IF FREEDOM PLANET IS A GAME YOU HAVE CONSIDERED PLAYING, I'M WILLING TO BET IT'S FOR ONE OF THREE REASONS:
(1) you grew up addicted to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, and ever since SEGA forced you to go cold turkey starting with Sonic 3D BLAST way back in 1996, you've been jonesin' for something to itch your fix (and we all know Sonic 4 is just Sonic 1 cut with some of that Flappy Bird jank); (2) this game came HIGHLY recommended from that friend of yours who you suspect to be a closet furry; or (3) you are that friend. (I am three for three.)
Freedom Planet is a 2D, 16-bit platformer that takes inspiration from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the pinnacle of the StH series. And, yeah, okay, I'll be honest―it's a shameless carbon copy of the game's engine with retooled sprites that barely conceal the hedgehogs and foxes underneath. Item monitors have become item crystals, T-shaped springs have become T-shaped booster pads, roboticized flickies have become roboticized flying eyeballs, the Master Emerald is now the Kingdom Stone...this game even has the trademarked casino-themed elements that are present throughout the entire Sonic franchise ('cause we all know how much kids enjoy their gambling).
That's not to say this is a bad thing. I mean, really, isn't that kind of what we've been asking for? SEGA could do worse than to replicate its most successful game, then use that as the starting point for a sequel that is familiar yet still improved.
Which, thankfully, is exactly what GalaxyTrail chose to do with their first project.
Throughout the game, I found myself thinking both: "Boy, I sure wish SEGA had thought of that!" and "Okay, yeah...I can see why SEGA chose not to do it that way." But let's start with something that Freedom Planet does right.
You start off playing as Lilac, a "Dragon" that somehow manages to look less like a dragon than Sonic looks like a porcupine. Right from the start, you'll notice that while she has all of the skills of her blue counterpart―running fast, turning into a ball, being a little bitchy―she also comes equipped with a few extra moves. She can punch and kick, double-jump, swim, and take more than just one hit before needing to replenish her health with rings―I mean gems! Dammit! Gems, gems...
But the most fun element of the game is her air-dash attack. It is very similar to Sonic's spin dash, except that it can be used both on the ground and in mid-air. Not only that, but if you hit a solid object like a wall or a rock while in air-dash mode, Lilac will bounce off it like a pinball, sometimes sending her rocketing across the stage. This move single-handedly adds an addictive dimension that is absent in the game's predecessors. Consider this a warning: if you go back and play any StH game after playingFreedom Planet, you will be too homesick for the air-dash to have any fun.
Alas, the best feature in the game is hindered by its worst. The trailers would have you believe that Freedom Planet is loaded with hectic, high-speed action―maybe something akin to a high-speed Metal Slug...
...and the game is like that...but only in 3-second bursts thanks to a cumbersome energy gauge. Lilac's moves each take an arbitrary amount of power to perform, but the crucial air-dash consumes the entire gauge. Not only does this mean there are times when you are literally standing still having to wait for the gauge to refill so you can progress to the next ledge or tunnel, but you're also prevented from using the move if you have performed even the slightest action in the two-or-three seconds preceding the dash. This makes combos impossible and requires the air-dash be used only after a deliberate pause. In one level towards the end, the gauge is virtually disabled by special power-ups scattered throughout the stage, and all this succeeds in doing is to tease the player with how fluid the rest of the game could have been had the gauge been omitted all together.
Still, this game is fast―which is no surprise considering what it's based on. Even when the screen is crowded by dozens of enemies and layers of intricate scenery and background, the framerate remains smooth. It's surprising how a 16-bit game can still be impressive in this age where hyper-realistic graphics are a requirement for even the most bland of titles. But―with creative levels that seem to come to life around the character, expressive sprites, and high-definition baddies that have as many independent moving parts as a cuckoo clock―GalaxyTrail does a marvelous job with what little they have to work with.
In fact, the bosses in this game are jaw-dropping. Where most boss battles in the Genesis/NES generation took place in a boxy "frame", the bosses in Freedom Planet seem to occupy a whole stage all to their own. Your character is sometimes forced to run far, far offscreen to avoid certain attacks, sometimes climbing up walls and running across ceilings. Every mini-boss in this game feels like a typical boss-boss, and every boss-boss feels like an extraordinary "final" boss.
Another way this game tries to improve upon its inspiration is by energizing it with a rich, compelling, and emotional story. Unfortunately, GalaxyTrail might have been better off following SEGA's original strategy of "less is more". I'm not saying that they should have filled the game with mute characters or built the plot around something as flimsy as "good critters fight bad humans in outerspace", because Freedom Planet does prove how well this type of game can tell a story, but maybe they could have aimed for some hybrid between the two styles. For instance, the dialogue would have probably felt stronger as just text than as vocals. A fair compromise would be to have the economy-priced voice actors perform the small things, like grunts and cheers, while entrusting the heavier work to the tried-and-true speech box. And the plot is big, sometimes seeming too big for its container. Cutscenes drag on, the plot gets unnecessarily convoluted, and all-in-all the story seems rushed. A read-between-the-lines approach, similar to Guacamelee!'s take on adding a story to a 2D platformer, would have been a good way to spread out a big story across a compressed timeline.
Also the storytelling is just...weird. The writers couldn't seem to decide on who precisely their target audience was. Sometimes it seemed like they were aiming for children―other times it seemed like metalheads might be their core demographic. The cartoonish animation, the replacement of blood with feathers, and the kindergarten "curse" words do little to prepare you for the occasional beheadings and torture scenes. Also, there is an uncomfortable sexual vibe tingling between the three female leads―who, mind you, are all animals of different species (not that there's anything wrong with that...but, yeah, I mean, kind of, right?). The story also seems more like fanfiction than an original piece. It's full of inside jokes, references to events that happened before the game, and characters with apparently significant backstories that only get touched upon briefly, as if the player was supposed to be familiar with them already.
In the end, though, the successes of this game outweigh its flaws. With a great and expansive soundtrack that will make you nostalgic for the 80s, convincing visuals that add to the illusion that this is a long-lost masterpiece from a golden era of gaming, and gameplay that is quirky, challenging, and just plain-old fun, Freedom Planet is a must-have collector's item for any gamer fond of classic platformers (or of violent, anthropomorphic lesbian romance). Cheers to a sequel, in hopes that it can be the groundbreaking advancement that this almost was. [nd]