On paper, this had everything it needed to be a breezy time carried by its gorgeous art design, smooth skating mechanics and a fairly contained and manageable scope. It can be fun to quickly go from place to place and play around with gravity whenever it comes up, but it's held back by unnecessary creative decisions. The annoying/confused voice direction doesn't keep much interest over a played-out narrative, and the general lack of variety/mood escalation really drag it down.
There's slight variety as far as the size and shape of the not-Colossi at the end of each zone, but the approach and method in fighting them never changes between hitting the little needles on their backs. It's great for conveying the scope in conjunction with the art design, but only does so much to remain interesting when repeated six times. The music also fails to convey a distinct mood for each one; the game's soundtrack is pretty soothing synthwave for a lot of it that fits the vibe and gets slightly more intense at a boss but lacks emotional tone to make any key moments stand out. The game even denies you the satisfaction of toppling a boss by instantly blasting you into the mind dimension every time one is defeated. Doing this wouldn't interfere with the theoretically somber tone, as Shadow of the Colossus forced you to see the weight of your final strike as each beast fell; Solar Ash feels like it just wants to move on.
There are some good ideas I'd hope to see Sonic pick up in the future, a particularly good one being using the colored plants to open doors and rail-lines before time runs out or managing the platforms around radiation pools to avoid dying from too much exposure, but even with its pretty environments there's not much to break up the gameplay formula being repeated six and a half times over.
Lastly there's the storytelling. For some reason even though the art direction would suggest the world's design itself can carry the narrative like the Ori duology, there's pretty constant chatter from the main character Rei, who is directed to sound angrier and more resigned than desperate as the narrative wants her to seem. Her relation to Cyd was adequately done if a bit detached, but the side characters you run into or hear logs from feel like they were from a different game entirely. There's a quirky, almost cartoony way of speaking that feels at odds with this game stylistically in a way that seems uncanny. Characters like the captain and his various crews with their acting wouldn't be out of place in a kids network comedy show.
I was thinking of ways to convey a lot of the game's story ideas and other indie games already showed me better ways of accomplishing each element of its narrative delivery. If the game was more like Furi, where your protagonist's only verb of communication was their core gameplay (in that case, combat, in this case, moving) in contrast with everyone around them, that would've conveyed a more thorough emotional tone. I dogged on Neon White for its writing, but it was at least wholly separated from its slick game feel and did actually convey interesting storytelling through character-based stages while Rei's unnecessary chirping is in conjunction with playing. There are also audio logs, which felt much more interesting in a game like Outer Wilds because they were slowly unraveling a vast mystery with a lot of turns which worked alongside what the main character was doing in slowly exploring a galaxy. Here, on top of the tonal issue you can't even listen to them while running despite them being baked into the world, which feels like an oversight for the focus on constant flow.
Solar Ash had plenty of potential to convey a strong feeling and a generally swift game feel that carries it through its brief runtime, but it just came off as distracting and at odds with itself. I wish it embraced its strong stylistic elements and speed more than it does.

So this was one of the games of all time.
Stretch Panic came at an interesting point in developer Treasure’s history, perhaps their only game in the 6th generation and beyond that wasn’t either a licensed game or a hyperpolished arcade shooter/shoot ‘em up and it flaunts its weirdness with aplomb. “It’s wackiness and originality will surprise games’s” claims the back of the box, and it’s true. It’s not often you’d have a game from this era that’s so artistically vague within the text itself, amorphously stretching the bosses’ designs, which in the story are considered creations of vanity for numerous petite or plump young girls that their souls need to be excised from. It’s got plenty of color and some decent music and a wacky spirit that doesn’t separate it too far from stuff like Ape Escape before or Katamari after. On paper, a pretty unique context and aesthetic for a boss rush game in line with some of Treasures 16-bit hits like Gunstar Heroes or especially Dynamite Headdy.
That being said, the two underlying problems with all of its good intentions and varied boss fights are the jank of it and the lack of actual design that makes it feel more like what was once a full priced tech demo.
To start with the lack of design, unlike past and future Treasure games such as Gunstar Heroes or Sin and Punishment where each boss fight was preceded by a challenging level, level design is entirely a non-factor. Instead, when not fighting a boss, the only areas that exist in the game are four different areas where the only real enemies called the Bonitas (those INCREDIBLY questionable designs with tiny bodies and breasts substantially bigger than those rubber balls you’d see at a gym) exist to earn points from that need to be grinded out to enter boss doors and exorcise souls (which you only find out how to do from the manual). There’s four of these areas, but even when you unlock more the designs of each are mostly irrelevant. With nothing to do outside of grinding these enemies for points they do little to encourage you to use any ability outside of slingshotting yourself through the environment alone, a concept that almost never comes up during any actual boss fight and can even be pretty annoying if you decide to choose the ice area because of its physics and the camera not accommodating well for the depth perception. This choice reduces anything not done fighting a boss to meaningless level design and point grinding at no limit besides your own patience.
The only thing left to design outside of the bosses that isn’t just in the manual is the ending. It does change depending on how many exorcisms you did, which is nice, but while I understand the vague introduction, especially given the story in the manual I feel like the ending should’ve had more to it to bring everything together. As is, once you defeat the last boss and enter a door the game just stops and hits the credits on you. Thus the intention to say more with this premise is entirely thrown away.
But hey, surely all that stuff would be irrelevant if the boss fights were fun and creative, right? And to be fair, I do enjoy some of these battles. I enjoyed Siren and literally ripping her chorus followers one by one to prevent her from transforming into her deadliest form. I liked Fay Soff and how the method to defeating her is rearranging her body parts like a messed up Mr Potato Head. I enjoyed any boss where you’d have the opportunity to hold them and fling yourself into them like a human slingshot, which you saw plenty of with Miss Mecha, Cyan and Mirage. But there were just as many that missed the mark for me due to either shoddy mechanics or general game jank, which I alluded to earlier.
Stretch Panic feels like a one button game trying to test a new kind of control. Outside of basic option confirms, the face buttons are useless while the directional pad is given no use and left bumper activates a Zelda esque targeting system that still isn’t a true lock on. Instead the control is entirely to move with the left stick, move the scarf with the right stick and launch it with the right bumper to hold and pull. It works adequately most of the time, but some of the time it fails to do what it’s supposed to. A moment where you’re meant to grab onto a boss and pull may be held for either slightly too long or not long enough at little indication (Samantha was particularly bad about this imprecise level of pull, Cinder had issues with imprecisely hoping you could grab her adams apple and not a part right next to it without getting sucked up) and the Scarf Bomb technique you’re meant to do for exorcising the bosses is incredibly janky relative to the cost of using it. It costs 5 points (gotten from either grinding the Bonitas or one by one in hitting boss weak points precisely) and feels like it unnecessarily deactivates when you don’t want to. Holding the enemy without getting hit? Completely fair, it makes sense taking damage would punish you. But randomly detaching your scarf even when both sticks are pushed and you aren’t hurt? That feels unfair more often than not since there’s a good chance the damage dealt wasn’t even high if the exorcism wasn’t completed. It doesn’t work as reliably as it needs to for such a core mechanic with a defined cost.
