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Opinions on the Open Zone


Mr. Ion

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At the time of writing this (in my time zone, at least), there are less than 3 hours until November 8th. The game has already broken its street date, and many have already played it. Of those who haven't, many have also been able to see numerous examples of the open zone in official trailers and content. 

The open zone was meant to define Frontiers; it is the main selling point, the thing to set it apart. Riding the wave of open world/open level design that has become explosively popular (some would say that versions of this style kind of resemble the collectathons of early 3D gaming when it comes to platformers), Frontiers seeks to be the starting point for this style to be refined and used in future games. Whether this actually happens is another question, but I'm curious as to how people here view the open zone feature specifically. Some people have drawn parallels to SA1 or some fan games as to what Sonic should be aiming for when it comes to the Open World, but at the same time, a lot of people seem to appreciate the gameplay loop and general design the game is striving for. What do you think are its main flaws? What are its strengths? What will Sonic Team take from this (if that's even possible to predict)? 

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I thought the open zones were pretty good all the way through. The only real gripe I had was mainly a problem on Ares where the constant elevations made it kind of annoying to get around, since they usually had a handful of specific areas made to let you get higher.

Chaos Island being mostly 2D really wasn't that bad. That could just be me though, I liked 2D boost and think it's just as fun (if not slightly better) than 3D since it involves more actual platforming and precision. Though, it was kind of annoying to accidentally hit a spring and suddenly you're locked to 2D until you find a way to "fail" the challenge or go back far enough to regain 3D control. That's the only real gripe I had with it too.

The environments looked fine. They weren't colorful like we know sonic, but that's not really anything new. Colors was the last time we really had a super sonic-y feeling game, and every game since (yes even including forces) tried to have a bit more grounded style to how the levels looked. For what they were trying to be, they did their job well.

There's the common complaint of "But they look out of place! Sonic doesn't fit in there!". Yes. Good job. That's the entire point. I'm glad you understand. What's the problem here?

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Great idea, could use more work next time but not bad in its current form. It's pretty much just Banjo-Kazooie or Mario Odyssey, but on a much bigger and much faster scale. I think the next game could do with more organic environments, more indoor areas, and more challenges built around speed/momentum that are not explicitly platforming.

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I haven't played Frontiers yet but the impression I get from many who have is that it's a wonderful idea in theory, which in practice hasn't gotten all of the kinks worked out.

A good thing I see about the Open Zone is that Sonic Team managed to happen on a gameplay philosophy that has evaded creators of many open-world Sonic fangames.  In fangames that are made with the primary goal of playing with Classic Sonic physics in 3D, and typically in environments that lack many pits, while also maintaining the Classic Sonic format of reaching the end of the level, in practice either reaching that end is too easy, or it's too difficult mostly due to how common you'll get turned around and lost in 3D.  Frontiers avoids that issue by filling the world with objectives and things to find, also there's a map.

However, the nature of how they set it up often arguably misses the point of an Open Zone.  Many people who hear of that core concept want to go and do a bunch of the usual fun Sonic stuff but in a huge environment with fully 3D movement and no more arbitrary restrictions such as peaked in the Boost era.  Instead, the Sonic-like speed and platforming gameplay is mostly detached from the Open Zone, most obviously in the Cyberspace levels of course, but even in the Open Zone most of that stuff involves Sonic getting thrusted into the air by springs, dash panels and rails, going down a pre-designed path in the way Sonic Team intended.  Fans are mad because they've once again slacked on momentum and pinball physics, so Sonic is mostly strung along by a bunch of tools, but beyond that, this is a bummer because rather than a big non-linear Sonic level in itself, the Open Zone feels like a hubworld through which you enter a bunch of little linear levels.

I've been playing Breath of the Wild in preparation for this, and as much of a joke as people have made about Frontiers ripping that game off in terms of aesthetics and tone, the interesting thing is that its use of geography is definitely a good act for Sonic to follow, which sadly it seems it didn't much.  In BOTW, Link can jump, climb most rocks, and hang-glide, and so traversing the game well requires a lot of creative tricking around the vertical terrain.  Do that next time, but with Sonic's moveset.

