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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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Sonic Frontiers wrestles with taking the series' essence to the Open Zone



Back in May of 2018, I remember briefly asking Junichi Masuda, then of Pokémon developer Game Freak (and now chief creative officer at the Pokémon Company), whether Pokémon might one day follow the likes of Zelda and Mario into some kind of open-world format. At the time he called it a “possibility,” if, and only if, the studio could find the right way to balance the traditional Pokémon staples with the open-world formula that was proving so successful elsewhere. It wasnt until this January, a good four years later (a lifetime in Pokémon development terms), that we saw what that possibility really was in Pokémon Legends Arceus – an open-ish world game that was really more of a series of open areas, linked together but gated according to your progress, and that progress achieved by doing very traditional, classically Pokémon things.

Pokémon is of course barely relevant here, but that means of going sort-of-open-world might sound familiar to those with a close eye on Sonic Frontiers. Its another knot in the thread, which we can now rather neatly tie from Breath of the Wilds leap into the fully open world to Sonic, this coming November, doing the same in its own way.

People do like to cut that thread, mind – or go further and suggest it doesnt really exist. A common point made is that, while these games like to market themselves in the same way, finishing a trailer with a series mascot channelling a bit of Caspar David Friedrich by looking out imperiously over a green and mountainous world of adventure, that doesnt mean the games are the same, or that one was inspired in an any meaningful way by the other. These games all have fundamentally different systems and different goals, after all, and so Breath of the Wild isnt an influential game; it just had really influential box art.


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Sonic Frontiers new story trailer from Gamescom 2022.

Playing some Sonic Frontiers, though, and speaking to Sonic Team studio head Takashi Iizuka, you see where that kind of thinking goes wrong. The common thread here isnt a mechanic or premise like Zeldas discovery-via-systemic-physics, or Pokémons catch-and-catalogue scientific method. Its the step back from that: a realisation that the medium as a whole has evolved, at least a little, and that there are some players who want to decide their own goals and discover things for themselves. Some kind of openness – an open world, or area, or with Sonic Frontiers what the team is calling Open Zone – is the natural next step. But its the goal of all these games that ties them together: to take that next step while still keeping the series essence intact.

The “essence” of a great Sonic game, Iizuka says – or just how hed define the best parts of playing it – is really the “fun feeling” you have while moving. “So whether its a 2D game or 3D game or an Open Zone game, its really that sense of enjoyment that Im running with Sonic at a high speed and [thinking]: this is fun, and Im having a great time. That to me is the essence.


Sonic Frontiers preview - a desert with a giant stone object shaped like a satellite dish

Sonic Frontiers preview - desert biome with an oasis and palm trees in the foreground

Sonic Frontiers preview - a pale rock formation with moss growing on it

Sonic Frontiers preview - pale rock formation overhead with puddles and grass below

Sonic Frontiers preview - grassy field with a distant tower

Sonic Frontiers preview - grassy field with rock formations at sunset

Sonic Frontiers preview - a field of red poppy-like flowers with hoop-shaped ruins and arches

Sonic Frontiers preview - a turoise pool of water with lush green plants and ruins around it
Honestly, Sonic Frontiers looked better in this preview, but Im not sure it looked this good.

“Its very clear to me that just going fast does not make it fun. You could be, you know, just running in a straight line superduper fast, but its going to be kind of boring, youre not going to feel like youre going fast. And its really through the design of the course, and the things that youre having to do, where you feel that speed and where you feel that fun. So regardless, if its a 2D game, or 3D linear zone, its that sensation, that feeling when you play with Sonic, that the team is really focused on.”

Iizuka explains the history of Sonic as really “20 years or so” of following the same “linear game design” style, with the 3D linear zones of Sonic Adventures, in 1998, the first “evolution” of that. But at this point, he says, “the team kind of felt like we were hitting a limit of what we could do, and how we would innovate on the game. And we really wanted to challenge ourselves to do something new and make something that is going to last for the next 10-plus years as a new game format. This is really that third or second – I guess this is the third – kind of iteration of Sonic the Hedgehog gameplay.”

