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After 23 years of 3D Sonic adventures, we all know how we feel about them; some love them, some demand they be launched into the sun. Regardless of your opinion on the 3D games, it was clear that, after the disaster that was Sonic Forces — a game many consider one of his worst ever — something drastic had to happen. After five years (the longest the series has ever gone without a new mainline entry), Sonic Team is taking a gamble by moving Sonic into an open world, and we're happy to say the gamble paid out.

Frontiers opens with Sonic and his friends on their way to a mysterious island after tracking the Chaos Emeralds there. After a rough landing, Sonic awakens, Tails and Amy are nowhere to be seen, and a mysterious voice is calling out to him, dubbing him "the key that can tear down the walls between dimensions."

The most immediately striking thing about Frontiers is just how isolated you feel on the Starfall Islands; there's a sombre tone from the get-go. Kronos Island is an eerie, desolate place unlike anything we’ve seen in a Sonic game before, almost evocative of (and we can’t believe we're making this comparison either) Death Stranding. Even the voice performances, despite sharing the same cast, feel decidedly less cartoony than usual.

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We were pleasantly shocked by the story of Frontiers, the new character Sage. Her relationship with Robotnik, and the arc she goes through during the story even bordered on getting us emotional by the ending — especially if you listen to the egg-logs. Obviously you'll have to let yourself become invested in these funny cartoon animals to truly get into it, but it feels leagues above any Sonic story since the Adventure days. The game is also a treat for long-time fans, with so many nods and significant pieces of info that affect the canon of games from over 20 years ago.

The main attraction, however, is the gameplay. Sonic has gone open world (or as the developers call it, open-zone). While footage from the game has brought forth comparisons to Breath of the Wild, Frontiers' core gameplay loop is actually more similar to a different Nintendo release — Bowser's Fury. Each of the game's five islands revolve around traversing the land, taking part in platforming challenges, and battles to find the Chaos Emeralds, fighting the island's hulking titan bosses.

Getting around the Starfall Islands feels good; there's a solid flow to Sonic's traversal as you explore. It's one of those games like Marvel's Spider-Man, where, even as fast-travel becomes available, you find yourself ignoring it as it's just that fun to move around. The more precise moments still have an element of that Sonic in 3D jank, but these moments are less common. Even then, Sonic Team has included a suite of options to make Sonic's movement and pace highly customisable, so you can find that sweet spot. We highly recommend ignoring the mission markers and exploring the island at your own pace; otherwise, you'll miss out on what makes Sonic Frontiers so good.

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Sonic's new move this time around is the Cyloop mechanic, in which he trails a line of energy behind him. It's an effective move for both puzzle solving and combat. Frontiers has a stronger focus on combat than usual; the world is littered with small groups of enemies, who drop XP that can be used in the game's relatively small skill tree. You'll also encounter mini-bosses who revolve more around puzzle solving and platforming skill than pure combat prowess, giving out gears upon defeat.

Gears are used to unlock the game's cyberspace stages. These levels will be immediately familiar to those who've played Sonic Generations and Forces, with a gameplay style similar to the modern Sonic levels in those games — but also because some of the level design is lifted directly from them. While not the end of the world, it does add to the disappointment when it turns out there are only four themes to these levels (Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary and a nondescript City). Aside from these issues, the cyberspace stages are a fun change of pace from the island gameplay, and scratch the itch of a more traditional Sonic experience.

Minor issues is the name of the game in Sonic Frontiers. While there aren't any major glaring flaws in our eyes, the game is filled with these small annoyances. For example, every time you reach your max ring count, Sonic enters a power boost state (akin to his blue lightning powers in the movie) after a short cutscene. While it only lasts about five seconds, it plays every single time. The game loves to wrestle control away from the player like this often — especially in the early game — which feels antithetical to the whole game's freedom.

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Another huge change of pace are the Titan boss fights. Sonic can't take these titans down on his own merit and thus has to call upon some souped-up form of Sonic (if such a thing exists) to do battle with these giants. The game's overall tranquillity allows the bombastic moments like these to hit that much harder. They feel plucked right out of a Platinum Games title, and are helped by their use of that classic 2000's Sonic butt-rock music we grew to love in the Adventure era.

One thing you can count on in a Sonic game — even the bad ones — is the music being good. Frontiers may have the best soundtrack in the series, and we don't say that lightly. From the beautiful sombre suites during island traversal, the banging electronic tunes that accompany each cyberspace level, the aforementioned butt-rock, and even some lo-fi beats for the fishing mini-game. It'll be robbery if this game doesn't sweep every music award at the end of the year.

Conclusion

Sonic Frontiers feels like a statement from Sonic Team after years of being treated like a joke. By no means is it perfect, but this is exactly the injection of life the franchise needed after the misstep of Forces, and it's the freshest Sonic has felt since Adventure first hit the shelves. While it is wrought with minor issues, the overall package of Sonic Frontiers mostly hits the mark, with its satisfying gameplay, a storyline that will please long-time fans, and an absolutely phenomenal soundtrack. It immediately places itself among the best Sonic games ever made.