Hands-on: Sonic Frontiers’ open world feels dry and empty

Concerns and worries aplenty at Gamescom.

Image via SEGA

At Gamescom last week, SEGA invited Dot Esports to check out an exclusive new build and level of the upcoming Sonic game, Sonic Frontiers.

Going into the booth, we were cautiously optimistic about what we would find. After a short presentation about the game, we were given roughly 30 minutes to explore the world, test out new gameplay mechanics, and get a feel for what players had in store.

The demo gave us a first look at the second level of the game where players rescue Knuckles. When the 30 minutes were down and we finally put the controller down, however, the game left us with a lot of concerns about the title as a whole. The demo build we played was nowhere near final, having been created specifically for Gamescom for members of the media to try out. But even for those 30 minutes, the world, the game, and everything we experienced felt bland and devoid of life.

Sluggish and slow

Image via SEGA

In the build we played, we find Sonic on Ares Island, the second island in-game, which is set in a desert surrounded by ancient statues, canyons, and mystery. You can run around the area freely, fight any mini-bosses you come across, find new abilities and secret levels, and complete puzzles along the way.

The objective (or flow) of the game is very simple: defeat Guardian enemies around the map to get Portal Gears. These Gears then unlock portals that take you to Cyber Space, what’s essentially a level designed around previous fan-favorite Sonic areas like Green Hill Zone or Angel Island. Completing these areas gives you Vault Keys, which give you the chance to get the Chaos Emeralds needed to open up to the next level.

Video via SEGA

The open world for the level on offer was fairly sizeable, stretching a great distance with plenty to explore. A large map is great, but the area was littered with different little platform sections with collectibles at the end. While that initially sounds fun, having these massive floating running sections scattered feels out of place and looks like a mess. And once you have the collectible, there’s very little reason to go back up to these areas again.

Controls for running or trying to do pinpoint jumps or platforming also comes off as a bit stiff. On multiple occasions we found ourselves jumping or moving Sonic to try and get onto a new area only for him to miss completely or fly off into the distance to a place we didn’t want to go. It started to give off Sonic 06 vibes in some areas when it came to its clunky controls, but this wasn’t all the time.

Lacking creativity and raising more questions than answers

Image via SEGA

There seem to be a lot of Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda: Breath of the Wild-like ideas within Sonic Frontiers that just don’t seem as well executed.

In SMO, you have to collect a certain amount of tokens scattered across the map to progress the story. In Sonic Frontiers, these come in the form of Memory Tokens, which, when enough have been collected, unlock your friends like Amy and Knuckles that have been trapped and give you new abilities. But unlike SMO, where the Power Moons all have their own unique missions and requirements to obtain them, these Memory Tokens are just placed poorly around the map with little thought. Some require you to perform a certain move or simply traverse a bit of the map to find them.

Image via SEGA

Like BOTW, Sonic Frontiers also has seeds and Koco, which are effectively Koroks, that will increase Sonic’s base abilities. While we didn’t discover many of these in the demo we played, they have been present in trailers and the show-floor build of the game the public had access to.

It feels like the game is trying to take ideas that succeeded in other titles and mash them into one experience fit for Sonic—but without as much thought. It’s a worrying sign, and something we hope is more an element of the demo build and not something we see in the final game.

One world boss fight we came across on the map was just so dull. It had you grind rails around a target until all the rails changed color. You then had to jump in and attack it a few times before it became invulnerable again, and then rinse and repeat. The three rails take forever to grind across; we quit halfway through so we didn’t waste all our game time on it.

Image via SEGA

Again, these criticisms are based on a build of the game that is nowhere near the finished product or what the Sonic team will hopefully have to show off on launch. We’ve had a slew of bad Sonic titles in the past such as Sonic 06 and Sonic Boom after fans had high hopes, so we’re hoping this was just a case of the game not being the full experience as of yet.

But until we see otherwise, we’ll continue to have our doubts.