Speaking of not working reliably, Demonika, which takes the cake as my least favorite boss in this game. She exists in a circular arena with doors, grates and stain glass windows. The only way to make her vulnerable is to pull a door or stain glass window her shadow is residing in, and if she fully breaks a door or grate it’s an instant Game Over. Trying to find which of numerous different doors and grates she could be trying to pop out of relies on a level of awareness and surround sound the PlayStation 2 wasn’t quite capable of yet. It can feel like a crapshoot if you can actually do big damage if she stops in a window or if she spends almost the whole time trying to break open floor grates and doors where your only retaliation is chip damage. Due to the aforementioned detachment issue I was only able to complete the exorcism through attaching to one door that shot lasers and didn’t spawn enemies. One time when trying to do it via the stain glass window it broke early for an instant game over before the exorcism was finished!
Camera controls are entirely done with the bumpers and not unlike Ape Escape this can lead to some issues of not being able to see where you’re going, even moreso here due to how close the camera is to your character and the amount of bombs and missiles certain bosses drop headed your way. The final boss in particular can potentially have so many cannons and missiles and bombs on the screen that the framerate can drop to slideshow level in a game where the camera is so close and cleaning out an arena can be more roundabout than you’d hope. Even flat areas where no thing to interact with exists besides the Bonitas can lag the game; it’s disappointing that the simplistic textures couldn’t lead to stronger performance.
Despite my complaining, Stretch Panic is still a very short game; you aren’t dealing with these mechanics for overly long and if you’re playing in a PS2 emulator with a scan of the manual it shouldn’t cost much besides an afternoon. But minus the deaths and wavering amount of continues the game isn’t THAT much shorter than other Treasure efforts which offered more fun bosses and a stronger, smoother game feel.
As is, Stretch Panic is a paradigm shift, a memorable mixed bag of an experience that exists as a tech demo for a style Treasure would sadly never adapt in when refining their shooters and needing license games to pay the bills. Perhaps the logical conclusion of the scarf pulling in this game would be seen with pulling the string bosses and environments apart in Kirby’s Epic Yarn. As for Stretch Panic itself, I admire the effort and creativity, but the lack of clarity and consistently fun game feel makes it something I’ll likely not ever go back to.

Currently undergoing a rewrite. For now, enjoyable, great game feel, some exciting story, but comically lopsided.

The fact that Nintendo is carrying characters and franchises nostalgic to four generations of gamers, in addition to appealing to a current generation of children pushes them, like most longrunning broad appeal companies, to try and thread the needle between such wide ranges of different people, age demographics, and different investment in mastering video games. While there’s certainly a host of Nintendo titles that lack that appeal amongst older gamers or are too difficult to get a lasting experience out of for those more inexperienced with games, that balance between easy to comprehend design and absolutely fanatical skill curving has led to games like Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros Melee and sure enough, Breath of the Wild to be both nostalgic and accessible for kids of their era, while having all kinds of insane potential to crack with their game systems.
The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom feels like this philosophy at its absolute apex. In equal turn I can see people make their way through with the bare necessities for strength boosts and paragliding, while you can look online and see the insane mechanical contraptions possible for optimizing combat and traversal to an incredibly efficient degree.
Once again, the ability to trade for Hearts or Stamina throughout the game can allow for a certain level of difficulty modulation, but also tying attack options to weapons, rather than grinding out Link’s character stats, puts more pressure on your ability in the action and less on accidentally outfitting yourself the wrong way. It provides enough extrinsic motivation for a plot that gets you thinking with more involved stops along that narrative, while also intrinsically offering the world as the massive playground for experimentation via a vast assortment of utilitarian approaches. Extrinsic motivators like the Shrines, (even when puzzle ones are often easier than BotW’s) further encourage the possibility to take their ideas further intrinsically using the overworld. Plus of course, elements you would expect from a sequel, like improved enemy variety and more specialized combat scenarios (a sixth of the shrines are no longer one miniboss repeated 20 times over at various difficulties).
Breath of the Wild was a game that made a statement. Its focus was on emergent gameplay and player discovery over an involved narrative and a designated route to setpieces meant to be shown in a specific way. Completing every dungeon gave you powers to make the finale easier, but every payoff was segregated. I would argue though, that Breath of the Wild was so thoroughly committed to this idea that it wasn’t worth trying to top it in this department. We already have the more minimalist take on the thinly populated world with an obvious, straightforward final confrontation but the journey being wholly devoted to what you make of it. Tears of the Kingdom opts not to push this further, and instead to respec itself while simultaneously being both more plot driven AND more free at the same time in different areas. It is absolutely worth noting that in place of the minimal storytelling which predominantly served to justify why Link exists to travel the world at all, Tears presents itself as more story-driven from the jump with the short but more guided preamble. It’s a choice that won’t be for everyone who preferred BotW’s deliberately simple approach in the name of player freedom, but I think it’s one that makes sense with where it was heading and a means to allow this game to stand out as a sequel in other ways.
This is also apparent in game design decisions like having a main central hub of named characters to converse with, and particularly the new spread of the memories.
In BotW, the memories were hidden in very small specific spots in the overworld with little indication of where without a guide, in the hope that you’d run into them while exploring, but not that they played a substantial part in the Defeat Ganon quest. In this game, they ABSOLUTELY want you to get those memories, not only by making it a main quest but also putting them in giant Geoglyphs (marked inside a chamber) that can be seen no matter how high above the ground Link is. Which is good, because the plot contained within those memories is less building your own background as much as a parallel plot involving Zelda and the choices she makes in further understanding herself and considering what’s necessary to help your journey along. For a game series entitled The Legend of Zelda, this installment really presents just how much sway Zelda has upon the entire world while you, in contrast, are the fixer guy. You are the way forward, but not the influence. There are many questlines I discovered over my 120 hours of play devoted to every which way most of the world was very carefully ruined in your absence and your ability to be a problem solver in any which place you choose to.
Back in Ocarina of Time, a seven-year timeskip allowed Ganondorf to turn the entire world on its head through a permanently blackened sky and the world’s central hub being turned abandoned, populated by zombies instead of people. In this game, in far shorter a timeframe he played things more crypto in your absence by outright ruining Hyrule’s infrastructure in numerous smaller ways less obviously noticeable even in a more populated land, but that goes further and further the more you chose to engage with the world. It’s a smart villain move on his end that has a shockingly effective payoff conveyed through story and gameplay together after pursuing the main dungeon tasks.
Reconciling with your past was a main driving force in Breath of the Wild if you chose to pursue story, but just as Link can build all kinds of crazy tech magic machines and bizarre powerful weapons, you’re actively building a more settled world up to a brighter future. In taking a cue from the second half of Wind Waker, you’re guiding partner characters through the dungeons to grow them into who they are. Their abilities are substantially less broken than those from Breath of the Wild, but that ties into the story, since the BotW Champions were experienced, top warriors employed by the castle guard, while the Sages here are being grown into them, made stronger by the concept of exploration in the world they no doubt helped you with. It’s one of several examples of the game willing to respect and not replicate elements when it feels like it would help its own vision. The Divine Beast assault sequences, while formulaic and scripted, could feel very intense in the moment and tiring if repeated too closely in this game, so instead, dungeon buildup is an extension of normal gameplay but varied by region. While one area involved a lot of high-flying platforming, another took on more of a base assault format and this, alongside more distinctive temples and boss fights, helped to make its main story tasks stand apart despite the repeated song and dance upon finishing a dungeon. The ending as well, despite similarities in form to the previous game’s, is given a more distinct function in relation to what makes this game stand out and, in my opinion, greater emotional resonance.