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I haven't played the game because, wow, no thanks, but I haven't seen anything that justifies it. I think the only real appeal is if you just desperately want to run around as Sonic, outside of linear levels, and don't really care what you're actually doing there. It's like the game manages to be nothing but filler; heavily automated "platforming" challenges that are just the same things you do in linear stages, bland minigames which only occasionally involve platforming, combat that doesn't, for the dozen or so different items you need to progress the story or increase your stats, and the endless empty space between them.

Breaking away from the hyper-linearity of the boost games (to what extent it's done that) is a good thing. But just throwing you into a test map to endlessly grind collectables is not a good game. This isn't the game that solved 3D Sonic, and I don't think they have any idea how to make something good out of this.

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The duality of man.

I had an absolute blast in the Open Zones. It's fun to just run around of your own volition, engaging with these micro-stages to earn memory tokens and other goodies. I love stumbling upon enemies and just suddenly being thrown into a miniboss fight. I love being able to look out, see something, and just be able to go there. It's honestly way more fun than it looks like it would be, and if the devs find out a way to preserve more momentum next time around, we could have something truly amazing on our hands. I strongly hope that they don't abandon this concept. 

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I think it's interesting, how a lot of people praise the freedom that Frontiers's Open Zone allows on certain islands, while others criticize the railroading (when it comes to the grind rails and boost pads that kind of push you along where the game wants you to go, and in the sense that there could be more interesting rewards for traversing the environment in creative ways). I think a lot of people crave fun, crunchy, kinetic movement as Sonic, to the point where it could be a genuine selling point.

I feel like there's sort of a tension in the game design there, and I also feel that Sonic Team didn't really integrate level design very organically, aesthetically and otherwise. Like I think there are a lot of Sonic-y level elements that can be added to make it more fleshed out, and the aforementioned Mario Odyssey etc are better in that regard, I suppose. But I do think there's some sort of potential there.

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3 hours ago, Diogenes said:

I haven't played the game because, wow, no thanks, but I haven't seen anything that justifies it. I think the only real appeal is if you just desperately want to run around as Sonic, outside of linear levels, and don't really care what you're actually doing there. It's like the game manages to be nothing but filler; heavily automated "platforming" challenges that are just the same things you do in linear stages, bland minigames which only occasionally involve platforming, combat that doesn't, for the dozen or so different items you need to progress the story or increase your stats, and the endless empty space between them.

Breaking away from the hyper-linearity of the boost games (to what extent it's done that) is a good thing. But just throwing you into a test map to endlessly grind collectables is not a good game. This isn't the game that solved 3D Sonic, and I don't think they have any idea how to make something good out of this.

I agree with you about grinding for collectables, and I, too, do not see a good reason to believe Sonic Team will improve from here, but I think the notion of doing missions on a map besides just reaching a goal is at least potentially a good idea for this series.  In fact, it has been done by this series almost since the start, as it was how Chaos Emeralds were found in the 8-bit games, and then such also factored into Sonic 3 & Knuckles.  The Treasure Hunting missions of the Adventure games make use of it, as do some of the additional missions in all Sonic Adventure 2 levels.  Even in most other games, there are usually hidden areas with power-ups you can reach this way.  When this is done well I actually feel it reckons a lot better with Sonic's movement than Yuji Naka's original concept did.  It is certainly cool to use Sonic's mechanics to speed-run a level, but when that's all you use it for, you end up with a pretty short game, much of whose content you didn't even touch.  But using those same mechanics to explore a level in all directions, sometimes finding a whole new path you need to follow in order to find a lost chao or some such, makes for depth that can last you a long time without requiring you to replay to pad it out.

