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I don’t like ‘Sonic Frontiers,’ but I can’t stop playing it

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I think I have a problem.

My feelings on Sonic Frontiers, the titular blue hedgehog’s newest (and much-anticipated) adventure, are well-documented at this point. Tl;dr: I don’t like the game very much. The open-world environments are drab and barren, and the combat is atrocious.

So why can’t I stop playing it, even after the credits have rolled?

The answer, folks, lies within the pleasure center of my weird brain.

Go away, icons

Running and jumping around is fun.
Credit: Sega

Ever since I was a wee lad, the most appealing thing a video game could do was present me with a wide-open expanse to explore. What’s even better is when there’s a checklist of repetitive, brain-numbing tasks to complete, each one producing those feel-good brain chemicals that I associate with some experience meter filling up or something.

Is Sonic Frontiers guilty of dull game design? Yeah, I’d say so. It’s a common problem with open-world games, so much so that Ubisoft had to add moral choices, romance, and loot to Assassin’s Creed a few years ago because people were so bored by the checklist nature of those games. Sonic Frontiers, sadly, isn’t substantially evolved from where Assassin’s Creed was at its most creatively bankrupt; this is a game about running around, collecting shiny things, and clearing icons off a map.

Sonic isn’t supposed to be this depressing, but I kind of love it here.
– Alex Perry

But even knowing all of that, I’ve booted Frontiers up multiple times since I stopped playing it for review. I’ve set aside my qualms about its frustrating controls and mindless combat for a few hours because something about it is just…nice. Holding down the boost button to make Sonic run real fast across a verdant plain is innately satisfying. Similarly, it feels good to clear icons off of maps. Solving simple little puzzles to get cyber-gunk off a virtual map somehow feels productive.

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I also appreciate how low-stakes the proceedings are when you don’t have to worry about finishing the story or making any progress at all. The emptiness of the worlds in Sonic Frontiers makes them ultimately pretty uninteresting, but it’s calming to zoom around them without worrying about anything interfering with you. You can even just run away from any bad boss fights you encounter.

It’s all about vibes

These Super Sonic fights are bad, but at least the music rules.
Credit: Sega

This is admittedly something I appreciate more from a distance now that Frontiers is mostly in my rearview mirror (rather than something I actively enjoy while playing it now), but the game does have immaculately weird vibes. It’s tonally and aesthetically discordant in some pretty fascinating ways.

For instance, the open-world bits deliberately ape the moody, oftentimes melancholy nature of Breath of the Wild with flittering piano melodies and ambient noise. These environments contain nothing but Sonic, robotic enemies, platforms, grind rails, and the occasional ruined building from a long-extinct civilization.

Sonic isn’t supposed to be this depressing, but I kind of love it here.

Then you get into the linear cyberspace levels, which are much more lively and colorful, featuring actually pretty good electronic music. It’s like they put a totally different game inside those levels. 

The soundtrack is going to be the thing that sticks with me the most about Sonic Frontiers. It has three modes: somber funeral, German dance club, and post-hardcore show. The latter shows up exclusively in the big Super Sonic boss fights at the end of each chapter. I hated those fights. They’re mechanically uninteresting at best and frustrating at worst. 

Despite that, though, the shredding guitar and screaming vocals that soundtrack each of those fights almost makes me think they were good after all.

But I know deep down Sonic Frontiers isn’t good. Interesting, yes, but not good. Sometimes, though, simply being weird and giving me something to do while I listen to podcasts is good enough.

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