It’s been a bumpy couple of weeks for Sonic Frontiers. First teased over a year ago with the shortest trailers offering glimpses of an all-new ‘open zone’ style for the series, the gameplay reveal followed up later this month and received a reception that was – let’s being polite here – mixed. Some circles seem stunned at the new direction, while others took it a step further with #DelaySonicFrontiers holding its own amid more vocal fans. And for all that, even the most generous of onlookers will admit that it looks a little rough.
It’s a setback that Sonic Team was prepared for in any case. “We knew that people were going to watch Sonic Frontiers videos and not be able to play them,” creative officer Takashi Iizuka said of the fans’ reaction. “We’re showing them this new open zone format while they still don’t really understand what open zone is. We were curious what kind of feedback there would be and we understand the comments that come in because they don’t know what open zone and what this new open zone gameplay should be.
“They watch the video and compare it to other games that are already out there. We understand that people are going to do that and we look to the future and can explain more as we get closer. From here to the launch of the product, we have a lot of opportunities to teach people what open zone is, what this game really is and not to make them think about comparing it to what already exists, but to be able to look at the game for what it is and enjoy it as it is.”
What exactly is open zone? For Iizuka, it’s the foundation of the future of the Sonic series and the biggest step forward it’s made since 1998’s Sonic Adventure. “Historically, we had the original Sonic the Hedgehog, a 2D side-scrolling platformer and featuring the Sonic Adventure series that was then translated into the 3D linear format. That got us where we are today, 30 years into the future,” he says. “But the development team and I started thinking that from now on we need to do something to keep innovating and bring something new to our fans – we need to take that next step.
Open Zone could easily be read as an open world – and Sonic Frontiers carries many of the hallmarks of the modern open world game, with skill trees and unlock paths plus plenty of varied collectibles tucked away. Part of that is where the friction comes from – it feels really strange playing a Sonic game where enemies have health meters to shrink – but that’s part of Sonic Frontiers’ own taste. It feels strange, but in the end, once you spend time tinkering with the new moveset, it feels like Sonic. As it turns out, the Sonic Team took some trial and error and a few aborted attempts to find that formula that clicked.
“In 2017, Sonic Forces was released,” says Iizuka. “After the game was over, the team said, okay, what’s the next title we’re going to make, and because we felt like we had to make something new, we needed a different format… You know, it’s five years since 2017. But we really wanted to spend a lot of time iteration and creating this new format.”
The first attempts at open world Sonic failed and the team had to go back to the drawing board. “We played it during testing and we thought that this is not working, something is not right,” says Iizuka. “So we had to delete everything, throw everything away, start over and keep repeating and repeating and repeating. It took so much longer, you know – usually when we make a Sonic game, we’re going to make something based on the previous format, so we can just go straight into production, we know what we’re going to make it, but it’s this iteration that we needed to get us to this open zone, style, and format that took a few years, that’s why it took a lot longer to get a brand new title than usual.”
The end result of Sonic Frontiers’ Open Zones is certainly a lot more fun to play than the first reveals could have expected. The basic free-roaming is fine – there’s a clunky camera, but then again, Sonic’s new moveset makes the simple process of sprinting from one point to another more engaging than in other 3D entries in the series – while the platforming parts work as bolted-on furniture, with classic Sonic gravel rails and loops transposed across the landscape. It feels illogical at first, but slowly makes sense, and there’s the prospect that as you progress, the furniture gradually builds up, possibly away from the stark backdrops that housed the early reveals.
“While we were thinking about making an open zone game, I thought at first what that would mean,” Iizuka says. “We had to figure it out. Okay, we’re going to make an island. We’re going to put Sonic there. He’s going to run, it’s going to be awesome. But it doesn’t feel Sonic enough. It doesn’t feel true to a Sonic game. And so we had to platform elements in the game. Okay, if we just make a hot mess of platforms all over the place, then you walk in there and it’s going to be like me we don’t even know what’s going on. We had to do a lot of balancing and figuring out how to get the platforming in, but it didn’t have to be overwhelming.
“The answer that came was, as you play the game the world opens up as you complete things, and new rails come in so you can experience the island turning into a bigger and bigger playground that really feels Sonic-y and it is our way of showing people this open zone format.”
30 minutes in the company of Sonic Frontier was enough to convince that it has some potential despite obvious technical shortcomings, and after the not-so-great Sonic Forces – a depressing return for the series after the highlights of Sonic Mania – it is certainly a more inspired approach. However, there’s no escaping those rough edges, both in the images and in the world itself – maybe Iizuka thinks they showed it too early?
“We’re approaching the end of product development,” he says. “We’re now debugging to make sure everything gets to where it needs to be prepared for submissions. And we’ve done a lot of game testing with our target audience. We let them come in and play the game and the feedback we get is actually very positive, which leads us to believe that we need to get this game into the hands of more people so that they can play it and feel and experience what this new format is.”
And how much polishing is there exactly left to do? “The team is really working to wrap things up and complete all the work that needs to be done. They are working long nights in Tokyo at the moment to get us to this point, so we’re getting pretty close to the end well now .”
Given the demo’s obvious technical shortcomings, it’s a small surprise to learn that Sonic Frontiers has made it this far in development – although it’s been pushed back internally once and it’s clearly not been smooth sailing behind the scenes. Perhaps the rough cut presented on the Summer Games Fest show floor was drawn early in development, and the final product will take advantage of the shine that comes during the final months of a big game like this.
Whatever happens, Iizuka is at the very least optimistic that it will get the high review scores that Sega openly hoped for with this all-new, dramatically different Sonic game. “This is a completely new style of Sonic games,” he says. “I know a lot of our fans may not fully understand what this is. But this is the third generation and the open zone format is going to be the new style for Sonic games. We really hope our fans play it and enjoy it and understand it what we’re doing, and hopefully we’ll give us the reviews we’re looking for.”