Following the unfulfilling story of Sonic Forces in 2017, many were concerned about the direction of future narratives. When Sonic Frontiers was first announced, fans were happy to learn that longtime Sonic the Hedgehog comics writer Ian Flynn joined Sonic Team in writing the game. Flynn has been a prominent writer across both the long-running Archie Comics and IDW Publishing runs of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, with hundreds of credits to his name. However, joining Sonic Team for a mainline entry is new territory.
“Ian has been working as a comic writer for a long time, so I was very familiar with his work, but after reading the IDW comics, I was even more impressed with his talent,” Sonic Team creative officer Takashi Iizuka says. “That’s why I wanted to ask him to work on the story for the game as well. He knows the characters well, so he brought a great improvement to the characters’ emotions and dialogue.”
Flynn’s longevity with the franchise, having contributed heavily to both comic series and even writing a couple of episodes of the popular Sonic Boom cartoon, impressed Sega, and a few years after IDW picked up the rights to the franchise, he was invited to contribute to the narrative of Sonic Frontiers. “I’m a career Sonic nerd, so I wanted to weave some of the series’ legacy into the story,” Flynn says. “I wanted to advance the characters’ personal stories, even if just by a little bit. I also wanted to bring some interconnectivity to the previous games. There isn’t anything that will be too dense for new fans to wade through, but just enough for long-term fans to appreciate.”
During my hands-on time with Sonic Frontiers, I witness some of Flynn’s handiwork in that regard. As you’re running through the open zone of Sonic Frontiers, Sonic will make small comments to himself. Since Sonic Frontiers’ story takes place at the latest point of the Sonic timeline as it exists currently – after the events of Sonic Forces and Team Sonic Racing – all previous titles are fair game. In one voice line, the Blue Blur wonders if Kronos Island would make a good location for a Chao Garden. We know there aren’t any Chao Gardens in Sonic Frontiers, but small lines like that add to the overall connectivity of Frontiers to the rest of the Sonic the Hedgehog timeline. “Those are things Ian put in for the fans,” Iizuka says. “Including references to other games makes it clear that the Sonic Frontiers story isn’t a standalone world, but a part of the long history of Sonic.”
While Sonic Forces and Generations also referenced several other Sonic games, Frontiers looks to do so with a lighter touch. Players shouldn’t expect a wide array of character cameos or familiar boss battles as was seen in those games. Yes, Eggman is in the game, as are a small handful of Sonic’s friends, but the cast of characters is trimmed down substantially from some recent games. “The story begins as Sonic, Amy, and Tails visit undeveloped Kronos Island and are separated by a mysterious phenomenon,” Iizuka says. “Sonic sets out alone to find his missing friends, but this is an undeveloped land that no one has visited before, so we won’t be seeing a huge cast of characters.”
Those familiar faces – Eggman, Amy, Tails, and Big, to name a few – were hand-selected by Sonic Team and then handed over to Flynn to further flesh out the characters and their arcs. While not everyone’s favorite characters appear in Sonic Frontiers, Flynn hints that we might get deeper cuts mentioned. “As you’re running around, listen to what Sonic says to himself,” he says. “You might hear some names dropped that’ll surprise you.”
Despite Sonic Team largely calling the shots, Flynn was still able to have some major say in the overarching narrative. “It was during that time when Ian Flynn presented some ideas for bringing different characters into the story,” director Morio Kishimoto says. “We had the development team think about how it could get integrated into the new open-zone format, which then prompted Ian Flynn to present even more new ideas to us, and through that cooperative back and forth, we settled on the characters that would appear in the game.”
Sonic Team has remained largely mysterious about the way the narrative plays out in Frontiers. Sonic, Tails, and Amy arrive following the readings of the Chaos Emeralds, but while I played for more than three hours, I still have little idea of what’s going on with the characters, the islands, or the creatures that inhabit them. This appears to be very much by design. “Eggman arrives on the island just before [Sonic, Tails, and Amy], but goes missing after that,” Iizuka says. “The island appears to be uninhabited, but there are mysterious lifeforms made of stone called Koco. Sonic’s missing friends, the undeveloped island with ancient ruins, the strange lifeforms – all of these mysteries wait for the player to unravel them as they explore the world of Sonic Frontiers.”