And all this is just in the main intended plot goals! Rarely have I played a game where it’s so easy to constantly be distracted from just HOW MUCH you are able to interact with at any one time. It’s incredibly impressive that for a map so large, almost everywhere you go has optional engagements both present, and out in the visible distance, whether they be character based, combat based, or puzzle based. This is a game where even components that would seem like copy and paste tasks in any other open world game can vary wildly in terms of how you accomplish them. Sign Guy is probably the prime example of this creative thinking on display. Everywhere you see him trying to spread the good word about his boss, trying his best to arrange signs in totally different ways. Usually, you’re given enough tools around his area, but it inspires an incredible creativity to make even tries at a repeated task stand out with your weird creative standing fused structures. Another element that greatly helps with this discovery is the delineation of quest lines, where the instant a quest is started, you’re made aware of whether or not it’s a brief more simplistic quest for a basic reward, or a multi-tiered quest with more story added to it. The repopulation of Hyrule after stopping Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild provides the perfect in-universe opportunity for so many more people to exist for sidequests that are more memorable than BotW’s, even if I don’t think any hit the high of the Anju/Kafei quest from Majora’s Mask.
The Depths is admittedly less curated on the whole, but it’s a meaningful venture, providing some of the easiest access to mechanical creation tools, enhancing long term use of these tools, as well as some of the strongest weapons and enemy encounters in the game. It’s a distinct take on the classic Dark World concept from A Link to the Past combined with the Nether from Minecraft. And of course, the Lightroots. These beacons deliberately standout amidst the pitch-black landscapes, but the fact that they mirror Shrine positions is incredibly intuitive for exploration. Once you find a Lightroot where you don’t have a Shrine, or vice versa, it provides another opportunity to say “there’s something on this spot, but how will I find out what it is, how will I reach it, and what on my path would provide the next distraction?”
As sentimental as it may seem saying this, Tears of the Kingdom is also an immaculate representation of gaming as a universal experience where numerous approaches can be lovingly shared. No two players will experience everything the game has to offer in the same way, and the sense of experimentation you could see from the more dedicated Breath of the Wild players is further spread to even casual players, while the insane crowd creating all kinds of mecha and war crime devices is given the opportunity to indulge with a much higher creation ceiling. From something as simple as using a rock weapon to fill a hole when finding a Korok, shield surfing as a means to avoid a rail balancing act, creating a barely held together tower of objects in place of understanding how to work a rowboat, or having fully decked flying death machines to quickly slay the indomitable Gleeoks, there’s an impressive array of possibilities Nintendo allowed for in their massive sandboxes.
There will always be quibbles. I wish you could create your own favorites list when selecting materials. The dungeons, while greatly improved over BotW to the point of being slightly above Wind Waker’s now, are still well open to be made more extensive like the other past 3D Zeldas. I wish the Sage Awakening cutscenes were made distinct for each dungeon, the means to acquire Autobuild made more upfront during the main quest, Mineru’s role in the story a bit more, the cutscenes lip synced to the English dub (although you can switch to original Japanese, so mostly moot point) and it would REALLY help if this game wasn’t limited by 8-year-old hardware regarding occasional performance dips, but the overall vision that this game accomplishes is sublime. It’s rare a video game sequel can be such a monumentally meaningful iteration on what already presented an incredibly robust path forward for explorative freedom and system creation in AAA gaming, but director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, his team, and Monolith Soft managed to top themselves in ways we didn’t even know we wanted. Trying to follow this up will be an incredibly difficult venture I fear for, but I hope that with the promise of improved hardware on the horizon, this team can continue to show that next-gen is more than just graphical leaps, but using mechanics, talent and budget to let the story told from strong design ethos meet the story every player uses the game to create for themselves.

This review contains spoilers

I’ve said a lot about video games over the years, both here and in other places, stuff regarding game balance, difficulty, fun, the idea of games obsoleted by other titles, but one comment I don’t ever think I’ve made before is that it feels like a game has too MUCH money, and the nature of how constantly showering it around can ultimately dilute the core game experience.
Now I’m not against the idea of a game wanting to look as prestige as possible. A big part of why games like Psychonauts 2 and Hi-Fi Rush are able to elevate the conceptual goals of smaller scale stuff like A Hat in Time or No Straight Roads is because of that big company money injection. There’s a lot of appeal seeing a game be as visually robust and smooth as God of War Ragnarok throughout the whole runtime, and much praise should be given to all the talented animators at Santa Monica who brought it all to life. Ragnarok can look quite gorgeous on the PS5, with much more environmental diversity than its predecessor, but in this case, it almost feels like because of the way the game designers and the story writers communicated everything, there’s just a stupendous amount of STUFF fit into the game. Remixed old worlds and plenty of new ones, tons of new characters, substantially more enemy types (there was one single time I fought a troll recolor in this one compared to 2018’s 5+), tons of gear, tons of gear slots per character, three characters, different gear slots per weapon, tons of skill branches per character, forty different crafting materials, various lore poems, cute references to other Sony adventures, a surplus of walls to climb up and shimmy between, and a LOT of pretty water to slowly boat around. But there’s a cost to all this, that being when so much money is thrown at the game, a lot of these systems feel like they were created to fill holes that only exist because they themselves built them, giving the development teams reason to be busy, and that it was necessary to make sure almost any possible player could get to the point of interfacing with them.
The majority of God of War Ragnarok (or at least 2/3 of it) is in combat, and combat functions almost exactly like it did in the previous game. As Kratos you attack enemies with either your axe or the Blades of Chaos, parrying attacks when they come across, activating various cooldowns for more powerful attacks, calling for your companion to attack when you want an opening in, and gradually getting more gear and toggles and skill tree attacks as the game does on. It’s easy to pick up and well-balanced on the main path, but like in the 2018 game, the numerous RPG elements of looter gear and stats and associated bonus effects don’t convince me of complexity as much as add more numbers and uncertain effects to enemy reactions, and more things for the staff to be busy designing.
I made my way through by making my build as much of a mighty glacier as possible with high defense, high attack and buffs to get around the overly tanky enemies; most of these stats still feel pointless and the vast skill trees have a handful of interesting techniques but few things as practical as basic attacks. In most cases my general game plan was to upgrade attack as much as possible and stack with both a weapon buff and the melee buffing runic (nothing else seemed as tempting as the simple yet practical strength boost), which could inflict devastating damage upon most enemies and even bosses. That strategy never changed once I discovered it, and as much as the game showers you with three types of armor and weapon handles and six different runic attack slots, nothing felt like it ever disincentivized me from sticking with the 1.75 second Realm Shift for how much of a headache the combat can be at its worst.
While this applies to 2018 as well, the idea of a “Luck” stat still feels obscenely pointless in an action RPG. In a turn-based RPG or other game based around skill checks with particular set outcomes, a luck stat is mimicking the idea of D&D rolls, and it can be incredibly helpful for landing attacks or status effects with a very low hit percentage but high reward upon nailing it, as well as avoiding could be devastating blows from your opponents. In the context of an action game, where very small character movements can change the properties of your attacks and it’s hardly a “guess” if an attack right in an enemy's face can hit them, (unless you’re negatively affected by move assist) it doesn’t feel meaningful because nothing in the various skill trees feel like they offer “chances.”
It feels like it was thrown in because “hey, we’re an RPG now, want to see number go up and have specific equipment built around that number going up, even if prioritizing it would make enemies more spongey? Trying to work out the effects of this stat was another money sink that didn’t meaningfully make combat more interesting.
