Sonic Frontiers on Hard (to understand) Mode

Sonic Frontiers does something really weird with its final boss fight and I wanna talk about it.

Obviously, mechanical spoilers follow. No narrative ones, though.

As a bit of background: Sonic Frontiers has difficulty modes. You can pick Easy, Normal, or Hard and change it at any time. (There’s an unlockable Extreme difficulty but that works differently and is beyond the scope of this post.) This is already a bit unusual for a Sonic game, since Sonic games don’t generally have the sorts of stats that are tweaked by difficulty modes. But in Frontiers, Sonic has has attack and defense stats that you level up over the course of the game, and its difficulty modes basically buff/nerf these stats. No other mechanics or gameplay are affected; this is only about combat.

Honestly, that’s already a bit weird to me on a couple levels. I’ve always been leery of statistics-tweaking difficulty modes in games where the statistics in question are already partially under the user’s control. It puts a weird spotlight on the purpose of having stats that level up in the first place. Like, if I play an RPG and find that I’m underleveled/undergeared for a boss fight, I could go spend time grinding levels or farming gear and come back with higher stats - or I could just lower the difficulty for the same effect. Is farming/grinding somehow more legitimate a solution? If so, why? These questions go to weird places.

But also, non-trivial combat in Sonic has always felt out of place to me. In early Sonic games, enemies are just another kind of level feature. (Except for bosses; we’ll come back to those.) They are threats that have to be dealt with in specific ways but also can be used to reach places you otherwise couldn’t. What makes them an interesting challenge is the need for the player to recognize them and respond correctly to avoid damage and/or take advantage of their placements, similar to cues in a rhythm game. So it makes sense that enemies should only take a single hit to dispatch - if you instead have to halt forward momentum for multiple seconds to deal with a single enemy, that’s a pointless interruption to what you’re there to enjoy. (At least, that’s how I felt about it when it started happening, I wanna say in Sonic Heroes.) Stats really shouldn’t be relevant because everything dies in one hit.

Boss fights are a different situation, though frankly a lot of those have felt out of place to me too. It’s always risky to take a game that isn’t about fighting and have its climaxes be about fighting; generally the best way to handle it is to just reskin the game’s normal mechanics. To me, the best Sonic boss fights are the ones where you’re just doing a bit of platforming and then landing a hit on the boss, repeat three-ish times, fight over. Again, stats don’t enter into it.

In Sonic Frontiers, this isn’t how it works. Enemies that show up during platforming segments serve the same purpose as in older games, and correspondingly they go down in a single hit no matter what. But there are also a ton of varied enemies you find in the open world, and these fights are nontrivial. These enemies take multiple hits, and the number of hits depends on your stats. Similarly, the bosses (and minibosses) often require some platforming to position yourself to attack them, but then you get a time-limited window and the amount of damage you can do in that time (and therefore the number of times you need to do the platforming bits) depends on your stats.

Making this a bit more interesting is the variety of attacks and combos you can perform, which are unlocked from a skill tree. Picking up new attack combo skills still feels weird to me in a Sonic game and they don’t have much depth, so I read the whole system as existing to just make sure combat isn’t too dull, to give it a sense of progression (though if you’re not rushing you can easily max out the skill tree less than halfway through the game), and to give you more things to collect in the open world (skills and stat boosts all come from accumulating collectibles).

So. Everything with combat feels like a system layered on top of the game to give it more texture. And the difficulty modes are really a mechanical focus slider for how much you want to have to pay attention to combat and its associated systems. Want to fill out the skill tree and put together crazy combos and dish out tons of damage? Play on Hard, and you’ll have a reason to do so. Don’t think that sounds like a fun thing to do in a Sonic game? Play on Easy, and you won’t have to. Everything else about the game, especially the platforming that’s much more central to the experience, will be the same.

So it seems misleading to me to call these difficulty modes at all - it’s not like they reduce the number of collectibles you need to progress or make the S-rank time targets less strict or anything. Playing Sonic Frontiers on Easy isn’t playing an easier Sonic game; it’s playing one with less combat focus and which is thus more like most Sonic games.

But that kind of thing is (frustratingly) common and isn’t the weird thing I want to talk about. So let’s move on to the next piece of background here: the minigames.

Another way Sonic Frontiers spices up the gameplay is through a number of weird minigame challenges. (Interestingly, while a lot of the game’s content is optional, I’m pretty sure all of these are required to progress.) Stuff like herding a group of Kocos or skydiving through a weird obstacle course. Most of them are shallow and unfun repackagings of the game’s existing mechanics. The one that’s the most disconnected from normal gameplay is the hacking minigame, which you do a few times and which is, for some reason, a polarity shmup reminiscent of games like Ikaruga. You and your enemies shoot light and dark bullets, you are immune to the kind of bullets you are currently shooting, and shooting down same-color bullets charges a powerful homing attack. Destroy all the enemies without running out of lives.

It’s a little weird to have a shmup in Sonic, but off-genre hacking minigames is far from unusual, as is off-genre gameplay in Sonic. But again, this is just background. Now we can talk about the really weird thing.

The final boss fight is two fights in a row. On Easy and Normal, once you finish the first fight, apparently you get a cutscene with a couple QTEs to represent the second fight. (From what I read; I played on Hard myself.) But on Hard, there’s a full-blown second fight which is played as an extended and significantly harder polarity shmup sequence. I’m sure it’s not as hard as an actual Ikaruga level or anything, but it’s long and the enemy has new deadly attacks that bring it much closer to a bullet hell than before. And if you beat this fight, you get an extra post-credits scene.

This is the only thing that the difficulty modes affect besides combat stats, it’s at the very end of the game, and it’s not telegraphed in any way. If you’ve opted for more mechanical focus on combat… surprise, the final boss now has a shmup level that has nothing to do with the normal combat system or stats and instead is a bigger tougher version of the hacking minigame. And if you didn’t do this, then you miss a bit of extra story.

(To be fair: you can change difficulty at any time and continuing a game clear save puts you right before the final boss so you can just put the difficulty to Hard and do the fight again if you find out about this and want to experience it, and the extra scene is really short so you aren’t missing much if you don’t see it.)

Can you imagine this for other games? What if playing Bioshock on Hard inserted a tough Pipe Dream level into the final boss? Or if playing Mass Effect on hard added a tough Frogger level at the end?

I’m really curious why this happened. I know there were a lot of scrapped plans for Frontiers’s final act; I wonder if the shmup gameplay was originally intended to be more central in a way that would have made it make sense as part of the final boss fight, but they’d finished that sequence and not wanted to scrap it, so they compromised and shoved it into Hard mode so only the players who were signing up for maximum challenge would be blocked by it (and they could drop down to Normal if they wanted to skip it… though again, you’d have to somehow learn that doing so would have that effect).

If that’s what happened, I can basically understand it. But I take exception to withholding a cutscene from players who didn’t want to spend time punching, kicking, and shooting in their Sonic game.