“Its taking that same Sonic high speed action that we know from the linear and 2D platforming, and putting it in that open space. And thats what the Open Zone concept is.”

Circling back a little later in the conversation, Iizuka elaborates a little more on the perceptions of what “Open Zone” really means. “I think a lot of people, if theyre just kind of looking at the videos, or they see a screenshot, its very easy for them to see the open space and say its an open-world game.” But “open-world” is something he associates with “creating a whole world and creating other characters in that world, and putting you as a character alongside those other characters in the world and saying, now go do the things youre going to do in this world that Ive created.”


Sonic Frontiers preview - a boss fight against a metal foe in a kind of wrestling ring made of lasers

Sonic Frontiers preview - a strange rock character with a beard made of moss

Sonic Frontiers preview - a mysterious humanoid character with a glowing red orb

Sonic Frontiers preview - a boss fight, running towards the flying metal boss on a purple track

With Frontiers, he explains, “thats not what were trying to do – thats not the intention behind the game. The Open Zone concept really came from, we want this open space to exist. And inside of this open space, we want Sonic to be able to do high speed action platforming; running, jumping in like a playground for Sonic. We want that to be in an open space, not in a linear format.

“The purpose of that open area is completely different for us versus like an open-world game,” he says, “where we have a town on, you know, this side of the map, and we want you to walk across to the other town because some character told you to go over there and get something for them.”

The core challenge of this for Sonic Team – albeit a challenge that Iizuka describes as necessary – was making that leap to having you be able to run around freely in open areas, without losing that Sonic essence. “When we talked about the different games,” Iizuka says, “its really not the game telling you what to do next and providing you with your next challenge. Its creating this open area and filling it with tonnes of things to do. Instead of the game telling you what to do, the user is now deciding what the user wants to do next. And that was really the challenge the team needed.”


Sonic Frontiers preview - a desert zone at night with glowing blue cacti

Sonic Frontiers preview - a desert open zone with a strange upside-down diamond-shaped structure

Some of that challenge can be felt in playing Sonic Frontiers. Its an odd game, with Sonics traditional gameplay probably the furthest from a natural fit out of any of the series that have made a recent leap to open worlds. An Open Zone, if youre still not totally sure, is essentially a giant level. A big plot of land that you can roam around freely, with some decidedly Sonic-y structures and bunches of enemies dotted across it for you to parkour around and about at speed, or, if you prefer, totally ignore as you explore.

This time I played the second zone in Sonic Frontiers, called Ares, which is more of a desert-like biome with old, noticeably ring-themed ruins sprouting up from the dunes, and which featured slightly more elaborate obstacles than the first area shown to press earlier this year.

Your core objective was also explained a little more explicitly. What youre trying to do is get the Chaos Emeralds out of things called the emerald vaults. In order to do so, you need to first defeat bosses called the Guardians. All of the Guardians, when you defeat them, will drop a portal gear, those portal gears will unlock the portals, which take you to Cyberspace, the 2D-style linear areas youll have already heard about. In Cyberspace there are different challenges, and completing the challenges will get you a vault key, which you can use to unlock a vault and get a Chaos Emerald. And onto the next.

This is a process that seems convoluted to the point of byzantine, but is actually a bit more simple in practice: you defeat a boss to unlock a more traditional Sonic course, to unlock the next zone. Its like that with much of Sonic Frontiers, it seems. Dropping into the games second level youre assaulted with icons and collectibles – collect some kind of ring/orb/gem/fragment/seed, youre told, to help free Tails, or reach a new area, or, in the case of the deeply Breath of the Wild-like “starfall” events, which turn the odd night-time into a Blood Moon-style frenzy of resurrected enemies, youll need to sprint about collecting star fragments to spin the wheels of some kind of abstract fruit machine, which sits awkwardly across the middle of the screen.


Sonic Frontiers preview - a hologram of Amy Rose

Sonic Frontiers preview - some little white creatures in the grass
A quick note on characters: Will Shadow be in the game? “No.” Will we always play as Sonic? “Yes, you will play as Sonic.”

