About Sonic. Oy vey. They just can’t seem to get it right, can they? SEGA pushes out one mediocre game after the other, futilely hoping to bring the ‘hog back to his glory days. So, here’s an idea: perhaps the best way to make a Sonic game is not to have Sonic in it at all. Sounds weird, right? Bear with me here as I unveil that exact concept in the form of Freedom Planet.
The game is an old-fashioned, insanely-fast platforming romp starring three females named Lilac, Carol and Milla. Lilac is a sort of dragon-hybrid alien, Carol is a green cat whose speciality is her motorcycle and Milla is a dog-like being who is unlocked later on. All of them reside on a planet saturated with Asian-like culture, which is under threat from an alien overlord whose ship has crashed and who is seeking whatever means possible to steal power and escape – even if it means starting wars and devastating the world’s populace. The story may not be Shakespeare, but it’s oddly engrossing, complete with voice-acting that ranges from excellent to passable. Thankfully, the developer wisely included a mode that eliminates the cut-scenes and story for those just interested in getting into the game proper.
Going the whole hog
The Sonic influences are evident from the start: levels are very colourful, imaginative and are designed with fast-paced gameplay in mind. There’s even the occasional loop-de-loop! Blue gems litter the landscape and function similarly to Sonic’s rings or Mario’s coins, rewarding diligent collectors with extra lives. There’s also red petal-shaped gems which replenish a health bar. At first, it may seem like that the game is quite generous with the abuse your character can take, but it’s not long before you’ll be grinding your teeth in response to the game’s difficulty.
It’s here that the game’s resemblance to Sonic begins to diminish and other influences take hold. Notably, the combat seems to take its cue from Gunstar Heroes and Zero’s melee aspects from the Mega Man X series. Enemies generally need to attack to do damage (as opposed to touch-kills) and players need to exploit weak-spots. This is especially true for the bosses. Oh my word, the bosses. They’re just pure evil. Clever and challenging, but pure evil. Many of them take up the whole screen and are disturbingly fast and agile. They demand the best of your reflexes and require patience and pattern memorization. They invoke some of the most dastardly boss encounters from games such as Contra and make a stark contrast to the otherwise easy-going nature of the rest of the game. I got frustrated more than once, but they’re still memorable and well worth the price of admission.
Dragon your feet
Presentation-wise, things are amazing; the pixel art is splendid, invoking a cute, colourful, 16-bit look that eschews the use of outlines. Characters are animated very fluently and there’s more than a few obvious anime influences at work here. Level themes are expertly realized and offer a few original surprises, such as dōjōs and even shopping malls! On matters of sound, again the game can’t be faulted. Jingles permeate the collection of gems and items, kicks and swipes are executed with accurate sound bytes and the catchy music is the perfect compliment to the title’s brisk pace. As mentioned above, there’s a considerable amount of voice-acting that ranges in quality, but it never makes you want to reach for the mute button. Likewise, the story isn’t the most memorable in gaming, but it’s surprisingly fun, resonating with the sort of quality of some of the better Saturday morning cartoons. The friendship between the three main protagonists is a strong theme and is quite enjoyable to watch unfold.
Technically, the game has the odd bug and glitch. I had problems getting the game to maximize properly without a border. It also occasionally crashes or boots up into a blank, white screen that requires exiting and starting over. Fortunately the latter bugs are quite rare while the former doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. It’s otherwise a quality product and we can only hope the developer addresses these issues in upcoming patches.
It definitely Rings a bell
Freedom Planet is fan-service to everybody who played a 16-bit console growing up. It’s reminiscent of the tropes and gimmicks we loved in games before they got too bloated, too cinematic and too profit-driven. With a cute story, gorgeous graphics, catchy music and fun, fast gameplay, it’s a prime example of a platformer done right. Check out its official Steam page here or download the demo for PC and Mac here. The soundtrack comes highly recommended and can be purchased separately here.