Going back to Breath of the Wild for a moment, I haven't really encountered much of what I would call grinding or busywork in it.  The things you collect also don't usually feel like plot coupons because their functions are not arbitrary, and instead enhance the narrative.  Many things can be used to cook food, many locations and characters you find tie back into Zelda lore, you can find a lot of weapons and even some random tools you can use as weapons, etc.  I think if a Sonic game went for fanservice on a deeper level than just Ian Flynn's writing and the things you can catch in a fish pond, there could be a genuine bit of reward in a Sonic game that is mostly about exploring for things.

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In order to understand Sonic Frontiers, you need to play Sonic Frontiers.

I was highly skeptical about the open zone, and I ended up loving it after I finally got my hands on the game.

The fact that the gameplay is too much automated and you don't use the terrain creatively in order to reach your goals is absolutely false... the main reason of why I like it too much is that I spend most of the time experimenting with the terrain and the physics of the game. Climbing ruins that aren't supposed to be climbed, or in a way that's not intended, jumping from a mini-challenge to another midway by exploiting the level design and "cheat", do precise jump and land exactly on a very far rail, skipping a platforming section, etc.

When a "Tower" miniboss is there, I constantly search for hills and slopes in order to angle a jump and stick to the head so I can destroy them in a single combo... that's very Sonic-y, and it's very rare for a 3D Sonic game to allow you to exploit the terrain in this way.

Regarding collectables, In my playthrough I almost never had to grind collectables... almost all the times a wall was reached, I already had the required amount of memory tokens, because I got them from simply exploring and having fun around. I even rushed Ouranos island and only once It happend that I had a lower amount of memory tokens than the requirement... and it was only by 4, I got them in a moment.

The game is a bit janky and the physics are kinda inconsistent at times, but they are still fun and far from limited.

The formula works, the game has some nice ideas here and there, regarding level and world design. If they improve on those concepts, they can really make an even better game next time.

Surprise underground areas, regular level-like paths directly in the open zone like those two courses over the sea in Ares Island, and different biomes in the same "zone", that's what I want to see more of, along with more level design variety, more gimmicks and specific ones to each zone, more colorful and surreal environments, better contextualization of the mini challenges in the world's geometry (no more generic floating blocks), and multiple layers of areas vertically (fully underground areas below the normal zone, areas in the sky over the zone, etc.).

It would be great to have just one single big "island" with smaller zones inside it, all connected in the same map... Imagine Chaos Island but at least twice as big or even bigger, and each different biome is a zone... in Chaos Island there's the regular volcanic rock-y hills area, then the water springs area, the lava lake/river, the frozen mountain peak, the underground ruins/tunnel, the regular on the surface ruins with the big indoor section, and the hexagonal magnetic crystals area which could be transformed into a cave area under the world. Imagine all those different environments expanded and made into their own zone, with specific gimmicks and badniks exclusive to each biome, and a main path which connects all of them in a linear way like a regular level, even though you can still explore the world freely without following that main path (the main path is still the fastest or most convenient way to cross the zone). Now think about what would happen if the story of the game makes you run through some of those zones as fast as possible, like during the encounter with Wyvern at the beginning of Ares Island... like, follow Eggman before it's too late, or something... the same feel of running from point A to point B in a 2D game, recreated in an open world game. This is not simple to design, but with the open zone formula, the potential to bring it to life is there.

And... let me fly around the world aboard the Tornado, please.

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I was always vehemently against the idea of Sonic going fully open world as I've not been able to visualize how it'd balance itself out. What Frontiers proposes is certainly one way to go about it, but I'm not fully swayed yet. In practice, while fun at times, I find myself unmotivated to really explore the environment now that I've completed the story. I assume the combat mechanics were added so enemies provide some mode of entertainment, but I'm not a fan of advanced combat in a Sonic game, either. I suppose I wouldn't mind another "Open Zone" Sonic game, but they'll need to overhaul the map design and change the focus towards using your speed to clear obstacles and climb all over rather than rely on rails, springs and boosters. 

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Once you get past the thrill of freely running as Sonic it's pretty dull. Too much open space and not nearly enough to do or find in it. Level design is hampered by this constant need by the game to approach interesting waypoints and setpieces the way the designers want you to, which usually involves another dull rail grinding sequence, and not using Sonic's abilities in creative and interesting ways the way a game like Breath of the Wild or Mario Odyssey works. 

