-based mechanics into realistically the largest spaces ever for the blue hedgehog, letting you explore large hub areas full of small puzzles and scattered enemies, each discovery adding new rails and map information to your world.

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As you explore you'll find altars that let you into Cyberspace, effectively dropping you at the start of a classic 3D Sonic stage that won't generally run much longer than a couple of minutes provided you're not crashing or failing too much.

These brief asides are great fun, more concise and taut than the overworld and easier to start again if you screw something up. Completion conditions will reward you with keys and those keys will let you unlock vaulted Choas Emeralds.

Enough Emeralds will see you progress to the area's boss, a Titan of huge technological might, for a big fight to conclude the section. These fights involve some Super Sonic fun with your uber-powered version, but their scale isn't really matched by innovative gameplay ideas.

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If moving around is pretty smooth and rewarding for the most part, the game's combat is pretty terrible - not by Sonic 3D standards, admittedly, but in a modern context. For the series, weirdly unforgiving hitboxes and frustratingly slow combat aren't new, but they're getting more tiresome as time goes by.

Frontiers is also weirdly bad at communicating with the player - your health and how many more hits you can take is an obscure concept, and while there are frequent tutorial pop-ups initially, you can still easily find yourself ahead of where the game imagines you'll be, collecting items only to need to backtrack to chain through some cut-scenes all in a row.

Hope you like pop-in

So far, so mixed, and if you were hoping that the visual presentation of Frontiers would be where it staged its great comeback, you might be in for some disappointment.

Like most aspects of the game, Frontiers is incredibly mixed on the graphical side of things. At times its use of colour and lighting can be nice, and some of the sweeping landscapes it presents are quite striking.

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However, there are constant issues with visual pop-in that are made all the more obvious by the speed at which you move - this isn't just a matter of grass or other incidental details, it's also large objects and things like other grind rails or enemies.

The frequent cut-scenes are also pretty unreliable in quality, with some creditable voice acting being translated to dead poor lip-syncing and sometimes rushed-looking animations. Again, this applies to major moments like boss fights, not just small asides.

Playing on PS5 we had a much better time once we swapped from the default 4K mode, which runs at 30FPS, to a 60FPS performance mode that still looks sharp but is significantly better to play given the reactions you need to leverage.

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However, our issue isn't one of resolution, but rather is to do with polish and art direction, both of which feel neutered by sub-standard performance.

The game sounds fine enough, thankfully, although we're not sure how much of that is just down to the fact that Sega's old ring-collecting chime is still just as endorphin-triggering as ever, letting the rest of the sound design coast home easily.

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