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Sonic Frontiers is set to release this holiday season for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. But fans have debated whether it should.
Most respond to trailers, but I had the chance to play some Sonic Frontiers at the Summer Game Fest Play Days event last week. And what I tried, promises. Running with Sonic through an open environment can be liberating and fun. I also enjoyed the combat, which combines Sonic’s speed with modern action game basics like combos and dodging.
But there is also room for concern. While running, crunching and running through the world feels good, moving becomes more difficult when you slow down. At one point I wanted to jump to the roof of a ruined temple. Maneuvering Sonic during tighter platforming like this can feel rough, especially when objects feel like they have random hit detection.
Speaking of hit detection, I also fell through the ground and died after beating a boss. These kinds of bugs are not uncommon for a game still in development, but Sonic has a history of these kinds of issues. It’s worrying. In short, what I played was promising, but unpolished.
During the Summer Game Fest matchdays, I also had the chance to chat with Sonic Frontiers’ creative officer and the Sonic series’ longtime shepherd, Takashi Iizuka. I asked him if he would take Sonic in this new direction and if he thinks Frontiers will meet its holiday launch goal.
GamesBeat: What was the hardest part about translating Sonic into this more open world design?
Takashi Iizuka: This really speaks to the difficulties in making these games. But both the classic Sonic games and even the more modern Sonic games all had a beginning and a purpose. We put Sonic somewhere. We know where he’s going. In between, we fill that space with a lot of platforming. That design allows us to encapsulate the fast paced action and get Sonic to the target while you have a good time.
But the challenge we have now, now that we have this huge 3D open area, the open zone gameplay we need to create has to include the same fast-paced platforming action that we’ve experienced in every Sonic game thus far, but in this broad, expanded 3D format. It was a lot to make sure the open zones still contained the high speed platforming and the action, all in this brand new format.
GamesBeat: Is it hard to judge how fast Sonic needs to be in these kinds of open games?
Iizuka: If you slow down Sonic, you miss some of the essence of Sonic. We couldn’t really slow him down. In fact, we kept it at the same high speed. We even have a boost function. It’s pretty much the same speed for Sonic, the feel of Sonic. We wanted to make sure that stayed in the game. The only way to preserve that was to expand the island. That’s where we really had the biggest challenge. We had to make this really huge island because Sonic has to be fast, but he can’t just run super fast all over the island. So how big could we make the island? That became the challenge.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen this grassy part of the island so far. Will there be other locations that look different?
Iizuka: Sonic Frontiers is set in the Starfall Islands, that entire world. We now show the first island. On that first island, we have these grassy, rolling hills. We also have waterfall area, cliff, mountains and other areas on that island. But yes, on the Starfall Islands, yes, there will be other islands. We can’t talk about it right now, but there will be islands that look and feel different.
GamesBeat: Sonic Team looks to many other open world games for ideas or inspiration.
Iizuka: Open world games are very popular. I play a lot myself, and many people in the team do too. But the open-zone game we’re making isn’t actually an open world. It comes from a different kind of world design. We wanted to take and expand that linear platforming format. Rather than being an end-to-end goal in a linear format, we wanted to create this huge sprawling island and let you go freely wherever you want while doing action platforming. Instead of trying to create a world, create people in that world, create all these world details, we wanted to expand on action platforming and create open zones on the island where 3D action platforming could take place.
We know a lot of people watch the videos and think, oh, this is an open world game, but the whole design element, starting point and idea behind the island that we created was basically the linear platforming, not building an open world.
GamesBeat: Some Sonic games have a lot of story elements and others not so much. Where does Frontier land?
Iizuka: In many of the previous games, the story was very focused on the player. It always would be, Eggman has arrived, Eggman has done something wrong, now I have to do something to make Eggman do something. It was this instant story where you passively accepted that all these things are happening and then you start doing something about it.
The storytelling techniques we use for Frontiers are a little different. We wanted you to experience things as Sonic would experience them, in a very mysterious format. You come to the island, but why are you here on the island? What kind of islands are these anyway? That’s the mystery we wanted to set up, and let you figure that out as you explore the islands. You go around and discover more of the mysteries. You learn more about what happens in the story. Because you go out and experience it while playing as Sonic. We’re promoting storytelling, and that’s what I think will be different about storytelling in Frontiers compared to previous Sonic games.
GamesBeat: The music also seems different in an interesting way. Usually Sonic music is loud and energetic. This is almost kind of… soft and beautiful? Why the change for this game?
Iizuka: It kind of fits with the story. We’ve got Tomoya Ohtani, who was a music composer on a lot of Sonic games before, and a lot of his music is that really heavy rock, meant to get you excited, pumped up, go out and have a good time. He’s made that kind of music before. When he heard about the story, and the kind of mystery and intrigue that will be conveyed on the islands, he started making music that would fit that feeling well. If you have this mysterious music next to the mysterious story, it really fits. We think he did a good job of making sure you could feel that little bit of fear, that feeling of not being sure what’s going on, that mystery. It’s all part of the music that goes with the game.
GamesBeat: Sonic fans can be quite intense and quite passionate. Is it sometimes scary to show a new game, especially one that’s a little different?†
Iizuka: I’m always interested in how the fans react to the things we announce, the things we show them. They are, as you say, a very passionate group. If we look at the previous games, the first generation was side scrolling, that classic Sonic gameplay. The second generation was the more modern gameplay, starting from Sonic Adventure. What we do now is take the next step. This is almost the third generation. We know we’re showing fans something new that might not make sense to them yet.
But we really wanted to think about where we should take Sonic in the next 10 years. What kind of gameplay do we need to build out to keep people excited for the future? Sonic Frontiers is that next step for the next 10 years. We hope fans believe in us and enjoy what we show them. We look forward to when they can play it and really understand what it’s about.
GamesBeat: We’ve seen a lot of gameplay and you’re still aiming for release this year. Do you still have faith in that release window?
Iizuka: Everyone is working really hard to keep things moving for this year’s release. We’re having a good time here, but the team in Tokyo is working really long hours to make sure we can deliver something great for the fans this year. Game development is always so difficult. We want to put more into it. We want to do better. We want to make sure the fans are impressed. Everyone in Tokyo is working hard to make that happen.
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