He does get one new weapon: a Spear. It’s………not great. The main gimmick of the spear is the fact that it can be thrown and detonated, up to five separate times, but even beyond it turning the combat into a clunky TPS where the throws are meant to be at range, the spear explosions lack animation oomph for some reason, the melee doesn’t feel as fluid as the other weapons, and it takes long enough to set up all the spears that it just seemed easier to get in with the more damaging, impactful melee weapons. For all the effort put into its design and place in your arsenal, it felt unnecessarily situational in ways I’m not sure it was meant to be outside of puzzles. Even as a projectile, the axe you start the game with feels more effective and powerful. Puzzle-wise, it’s used to put in a hole, either for swinging or for blowing up specifically marked rocks, some of which you’ll see in the middle of long dungeons before you have it. For all the effort put into crafting the spear and its skill tree and everything, to battle Heimdall in the story, it felt clunky trying to integrate it into basic gameplay. I like how the Heimdall fight itself uses the spear, trying to catch him offguard with ground bombing, but for everything else, this weapon felt like a thing to add, not to enhance, just to add.
At the very least though, when playing as Kratos, the sheer number of options, however needless they may feel on combat as a whole, at least give you a lot to learn and experiment toward, provided you go through the hassle of unequipping and reequipping numerous different skills tucked in their own sub menus within submenus.
This doesn’t apply as much to this game’s handful of drawn-out Atreus gameplay segments. From a story perspective, their existence makes perfect sense as a way of getting information Kratos could not and building up tension for the final battle and making Atreus better stand out as his own person making meaningfully developed decisions. From a gameplay perspective, they’re reflective of the worst stereotypes of western “movie games.” Atreus’s combat is even simpler than Kratos’s, with only one weapon, two kinds of arrows and some basic melees. There ARE other kinds of combinations in the skill tree, but his skill tree feels like even greater fluff, because it doesn’t feel like any complex technique has much of a significantly greater effect than basic happy slapping. It’s also during these segments when the longest, most consistent talky walky climby moments in the game occur. The second one introduces a manic pixie dream girlfriend character just to give him someone to talk to, to tell him some exposition and to fight a boss together that’s never mentioned again. This chapter is spread over at least two hours of gameplay. I’d find the relationship endearing if she wasn’t so obviously shoehorned in to fit the plot purpose of giving him someone to talk to for otherwise limited effect on the core plot, and even though the segment of their meeting ends with fighting one of the two bosses who stands out from the others mechanically because of the arena, it feels incredibly slow and limited to have the pacing drag to such a crawl while forced walking (or slowly animal riding on water) along a rail.
Speaking of keeping you on rails, for being an M rated game, as opposed to an E for Everyone experience, there’s a shockingly high amount of “no child left behind” moments when it comes to literally any kind of puzzle. Once Atreus gets the Hex arrows, the puzzle design more or less plateaus there. Can you arrange the arrow shots in a line, then throw your axe or Chaos Blades into one of the spots in order to activate them? Congratulations! You’ve solved most of the game’s puzzles in different variations. Outside of one late game variant of this puzzle for a chest I may or may not have cheated hitboxes around to solve, one of the few standout puzzles was early on. You had to figure out the right timing to decide which geysers to freeze and which ones to unfreeze, affecting a weight that you need to rise with you on it in order to open a gate. It’s a nicely thought-out puzzle that stands out from everything else. Or at least it would be a nice puzzle, if you didn’t get two companions chirping about what the answer is should you struggle for even 2 minutes.
Much has already been made of the amount of backseating the game gives you if you spend basically any extra time at all thinking over a puzzle. It feels weirdly patronizing and you can’t turn it off. It’s one thing for a game to just have easy puzzles where a player can get an Ah-Ha moment from something which isn’t that hard to more experienced puzzler gamers. It’s another thing to tell the player a puzzle solution out of pity because they spent slightly too long trying to figure something out. For the most part this level of backseating doesn’t even make sense narratively; Kratos with his world weary experience should be more aware of how rudimentary contraptions work than needing his son or a talking head to tell him the answer. There is ONE time in the entire game when this backseating adds to the experience, and that’s when Freya is so desperate to be freed from her being bound to a realm and so fed up with Kratos at that point for the additional grief he gave her on top of that, that her barking orders at the player on how to finish puzzles fast actually makes sense contextually. It’s still annoying, but in that instance makes sense contextually as a moment of gameplay and story being in harmony.
But what about the core story? Overall, it kept me curious for most of its run and largely succeeded at what it wanted to do. Its presentation and characterization carry it and on a moment-to-moment level it felt like its focus on plot made things more interesting to think about compared to 2018. Aside from said obvious girlfriend insert, the rest of the core cast has interesting things to say and distinct personalities when reacting to situations. Many scenes with Kratos are carried greatly by Christopher Judge’s performance and the character animation presenting his reaction to the heavier story scenes with a massive chip on his shoulder. Freya is a character for whom certain people were very very upset at what happened to her at the end of 2018, but I think despite that contextually appropriate backseating, her character’s arc felt like it was given thorough consideration and a satisfying conclusion.
Despite some corny MCU-esque writing in parts and a few questionable voice direction choices (mainly Odin, who sounds like the grandfather character in a typical sitcom), it’s enjoyable and incredibly well presented thanks to the talented team of character animators and voice actors. Saying that, ProZD’s squirrel character is both well-voiced and animated, but none of his constant quipping landed for me and he felt jarringly out of place relative to every other character, even that not super funny but still occasionally charming Mimir. The game starts well, and the ending does mostly deliver on promised spectacle, even with that second Atreus segment bringing things to a halt for a few hours, and a long section with the Fates feeling more like a means to stress the direness of the current situation more than meaningfully add. The Hellheim section also felt very tenuous in terms of importance despite the solid gameplay contained in it. It started with an Atreus segment that leads to freeing a giant hell dog, then going to a Kratos segment where he and Atreus must go through an entirely different set of areas clear up the mess that was just created. Mostly it serves as more of a reason to want to stick a spear through Heimdall’s head and fight a giant boss more than progress anything more relevant; a stark contrast to how this game’s predecessor handled that realm. Also, somehow, you’re forced to backtrack through a lot of previously explored Vanaheim once you get the spear weapon, but there’s an entire massive giant separate area in that realm that’s completely disconnected from anything plot wise, elaborately designed with tons of pathways and chests and encounters. It’s like the gameplay team was incredibly inspired but the story team wasn’t entirely sure how to meaningfully carry a lot of the runtime despite solid scripting.
With that being said, I appreciate a lot of what the gameplay team pumped out, plot relevance be damned. Most areas give you the option to keep exploring after your plot goal is accomplished and it doesn’t feel like typical open world filler. These sections feel meaningfully curated in a way you rarely see in modern AAA games. It’s nice to free the shackles of a giant whale, reunite a giant Jellyfish family or have an entire crater hunting giant dragons. Even if I did groan when a chest contained only money or random crafting materials, there was a lot to explore toward outside the main story. The side content was more absorbing than I thought going in, except for the combat trials which like Hellheim are an unexpected downgrade from 2018. They started off fine but gradually became a massive test of patience, where the “final” trials require you to replay previous combat missions again and again to get 5 different combinations of mission clear order for the hardest fights. It’s blatant padding to replay basic mobs over and over for what? A 5-minute survival challenge that does nothing but show what happens when big arenas are thrown out the window and the camera does a horrendous job showcasing enemies attacking from off camera with grabs and projectiles given no distinction by the red arrows? No thanks.
