Sonic Frontiers Looks Empty In All Of The Worst Ways

There was a moment earlier this week when millions across the internet had to suddenly stop and think about the horrible idea of actually enjoying a modern Sonic game. Sonic Mania is great and Forces can be seen as a cringe-inducing guilty pleasure at the best of times, but for years it feels like Sega has been unable to save the Blue Blur from mediocrity.

All of this could change with the coming arrival of Sonic Frontiers – an open world platforming adventure that many believe will usher in a new era for the beloved mascot and allow him to finally stand alongside Mario as a worthy rival. At least, that’s what I thought after seeing a snippet of gameplay, but now the full trailer is here, and my skepticism has returned with a vengeance. While the sense of speed and discovery remains, the landscape itself feels empty in a way that might struggle to hold the attention of even the most hardcore fans.

IGN released roughly seven minutes of gameplay and I admire how much Sonic Team is willing to put out there that isn’t in the form of a flashy trailer, sizzle reels, or overblown marketing campaigns. For better or worse, this is a chunk of footage that follows our titular character exploring this new world with a daunting level of freedom. We see him climb structures, collect rings, and even do battle with a few wayward enemies across a painfully green and lifeless environment. It’s like a random field in the middle of Wales.

Perhaps I’m making my judgments too early, but the game is only a handful of months away and there isn’t much throughout this world that sets it apart from 3D Sonic games we’ve seen time and time again over the years. Let’s start with the movement. When he isn’t zooming across rails or sprinting through hoops our protagonist comes to a painful crawl, and walks with the awkward misdirection that has plagued him since the days of Sonic Heroes. Having to find your place once momentum suddenly stops – which it often does – only serves to expose how bad the movement controls and combat mechanic might feel. The homing attack is back, so you’ll jump and press another button to eliminate most threats or obstacles instead of actually putting thought into proceedings.

This even carries over to the Shadow of the Colossus-esque beasts from the initial trailers, which could be fun to fight, but if the act of dispatching them boils down to little more than a few choreographed button presses instead of actual application of skill they will be little more than a fading spectacle. I also can’t take my mind off the towering architecture spread across this world that Sonic is encouraged to navigate. I imagine the overarching lore will give their placement purpose, but right now it feels like a collection of assorted places for us to climb and run across that don’t lead anywhere. In the gameplay trailer alone we see Sonic reach the top, only to jump off and awkwardly land in a nearby hedge. Then off he sprints to find something else to do. No cohesion is present here, and thus it makes the open world nature of Sonic Frontiers feel like it’s chasing a trend instead of actually meaning something.

Sonic Frontiers is clearly building on the success of Breath of the Wild, whose own world was empty on the surface, but beneath this veil of exploration hid an abundance of fascinating puzzles and memorable combat encounters, alongside myriad outposts and NPCs that provided a reason for us to talk to them and make this world our own. Here the world just feels uncompromisingly massive for the sake of it, with a bunch of oddly placed buildings making it feel like a glorified tech demo instead of an actual retail product.

I could be completely wrong and this is little more than a virtual slice, and the full game hides a selection of different biomes filled with characters, quests, and surprises that fit together perfectly. But I’ve been hurt by Sonic before, and I’m yet to be convinced that Frontiers will be any different. Right now it just feels like Sonic Team has learned all the wrong lessons from current open world juggernauts as it seeks to place this mascot into a genre he potentially isn’t meant for. Sonic always shines in tightly choreographed levels with an emphasis on speed and scripting, and giving us the freedom to explore giant environments that put that aside in favour of discovery will only serve to highlight already obvious faults.

Sonic Frontiers could be great, and I’m hoping for the best, but this recent glimpse of gameplay has dashed my hopes in ways I was really hoping it wouldn’t.

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