Sonic Frontiers - Of open worlds and confining cyberspaces
It had been a long time since I last streamed a Sonic game. Sonic Forces was almost a one-off stream. It took only four to five hours to finish the game and also its Shadow add-on. Story beats were all a blur. The mechanic that was the staple was creating your own original character (do not steal), but as mentioned there wasn’t much for them to do. And who can ever forget the poor characterization and writing? True dat.
Since 2017, Sonic Team has certainly been taking their time with this next 3D entry. However, while I was an avid Sonic fan in my youth I kind of grew up and didn’t care so much about keeping up with the day to day on the stories and franchise as much as I used to. The last time I wrote a Sonic review for this site, it was for the movie. And that’s crossaffliction’s territory, that he would reestablish in the second release of the franchise.
I didn’t even review Sonic Forces. I had thoughts, but for whatever reason didn’t feel inspired enough to get them down on paper. Probably ended up in null space somewhere.
But enough about the background of Sonic, was their new Frontier worth the wait?
It is a game with meat on it
Fortunately this game was chunkier, coming in at 6 full streaming sessions (about 20 hours). However, I’m going to start this review knowing that if you’re an avid Sonic fan, you’ve probably already played this four month old game by now. And this game has been reviewed a lot and I share sentiments for most of those reviews: open world good, mini-levels meh. So instead, I’m going to take advantage of being later and instead do a more artful interpretation of the game that those who played and have no intention to can enjoy.
Buckle up, and minor spoilers of overall story arc and gameplay ahead.
A stiff opening
Going in I didn’t have much hope. I heard the snide comments of “Breath of the Hedgehog”, a poke at how similar the atmosphere had to the Zelda game Breath of the Wild. And going out the gate, you start by exiting a module and traverse over a stone wall to exit an enclave to a grand expansive and green world. All that was really missing was the cinematic of the blue hedgehog going to a cliff edge with wide panoramic shots.
The animations of the opening cutscene where Sonic, Amy, and Tails were flying aboard their biplane were a bit stiff before they are sucked into cyberspace and the adventure begins. Sonic is able to break free of the shackles of this alien cyber world and now has to explore these ancient abandoned islands in order to try to free his friends. This pseudo-internet has decided that his friends should remain separated from the hedgehog.
Uh… not sure if this was intended… but if so, hats off writers.
And as I continued through this world, this sort of odd relationship with this game continued where I would ask myself: “Was this intended or am I just making up things that are more clever than it is?”
For instance, as you explore the open levels you find these portals to mini-levels back in the cyberspace world. Most critics after the release of the game have panned these as the worst part of the experience as they rehash the nostalgic Generations level pallets along with using level layouts from prior games. It’s the portion that seems the most trapped in the past.
Our cyberworld of the internet said aloud, “We liked Generations, why can’t we make more games like that?” and so the game’s Cyberspace complied. Here are all these old levels rehashed in the repetitive four templates of Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary, and this weird Urban-like zone no one can put their finger on. We know it’s a city— but doesn't match the palette of any of the previous game’s aesthetic.
You may think this ‘original’ city palette breaks this Generations metaphor. However, looking back it actually enforces it. If you recall, one of my biggest critiques of Generations that I made on this site all the way back when I was just a contributor and not an editor, was how many of the levels picked from older games were of urban environments. If you didn't, that's okay, it’s been 12 years. Below is the quote.
The game did have a few black marks. While the level design was great, the level diversity was sub-par for a Sonic game. There were many urban environments – of the nine levels, four were city-based, not counting the Chemical Plant.
But this can’t be intentional can it? This is just my mind playing games on me. Now I’m insinuating a part of the game and saying it’s bad is in and of itself a slight on internet culture and its shackling of creative expression. Wanting more of the same in the same format and not allowing its mascot to be free? There is nothing else to indicate that this is the case.
But no… this Creepy-Pasta review continues…
Hold on a second.
You are introduced to these cyber-level mechanics before the world opens up. You get keys from these by completing tasks in the cyber world mini-level that can unlock the chaos emeralds you need to complete the islands. The game tells you to complete the tasks in these levels and to do it “as many times as it takes” at this introduction to the cyber portals.
This intro level it informs you to do this on is cyber level 1-2. A ‘mechanic spoiler’ here, but as the internet has come to find, this level is the most challenging to fully complete in the entire game, due to a very tight time attack requirement for its S-Rank key.
This level uses the Sky Sanctuary template and starts with your character running indicating this level will be fast paced, and you will complete the mission your first time in about 1 minutes and 25. But that’s not good enough. To pull an S-rank victory requires you to get under a time of 55 seconds. So if you want to complete the task you will play it again. And again. And again. And…
People have made entire YouTube videos dedicated to completion of Frontier’s most grueling task. Some of them noted over 100 attempts and an hour of time in doing so. By the time a player accomplishes this, they are performing nearly game breaking maneuvers, using dash techniques that don’t seem quite intended, and blasting over large sections of the level out of the confines.
And because of this, the song repeats, again and again in the background. The message of this song is about the fragility of life and the passing into death.
I’m floating with time
Flowing into the Light.