Exploration is pretty hampered by the fact that your "reward" is always going to be another old stage or rail grinding section. The game needed more unique events and situations to come across. Those minigames that were on the main quest line should have been spread across the map as hidden surprises to discover. As it stands now you'll rarely be pleasantly surprised by what you find. 

 

This isn't even getting into the combat encounters. Most of these enemies are serviceable in their own right, but the lack of variety is a big killer when so many of them spawn on the same map, with the same arrangements and attack patterns, with no twists in the level design to shake things up. 

I think these hubs are strictly better than titles like SA1 and Unleashed in terms of design, but those hubs had an advantage in NPCs. They made the world feel more lived in, and their circumstances changing alongside the larger plot gave you a bit more incentive to explore beyond the shiny toy at the end of the rail. Fun character interactions are just as valid of a incentive to explore than numbers going up and Sonic Team would have been wise to take advantage of that. Instead, what we get is the same NPCs in every map saying the same things, if they say anything at all. The Koco are cute and all, but they can't carry an entire 15 hour game on their back just through making baby noises. 

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I kind of felt...ambivalent towards it? Everything just feels disconnected from each other from the challenges, to the (automated) platforming sequences, and combat as opposed to everything blending cohesively.

And those aforementioned elements aren't all that interesting themselves; all of it is pretty braindead. Challenges are simple and don't offer much in the way of player expression, and the same is true for the platforming (but that's just boost gameplay in general). Combat is the only thing that really feels innovative but it suffers from a lack of variety as most attacks just kind of do the same thing, just with a different cutscene and a lack of interactivity aside from just watching Sonic do a cool thing.

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9 hours ago, Iko said:

In order to understand Sonic Frontiers, you need to play Sonic Frontiers.

As a person who can't buy every game of interest when it comes out, this isn't really true.

I'm looking at the game and my problem is that the design of the overworld itself isn't very creative or even Sonic-like in geometry.

I don't have a problem with the automation (in theory), I have a problem with a lot of the automation pretty much only ever being one way trips, a lot of rails and dash pads just funnel you into a certain direction even when it feels/looks like they should lead to and from places.

Also a lot of the platforming, almost all of the platforming, is on floating platforms and rails and not organically made from the environment itself. Which is extremely lame. All of these should be neighboring assets to the ancient structures that are actually apart of the islands and like...some of them are, but most of them are just placed in midair with no rhyme or reason, and they don't even lead to anything besides collectibles.

---

The parts of the overworld that actually has the giant structures and ancient ruins shape the layout are the most interesting.

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The open zone structure suffers from the same thing most modern Sonic games do: they're all basically the same areas with fresh coats of paint. You do the same platforming on the first island that you do on all the others. It's the same grind rails, the same rainbow rings, the same springs, the same platforms, over and over again from start to finish, just shuffled around with not much variance. Hey, instead of going through a rainbow ring and then homing attack on a spring, you home attack on two springs, then go through a rainbow ring! None of the areas take advantage of the environments. Why doesn't the desert island have crumbling cliffs, sandstorms, or sandy hills to slide down? Why doesn't the volcano island have you navigate platforms floating in lava, or lava gushers, heck, even fireballs flying around once in a while? There are almost no interesting setpieces or places in the distance that make you go, "Oh, I want to see what that's all about," virtually nothing in these open environments (aside from the robots) that hasn't been seen in every other Sonic game over the past decade. As it is, it's like Sonic Team grabbed a random open world template from some other game, threw in a bunch of grind rails and springs randomly, and called it a day. It's fun, admittedly, but they're gonna have to do a LOT more with the "open zone" concept if they want this to be the basis for the franchise going forward. Because as it is, there's just not much substance there to sustain it.

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2 hours ago, PC the Hedgehog said:

As it is, it's like Sonic Team grabbed a random open world template from some other game, threw in a bunch of grind rails and springs randomly, and called it a day. It's fun, admittedly, but they're gonna have to do a LOT more with the "open zone" concept if they want this to be the basis for the franchise going forward. Because as it is, there's just not much substance there to

sustain it.

