Last week was a bit depressing, wasn’t it?
My first experience of Freedom Planet was watching one of my friends bubbling enthusiastically about the game as they were playing it.
Then another one.
Then another one.
Then they started swapping screenshots.
Then they started swapping fan-art.
Then the virus came for me.
The Cuteness Virus
Freedom Planet is a loose, fast-flowing platform game that’s made to evoke older generations of games, but rather than just replicate those games – flaws and all – the devs at Galaxy Trail did something amazing and built on those technologies in ways that higher system resources we have today permits. Back in the day, a selectable character would just have a different sprite and maybe a slightly different ability; here, they have their own levels. Back in the day, cutscenes in this kind of platformer would show barely a few seconds of animation – in this, they have unique animations, voice acting, RPG-style textboxes and a skip option.
Freedom Planet builds its game around a movement style, and it really explores it. Your character has a certain chunky movement to them, a momentum. Acceleration takes a bit of time, but the movement has a lovely feeling to it, and the levels are designed to take advantage of that. Very rarely do you charge off in a direction, enjoying this fun feeling and hit a wall, completely at a loss for how to proceed. For a game about movement, conveyance is very important, and Freedom Planet is full of clever ways to keep that feeling going without just making a monodirectional race-course.
I suppose I sort of have to say it, don’t I?
Freedom Planet began its life as a Sonic game. It was going to be a Sonic fan-game, but its fans quite correctly noticed the developers were doing something interesting and new and wanted them to go in a different direction, to make their own path, and so they did. I’ve spent the better part of a fortnight playing this game and repeatedly saying It’s Not Really Like Sonic, a position I suppose I should defend now, given that well, it really is, but not in the ways that I think are important.
The comparison I make, typically, is that Freeom Planet is a Sonic game the way Call Of Duty is a Wolfenstein game. There’s a clear list of connecting points, after all! Freedom Planet has large, chunky sprites with visibly expressive faces on stylised bodies, brightly coloured worlds, and the levels are designed like vast rollercoaster rides, with a landscape full of inexplicable jumps and loops that serve no purpose but to look sick as a superspeeding cute thing streaks into them. The technology, however, has evolved so much.
I’m not going to break this into a discussion of things Sonic doesn’t do as well as you think. There are problems in those games, and for the most part, Freedom Planet disposes of them. While Sega tried branching out into different mechanical spaces and adding new things and new characters to the Sonic gameplay style to address the problems in level design, Freedom Planet just straight-up fixes them. The Levels are vast. There’s rewards for exploring the levels, with collectables and achievements and even unique little art asset touches, like…
Actually, here. Here’s a perfect example:
THIS GAME IS RIDICULOUS pic.twitter.com/eqBanGLgVa
— mcc (@mcclure111) December 3, 2014
This is just a random thing in a shopping mall. No reason to do it. It’s just there and you can.
You move fast, and in order to preserve that looseness, the game has really forgiving requirements of its momentum courses. Sure, they could be more ‘realistic’ but you’re playing a talking cat or dragon girl fighting aliens, realism isn’t really a high priority. And that looseness, that forgiving movement is emphasised by the health system. In Sonic games, Sonic has to be lethal to the touch – bullet-like, really – to allow him to progress through enemies blockading his path when you’re ripping through the game at speed. You still have that option in Freedom Planet, but rather than a screw-up destroying all your rings and depositing you down a bottomless pit, or leaving you nervous and timid waiting for an opportunity to recover your rings, Freedom Planet uses a hitpoint system. This works better for its vast levels, too, because there’s less reason to feel you’re ruined if you streak off into the sky, less reason to fear randomly clipping something off towards the unknown.
There’s also the boss encounters! Boss fights in the Sonic games I’ve played are perfunctionary, and often kind of embarassing. Single-screen bosses where Sonic spends large parts of the fight standing totally still in a safe spot, while the boss does a pattern, then Sonic darts in and hits the boss a few times with his spiky keister. In Freedom Planet, instead opts for enormous battle arenas with bosses that move around a lot, that pursue you. You need to use your mobility to attack them, too! Some of these bosses are smallish, big enough that you can see them all at once, which has a nice feeling of fighting something larger than you… and then the later game introduces enormous opponents, opponents that are larger than the screen.
I don’t want to give the impression that the boss fights in this game are perfect, mind you. The final boss fight is over-tuned and I felt a bit ashamed at turning down the difficulty because the third stage of three was effectively undoable for me. On the other hand, there was the option to turn the difficulty down, which was nice.
Ultimately I think the people who say ‘It’s like a Sonic game’ are saying it as a compliment when I wouldn’t see that as a compliment.
A Patch Of Blue Sky
Freedom Planet is a forward-thinking gaming evolution in a market that is fixated on the past. In a media space that’s wallowing in grimness and dourness in the pursuit of seriousness, Freedom Planet an amazing patch of bright blue sky that revels in everything it can do that’s joyous.
The funny thing is that for all of this praise I’m heaping on this game, the plot is simple. Not simple in a bad way – there are edges of good things in there, with two concurrent plot threads, recurrent characters that work well, and villainous aliens that have some ambiguity about them rather than being straightforward bad guys without seemingly like moralising waffling. The villain has a clear reason, from his perspective from doing what he’s doing. There’s confusion, there’s mistakes – there’s even a charming bit where a plan backfires.
I’d normally call this plot – with its shallow elements and generic bits-and-pieces a pretty bad story, but in Freedom Planet, they step away from that by making the overcoming of the villain not the focus. In a typical videogame narrative, the bad guy is the bad guy, and the good guy – and they are always guys – is there to attempt, fail, then succeed at beating him. In Freedom Planet, the story of the villains is a secondary arc, an arc less the focus than the relationship between the protagonists, Lilac, Carol and Millia.
It’s really an unabashedly girly story, much like Shantae, which I reviewed earlier this year. But while Shantae felt like a story full of girls (because girls are nice to look at), Freedom Planet felt like a heroic story that happened to be about girls. There’s no ‘Girls can’t do’ stuff that characters have to overcome, there’s no gendered resistance – it very simply is just the heroes are girls, and have girly wants and interests. And they’re not even connected in their style – Millia is shy and withdrawn, Carol is brash and cool while Lilac is idealistic and… well, really idealistic.
That all being said, there are a few more details. The game does fall down a bit at the end, where the difficulty curve spikes. There’s a precision platforming segment at the end which is incredibly irritating after a game full of loose, fluid play, where you throw yourself at the scenery. And… well.
Look, I’m not a fan of voice acting in videogames, almost ever. I’m particularly not a fan of this voice acting. I am pretty sure that this is me, though, and not the acting – just be aware that the game will talk to you, and that might be grating.
I really like Freedom Planet, it’s a startling little high-quality gem of the year, a surprise I’m glad I had.
You can get it on Steam and on GoG, or buy directly from Galaxy Trail. There’s even a demo! Thanks to the spread of my friends trying this game, I’ve learned that it’s pretty persnickety on some controllers/hardware, and therefore I recommend trying it on GoG, where there’s a moneyback guarantee if it doesn’t work.
Buy it if:
- You enjoy retro platforming with words like flow and looseness
- You want an uncomplicated game where the heroes are unremarkably girls.
- You want something young-safe to buy a younger relative for Christmas!.
Avoid it if:
- You don’t like changing difficulty settings when challenges ramp up.
- You hate precise platforming, which comes up later in the game.
- You want a tighter, cerebral play experience.