It’s been two bumpy weeks for Sonic Frontiers. Disturbed for the first time in over a year with trailers outlining a glimpse into the series’ all-new ‘open-zone’ style, gameplay reveals that the late follow-up earlier this month received a – let’s be polite here – mixed reception. Some quarters seem unconcerned about the new trend, while others have taken it even further with a brief #DelaySonicFrontiers amid more raucous fans. And through it all, even the most gracious of onlookers will admit she looks a little rough around the edges.
It’s the backlash that Sonic Team was at least prepared for. “We knew people would start watching Sonic Frontiers videos and wouldn’t be able to play them,” Chief Creative Officer Takashi Izuka tells us of the fans’ response. “We’re showing them this new open area format while they still don’t really understand what an open area is. We were curious about what kind of feedback there would be and understand the feedback that was coming in, because they don’t know what the open area is and what it’s supposed to be It’s this new game in the open area.
“They take a look at the video and compare it to other games that already exist. We understand that people will do that and we look forward to the future and being able to explain more as we get closer. From here until the product launch, we have many opportunities to teach people what open area is, and what this game really is. Not making them think about comparing it to what is already there but being able to look at the game for what it is and enjoy it for what it is.”
What exactly is the open area? For Iizuka, it’s the foundation for the future of the Sonic series and the biggest step forward since 1998’s Sonic Adventure. “Historically we had the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which was a 2D side-scrolling platformer and with the Sonic Adventure series then translated into a 3D linear format. And that takes us to where we are now, 30 years in the future, “He says. “But the development team and I are starting to think that we have to do something from now on to keep innovating and bring something new to our fans – we need to take that next step.
The open world can be read as an open world easily enough – and Sonic Frontiers carries a lot of hallmarks of a modern open world game, with skill trees and opening paths as well as plenty of miscellaneous collectibles tucked away. Part of that is where the friction comes in – it feels so weird to play a Sonic game where enemies have health metrics to lower – but that’s part of the special Sonic Frontiers flavor. It sounds weird, but eventually once you take the time to fiddle with your new set of moves, you’ll feel like Sonic. It turns out that the Sonic team took some trial and error and some aborted attempts to find that formula that clicked.
“In 2017, the Sonic Forces were released,” Izuka says. “After the match the team said, OK, what’s the next title we’re going to get, and because we had the idea we needed to make something new, we needed a different format… You know, it’s been five years since 2017. But we really wanted to spend Lots of time to iterate and create this new look.
Initial attempts at Sonic’s open world were unsuccessful, and the team had to return to the drawing board. “We played it in the test and we thought that this isn’t working, that something isn’t going well,” Izuka says. “So we had to scrap everything, throw everything away, start over and keep repeating and repeating and repeating. It took longer, you know – usually when we make a Sonic game we’ll make something based on the previous format so we can go straight into production, we We know what we’re going to make. But that iteration is what we need to get us into this open area and style and look that took two years, which is why it took so long to get us to love an entirely new title more than it normally does.”
The end result of Sonic Frontiers’ Open Zones is certainly more fun to play than the initial discoveries might suggest. Free basic roaming is good – there’s a powerful camera, but on the flip side, Sonic’s new motion train makes simple point-to-point sprinting more appealing than in the other 3D entries in the series – while platform sections work like spikes. Furniture pieces, with classic sonic grinding rails and rings carried over the landscape. It seems contradictory at first but slowly makes sense, and there is a possibility that as you progress the furniture gradually builds up, likely moving away from the stark backgrounds that absorbed the early images.
“While we were thinking about making an open area game, at first it was like exactly what that would mean,” Izuka says. Well, we’re going to make an island. We’re going to put Sonic in there. He’ll run, he’s going to be cool. But he doesn’t feel Sonic enough. He doesn’t feel according to Sonic. If we make this game a platform mess all over it will go in there and it will be like we don’t even know what’s going on.We had to do a lot of balancing and figuring out how to get on the platform but it’s not that hard.
“The answer that came is, as you play the game, the world opens up when you complete things, and new railroads come in so you can experience the island type of transformation into a bigger and bigger stadium which really makes you feel Sonic-y and our way of showing people this open area format.”
30 minutes in Sonic Frontier was enough to convince that despite its obvious technical shortcomings, it does have some potential, and after not-great Sonic Force — a frustrating return to form the series after the heights of Sonic Mania — it’s definitely a more inspired approach. Those jagged edges are inevitable, both in the visuals and in the world itself, though – does Iizuka think they showed it too soon?
“We are nearing the end of product development,” he says. “We are in debug mode now to make sure everything is up to where it needs to prepare for servings. We have done a lot of play testing with our target audience. We get them to come and play the game and the feedback we get is really positive, which makes us believe we need to put this game in the hands of more people so they can play it, feel it, and experience the new look.”
And exactly how much polishing is left? “The team is really working on getting everything done and finalizing all the work that needs to be done. They’re working long nights in Tokyo right now trying to get us to this point, so we’re very close to getting it done right now.”
Given the demo’s obvious technical deficiencies, it’s surprising to learn that Sonic Frontiers is still in development so far – although it was once delayed internally and clearly wasn’t easily navigating behind the scenes. The initial cut presented on the show floor at the Summer Games Festival may have been pulled early in development, and the final product will benefit from the polish that comes over the last months from such a big game.
Whatever happens, Iizuka is at least optimistic that he’ll get the highest review score Sega had publicly hoped for with the all-new and wildly different Sonic game. “This is a whole new style of Sonic game,” he says. “I know a lot of our fans may not fully understand what this is. But this is the 3rd generation and open area format that will be the new style of Sonic games. We really hope our fans will play, enjoy and understand what we’re doing, and hopefully give us the reviews we’re looking for.”