Sonic Frontiers preview – Bursting with speed and potential

Sonic Frontiers was on display at PAX Aus 2022, giving fans and media a chance to play through the adventure.
sonic frontiers preview

Sonic Frontiers has faced a massive amount of criticism in the months following its public reveal, with nearly every aspect of the game interrogated by fans and media alike. While the game has drawn comparisons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with its sweeping overworld. It’s also been unfavourably held against Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), thanks to its drab colour tones and ‘Vaseline lens’ visuals. At PAX Aus 2022, I was finally able to get hands-on with the upcoming adventure – and found much of this criticism unwarranted.

While the comparisons to Breath of the Wild are certainly fair – the game’s world is sweeping, open, and filled with puzzles – its action and speed do much to differentiate it from the beloved Zelda adventure. For one thing, the game’s pace is sharp and crackling, with smooth movement that pushes you quickly along into a vibrant world of combat and puzzles.

The gameplay segment on show at PAX Aus 2022 appeared to be from the first portion of the game – it began with the introduction of a strange, glowing girl who prompts Sonic to explore the world, and defeat the evil Titans that have decimated the land. From there, it’s up to you to discover where exactly you are – it’s not Hyrule, although it does look alike with its sweeping fields – and play around with the game’s puzzle mechanics.

If you’ve played a Sonic game before, you likely know what to expect here. You can run around quickly, give yourself an extra burst of speed, dash in mid-air, roll into a ball for faster movement, and hit enemies with a homing attack. The real difference here is in the heft of Sonic, and how he moves around a 3D open world.

sonic frontiers preview
Image: SEGA

Much like in Sonic ’06 – an under-appreciated gem held back by performance issues – you control Sonic with third-person movement input, and environment-assisted speed. Attacking enemies isn’t just a matter of jumping and hitting, however, it requires force – and a combination of timing and button presses to take down towering, mechanical beasts.

In the preview of the game I played, much of the terrain was populated by Titans – each taller and more imposing than the last. To defeat each in turn, you need to use your ball attack to smash into them, while watching each swing of their giant fists. Time yourself correctly, and you’ll end up mashing them to dust, with Sonic flinging himself into the air for sleek, chained attacks.

Slip up, and you’ll end up getting flung across the battlefield, dropping rings in your wake.

This combat is an impressive translation of traditional 2D Sonic combat, with a satisfying sense of bounciness and rhythm that should keep battles feeling fresh and frantic. The preview’s ‘boss fight’ against a larger, segmented Titan was just as sleek.

In this fight, you need to deploy a new moveset – in addition to bouncy, hard-hitting ball attacks, you’ll also be deploying a quicker ‘circle’ attack, where you run rings around enemies. This mechanic is very similar to the action of Pokemon Ranger – in that circling enemies multiple times will unleash a powerful force attack, which can explode mechanical segments and disable enemies.

A combination of these moves (ball attack, circling) on the battlefield leads to explosive results – and combat that feels fast and exciting.

sonic frontiers
Image: SEGA

When you’re not throwing down with leering, chaos-driven enemies, Sonic Frontiers lets you break out into a wild and breathtaking world – which, yes, takes a few cues from Breath of the Wild in its design and scope. The trees are green and glimmering, the sky stretches into the horizon, and the landscape is dotted by mechanical towers that must be climbed to solve puzzles and unlock new portions of the map.

There are also various structures in the sky that strongly resemble traditional Sonic launching pads. Wandering a grassy area, you’ll often spot speed boosts and loops in the sky, seemingly placed at random. While the game does little to justify their existence, and they stand out amidst the landscape, they do make traversal more interesting and open up new pathways in the game. They’re eyesores, but the fun of exploration and discovery makes up for their strange placement.

These aren’t the only elements of Sonic Frontiers that stick out – the world does occasionally look a bit blurred and ugly, and the story set-up feels slim and underwhelming – but the pieces do mostly work together in harmony.

Regardless of some oddness – the twirling stages and speed boosts that seem to crop up out of nowhere – Sonic Frontiers is a compelling adventure at first blush. The sun looming over the distant horizon holds much promise, as do the strange and intricate towers waiting in the distance. While the Sonic Frontiers preview I played had only limited bounds to explore, it made me incredibly excited to break free, and explore the wider world on offer.

This interest was also further piqued by a post-boss segment of gameplay that more closely resembled the traditional 3D Sonic experiences devotees will find familiar. Taking place in a twisting castle environment that echoes the Doctor Strange films, this segment allows you to control Sonic from a fixed, behind-the-back camera, as he runs through the linear environment at breakneck speed. You attempt to steer him through this chaos, taking the most optimal route, collecting rings, hitting speed pads, and grabbing air dashes to clear huge gaps. It was a refreshing break from the exploration of the game, and will likely shake up gameplay, combat and puzzle-solving as you traverse unique worlds.

After spending time in each of these varied segments, diving into solid combat and passing intriguing horizons, I’ve become convinced that Sonic Frontiers could be one of 2022’s biggest surprises.

Sonic Frontiers launches for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Windows PC and Nintendo Switch on 8 November 2022.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.