Finally, the soundtrack, the Game Award “Best Score and Music” winner over such distinct contenders as Metal Hellsinger with its uproarious standout metal or Xenoblade 3, a game showing Yasunori Mitsuda continuing to evolve his style over nearly 3 decades of VGM compositions? Unfortunately, it’s extremely forgettable. Specifically, the battle tracks. There are a few cutscene BGMs in the game that do shine, such as that plays after Atreus is practically shooed out of Sindri’s house, a couple during scenes Kratos is sad and mournful, a moment when an incredibly devastating plot beat plays out, and a particular standout when meeting this game’s version of the Fates. The main theme is used at an appropriate time as well to hype up the final battle, but in general, despite spending nearly 50 hours in this world, very little stuck in my head musically while playing. The composer didn’t do a bad job at all; he just did a solid job composing what the expectation of film score is. Moments like a bar brawl presented in one of Atreus's sections could’ve been severely uplifted by a strongly distinct track. Heck, Hi-Fi Rush did a similar thing to hype up one of its brawls near the ending of that game, so I don’t see a reason why a game with so much more scope and capability to do almost anything it can defaults to the general expectation of what music is for an average blockbuster film, rather than a game.
And that’s just it. Few moments encapsulate the God of War Ragnarok experience than having an incredibly pretty, cinematic cutscene where the game wanting you to press the touch pad for heartfelt hand painting will constantly bring up the gameplay pause menu while trying to do it. The need to be cinematic feels in turn, overcompensated by game design that kept its game designers very very busy, regardless of how impractical or obsolete those efforts might be at enhancing the game’s core combat. Some of these efforts are a success, with some strikingly effective story scenes, character beats, consistently gorgeous visuals, and a ton of side content that stands out as being meaningfully crafted, but the game as a whole left me mixed. It is acceptably enjoyable and painless a lot of the time, but the battle between itself to hit as wide an audience as possible feels as though too much money was spent to put too many cooks in Sony Santa Monica’s kitchen.

The greatest strength of Neon White is how exceptionally laid out its core design is, and how its gameplay loop is expanded upon from world to world in a surprisingly beefy campaign if you’re trying to get Ace Medals (Platinum Relics, basically) through it. Almost every one of the new chapters introduces a new gimmick with a new kind of gun and its two uses, feeling like it makes the most out of whatever power a level gives you.
As the game goes on, levels have you hot swapping between these constantly, and it feels like a great amount of thought, effort and detail went into to making every single one feel distinct, in a similar way to games like the first two Super Monkey Balls or Donkey Kong (1994). I do think some levels can stretch the length quota; any stage that go on for 2+ minutes can feel aggravating to replay, but the majority are able to keep things interesting. Often more than certain main stages, I really got a lot from the side challenges from each of your companions, and how these stages operated in different ways that let their distinct personalities show without incessant painful dialogue. In particular, I really liked Yellow’s penultimate stage and how it felt like the game briefly became a boomer shooter.
Although level progression can be enjoyable when everything clicks, some stages force styles of movement progression on you that can turn the method of controlling into an aggravating stress test. It’s very easy for the 360 turns the game forces you to do for level optimization to ruin your mouse position when trying to say, circle around a tall structure, see the sky after using the stomp power that faces you toward the ground, or rocket launch up a building to be met with a stuck-out structure covering your camera. I can't imagine playing with a controller for lacking precision aim but even with a mouse it was incredibly unfun to have my view wrecked by being unable to move around in a circle without straight up lifting the mouse up, which would cause an immediate reset if it got stuck during a run. The final gift sequence felt less like a fun challenge and more like a tedious slog when dealing with a 360-tower scale at the end of a 2-minute level gauntlet where a single screwup meant doing the entire stage all over again. I feel similarly in regard to the second boss fight; the first and the final one do compelling work to translate the level moment to moment feel into a run that feels quick even if you lose, despite the wimpy finishers, but the second boss got so overly indulgent with the scripted sequences that the slight chance of screwing up in the middle of that 4-5 minute battle felt painful every time I felt like I wanted to restart.
As many others have pointed out, it's really the writing that's the most able to turn heads. To its credit, it’s able to be skipped almost in its entirety and doesn’t directly affect the strong core gameplay level progression I noted above. But in a way it affected my attitude through it, because every time I power through a new world, the story dialogues meant to break it up only show me how thoroughly uncool the character I’m playing is as a person. It feels like there’s a fundamental disconnect between euphoria for mastering a stage and White’s personality compilation of referential animeisms outside of it, despite Steve Blum’s best efforts.
It’s no secret that Sonic games have been wildly inconsistent, often for mechanical reasons, but one place I think most of them succeed in is properly communicating the spectacle, fun and thrilling sequences a player is meant to be experiencing in the stages through Sonic as a character, be it the expressive sprites of the 2D titles or his modern version’s trick posing and light comments chirped from time to time. They connect the intention between what personality the character is feeling versus what you, the player, are meant to feel while playing that just doesn’t exist in Neon White because of how divorced those sides of his character are.
Yet, for all the writing’s incessant need for forced references, incel humor (there’s a blatantly obvious 2019 Joker line, flat asses, and S-tier insults among other things) and all the tediously tepid character tropes that have me rolling my eyes even in actual anime, it’s the constant emoticons that deal the killing blow. They’re used so often, even in scenes trying to be emotional, from pretty sparkles to overly saturated blushing and depression lines that just makes any dialogue they’re paired with that much more performative. There’s even the very literal throwing up emoji, something that’s not even an anime effect so I’m genuinely baffled it’s present.
When it comes to weeaboo style writing goes, it's bordering the same level as RWBY, with worse jokes and slightly better thematic cohesion. Just like the first two seasons of that show, the best parts are, ironically, when the action director oversees the story. The side quests for your companions communicate their personalities in a way far more suitable to Neon White’s status as a video game than any dialogue unlock (which feels like if you gave an AI a Danganronpa script). There’s a lot more meaningful emotion to glean from your very first sequence of finding one of Green's gifts, conveying a creepy, yet sorrowful mood purely from gameplay, than almost any dialogue sequence where the writing is either comically bad or just borderline nothing (any conversation with the cat characters comes to mind).
The end of Neon White left me satisfied with how well everything had progressed by that point on a structural level just as much as relieved I’d never have to endure its unfun execution to justify its concept. But dammit, I felt something almost the entire time. And is that not the purpose of art, to make you want to feel, even when it’s intensive negative emotion? Neon White is a pendulum swing of a game I think succeeds at being a well-made and lastingly developed experience on numerous design levels despite its off-character cohesion and the incessant annoyance of its skippable writing. The tightly put together building blocks alone make it a recommendation, but it’ll be up to others to make the most of what’s surrounding them.

SpongeBob The Cosmic Shake will be better.

Having been disillusioned by Game Freak shipping out Pokemon Scarlet and Violet with both lackluster graphics AND abysmal performance, I became more curious to check out fangames than the next title, beginning with the fangame that seemed so close to the genuine article Nintendo chucked a DMCA its way several years ago: Pokemon Uranium.
I think the existence of fan games, particularly ones on this level of scale, can be fascinating. When created out of love, they can feel like a fan’s attempt to get more of the specific product they really adore, but they also tend to represent what said fans believe the genuine article had been lacking so they can fill what they perceive as a hole the series left in their hearts themselves.
Anyone can write a fanfiction, but creating a full on GAME to contain that writing actually takes another level of skill, and yet another level beyond that to have said game design feel even slightly like an officially released product. There’s been plenty of horrendously misguided fan games over the years (such dreck as Hunt Down the Freeman and Sonic Omens spring to mind) but I think Pokemon Uranium, despite its amateurish execution in places, is an interesting case that shows how far passion can go when trying to fill a void.
