After going hands-on, I'm worried about Sonic Frontiers

A bad demo doesn't necessarily mean a bad game, but Sonic Frontiers still has a lot to prove.

When Sega released the first gameplay footage of Sonic Frontiers earlier this month, I was more positive on it than most. It’s not that I thought the most common critiques were wrong, per se, but I really believed there was potential in the idea for a more open-ended, freeform Sonic game. I thought it would be chill to just run around grabbing rings, solving puzzles, and fighting the occasional enemy, even if the world looked a little sparse and generic.

Well, I played a 30 minute demo of Sonic Frontiers as part of Summer Game Fest Play Days, and I can’t say that it delivered on what I was hoping for. At all.

The demo appeared to take place quite early in the game, if not immediately after the opening cutscene. Sonic awoke in a grassy area in the rain, called out for Tails and Amy, and was met with a response from a disembodied voice that loosely established the premise, which I think is that Sonic somehow broke out of video games? Like a reverse Tron?

Regardless, I was told I need to find Chaos Emeralds “to tear down the walls between dimensions,” and then I was off and running in an area that I assume serves as the game’s tutorial. I ran around, kicked the tires on Sonic’s various movement abilities, which were pretty much in line from what I remember of previous 3D Sonic games—though I’m hardly an expert. I worked my way through some puzzles (simple), platforming (simple, but mostly fine, barring a few camera issues, some bugs, and the controls occasionally feeling a bit clunky), and combat (you guessed it—simple).

Eventually, I unlocked the Cyloop ability featured prominently in the game’s trailer. This move basically involves holding down the top face button—Y on Xbox, Triangle on PlayStation, and so on—to leave a trail behind Sonic while he runs. If you connect the trail in a circle (or really any closed shape), you’ll activate the Cyloop. Sometimes that means doing damage to enemies inside it. Sometimes it means solving a puzzle.

The Cyloop isn’t an outright terrible mechanic so far, but it did have a very limited application in what I played, and it presented a couple of frustrations. First, it can be very finicky about registering when you’ve completed a circle. My initial instinct was to connect the two ends of my trail as closely as possible, to make a sort of perfect circle with no extra line. There’s no leeway, though, so that almost never works unless you get it just right. You’re much better off if you just make a weird sloppy shape that very aggressively crosses over itself.

The other frustration is that, when it came up in combat scenarios, the Cyloop just wasn’t that engaging to do over and over again. There’s not much skill involved in drawing a circle, and when an certain enemy type is designed around Cyloop—like the robot I encountered who was built of towering discs I needed to knock away one by one—all you’re doing is drawing a bunch of circles and dodging incoming fire. I know the most basic combat against smaller enemies is just mashing the X button, and Cyloop at least takes a bit more engagement than that, but it’s also much slower and less viscerally rewarding than tapping a button and seeing a response immediately on the screen.

Still, I have every faith that the combat can, at least in theory, open up considerably beyond what I saw. A demo of an early segment with almost no abilities unlocked is almost certainly a poor representation of where the game will end up.

But even if I’m giving the combat and the so-so platforming and puzzles the benefit of the doubt, I can’t help but feel that the whole vibe of the demo was off. It didn’t feel like what I’d want from an “open-zone” Sonic, or even what I was hopeful I’d get after seeing that first gameplay footage.

For starters, the environments I got to explore felt very closed-in. I was moving along a mostly linear pathway, and while I was free to backtrack and take side routes to get rings and other collectibles, it wasn’t really open in the sense you’d expect based on the trailers we’ve seen so far. It’s entirely likely that the game opens up a bit past where I reached, revealing a much bigger map that will give me the sense I’m exploring, rather than just moving forward with some content spread along the way.

It’s reasonable that the developers would want to ease people into how the broader game works, but a more linear approach isn’t really the right way to do that. There’s a reason The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, clearly a big inspiration for Sonic Frontiers, dumped you out onto the plateau so quickly. It was obviously a tutorial area, but it was an open-ended, nonlinear tutorial area—the rest of the game in miniature. If Sonic Frontiers is just more of what I played without much difference, that’s a real shame, because the amount of freedom was trivial at best.

My other big gripe with the demo was just how much it felt like it needed to hold my hand and explain things in excruciating detail. I’m not trying to hold Sonic Frontiers to an impossible standard by bringing up Breath of the Wild over and over again, but that game was good in part because it gave you a broad objective and set you loose to tackle it however you wanted, without smothering you with aggressive gameplay exposition. There was a genuine sense of discovery.

In my time with Sonic Frontiers, though, I felt like I could barely do anything for the first time without a text box popping up to explain it. The first time I found one type of collectible, Amy’s memory tokens, I got a big spiel about what they were, what they would do, and how to get them, with the latter explicitly noting the Cyloop ability and fishing. I hadn’t unlocked Cyloop yet, and I certainly didn’t have any idea that I’d be able to go fishing at some point in the game. But both those surprises were ruined because the game wanted me to be perfectly oriented, rather than finding things out for myself. That’s a huge bummer.

I’m trying to keep an open mind about Sonic Frontiers, I really am. The first game I ever had my parents buy me was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and despite how much I’ve grown apart from the franchise and the fandom in the decades since, I think there’s a part of me that’s still rooting for the little blue guy.

In truth, there was one later part of my hands-on time—one of the linear stages, which I’m not allowed to talk about just yet—did make a much better impression than everything else. I’m entirely willing to entertain the idea that I just played a bad demo, and the full game will be much better. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more worried now than before I’d played Sonic Frontiers at all.

Sonic Frontiers launches this fall on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.

Check out all our Summer Game Fest Play Days 2022 coverage.

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