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Review

Sonic Frontiers (Switch) Review

Playing Sonic Frontiers feels like sitting down to eat the big breakfast you just ordered at a café and feeling a little rough after hitting the sauce a tad too hard the previous night. There’s so much in front of you. A brief review of what’s on your plate is impressive, albeit it’s all currently a bit blurry. You don’t love everything on there – your eyes widen at the sight of the bacon and eggs, but you could take or leave the grilled tomato and mushrooms. It seems the kitchen has included everything here, even the infamous first pancake of the batch that got a bit messed up. You certainly won’t leave hungry, but the chef is sensitive and demands you eat all of it. In the end, whether you’ll leave satisfied or even feeling better at all is up for debate. I suppose the point of this long-winded analogy is to say that Sonic Frontiers is a lot of things at once, and the result is that I’ve rarely felt such conflicting feelings hit me at such a rapid pace when playing a game. 

Sonic Frontiers represents a bold new direction for the franchise. Touted as an “open-zone” game, Sonic traverses five segregated islands rife with sights to explore and activities to complete. Each zone is fully open to navigate once you arrive on them, and although initially there is a seemingly overwhelming number of things to do, the game cleverly funnels you from one type of activity to the next to keep things fresh. 

Finding and conquering simple challenges scattered about the world charts part of it on your map and populates the area with new geometry like rails and bounce pads to help you get around. This will help you locate mini-bosses to defeat, which grants you gears used to unlock cyberspace stages, which in turn grant vault keys used to unlock chaos emeralds, which you will need to take on that zone’s boss. It creates an organic flow that encourages exploration, never keeps you doing the same thing for too long and is constantly providing you with progress and rewards. 

Navigating this open world is, for the most part, highly enjoyable. There’s an extremely satisfying flow of zooming through the open vistas, barrelling along grind rails, and flinging across bounce points to nab another delectable collectable at the end before you hop off to the next object that catches your eyes. Sonic himself feels great to control most of the time, and the bosses usually require a unique approach that makes them a joy to take down. Constantly finding new trinkets that can upgrade Sonic’s abilities always incentives you to see where that next grind rail might take you. It’s a game that tries a lot of things, but it does a lot of them right. 

Having said that, you may have noticed a lot of words acting as caveats in that last paragraph, and there’s a good reason for that. See, Sonic Frontiers made me smile a lot and I had great times playing through it. But it also, almost as frequently, made me frustrated and wanted to swear at the blue hedgehog for being an out-of-control idiot. 

Navigation is great until Sonic homes to the wrong object, or the camera goes a bit haywire, or the physics seemingly changes for no apparent reason. Platforming is fun until you spend minutes ascending a complex structure only to have a distant enemy attack or wonky physics cause you to plummet back to earth and need to start again. Combat is satisfying until combos or moves decide they just won’t activate or work like they’re supposed to. Bosses are enjoyable until you find the odd one with a mechanic that feels designed purely to irritate, or has an unnecessary difficulty spike, or will make you replay a huge section of gameplay because of a cheap death that feels beyond your control. Having your exploration rewarded via ability upgrades is all well and good until you have to ask an old statue to increase your max speed or ring capacity by one, which takes about fifteen seconds, and you need to do that one at a time nearly two hundred times for the full upgrades. 

The foundations here are solid, and there’s so much potential in this format that will serve the developers well when they hopefully build and iterate for a sequel, but it’s impossible to deny that a bit of polish, refinement and perhaps even restraint is needed to touch up the current approach that sees them throw the kitchen sink at the wall and hope everything sticks. 

On the plus side, the cyberspace stages are a constant highlight. These take the form of the types of 3D Sonic stages you would be used to from recent Sonic games, often borrowing liberally in terms of both aesthetic and even level layout. Despite the familiarity, the seven of these stages in each zone are tightly tuned and always a thrill. Most take less than a couple of minutes to blast through, but with multiple objectives to strive for on each, you’re encouraged to replay them to the point of mastery. The physics in these stages can feel a bit different to the open-world sections, so jumping in and out can throw you for a loop, but it’s hard not to appreciate the care that has gone into crafting each level. 

