We played Sonic Frontiers at EGX not once, but twice. Normally, we wouldn't put ourselves through a Sonic demo more than necessary, and the queue was, as you'd expect, constantly lengthy. The trouble is, after playing the 15-minute slice of the "open zone" experience for the first time, we realised something rather shocking. Had we really just enjoyed a 3D Sonic game? Is such a thing even possible? Are we simply sleep-deprived and dehydrated? For science, and our own sanity, we had to check.
We're obviously being a little facetious here, but it's basically the truth. Our expectations for Sonic Team's latest attempt were, frankly, quite low before sitting down to play it. The earliest footage of the game was hardly encouraging, and that's without considering the hedgehog's spotty history of 3D platformers. Opinions on Frontiers have been all over the place since its reveal earlier this year, but hands-on accounts (including our own from Gamescom) have been relatively positive. After finally playing it for ourselves, we more or less understand where that sentiment is coming from.
A brief cutscene tells us Sonic has escaped Cyber Space and arrived on the first of a series of islands. Starfall Islands will make up the bulk of the game, and the hedgehog's main objective is to search these environments for the chaos emeralds so he can save his colourful friends and return home. To be honest, we're not too fussed about all that; we want to feel how Sonic controls, because that's been our main grievance with the blue blur since he discovered the Z-axis.
We're somewhat surprised to find we have more control over Sonic's movements than we recall from previous 3D games. It's difficult to pinpoint precisely what is different, but it is different, in a good way. It's possibly down to the game offering you far more open space to just run around in — there are far fewer opportunities to inadvertently fling the mascot to his doom. We played with the slightly slower control method, which may have been why jumps felt easier to predict and perform. Maybe, just maybe, Sonic Team has ironed out some of the rough edges that have made the character so finicky in the past. All we really know is that we genuinely quite enjoyed simply moving around in Frontiers' grassy plains.
The Cyloop ability Sonic has in this game is a nice addition to his moveset, too. It has a few uses, but comes most handy in combat. You can trace a shape on the ground, and closing it will cause some sort of reaction inside. If enemies are in the loop, they'll be popped into the air where you can give them a few smacks. This works on larger baddies as well, potentially forcing them to drop their guard or exposing a weak spot.
Speaking of combat, we're not sure what to make of it yet. Lowly grunt enemies are easy to dispatch with Sonic's usual homing attack, or you can spam the button for a flurry of hits. This was almost entirely how we dealt damage, so while we appreciate there will be more moves to unlock, our experience was pretty repetitive. A very generous parry ability, lock-on, and dodging all make fights pretty easy, which they arguably should be, we suppose, but we weren't enamoured either way.
We're also a bit unsure about the environmental design. As you uncover the map by completing simple puzzles, you'll slowly reveal floating springs, platforms, and rails. In a more traditional Sonic game, these are innocuous elements that fit the purpose of keeping you moving in different ways. In Frontiers, these things feel jarringly incongruous with the rest of the environment. They also pop-in like nobody's business. The trouble is, we understand why they're there — grinding on rails, bouncing up to little hidden platforms, and getting through the world using these as sort-of shortcuts is fun. They are just so inorganically implemented that it feels unfinished.
In our second play of the demo, we got to try one of the Cyber Space levels, which we believe was based on Sky Sanctuary. A significant change of pace from the open zone, these stages are short, fast-paced bursts of the sort of levels you'll know from past 3D Sonic outings. We blitzed through it in less than a minute and there was very little challenge, which again isn't necessarily a bad thing, but hopefully these levels fill out and present you with more to think about as the game progresses.
We've drawn out a few negatives in this preview, but overall, we came away from the demo feeling a little better about Sonic Frontiers. The one thing that's plagued these games for years is slippery, imprecise, haphazard movement, and what we can say is Sonic feels far nicer to manoeuvre here. It's tricky to say exactly what's changed, but the open space and some general refinements seem to have resulted in the best-feeling 3D Sonic game in a long time. Of course, we only played a grand total of 30 minutes, saw a very small section of the game, and unlocked none of the hedgehog's later abilities, so who knows how the full experience will shake out. For now, though, we're (very) cautiously optimistic.
Sonic Frontiers speeds onto PS5 and PS4 on 8th November 2022. Are you excited for the SEGA mascot's new direction? Run in circles in the comments section below.