One character that has a particularly mysterious presence during my playthrough of the first few hours is Eggman. Sonic’s most iconic adversary appears in the first cutscene, gets absorbed into Cyber Space, and I don’t see him again until a while later in another cutscene where he’s trying to escape from the digital prison. Out in the open zone, I stumble upon some Eggman tech, which even confuses Sonic. I have no idea what role the mischievous mustachioed man plays in Sonic Frontiers, but Sonic Team promises it’s a prominent one.
“Featuring Eggman in the story was something we decided on from the early stages of things,” Kishimoto says. “We wanted Eggman to be an extremely important key figure in this story for it to be successful; we didn’t want him to just be the bad guy in our ‘good guys versus bad guys’ scenario. We wanted to portray him as a flesh and blood human being in the story.”
While Flynn is well-versed in the comic-writing process, Sega has a bigger hand in creating the story of Sonic Frontiers than it does in the creation of the comics. In fact, when Flynn writes a Sonic the Hedgehog comic for IDW, he handles pitching the premise, characters, setting, and plot beats himself. Then, once those elements are approved, he goes page-by-page and creates a script. That’s typically the last he sees of the work until it arrives on store shelves. For Sonic Frontiers, Flynn is still heavily involved, but the process is drastically different.
“With Sonic Frontiers, Sega provided the plot beats, settings, and characters, so my job was mainly to fill in the details,” Flynn says. “I was able to bring some ideas to the table, but this was more of a collaborative effort. As the game developed, new content and revised approaches were needed, so I was involved for much longer than a comic project.”
According to director Kishimoto, the storytelling of Sonic Frontiers takes a more serious tone, hoping to transcend that “good guys versus bad guys” scenario he referred to that is present in most games in the genre. “We needed something dramatic to set that serious tone and foreshadow things to ponder while playing the game,” he says. “On the surface, our story is something that can be easily enjoyed, but we also wanted to challenge ourselves to create a drama that would also be enjoyable if thought about at a deeper level. This is a rare type of experience in the stage-clear action game genre, but it was also important for us to integrate it in as we felt it was of critical importance to this open-zone format.”
Flynn echoes Kishimoto’s assessment of the story. “I’d say it’s a more somber story overall,” Flynn says. “It’s about self-reflection and choosing how to move forward. And Sonic, being Sonic, is a positive reinforcement and the force for change that everyone needs. I hope everyone enjoys what we’ve put together.”
We often hear about the localization from Japan to Western markets and how the story, dialogue, and characters differ from the original writing. However, with longtime comic writer Ian Flynn, who is American, penning a large portion of Sonic Frontiers, director Morio Kishimoto did much of the Japanese localization from Flynn’s original writing himself.
“I used the translation of Ian Flynn’s story as a base and rewrote the Japanese to better suit the Japan market since Sonic is not as well-known as a character here in Japan when compared to how popular and known he is abroad,” Kishimoto says. “Many Japanese children grow up reading manga, watching anime, watching the live-action suit-hero shows, or watching Japanese movies, so the whole culture and entertainment familiarity in Japan is different from the West. So we needed to make some adjustments for our audience.”
Kishimoto thinks this is of particular importance because he sees Sonic Frontiers as a major opportunity to make some headway in the Japanese market. “With the implementation of the open-zone gameplay, we will hopefully expand our popularity in the Japan market and challenge a new audience of Japanese gamers to pick up a Sonic game and have a fun time,” he says. “There may be some people out there who will play both the Japanese version as well as the other language versions of the game, and I hope they enjoy the differences they experience.”
Sonic Frontiers comes to PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC later this year. For more on Sonic Frontiers, be sure to click on the banner below to visit our exclusive coverage hub.