It has at least been alleged, possibly by people who played earlier builds, that this is exactly what Sonic Team did.  It isn't a surprise in itself that creators have relied on some stock software to generate a lot of terrain; you kind of have to do that a bit in order to make an open-world worth its salt.  So in turn, it might have been inevitable that we weren't going to get the same sort of thematic setpieces as we do in narrower levels that are built around chauffeuring the players through them.  But those unsighly and undecorated bridges, rails, springs and dash pads that arbitrarily dot the open zone, so it has been alleged, are there to check that box of Sonic gameplay just because the game couldn't be assed to have good physics.  If it had, then the open zone's terrain could have been fun in itself, even to those people not keen on Sonic environments looking so realistic.  As is, we get the same old shit that most Boost games gave us, but this time it's uglier.

That ties back into what I said about how they seemed to have chosen to make an open-world Sonic game that evokes similar vibes as BOTW et al, without reckoning with how that would actually work with Sonic's gameplay, and the clumsy way this game implements that gameplay is a result of that.  This is, in other words, pretty backwords game design.

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7 hours ago, StaticMania said:

As a person who can't buy every game of interest when it comes out, this isn't really true.

I'm looking at the game and my problem is that the design of the overworld itself isn't very creative or even Sonic-like in geometry.

I didn't say it meaning that you all should buy the game, I meant that people should not criticize some aspects of the game if they didn't experience it themselves, because this is one of those cases where the game from videos looks much worse than it actually is when played personally, and it's fun to play instead.

I was against the open zone too and I also found all those generic blocks boring... the point is, I forgot about it and just had fun with them while playing the game.

You can still dislike the game, that's fine, but the game was received with so much positivity by the majority of its players (excluding the stupid review bombing), maybe the game isn't that bad as some people say, after all.

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I get how easy it would be to lose yourself in the feeling of moving Sonic through an open space, I've already played those 3D fan projects that have some kind of level design.

But it'll be another 3 years before I'm whelmed by the finished concept.

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I love it. But if anything maybe more enemies and more platforms BUT not in the way of getting from point A to B. I want to run and spin and sure loops are fine. But I do not want  what some were posting early in attempts to show how other games or fan games did it. I do not want to have to LEARN a map to get to my objective. I just want to run at full speed, leap a few times, and choose how to get there. I do not feel like having to learn Terran to know exactly when to jump to get somewhere. Also maybe marking areas on the map a bit better. Sometimes it can be easy to lose track of small details or a small item you may have missed.

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23 minutes ago, Darkvizardberrytan said:

I do not want to have to LEARN a map to get to my objective.

In an open world game you literally have to somewhat become familiar with the map..

It kind of helps you...not get lost, since it's not a "level" with an ending.

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Doing puzzles at waypoints to unlock parts of the map is dumb. Especially when you can't even fast-travel to them afterward. What's the point?

All it does in it's current state is make it easier to get lost on repeated visits, unless you stop in place to do the chore. Well, if even that. If you know the layouts already, all it does is give your screen an annoying percentage that mocks you on the Zone Select screen for not doing them all, as if that's a symbol of how much you've done there. Either way, it's padding that serves no real purpose. 

(And yes, I know the Elder Koco and the whatever-the-other-one Koco let you fast travel to them. But they're also in weird spots the player can't remember, and you need to go fish out or buy some scrolls from the fishing hole before you can even do it. So it just becomes a bunch of convoluted busywork.)

Next game should just keep it simple. Explore the map and everywhere you go draws a smudge of the map in. Find a star post, *di-doong*, done. An entire chunk of map clears just via exploring and retrieving, and it gives you something substantial in return that'll be useful both now and in the long term.

Now if these were designed this way out of concern for finding things to do (besides collect tokens and fight) in the environments, I feel like there's gotta be far more creative ideas than "do the floor pattern" or "knock this ball into the hoop" over and over. Not saying remove puzzles completely, just reduce them and put them somewhere else, rather than something that should be so much simpler.

