Sonic Frontiers is shaping up to be the biggest leap forward in the series since Sonic Adventure. From the open world to the combat, Frontiers is changing everything we know about modern Sonic, and is finally pushing the series forward after years of stagnation. But how much change is too much change?

With a slimmer cast of characters and a softer tone, Frontiers could be the least ‘Sonic’ Sonic game we’ve ever seen. And yet, based on a demo we got to try at Gamescom last week, the gamble is definitely worth it. The gameplay is fantastic, the combat is stupidly responsive and engaging, and based on the open world alone, Frontiers could be the blue blur’s finest hour in years.

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Far from feeling like an overly stylized auto-runner, Frontiers is full of life and much-needed innovation. What we played in the demo showcased the best of what the boost formula has to offer, while leaving behind most of its shortcomings.

In the 20-minute preview, we were thrown right into the action. Sonic wakes up in a mysterious digitized open world, having been separated from Tails and Amy. A disembodied voice guides us through a tutorial, immediately making it clear that there’s much more to Frontiers’ gameplay than previous Sonic games.

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Within the first ten minutes, you can already play around with far more abilities than we’ve had in years. In no time at all we unlocked the Cyloop ability from the new skill tree. With this activated, you can damage enemies by running in loops around them - a nice change of pace from spamming the homing attack over and over again. You can still use the homing attack, of course, but now that’s only the start of what Sonic can do to mow down enemies.

Best of all, these new options mean that boss battles finally feel like actual challenges. The few mini-bosses we took on were fun, intuitive, and moreish, letting you mess around with the moves you unlock during the story. It didn’t feel like any Sonic game before, and it’s been a long time since the series has felt this fresh. Instead of mashing ‘A’ to bash into the boss, you can get up close and personal and use your fists to attack. And of course, Cyloop means you don’t have to get near your opponents at all. It’s been a while since Sonic supported different playstyles like this.

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But with this 3D fun in mind, the weakest point of the demo was, unsurprisingly, the traditional 2D levels - the things we’ve done a billion times before. In both their design and feel, they’re hardly a step forward for the series. In fact, the only saving grace was that we had the Open Zone waiting for us at the end (that, and the fact that the music slaps). Unfortunately, chucking in a few extra abilities (new attacks, wall climbing etc) isn’t enough to breathe new life into such an overdone formula. Frontiers would do well to ensure these stages are just there to break up the Open Zone sections, rather than bank on us enjoying them in their own right.

Unlike the traditional stages, the Open Zone is a much more muted, solitary experience. With Sonic separated from his friends, there’s hardly any room for his snark. It looks like more characters will pop in during the story, but from what we got to play, Sonic is largely talking to himself. Don’t expect to see him resisting arrest or making out with princesses this time around.

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This is the biggest fear going into Frontiers - we could see daft character interactions take a backseat. While this will likely be good news for more general audiences, it does kind of suck some of the charm out of Sonic. The series gets dunked on a lot for its tonally inconsistent stories, but goddamnit, that is what makes Sonic great. We all love Sonic Adventure 2, a game that introduced an emo hedgehog created to save the world from a deadly disease, who watched the military kill his only friend, a 12-year-old girl. Never mind that this is in the same game as Eggman blowing up the moon with a Death Star shaped like his face. Hell, even with weaker games like Sonic Forces, the best bits were when it took itself far too seriously (“None of this is good Vector. That’s why it’s called war”), so it would be a real shame to see Sega abandon what puts the series on the map. Sonic Frontiers is definitely taking the series in a darker direction though, I just hope it gets a little silly before the credits roll.

But in any case, if the Open Zone is given the centre stage that it deserves, there’s a very real chance this will be among the greats in the series. As I was running around in three dimensions, I found it totally conceivable that this could be my absolute favourite yet, even beating my beloved Adventure games. Sure, we might see a bit of Sonic charm sacrificed to win over casual fans, but it’ll be worth it if we finally have a Sonic game that is worthy to stand up against other 3D platformers, and keep the Sonic renaissance running along until we get the next movie.

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