There are also things to collect which let you level up, unlocking new moves for combat or the ability to chain more elaborate combos together, and all of this comes back to your main job, which is to run about the world following whatever twinkling, pinball platform catches your eye. (These little courses are fun, and very reminiscent of Sonic Adventures, but also oddly passive, effectively asking you to tap the odd jump or dash button at the right time while youre catapulted across the sky).

That combat, meanwhile, is fine for the moment, although not sweeping me off my feet just yet – likely because the real enjoyment will come with chaining movement and attack combos with the type of fluidity Ive neither mastered nor unlocked at this stage. My opening boss fight was really quite simple – do a quick, passive platforming course up to its eye-level to fight it, where you have to hop between three circular rails that surround it, avoiding attacks long enough to fully trace a path around the entirety of each hoop, and then spend a few seconds kicking it in the face. The main challenge isnt mechanical so much as one of clarity: depth perception is an issue, especially once the final stage kicks in. It took a lot of squinting at an already-close screen to discover hazards were actually hopping between adjacent rails themselves, following me between them, and that I could simply tap jump to avoid them entirely.

Depth is a similar issue for the Cyberspace zone I played, which was unlocked after defeating this boss and pinging around another course of air-pinball to a special obelisk. Theres been some chatter about these zones “reusing” old Sonic levels, which Iizuka is quite keen to clarify.

Cyberspace zones are what he describes as “the digital expression of the worlds in the memories of Sonic the Hedgehog.” So when you go into the portal, he says, “its a world thats created from Sonics memories, the places that hes been to like Sanctuary, Green Hill, and so on – Cyberspace is creating a world based off of his memories.


Sonic Frontiers preview - Sonic jumping towards the camera off a ledge

Sonic Frontiers preview - Sonic going round a loop rail in a cyberspace level

Sonic Frontiers preview - Sonic jumping into a grassy cyberspace level

Sonic Frontiers preview - Sonic running towards the camera on a vertical wall in the desert open zone

“We want to kind of reuse those memories – like the memories we have as well, because we played the games with Sonic – but the team is doing it intentionally, to kind of poke at those little points that some players are gonna pick up on immediately. Like, I remember this exactly! And we are making levels that maybe look different, but feel the same as other things you have experienced. Theres going to be a mix of those very intentionally nostalgic or familiar areas, but there will also be some brand new things nobodys ever seen before.”

Familiar or not, these can be a bit of a struggle, with Sonics dash going remarkably far and rendering him impossible to manoeuvre in the air, to the point where its hard to travel at any kind of speed at all. Thats likely at least part of the goal here – high-speed travel is as much a reward in Sonic as it is the way to earn it – but its one that felt entirely beyond me in the 20-odd minutes I had with the game in total.


Sonic Frontiers preview - Sonic doing a jumping attack against an enemy in the desert

Its another reminder that Sonic Frontiers has been a challenge to make, albeit clearly a welcome one too. That combat, for instance, was described as a dilemma but an interesting one: “I wanted to have more things that Sonic can do, more attacks Sonic can have,” Iizuka says, “but when you start making Sonic kind of stop and attack enemies, youre defeating the whole high speed action, I need to race to the finish line kind of concept for the gameplay. And thats kind of what the problem – the difficulty – was in putting in that combat system. If you put it in, youre kind of stopping the gameplay, but if you dont put it in, then the enemies just tend to become objects to get in your way that are stopping you from reaching your goal.

“So it was really [a question of]: if were gonna put in combat, which we wanted to do, then how could we do it? The answer that we came up with is this Open Zone format, because youre now free to do whatever you want, youre on an island, looking for things to do.” In other words, he says, “engaging in combat is something that we want to provide, but if youre going to provide enemies youve got to make sure its fun, and thats really where you think, Well now, we need to put in a combat system so we can have people want to engage the enemies, defeat the enemies, enjoy it, and then run off and do whatever they want to do next.”

Its not unfair to say that some of that tension is still present in Sonic Frontiers, but the upside is that it makes for a decidedly curious game to play – something new, if nothing else. A game thats taking the leap to an open format, like plenty of other long-running, previously linear series before it. But one thats also doing it in very much its own way – just like its fellow mascots have done, too.


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