I’m floating with time
Flowing into the Light.
As you play the level repeatedly, even if you don’t succeed in the challenge, the song will be one that haunts you for the rest of the playthrough. And every time you play a cyberspace stage from then on, the song will remind you. Time is fleeting, but you’re trapped in this place. But soon, those memories and that space will fade and disappear. Will you embrace the changes that are in front of you, or will you too find yourself stuck in this place, trying to beat what few can and bang your head against a wall? Perhaps if you go into the world instead, there is an easier and less stressful way?
And as it turns out, the very thing our real world cyberspace of the internet was critical of, the “Breath of the Hedgehog gameplay”, turned out to be the most critically acclaimed part of the game after it actually came out. To run over the mountains and through the streams. To explore and find memories of characters to interact with over time. To complete mini-challenges to reveal the world and make it quicker to traverse, fight large foes, find tokens to interact with your trapped friends.
Sonic will find a friend of his on each island locked away in a chamber of haunting despair. Using the tokens he finds in this open world by performing small feats of skill and exploration, he can help them break free of their prison to traverse around reality in their ghostly form. One foot in both worlds. When Sonic initially breaks his friends free of this toxic prison, a strange occurrence starts to occur where he takes some of the grief his friends feel into his very soul and starts to corrupt throughout his journey.
In this moment, you can find these freed friends in the world, using more tokens to unlock stories. Some build the world and game, while other more interesting ones make references to the past, and all three friends: Tails, Knuckles, and Amy start to bring forth regrets in their past that haunted them in that cyber world. They will help you find more emeralds that you will need to overcome the islands.
Overcoming Cyberspace - Slow, Steady, and at peace
Perhaps in your journey in the open zones you may also find purple coins that you can use to unlock most in-game items in a Big the Cat fishing game, also found in a cyberworld portal.
The most interesting thing about the cyberworld and even the internet is how those who are simple, yet easy going, can not only survive in such a hard and harshly judgemental place, but thrive. Canonically it is unknown how Big ended up trapped in this odd world as far as I’m aware. But he has clearly found peace here. Bending the very fabric of the cyber world to create a never ending fishing hole.
When he sees you, he invites you to enjoy passing this timeless time with him. Catching fish and objects from the pond in a simple and ridiculous minigame. As you give him tokens you found in the real world you can stay with him longer and fish more. These unlock rewards that allow you to progress in the game without needing to do things the hard way.
For Big, he has mastered this hostile place, even far more than the analytical Tails, who was also susceptible to the Siren’s song of doubt that Cyberspace projected at him. “Way to choke in Sonic Forces” it decried, “what happened to our hero who can stop Eggman and didn’t live in Sonic’s shadow?” The two tailed fox found himself reflecting on that himself in such a way that Sonic was taken aback how hard he was being on himself over it.
One may say that ignorance brings bliss in the case of Big. But it’s a bit different than that. It’s acceptance of circumstance and going forward while making the most of it. We in the cyberworld have a lot to learn from Big the Cat, and if you follow his almost Taoist path, you could find the most expedient and blissful way to complete the game without using some of its glitches. It’s a nice touch and alternate route for those looking for a more casual experience.
The future, and letting go
In the end, Eggman’s growth in the game’s conclusion was to tell the Artificial Intelligence he gave life and felt love and connection with to go and perform her function, despite the risk it meant to her. And for us older fans of Sonic, perhaps it is time for us to let go of the nostalgia and allow the new wave of creatives in the Sonic Team to perform their function and allow them to have more control, to give us new frontiers and to take inspiration from things outside of the insular mechanics and limitations we thought we wanted for the franchise.
It can be painful to feel that we don’t have control of the direction of a franchise we care for, but in the end it is the right thing to do. Because to use our cyber frontier for power and control is how evil grows. As the song that Eggman danced to in the first Sonic movie expresses.
If I could build a wall around you, I could control the things that you do. But I couldn't kill the will within you, And it never shows The place where evil grows
And what better place to build walls that no one can escape from their past by denoting all the wrongs of everyone in permanence so that there is no room to shed and grow? The CyberSpace tells you that capacity of control from the very first level’s lyric:
This is where data is stored
Where we manage, record, and control
Where we manage, record, and control
Where we manage, record, and control
Therefore the theme of the game in the end shows that as fans we need to be careful about trying to use cyberspace to control and build walls. To allow people to enjoy the journey of life in their own way. Luckily, this game shows that Sonic had the will to break free, and now that his friends are also free of these shackles. They wish to confront those issues and do better for themselves. Even in the face of the data, a person can change course if they don’t like what they are confronted with. After all, running from the past is a losing game, it never brings you glory.
The ending cutscene of the game bookends the experience in the same way it started, aboard the plane they arrived on the islands, now departing. But there is one thing distinctly different. You can see the expressions on the characters showing their personalities shining through. As if the experience of this game itself had injected life back into their veins. Perhaps, this may be a rounding of the corner to a new dawn.
Hopefully the will of this franchise will never again be killed due to the fear of what us in cyberspace demand, but instead trust its instincts on the uncertain road ahead.