Break Out of the Mold
When it comes to entertainment media, creators are often asked what influenced them in their creations (a question which I’m guilty of asking often during interviews…). Did another person’s works help guide their thoughts, or maybe a specific movie or game struck an idea in their head.
In games, some creators wear their influences on their sleeves, especially when it comes to fan works. There exist many examples of games where the creators would take story ideas, gameplay engines, and even characters themselves to create a game of their own. Some turn out well, and can even earn praise for injecting original ideas into an existing mold. Others end up taken down by the original creators enforcing their copyrights.
This is where the 2014 indie title Freedom Planet had its beginnings, as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game. During development, though, the game’s designer decided to break away from this plan and turn the game into something more original. The final products, while still having some heavy influence from its fangame roots, gained its own identity with original characters and a unique world to tell a story in.
Now, a little over four years since its original PC release, this little title is making its way to the talk-of-the-town console on the market right now – the Nintendo Switch.
Developed by GalaxyTrail and published on the Switch by XSeed Games, Freedom Planet was released on August 30th, 2018.
Aliens in the Three Kingdoms
Freedom Planet takes place on the world of Avalice, with its three main kingdoms relying on an artifact known as the “Kingdom Stone” to supply their energy needs. Relations between the kingdoms are becoming stressed due to the Stone’s power fading, but they’re pushed to their breaking point upon the arrival of an alien known as Lord Brevon. Brevon has secretly taken over one of the three kingdoms so that he can steal the Stone to power his ship.
Another ship crash-lands on Avalice shortly thereafter, which is discovered by the game’s main protagonists, Lilac and Carol. Inside it they find a strange duck-billed creature calling himself Torque, who encourages them to find and protect the Kingdom Stone. Agreeing to do so, Lilac and Carol quickly become embroiled in the looming war and seeming alien invasion.
I don’t expect most people, myself included, to go into a platformer expecting much more than an excuse plot, but the one here in Freedom Planet is surprisingly intriguing and decently well-written. The story keeps a good balance between goofy and serious moments, with some legitimately shocking story beats in the back half of the game.
The actual presentation of the story, though, can feel like a drag on the gameplay itself. Plot moments occur between stages 99% of the time, and these scenes can be long. Well, not Metal Gear Solid long, but long for a genre that doesn’t typically have story focus; scenes can run from five to ten minutes. Jumping from the fast-paced platforming of the game straight into five minutes discussing the political situation of Avalice can induce a bit of whiplash.
Thankfully, for those who aren’t interested in the story, Freedom Planet also includes “Classic Mode,” which presents the stages to you back-to-back with no cutscenes to worry about.
Dash, Crash, and Bash
Freedom Planet is relatively famed for its beginnings as a Sonic fan game, and its base gameplay does little to belie those roots. You’ll be sprinting through levels as either Lilac or Carol (or Milla, another character unlocked later on), running through loops and launching yourself between different paths on your quest to find the end of the stage.
One huge difference, and one I can greatly appreciate for contributing to the speed of the gameplay, is that most enemies do not have collision damage. I can’t count the number of times in Sonic titles I’ll be racing down a path only to be abruptly stopped by contacting an enemy, losing all of my rings. Here in Freedom Planet, though, you can often sprint right past basic enemies without slowing down.
On the other hand, there’s much more of a focus on combat. The game will often force you into situations where you have to fight (or, at least, make it very difficult to escape undamaged without fighting), which I found to be one of the weaker aspects of the gameplay. I did my primary playthrough of the game as Lilac, and she has three combat options: a basic striking combo, a spin attack in mid-air, and a powerful dash that jets her across multiple screens if uninterrupted. The spin attack became my go-to option for nearly every combat situation, as it connected with enemies multiple times and helped keep up my momentum. While the the number of enemies you encounter throughout the game is decently varied, their attack patterns…aren’t, making these basic encounters quickly uninteresting.
Boss fights, though, are on a whole different level. These fights are often bright and bombastic affairs against massive creatures (a phrase that I believe I often use nearly word-for-word in Ys titles) that often test your skills in controlling the characters as much as they do your combat abilities. Also, if you aren’t good at picking up on enemy tells or patterns, they will curbstomp you as hard as they can. While some of the later bosses bordered on infuriating in terms of difficulty, it wasn’t enough to keep me from calling them one of my favorite parts of the game.
The only slight stumble here is the boss fights against other characters, rather than the massive machines or creatures you usually do battle with. These battles are much more difficult to determine any patterns or tells on, as your enemy moves so fast that they’re often not even on the same screen as you when they being charging for an attack. These fights often became battles of attrition, dodging attacks until Lilac’s dash attack charged up so I could just charge across the screen and hit them, and usually ending with just the slightest sliver of health left.
Despite the difficulty of the bosses (and the later levels…the four-part finale is insane), Freedom Planet is incredibly forgiving with its continues. Dying often puts you back within a minute of where you left off. Losing all of your lives doesn’t matter, as even after a game over, you’ll still continue from the same place as if you had just lost a life. While I appreciate this as an anti-frustration feature, it leads me to wonder why there’s even a lives system in the first place.
No Need For Words
I can say this flat out: Freedom Planet is just simply a beautiful game to look at. Each stage has its own distinct feel and aesthetic, the character sprites are large and detailed and also highly expressive, and all of the animation is incredibly fluid. I really can’t talk enough about how expressive the character sprites can be, especially during story sequences. They easily communicate the thoughts and feelings of the characters without the need for voice acting.
…but the game does include voice acting and it’s kind of all over the place. The performers for Lilac, Carol, and especially Lord Brevon turn in some excellent performances. The rest run the gamut from “passable” to “overly cartoonish” to “someone recorded this on a webcam mic in their bedroom.” As a whole I can’t say the voice work is really that bad, but the individual performances themselves are just wildly inconsistent.
Dashing Into First
Overall, Freedom Planet is and excellent and straight-up fun platformer that stumbles a bit on the way, but not so much as to drag the game down. The sense of speed, excellent boss battles, and variety of stages to explore add up to one of the best platforming experiences I’ve had since, well, Sonic Mania.
Even the story, as unusual of an addition as it may be, was still quite enjoyable overall with some genuinely enthralling moments. Really, the only mark I can give against the game is in its inconsistent voice acting, and even then, the main characters give some great performances.
The game has been around for a few years now, but if you haven’t had the chance to pick it up, this Switch port is definitely an opportunity you don’t want to pass up.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by XSeed Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.