Which comes around to something I really think the Open Zone format is lacking: NPCs. Whether key, minor or bg characters, the maps need life in them to interact with either actively (as in walk up and speak to) or passively (just passer-bys). Dialogue adds a lot to these kinds of games, and it's clear that most people are down with the new writing and it's emphasis on character interactions, right? Not even to mention side quests that give their own rewards (maybe like the Koco missions where they hand you a Chaos Emerald or some other macguffin). Hell, why not bring back food too? If we're keeping an experience meter on Sonic, just revive that system from Unleashed entirely. Maybe the hubworld's underappreciated systems can finally shine here.

I know Frontiers sold itself on the "barren wasteland" vibe, but I think while it made for an interesting story premise, it played more to the favor of the team's budget/effort than it did to the player. If the next game put more effort into bringing these worlds to life then it'd go a long way to not only the immersion but the replayability.

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  • 3 weeks later...

After playing the game again, I have some more thoughts on how the open zone can be improved. I like it as it is now, but the open zone feels full of compromises and interaction with it errs on the side of the artificial at times. There's already obvious stuff like improving the quality of the map challenges, making the platforming bits baked into the world itself, and making the maps more Sonic-y in flavor. If they are not to abandon the character-action platformer angle taken with Frontiers, here's my suggestions on how to improve things:

1) Drop the current item economy. Honestly, the open zone is large enough and fun enough to explore where the current gameplay loop feels like its over-compensating to make sure you engage with everything. I can't be the only one who's kinda bothered by all the Vault Keys and Portal Gears you collected just rotting in your inventory long after you've cleared the map of stuff to do and find. It comes off as sort of inelegant. Instead, I think Chaos Emeralds/whatever McGuffin they use next and Cyberspace portals should just be more difficult to find, but are unlocked as soon as you do find them. It's an obvious comparison to make, but think the shrines in Zelda--mostly off the beaten path and they would take some more involved exploring or puzzle-solving in order to find. Frontiers already flirts with this idea, with a few Cyberspace portals locked away behind rudimentary puzzles. Take that idea to the next level and do that for most of the Cyberspace levels. Place them in hard-to-reach areas, behind decent puzzles, and behind tough boss fights. Make the act of reaching a Cyberspace portal a rewarding feeling in of itself, rather than just running around and going "oh, there's a Cyberspace portal over there" like what we have now.

2) By that same token, change the reward for Cyberspace levels to be points for the Skill Tree, should they choose to keep it. Leveling up Health and Defense should also be tied to this. The level objective idea they have in Frontiers is legitimately great, and I wound up clearing them all even despite there being no incentive once all the Emerald Vaults were unlocked. To that end, and since I already propose to axe Vault Keys anyway, they should instead make the reward for Cyberspace be something that helps strengthen Sonic long-term. As it stands now, it's entirely too trivial to max out the Skill Tree, leaving basic enemies with no real reason to be there once you complete it. Basic enemies should instead drop items for use in things like Side Quests or Side Stories, or items that will help you to reach different parts of the island in some capacity. 

3) More bottlenecked map design in general. This one's kinda hard to explain and more so an issue with 3D games/open world stuff as a whole, but I'd really like it more if the map gave me more pushback and friction if I tried to go in certain directions or reach a certain location. It doesn't need to be everywhere, but for example if I'm headed in the direction of a Chaos Emerald, I want the game to get in my way as much as possible to ensure I'll remember the trip to go grab it. A good example of this is the Silver Emerald on Kronos Island. In order to reach it, you have to fight a boss, do a platforming challenge, and then run past a wave of enemies. I want more stuff like that, as it is now I think the open zone is a little bit too passive.

 

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I really love open zones and its gameplay, but I hope next time we'll get less lifeless locations, with some kind of villages (or one big city?) and more NPC's. I would kill for the Sonic game with the open locations similar to the world from IDW comics or metropolies like New Donk City from Mario Odyssey.

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