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Sonic Frontiers didn't leave the strongest impression when SEGA first revealed it. Despite positive first previews, concerns were raised regarding combat and the game's visual design, amplified by the publisher's refusal to delay it further. However, thanks to a 30-minute hands-on preview at Gamescom 2022, we've finally had the chance to check it out for ourselves. Already, Sonic Frontiers feels like a step up from its predecessor, Sonic Forces — which isn't the highest bar, sure — but there's promise here, alongside a few rough edges.

For anyone who's been following Sonic Frontiers, you're probably aware it takes a different approach to past games. Mostly ditching linear stages for 'Open Zone' gameplay, Frontiers incorporates stage-like elements across the world map, taking us between five biomes on the Starfall Islands. While Gamescom's public demo takes place on the opening area, Kronos Island, our preview instead saw us exploring the harsh deserts of Ares Island, Frontiers' second location.

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Trapped within a red sphere, our goal involved rescuing a certain knucklehead, and most locations seemingly have at least one of Sonic's friends trapped within. Freeing them requires memory tokens earned by exploring the island, so between unearthing token piles, completing small platforming challenges, and taking down enemies, you've got a few options. Admittedly, we didn't progress much in the main story; this token process requires repeating at least three times, so any judgments here would be premature.

Instead, we explored Ares Island with complete freedom, and while this biome doesn't feel lacking, it's not particularly packed, either. Between larger towers, grinding rails, and walls to run/climb up, some placements feel natural, like using bounce pads to speed through a narrow canyon, but others feel more random. Many events just seem to be, well, there. Even so, Frontiers rewards those who take the effort to explore, and running across these large open spaces is enjoyable.

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It took time adjusting to Frontier's visuals, though. For a series filled with colourful anthropomorphic animals, aiming for realistic environments is a tonal clash that's hard to shake — Sonic didn't entirely feel like he belonged. Don't get us wrong, Ares boasts some pleasant and detailed environments, but we wish Frontiers felt more cohesive — 2D art aside. It'd probably help if there weren't considerable pop-in issues; platforms which aren't that far off would suddenly appear on-screen, and while we're hopeful this'll be fixed before launch, it's an issue that many noticed two months ago.

Still, even with this new visual style and open-ended structure, Frontiers crucially feels like you're playing a Sonic game. Much of that comes down to his moveset. Sonic's still packing classic abilities like his homing attack, spin jump, and double jump, and running utilises the familiar boost-based system most 3D titles feature. Further abilities like new attacks are unlockable through a skill tree, some being gated behind story progression, and you'll earn skill points to obtain the others.

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What stood out most is Sonic's new Cyloop ability, as seen in the recent trailer, where he leaves a blue trail behind him. Once you've drawn a complete circle, this creates different effects depending on what you've drawn it around. If it's an empty area, you'll spawn rings, which helped us narrowly avoid death on several occasions. It can also be used to attack multiple enemies, alongside unearthing hidden items for puzzle solving. It's a clever addition that feels like a natural evolution, activated by holding down the Square button. Forgetting your standard Soldiers, some enemies require you hit them with a Cyloop to make them vulnerable, like the sturdier Shells. You can't spam homing attacks and hope for the best — some require further consideration, and it complements combat nicely.

We also encountered one mini boss and defeating them required grinding across three circular rails to turn them blue, making them vulnerable. We had minor frustrations, though, as while the D-pad moves Sonic between rails, the instinctive reaction is to jump — and that doesn't lock onto the next rail, causing Sonic to fall off. It disrupted combat's flow, but since there are many other mini bosses, we're not placing too much weight on this. Defeating them earns Portal Gears to unlock new portals into the linear Cyber Space stages. Unfortunately, we couldn't try these levels during the demo, but completing them rewards players with Vault Keys, used to obtain chaos emeralds. And sadly, we didn't fight Ares Island's main boss, unless you count an entertaining chase scene after helping Knuckles.

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There's only so much you can gauge from a 30-minute demo, but while we have some criticisms with the art style and world design, what we've seen so far was certainly entertaining. For better or worse, Frontiers didn't feel like 3D Sonic with a Breath of the Wild skin as many comparisons suggested, Sonic's latest game is its own beast that's taking a big risk. Until we get more time with it, we can't make any definitive judgments, but we're coming away from Gamescom cautiously optimistic.

Sonic Frontiers is speeding to PS5 and PS4 on 8th November 2022. How are you feeling about Sonic Frontiers? Try not to go too fast in the comments section below.