With all of that said, the entire experience offered by this game is undoubtedly tarnished for the Nintendo Switch iteration. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Switch. It’s a wonderful piece of hardware perfectly suited to so many types of games. But my goodness, Sonic Frontiers is a prime example of the kind of game that is simply pushing the Switch’s aging hardware to breaking point. This is not a pretty game, at least when it comes to the open island sections. The resolution comes in at 720p when docked, and much lower when in handheld mode. Textures are bland and blurry, environments are lacking detail, frequent rain effects look awful, and lighting is flat (and advanced lighting is practically non-existent in handheld mode), Worst of all, the environmental pop-in is so egregious that small details pop in less than a metre from Sonic, and huge structures pop in not much further away. It’s all just rather ugly. It’s a shame, as the game’s vibrant aesthetic looks great on other systems, but it’s compromised to such a degree on Switch that it just becomes a muddy mess. 

These cuts were no doubt made to get the game running at a stable framerate, but despite all the sacrifices, the performance leaves much to be desired. Although it mostly sits at 30fps, it’s not uncommon to see dips when there’s more happening on screen, and even when there’s not, the game suffers from constant stutters and jitters. Between the rough visuals and shonky performance, there were times while playing when I honestly began to get a headache because it was just such an unpleasant assault on the retinas. Thankfully the cyberspace stages handle themselves better, as their more limited scope allows for more of the environmental detail to be retained, and the framerate holds up for the most part. 

Given the nature of the game’s design, it’s commendable that they managed to get the game ported to the Switch at all. Be that as it may, I need to seriously caveat this game with the Switch’s hardware in mind. There’s a lot to like in Sonic Frontiers, but this version struggles to the point where it materially impacts the game. If you love Sonic and this is the only system you have, you’ll probably still find enough to like here, but if you have any other means of playing this game on a different piece of hardware, I implore you to do that instead. 

On a positive note, the Switch hardware in no way impacts the banging soundtrack. Comprising an engaging mix of sombre piano tones, high-energy doof-doof tunes and rocking pop tracks, the soundtrack is a captivating mixtape full of stellar tracks that makes a great accompaniment to your whirlwind adventures. 

Sonic Frontiers is such a difficult game to judge, and that challenge is only compounded when you add in the limitations of the Switch hardware. It’s a game that does so many things right and is an exciting new direction for the blue blur, but I’ve never had so many dramatic swings of my enjoyment of a game throughout its playtime. There are some ecstatic highs to be had throughout the game, but frequent minor niggles and the occasional idea that doesn’t land hold it back from greatness. Combine that with the serious drawbacks of the weaker Switch hardware which undeniably hamper the experience and you have a game that, whilst having a ton of fun to offer, will require you to overlook a heap of mitigating quibbles to get there. 

Rating: 3/5

The Good

+ Open zone design is, for the most part, a success
+ Excellent cyberspace levels
+ Soundtrack slaps

The Bad

- Severely compromised by Switch hardware
- Frequent minor annoyances in almost every aspect of the game
- Occasional camera and control frustrations

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Final Thoughts

Sonic Frontiers is such a difficult game to judge, and that challenge is only compounded when you add in the limitations of the Switch hardware. It’s a game that does so many things right and is an exciting new direction for the blue blur, but I’ve never had so many dramatic swings of my enjoyment of a game throughout its playtime.

There are some ecstatic highs to be had throughout the game, but frequent minor niggles and the occasional idea that doesn’t land hold it back from greatness. Combine that with the serious drawbacks of the weaker Switch hardware which undeniably hamper the experience and you have a game that, whilst having a ton of fun to offer, will require you to overlook a heap of mitigating quibbles to get there.

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About The Author
Andrew Searles
I like to write. I do reviews and other bits for @vooksdotnet. Still playing Pokemon Go. Will probably buy Resident Evil 4 again when they release it on my fridge.

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