It probably further helps that mainline Pokemon, for years, has been a series of very low-tech games holding the kind of longstanding legacy where game mechanic concepts are constantly being changed on a micro level despite the macro concept being a constant. Thus, Pokemon Uranium brings a Generation 4 overworld with Generation 5 battle UI and Generation 6 battle mechanics.
You know you’re getting into a fan game story very fast when just starting the game shows you the heartbreaking story of your character’s mother dying in a power plant explosion and their father, a Pokemon Ranger, became cold and distant from you. After this introduction though, things mellow out and a lot of what you would expect to be in working order falls right into place.
Most of Uranium plays as you would expect from a sprite based Pokemon game. Explore a region, battle trainers along the way by making eye contact, defeat 8 gym leaders to collect badges to challenge the League to become champion, use HMs to gradually explore the world they couldn’t before, basic stuff. But there’s an admirable level of commitment in many spots. The game has a full day/night cycle it tracks with your computer. There’s over 100 original “fakemons” in this, and while it does make the arbitrary amount of true Pokemon stick out like a sore thumb, a fair amount of the designs do veer close to the mix of cutesy charm and anime cool Ken Sugimori has really refined over the years, in particular with Pokemon like the starter trio, the many Bug type variants, Urayne as a box Legendary and especially Nucleon, which fits right in with the other Eeveelutions present. I like that Uranium decides to make Double Battles take occasional prominence after the main series has shunted them out for years; they offer a level of additional planning without the gimmickier styles tested in Generation 5. The Elite Four is structured more like the anime, where it’s arena battles between randomly pooled opponents in a tournament bracket where neither side can heal, and that was a very distinct addition. There’s a Game Corner, you can rematch numerous trainers if they call you, there’s a sidequest where if you complete it, you get free grinding spots which is extremely helpful, one of the towns has a berry trading economy in lieu of a shop which is another standout moment feature that fits, and Legen Town’s aesthetic of feeling like it takes place inside a medieval castle made it a pretty memorable town. There’s a minigame to raise IVs if you’re into that stuff, and as a game it will offer more of a challenge even in a standard run than any of the mainlines. The original music is quite impressive for a fangame. It can be very rocking at times, but it can also be quite cozy in other places, with the use of synthesizers working well to punctuate the game’s original creation in Nuclear Pokemon.
That being said, despite all these nice touches, there are other aspects that feel noticeably undercooked, or straight up unpolished to the level you’d expect if this was an actually released title. Sometimes, it’s an imperceptible feeling, like when it feels as though wild encounters happen just slightly more often than they should, or that moves with status effects activate slightly more often than they should. Other times, it’s the many lines of comically corny dialogue (which I’ll share at the end) or major inconsistencies in its presentation. Screen tearing is a constant, and it can feel like motion blur in a sprite-based game whenever your character is running or biking around the map. Even in Performance Mode I couldn’t find a way to stop it so look out for that or see if you can find a way around it. Battles also, while they try to emulate the style of Generation 5, aren’t quite there. It can feel very inconsistent on whether a Pokemon’s sprite moves when it’s in battle, as some of the sprites move while others are stuck still. Any attempts at backgrounds are shockingly poor; they try harder to be actual backgrounds than Generation 5, but they have the feeling of taking photographs of sprite art and blurring them before placing them on. As if they were halfway committing to something new but also not fully wanting to abandon the more abstract backgrounds from Gen 5.
I mentioned before that some of the Fakemon were well-designed for what they were but there’s plenty that doesn’t apply toward. Pajay just looks like budget Ho-Oh. Terlard’s battle sprite when using it just looks like two Charizard heads attached together. And the new evolutions feel jarringly at odds with the original visions. The Uranium developers couldn’t have known this at the time, but when Primeape and Dunsparce got new evolutions in Generation 9, they felt perfectly right with the vision and inspiration of the original designs. Dunseraph in Uranium feels completely disconnected from Dunsparce itself on a pure concept design level, which is something I can’t say for the new evolutions for old mons added in Generation 4.
HM moves were always just situational progression blockers, but Uranium doesn’t do as much as it could to take advantage of them. Strength and Surf work as you’d expect; there’s even a few Strength puzzles near the end of the game to have you think a bit, but Rock Smash loses any sort of relevance very quickly after breaking a progression blocker, Dive is used to pass through a single blocker in the main game and nothing else, while Fly, even beyond how late you get it, can only take you to one side of the region or another. Meaning you’ll either have to Surf a bit of distance to get to the other side or pay a bit of currency every time you want to come over. It feels like a clunky tech oversight, compared to mainline Pokemon organizing the entirety of a single region on one map.
For something with both pros and cons: Nuclear Pokemon! They essentially looked at the Shadow Pokemon from Pokemon XD and decided to turn them from tanks into glass cannons. Every Nuclear attack is super effective on every type except Nuclear and Steel, but they’re also weak to every type. It’s an interesting way of punishing you for using Dual Type mons in your team for more type coverage, as it’s likely a single Nuclear attack would do 4X the amount of damage. It’s interesting, and it does help with the game’s honestly rather questionable level curving in the second half, but it also entirely comes down to a speed advantage. If a Nuclear Pokemon goes first and has a high enough attack, it likely kills, but if it's too weak to one shot for any reason, it’ll likely die in a single turn. On your end, this limits their utility without enough grinding, but the game’s main villain, Apocalypse CURIE, has an entire team of these, and will likely hold major level advantages, and therefore speed, if you don’t extensively grind. Which brings up the story itself.
If there’s one constant among many Pokemon stories, it’s the sense of escalation; often you’re going from catching small rats and racoons to defeating entire organizations of domestic terrorists trying to tame the power of God and anime on their side. But in Pokemon Uranium it sort of feels like the heavier plot is tossed off to the side while you go about the standard Gym badge journey. It’s not like in say, Generation 4, where Team Galactic happened to be occupying buildings within and around the major towns. A lot of the key story moments boat you away from the world to power plant islands, two of which hold dungeons with some atmosphere to them, even as the second one puts you in a suit where you have to slowly walk and repels don’t work to stave away random encounters. Some of the only times the plot takes place within the core world itself involves a two-time subplot involving scheming scientists and Garlikid, a Pokemon that really shouldn’t be. The single corniest thing this game’s story does is in this subplot. They introduce a translator device that lets you hear what Pokemon are saying, since until the ending it mostly comes down to “annihilate, kill, kill, human injustice, why am I trapped in a tiny ball.” It’s not endearingly goofy like some of the NPC dialogue ends up being, it’s just cringe, flat out and reminds me why Game Freak wisely stayed away from having the pets communicate their own abuse.
Disconnection from the world aside though, the Apocalypse CURIE encounters are some of the game’s more memorable moments. The twist regarding them is perhaps the most obvious of all time in the history of anything, but their existence in the story with their 12-year-old edgelord dialogue leads into some climatic battles.
But I should asterisk this as another instance where decisions made regarding said encounters would in absolutely no way fly in an officially released product. The first battle with CURIE is behind a door with a timer where you have to reach them in time, or else. The game does warn you about something big being behind this door, but if you save past the door and your team isn’t prepared, the time limit actively prevents grinding, and your file is screwed. Then there’s another encounter at the very end of the game with a Level 85 Legendary to contend with, 15 levels higher than the Elite Four. Its Nuclear type would make it extra vulnerable if not for its insane level jump compared to what’s likely your party at the time giving it speed priority. Losing this battle gives you a non-standard ending without an instant Pokemon Center warp. Meaning, if you decided to save at any point passed the Elite Four entrance, and it’s impossible to win with your current team and item setup, your file is screwed, FOREVER. It’s possible in one way to do even with a lower-level team (Focus Sash + Thunder Wave= likely win) but still, I have no idea how that got through. If you can make it through, the ending itself is overall a pleasant enough way to close out, accompanied by a strong somber music track.
