Sonic Frontiers will be the first new 3D Sonic title since 2017’s Sonic Forces. Unlike previous level-based endeavors, however, Sonic Frontiers will be the series’ first title to boast a vast and freely explorable world, which Sega refers to as ‘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 Open Zone as “Sonic Frontiers’ secret weapon”:
“Level-based platformers often have a world map. Our Open Zone is a world map, only we’ve made it entirely playable,” Kishimoto stated.
“A playable world map that includes stage-like elements is something that hasn’t 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 platformers is called a Zone in Sonic games, so we took that 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 an evolution of the traditional world map – of course, one that has been tailored to match Sonic’s high-speed gameplay.
“Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in Japan in 1988. I believe this was the first game to introduce a world map. The system has been used by countless platformers since, even to this day. A true evolution of this structure is what we see as the essence of Sonic Frontiers’ field. We wanted to provide a next-gen level-based platforming experience. But how do we evolve a level-based platformer like Sonic into this new Open Zone? That’s what Sonic Frontiers is all about,” said Kishimoto.
Usually, a level-based platformer’s world map is an area from which the player departs to various stages. However, going 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 stands central in Sonic Frontiers’ gameplay, and the game’s levels exist as elements within this area. From grind 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 the Open Zone’s design was based on the concept of a world map, Kishimoto sees Sonic Frontiers as a rival to other platformers such as Mario, Kirby and Donkey Kong rather than other free-roaming experiences. Mario’s recent 3D endeavors have been more open-ended as well, and Super Mario Odyssey and Bowser’s Fury seem to share similarities with the direction that Sonic appears to be taking in Frontiers’ Open Zone concept. What should differentiate Sonic Frontiers from such titles is, as always, pure speed.
“In the Open Zone, the high-speed gameplay can carry players in any direction without the limitations of a stage or course,” Kishimoto said.
“In previous Sonic titles, we had to gradually make the stages more difficult in order to reach an amount of play time that would satisfy players. It is natural for level-based platformers to become more difficult as you progress. However, 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, the Open Zone offers a lot of content already, so raising the difficulty in order to increase the play time was no longer necessary. From start to finish, we were able to maintain a sense of speed with ideal level design for a Sonic game.”
Going by Kishimoto’s comments, the contradiction between speed and platforming – a balance that has always challenged the Sonic series – could have been solved by the Open Zone’s new structure. Kishimoto added that instead of an increase in difficulty, Sonic Team has found new ways to challenge the player, so Sonic Frontiers won’t be an experience that players will find too easy either.
The Open Zone also gives room for more diverse gameplay. Sonic Frontiers comes with a more fleshed-out 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 as a minigame,” Kishimoto explained. Kishimoto assured us that the game’s main focus remains on Sonic’s exhilarating sense of speed, which is why tackling these puzzles is mostly optional. “That being said, we’ve included ways for players to get hooked by the puzzles, so please look forward to that,” Kishimoto added.
With the implementation of the Open Zone, Sonic Frontiers boasts a lot more content than previous Sonic games. Kishimoto says that it should take the average player between 20 and 30 hours to finish the game, while completionists can easily spend double the time to see everything. To keep the player motivated throughout the journey, Kishimoto and his team decided to implement character progression to accompany the longer playtime.
“While this might be unusual for a level-based platformer, we decided to implement a skill tree and the ability to level Sonic up,” said Kishimoto.
Interestingly, Sonic’s speed itself can also be leveled up. When running, a speedometer indicates just how fast Sonic is running, and this can be upgraded. Details like this seem to indicate that no matter how much the Open Zone shakes up the formula, the main concept of what makes a Sonic game hasn’t changed one bit.
“In previous titles, Sonic fans have enjoyed time attacks for each stage. For Sonic Frontiers, doing a speed run for the entire game might be a fun challenge,” Kishimoto said with a smile.
Sonic Frontiers will be released for Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S and PC this winter. In the meantime, you can enjoy our exclusive first look at Sonic Frontiers gameplay. From more gameplay footage to previews and interviews, IGN First will bring you loads of exclusive Sonic Frontiers content throughout June, so please stay tuned!
Esra Krabbe is an editor at IGN Japan. Follow him on Twitter if you can keep up with his speed.