Sonic Frontiers will be the first new 3D Sonic title since 2017’s Sonic Forces. Unlike previous level-based attempts, however, Sonic Frontiers will be the series’ first title to boast a huge and freely explorable world, which Sega refers to as the ‘Open Zone’.
So why is it an open zone, as opposed to an open world? Director Morio Kishimoto told IGN all about it. Kishimoto refers to the Open Zone as “Sonic Frontier’s secret weapon”:
“Level-based platform players often have a world map. Our Open Zone is a world map, as long as we have made it completely playable,” said Kishimoto.
“A playable world map that includes stage-like elements is something that has not really been done before, so we had to come up with a new name. What is often defined as a world in other level-based platform players is called a Zone in Sonic game, so we took it and combined it with Open, which refers to a freely explorable field. So that’s what Open Zone stands for. ”
Kishimoto sees the Open Zone as a further development of the traditional world map – of course one that has been tailored to match Sonic’s high-speed games.
“Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in Japan in 1988. I think this was the first game that introduced a world map. The system has been used by countless platform players since, until today. A true development of this structure is what we look at as “the essence of Sonic Frontiers’ field. We wanted to offer a next-generation level-based platform experience. But how do we develop a level-based platformer like Sonic for this new open zone? That’s what Sonic Frontiers is all about,” said Kishimoto.
Usually, a level-based platform player’s world map is an area that the player moves from to different stages. But from Kishimoto’s explanation, Sonic Frontiers’ Open Zone is much more than just a 3D hub world of the likes of Super Mario 64 or Sonic Adventure.
“The Open Zone is central to Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay, and game levels exist as elements within this area. From grinding rails to platform objects, loops and so on, the Open Zone is packed with the athletic action we love in Sonic games, ”Kishimoto explained.
Since Open Zone’s design was based on the concept of a world map, Kishimoto sees Sonic Frontiers as a rival to others. platform players like Mario, Kirby and Donkey Kong instead of other free-ranging experiences. Mario’s recent 3D work has also been more open, and Super Mario Odyssey and Bowser’s Fury seem to share similarities with the direction Sonic seems to take in Frontiers’ Open Zone concept. What should separate Sonic Frontiers from such titles is, as always, pure speed.
“In the open zone, high-speed play can carry players in all directions without the limitations of a stage or track,” said Kishimoto.
“In previous Sonic titles, we gradually had to make the stages more difficult to reach a lot of playing time that would satisfy the players. It is natural that level-based platform players become more difficult as you progress. But for Sonic games, the problem has always been that higher difficulty can get in the way of the game’s sense of speed. In Sonic Frontiers, Open Zone offers a lot of content already, so it was no longer necessary to increase the difficulty to increase playing time. From start to finish, we were able to maintain a sense of speed with the ideal level design for a Sonic game. ”
Based on Kishimoto’s comments, the contrast between speed and platforming – a balance that has always challenged the Sonic series – could have been resolved by the new structure of the Open Zone. Kishimoto added that instead of increasing the difficulty level, Sonic Team has found new ways to challenge the player, so Sonic Frontiers will not be an experience that players will find too easy.
The open zone also allows for more varied gaming. Sonic Frontiers comes with a more detailed combat system as well as puzzles scattered throughout the open zone. The latter will offer some quieter moments, a rarity in Sonic games.
“Some of the puzzles are brain teasers, while others test your action techniques or play out like a mini-game,” Kishimoto explained. Kishimoto assured us that the game’s main focus remains on Sonic’s exciting sense of speed, and therefore it is largely optional to tackle these puzzles. “That said, we’ve included ways for players to get hooked on the puzzles, so please look forward to it,” Kishimoto added.
With the implementation of Open Zone, Sonic Frontiers has much more content than previous Sonic games. Kishimoto says that it should take the average player between 20 and 30 hours to complete the game, while completers can easily spend twice as much time watching everything. To keep the player motivated throughout the journey, Kishimoto and his team decided to implement character progression to follow the longer playing time.
Sonic Frontiers – IGN First Screenshots
“While this may be unusual for a level-based platformer, we decided to implement a skill tree and the ability to level up Sonic,” said Kishimoto.
Interestingly, the speed of the Sonic itself can also be increased. When you run, a speedometer shows exactly how fast Sonic is running, and this can be upgraded. Details like this seem to indicate that no matter how much Open Zone shakes up the formula, the main concept of what makes a Sonic game has changed a bit.
“In previous titles, Sonic fans have enjoyed time attacks for each step. For Sonic Frontiers, it can be a fun challenge to run a full race for the entire game,” said Kishimoto with a smile.
Sonic Frontiers will be released for Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X / S and PC this winter. In the meantime, enjoy our exclusive first look at the Sonic Frontiers game. From multiple game recordings to previews and interviews, IGN First will bring you tons of exclusive Sonic Frontiers content throughout June, so stay tuned!
Esra Krabbe is the editor of IGN Japan. Follow him on Twitter if you can keep up with his pace.