Pokemon Uranium is a mixed bag, some genuinely thoughtful game design inclusions and a decently amount of creativity hurt by technical inconsistencies and overly strenuous market unfriendly design at points, but it reflects the kind of passion fangame creators provide out of love and appreciation for the accomplishments of a series, even if it can be misguided. I’m curious to check out other full on fangames in the future to see if they’ve better balanced those sensibilities, but for now, I’ll leave off by sharing some of the absolutely incredible dialogue contained within this game:
“Okay, listen: How do you get 50 Pikachu on a bus? You poke’em on! Haha, geddit?”
“Mom just doesn’t understand why I hate sand. It’s coarse, and rough…and it gets everywhere!”
(yes they did just reference a prequel meme)
“I love playing video games. Pokemon’s a really fun one. Wanna play?”
“Hey n00b! Wanna see my 1337 skills? Let’s fight!”
“Lololol im a grrrrl gamer! Y aim a girl and I play video gamezzz! o3o.”
“You may know me as Cameron Caine, engineer, private contractor, and father. However, this is not the truth about who I am. My real name is Cameron Stormbringer.”
Thank Arceus! (used as a sub for Thank God because Pokemon god)
HOLY SHINX! (obvious expletive)
A sign saying “Wow, you found this place, good job.”
“I can’t believe it… you SAVED the day. I knew you could SAVE us. …Why am I shouting SAVE you ask? Well… I just think it’s a good idea to SAVE things!” (helpful but still goofy as heck)

A fairly cozy RPG experience despite its seemingly dark premise, one that in its small town setting, does a lot to make the character interactions between its many basic yet distinct personalities play off each other well as a unit in a way not seen in most RPGs, where party characters are solely defined by their goals and hardly if ever personally interact outside of that for basic happenings of life. The game’s antagonist is a highlight, and works perfectly for what it’s suggesting about the state of the world at that time.
On that note, people who get incredibly angry at this game for having 2008 Japanese societal awareness and not 2022 western world societal awareness are the same people who would unironically shame fans of this game for not having enough media literacy.

If you’re gonna give your game a defining gimmick to make it stand out in literally any way from the past games and that’ll help it keep sticking out when developing future games in this style, probably not a good idea to make it something that you’ll only see if intentionally grinding very specific enemies (that the GBA version doesn’t indicate) on incredibly low percentiles. It has value in proving the style is addicting enough to work on handhelds but little beyond that.

Sonic, as a franchise, has three particulars about it that really stood out to me from back when it started, three core tenants that SEGA have been routinely trying to work out how to translate forward whenever a new game comes out, and despite the initial reactions to Frontiers being a stark separation from what came before, I think it’s interesting to look at what we have in the game and how Sonic Team chose to tackle these challenges in a new way.
1. An adaptation of SEGA’s arcade score-based philosophy brought to a home console experience.
2. A response to the trends of its time period (originally inversely to Mario)
3. A means to harness what was possible with technology to be a showcase for a style of play few others have dared to replicate.
For the first point, although Sonic started as a franchise on home consoles, minus a few arcade games here and there, the first games still had a score to keep track of with ways to balance earning more by the end of levels, limited lives and continues. The highscore stuck around for years, with Sonic Adventure 2 making it a gameplay objective to earn a highscore for the mastery ranks of every level. But it’s been because of this arcade style philosophy that most modern Sonic games end up with short, elaborate zones holding levels designed to be beaten in only a few minutes but designed to be replayed over and over.
Sonic Frontiers answers this by peppering its open zones to have bite-sized challenges at around every corner. There’s very little downtime in Sonic Frontiers, which I think helps keep the pace up. Almost everywhere you look there’s a rail or a spring or a dash panel, with islands 2 and 3 in particular having a lot more height structures and being fairly large in size. Despite pop in, seeing larger, vast structures in the distance does inspire wanting to find out what’s at the top of the challenge, and there’s sometimes a bit of level fun along the way. The game has a lot of quick engagements with several rewards at the end of them, and the open zones being a flow to get from setpiece to setpiece I think is a solid gameplay loop, provided the terrain supported the potential with player expression, but more on that issue later.
Cyberspace is also there as an answer to the high score replayability of past titles, and I think conceptually they’re solid. They’re spread far enough around the world that finding one actually feels like a bit of a surprise, short enough to feel like a quick change of pace and you’ll not need to play many of them just to progress. But, to get the elephant out of the room, the only momentum these have is managing to boost off of the halfpipes and there’s only four themes to go around. It would’ve been SICK to have Eggmanland as a fifth theme, surely, they have Unleashed assets hanging around somewhere to reuse, but alas. The 2D ones I got something out of, mainly due to the bounce to air boost combo giving you some additional height and fixing the insanely speedy acceleration from Forces, but 3D feels very wrong; air control is directionally locked when trying to make platforming which leads to a lot of slippery turning and falling off the sides. I really wish they would’ve kept the Open Zone controls in these; THOSE I think felt pretty comfortable after some tinkering and it’s the main disconnect from what’s otherwise being an incredibly cohesive full experience. This concept is sound, but I hope gets an overhaul for a supposed sequel.
When it comes to being in touch with current trends, it’s far from a secret Sonic’s existence was born of attitudes from the early 90s, but continuing that down the line, Sonic Adventure 1 was constructed as an elaborate tech demo for the Dreamcast complete with an entire campaign to show off its capability for fishing. Sonic Adventure 2, and specifically the creation of Shadow the Hedgehog, feel almost prophetic for what would be viewed as “cool” during the 2000s, the kind of nu-metal emocore cool bouncing off the more spunky ATTITUDE Sonic himself was created under. Sonic 06 was trying to adapt too many things in its rushed development, the increased focus on real time worlds, physics systems, hubs full of NPC sidequests and the grandiose storytelling not overly dissimilar to the Final Fantasy X’s of the world. Since then, we’ve had Sonics focused on dual world gameplay, God of War combat, motion control sword swinging, Mario Galaxy level tubes and custom characters.
Sonic Frontiers’s hat to throw in this ring is player freedom. Past 3D Sonics have often had the issue of containing multiple different gameplay styles or arbitrary conditions players HAD to power through in order to get through to important content across the game. Sonic Unleashed was a particularly egregious example of this with its medal collecting blocking progression and often necessitating backtracking through levels. Frontiers in comparison is refreshingly loose in progressing across the world. Multiple small missions exist in Frontiers to bridge story gaps, but they’re quick and aren’t terribly taxing so players should get back into it fairly fast. That players can use a fishing minigame to help bypass walls of whichever kind of progression they don’t want to deal with the most I find to be pretty funny, when considering how the fishing minigame back in Sonic Adventure is viewed as a primary case of out of place content being outright required to finish the main story of the game. That “repeated content” in an open world game is presented mainly through quick bits of speed and platforming and light map opening puzzles instead of overly elaborate sidequests which I think, again, largely keeps the pace of the game up. Everything you can see (aside from plot progression doors) is something to be toyed with immediately, even if I wish there were more creative ways to finish sequences beyond air boosting to reach character tokens early.
