That New Sonic Game Is A Weird, Lonely Mess (That I Can’t Stop Playing) -

That New Sonic Game Is A Weird, Lonely Mess (That I Can’t Stop Playing)

Sonic runs through a sunny forest.

Image: Sega

Usually, you play a few hours of a game and you can confidently give your thoughts on it. Not a full review or anything, but you can usually say, “Oh yeah, that’s a good one” or “Nah, pass, it’s awful” or something like that. But not Sonic Frontiers. A few hours in and I’m not sure at all what to think. Who is this game for? Why was it made? Why am I still playing it? What the hell is going on?

When the first gameplay trailer for Sonic Frontiers was revealed earlier this year, the reaction to it was a mix of confusion, memes, and lots of comparisons to Breath of the Wild. It looked like a bland Unreal Engine demo that someone shoved Sonic into. Fans wanted the game delayed in the hopes it would change or improve. That didn’t happen. In response to all the criticisms and memes, Sega said fans just “didn’t understand” Frontiers. They didn’t get it. Yet, after our own Ethan Gach checked it out pre-release, he still didn’t get it. And now, after it was released this week on console and PC, I’ve put a few hours in and I still don’t get it, either.

Sonic Frontiers feels less like a big, new video game from an established publisher and more like a random game that popped up on Steam and got modded by a Sonic fan. This isn’t entirely a bad thing…

Right out of the gate, the opening cutscenes are weird, with Sonic characters like Eggman and Tails looking like they fell out of a game released in the last generation, but existing in a world that looks like it was rendered in a modern version of Unreal Engine. The plot involves Eggman, Sonic’s longtime nemesis, finding an ancient statue or something and setting off an invasion of magical cyber robots. I don’t know. At times, I’m not even sure the game knows what’s going on. The setup tosses Sonic, alone, into a large and strange world conveniently filled with rails to grind, bumpers to fling off of, and rings to collect.

It’s also a very lonely world. There’s little music. It’s just mostly Sonic, at least in the early hours, zipping around by himself. No cheerful music. No cute robots or cartoony monsters. Just photorealistic cliffs, rivers, and grass to keep the famous hedgehog company. I felt like Norman Reedus in the early areas of Death Stranding at times. (No, Sonic doesn’t piss in this game or drink Monster Energy.)

Once you gain control of Sonic, after the wild intro cutscenes, things get better and also…uh worse? Playing this game is a roller coaster, with one bit elevating my enjoyment and the other causing me to wonder why I was wasting my time.

A screenshot shows a far off Sonic standing on a cliff near the ocean.

Sometimes the camera gets so far away that you can barely spot Sonic.
Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku

Sonic controls like shit, until you get him going, at which point he feels snappy and the game’s assists kick in, helping you turn better or platform between objects easily. But then you start walking around again and he feels clunky and the game sometimes seemed confused about which direction I was going and when to assist me and when not to. The whole experience is messy, and then you discover that the game contains a ton of sliders that let you straight up alter how Sonic moves and is controlled!

Again, this doesn’t feel like a game, or at least, not the kind of game I’d expect from a Sega or Capcom or an EA or whatever. It feels like a wild mod some dedicated Sonic fan put together using a mix of ripped assets and placeholder art.

Sprinkled around this Unreal Engine tutorial-looking world are puzzles that are sometimes fun, reminding me of my favorite moments from Breath of the Wild. Little puzzles that you solve using some of Sonics’ abilities. Other puzzles are too simple. One puzzle just told me to run in a wheel for a bit. That really worked for Sonic, sure, but wasn’t much fun for me. Doing these scattered puzzles unlocks new parts of the world map and sometimes adds new high-speed rails to grind on, letting you quickly get around the larger map. Honestly, it’s a lot cooler than clicking fast travel on the map screen like so many other open-world games.

All of the puzzles, enemies, and more feed into a loop that is overly complicated, involving multiple currencies and gems and seeds that improve Sonic or unlock new things that then provide more of these resources which eventually gains you access to more locations and the chaos gems and that ties back into the cyber levels and it all just becomes too much. I’m just here to run really fast, kill some things and keep running. Again, I got most of it, but trying to explain is about as fun as messing with this stuff.

A screenshot shows Sonic standing on a grey platform hovering above a large field.

Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku

And yet, I kept playing. Why? Because, as I said earlier, when Sonic is going fast, the largely empty, and lonely open world becomes a blur of colors as you zip to various platforms and rails. Some of these are hidden off the beaten path, rewarding you for exploring. And I can’t lie, that feeling when I found a perfect line—letting me collect a ton of rings and resources in a few stylish seconds—felt good.

Then I’d encounter one of the giant titans that you have to speed-run up and onto, like a weird modded version of Shadow of the Colussus, and I’d forget I was playing a Sonic game. And then holographic cyber Amy would start chatting with Sonic in a poorly written cutscene and I’d be quickly reminded that, no, I was in fact still playing a Sonic video game. For some reason…

I don’t think I recommend you go out and buy Sonic Frontiers. But I also get why so many people are checking out Sonic Frontiers. It’s such a strange and (probably) expensive experiment from Sega. Rarely do we see big-name franchises go so off the rails in such an interesting way? Again, I don’t think Frontiers is a good game, but I applaud the devs for doing something so different with such a popular character and series.