Sonic Frontiers looks to evolve the combat of the long-running franchise in meaningful and unprecedented ways. Part of that process involves introducing a skill tree, the first of its kind within the franchise. Sonic has long had adventures that involve him unlocking new abilities, but by introducing a full skill tree in Frontiers, Sonic Team hopes to further enhance what it claims will be the longest mainline game in franchise history.
“Combat with enemies is an important part of Sonic Frontiers,” Sonic Team creative officer Takashi Iizuka says. “Starting out with Sonic at full power would make the combat simple and repetitive, so we made it so the player gradually unlocks Sonic’s abilities through the skill tree. The player collects the points necessary to unlock skills by defeating enemies and exploring the island, so they can unlock more powerful skills by playing longer.”
Early in my hands-on time with Frontiers, enemies spawn near me. I take these basic baddies out with ease, but skill pieces litter the ground in the aftermath of the barrage of homing attacks. I run over to pick them up, contributing to a meter. This initial encounter isn’t enough to give me my first skill point, but later battles push the meter to capacity, and I’m awarded an upgrade point. Unfortunately, I need to progress further in the game before I can unlock anything.
After my first in-world boss battle against a Ninja, a massive gate opens, and I obtain access to a new area. After completing a basic platforming sequence, I open another door, and an in-game message says I can now unlock Sonic’s Cyloop ability. This first upgrade leaves a blue trail behind Sonic when activated and creates various effects based on the situation. No matter the application, it seems as though you need to draw a complete circle for any of these effects to work; drawing a circle in an empty field spawns rings while doing it around a series of torches extinguishes them simultaneously and helps me solve a puzzle. The Cyloop can also be used in combat, either as an area-of-effect attack when drawn around multiple enemies, a way to break through the armor of tougher creatures, or even a way to chip away at individual parts of bosses like the Tower.
Cyloop seems like the foundational skill for Sonic in Frontiers, but it’s far from the only upgrade he can access through his skill tree. Once Cyloop is unlocked, Sonic can unlock 11 additional skills as part of the main tree, plus three additional skills through mainline story progression. The story-progression skills are behind question marks, but I got a full view of the skill tree players can work through over the adventure.
The next level of unlocks includes Sonic Boom (a move that shoots projectile blades mid-combo), Speed Burst (increases your power when you have max combo), and Air Tricks (the ability to showboat mid-air to earn progress towards skill points). Next, you can open up Wild Crash (a move where you run in a zig-zag pattern towards enemies to attack) and Stomp Attack. From there, you can unlock several different skills, including Auto Combo, an ability where battle skills automatically activate during combos (if you unlock this one and don’t like the autopilot nature, you can toggle it on and off in the options menu). There’s also Quick Cyloop (the ability for Sonic to automatically draw his Cyloop circles), Homing Shot (an attack where Sonic launches a volley of energy spheres at an enemy), Spin Slash (a move where Sonic surrounds an enemy with a multi-hit spinning attack), and Loop Kick (a looping, rapidly accelerating kick in mid-air). The final unlock in the main skill tree is Recovery Smash, where if you’re blown away by an attack and successfully execute certain prompts before you hit the ground, you can immediately counterattack.
These skills look to not only give Sonic a sense of progression throughout his adventure, but also diversify the combat in meaningful ways to stave off monotony. However, part of the challenge Sonic Team faced was creating skills that feel like they belong in Sonic’s combat arsenal. “There are many games out there with their own unique combat systems, but for this title, we wanted to focus on what a Sonic style of fighting would be, what sort of enemies should exist, what skills Sonic would have to defeat them, and so forth,” director Morio Kishimoto says. “We are not making a Sonic game where the combat and fighting is the core fun element; rather, we want to present a game that has a fun combat that suits Sonic’s character – that’s the fundamental idea.”
The skill tree is where Sonic learns his new moves, but it’s not the only way to level up the Blue Blur. The mysterious Koco, small stone creatures that inhabit the islands, can also upgrade certain elements of Sonic if you seek out the special types. If you find a Hermit Koco in the open zone, you can trade seeds you’ve collected to bolster Sonic’s strength or defense; in my playthrough, I loaded up on strength to give Sonic more powerful homing attacks and combos. Meanwhile, if you encounter an Elder Koco, you can return the lost Koco you find in your travels to boost Sonic’s top speed or ring capacity. Much like with the Hermit Koco, I decided to funnel all my upgrades with the Elder Koco into one bucket: speed. The bump up in speed isn’t as noticeable as the bump up in attack power, but every little bit helps when you’re exploring such a large, open area.
We won’t know just how impactful all of these new skills and upgrades are or what the hidden story-progression skills might be until launch. But on the surface, it seems like Sonic Team is on the right track with its method of growing its combat suite over the course of Sonic’s latest adventure. Sonic Frontiers launches on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC this holiday season.
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