There’s also a skill tree combat system, and it’s a mixed bag. The many moves can look cool and have satisfying sound design but combat itself is very simplistic, to where mini bosses need to have their own gimmick to spice things up. I like MOST of these (the Shark goes on for too long) for giving certain enemy encounters a distinct feel. It’s a combat system that’s very drive-by, in a way not unlike the classics, prioritizing efficiency and style and not effective use of button combos. You see an enemy, do the thing to make them vulnerable, get a thing and then keep running. I still prefer this to locking you in rooms within levels like a lot of the 2000s Sonic’s liked to do, yet it’s hardly deep. But I do appreciate how for the first time ever in a modern Sonic, said combat moveset is actually transferred through during the Super Sonic battles. Those go insanely hard; you have to babysit the camera to keep track of your onscreen position, but they’re the incredibly satisfying and raw energy Sonic’s been losing since the turn to more lighthearted games. The metal music tracks for these are prime workout music in what even without them is Sonic’s most varied soundtrack since 2008.
What surprised me while playing was how this freedom aspect actually ties into the plot of the game, and more specifically, the character of Sage. She’s an AI created by Eggman that routinely attempts to halt Sonic’s progress using the world’s technology, while at the same time questioning what his unfettered morals are to her black and white understanding. This parallels with Sonic’s, and in turn the player’s tenacity to go about the open zones accomplishing objectives, helping your friends recover their memories, and standing up to the giant bosses and mini-bosses. It’s through the player’s sense of progression through the world and Sonic’s interactions with his friends (for the first time in over a decade feeling genuine and not like an excuse for comedy skits) that Sage begins to question her purpose and whether Sonic’s intentions are pure despite also wanting to please her master, his longtime enemy. An actual CHARACTER ARC conveyed through the player’s gameplay in the open worlds, and I find that neat. The rest of the plot was light but pretty pleasant to experience due to Ian Flynn’s character dialogue and….some of the animations. The canned NPC animations are very stilted, but the actual hand animated cutscenes are headed back in a more actioney camera direction with expresses as much as can out of these models, with even some concept art used for flashbacks expanding the lore. The Sonic gameplay Vs Sonic lore video only got more wider after this game.
Beyond the story, there’s also what Frontiers is trying to accomplish on a tech level. As much as blast processing and lock-on technology could be seen as marketing buzzwords today, SEGA adopting them represents trying to push Sonic, and by extension themselves, as being on top of what technology can be. In 2D, the best Sonic level design still had to have branching and a sense of speed blasting through the levels, but it could be said to have been easier to craft it all considering the games were sprite based and only so much needed to be on a screen at once. Going into 3D made it harder to manage creating an innumerable amount of unique assets the player would speed by in seconds, from multiple angles and setpieces, rather than only following the sandbox trend other platformers found more comfortable. There’s few things truly like what a 3D Sonic game is capable of, but it’s a difficult beast to manage and polish.
Sonic Frontiers finally takes the step of making sandboxes the core tenant of the game while also retaining the sense of speed. While the first island is fairly small, the second island is incredibly spread in terms of content and all the nooks and crannies within the canyon of the biome while the third island is a vast set of separated landmasses. If there’s one major pro I can give the open zones in Sonic Frontiers, it’s that, with the right capabilities, you really do FEEL fast while exploring in a way that no other open world type game has even tried to accomplish. Using the Drop Dash to slide down the many slopes, power boosting to cross large portions of the map in seconds, and jumping rails at the right angle to hurdle forward through the air like a slingshot.
That being said, there are two issues with this approach. The first is pop-in, which can be incredibly apparent even on the next gen consoles where the game does genuinely have moments of looking quite stunning otherwise, with the day/night cycle. It can be a pretty jarring immersion breaker that makes it harder to gauge where to land on sometimes, even if such is thankfully less apparent during the 2D segments and cyberspace. Seeing it had me wonder if this is more an engine limitation or an actual programming issue?
The second issue is more annoying because of the potential for fun movement in the world: inconsistent reactions to the terrain. Inconsistency is something that could be said to have been associated with Sonic games for years, and as much as Frontiers earnestly tries to have the most fluid 3D Sonic experience out of all of them (never had any bugs while playing aside from briefly flinging off a structure one time) it’s hard to tell, in the game’s current form, what terrain will let Sonic fly through the air and the player subsequently trick their way across platforms, and to what terrain Sonic will cling to and fall like a rock. It can be fun when it happens, but it’s rarely of your intention. I hope this is something they’re better able to delineate in a followup.
I’m glad Sonic Frontiers earnestly looked at these core elements of Sonic to make something I think has done a lot to understand what me and many other Sonic fans personally adore about the brand despite all its ups and downs, but the future continues to be uncertain. I want them to go further, stabilize the control, make terrain more consistently reactive to your movement, have more vibrantly Sonic aesthetic open areas as the new indulgent playgrounds and if Cyberspace is still going to exist have more variety or consistent 3D handling with the worlds. But I also don’t want them to drop the format they’ve created, more serious yet still cheeky tone, Ian Flynn’s understanding of the characters and the more animesque plotting/spectacle.
But this is Sonic Team, or more specifically, SEGA glaring at them near constant. You never know when they’ll live and learn.
(ps. Someone at Sonic Team really liked Ikaruga)

This series is basically Total Drama for hardcore weebs but no one will admit it.

To anyone who hasn't played Sonic Unleashed yet, or those turned off by its performance:
There is now a definitive version of the game on the Xbox Series X/S, which runs at a locked 60 FPS all the time while incorporating Auto HDR to really make the visuals pop. If you want the best way to play Sonic Unleashed, this is it.
This is worth noting since the game barely being able to hold a framerate most of the time (especially on PS3) is probably the second most pervasive issue with the game. It's one of the games of its generation that's held out the most visually thanks to its strong vibrant art direction tuned to cartooney designs, but the framerate was an unfortunate sacrifice, something that the development team realized when dialing back the lighting for future games in favor of better performance.
You now have the most challenging yet exhilarating-to-master 3D Sonic gameplay feeling as impressive as it looks. The Night stages are still underpar by action game standards, with an easily locked camera and lack of drop shadow unintentionally making platforming more tense, but the wide variety of combos available are smoother feeling without the framerate crying in agony when too many enemies are on screen.
The plot itself is nothing special, but alongside Adventure 1 it hits a well-balanced tone for the Sonic series, neither desperate to be serious like the post Heroes games nor as lackadaisical as the post-Colors era. Oh, and the soundtrack has some of the most distinct feeling pieces from each other thanks to the world trip theme.
Even now though, Medal collecting is still the worst part of the game, and a massive pain even when being able to miss half of them as they're in Day levels not at all built for Sonic to explore. Yet the game is a testament to something as simple as performance tweaks can make a game that much better over a decade after its release.

This game and 999 I think perfectly balance out each other's flaws.
999 has the starker intentional atmosphere, but this one feels noticeably more uncanny.
This game has 999 beat on puzzle complexity but feels like you're trudging through it far slower.
The individual characters are stronger here but 999's cast is better as an ensemble.
The alternate endings aren't as scary but are far wilder and contribute better to expanding out the plot.
Everything in VLR is much better signposted when trying to get the true end but it blue balls you way more in the process of trying to wrap your head around it.
The dub here is better fit with the dialogue as it was planned further from the start rather than being inserted after two other games. The castings stand out a lot starker for their characters
To sum up, The Nonary Collection is a cool compilation and both games are worth playing. Just not one after another, you'll get fatigued for sure.