Well, this has been sitting on my to-do list for quite a while. After going through the Genesis-era mainline Sonic games back in 2016, I wanted to go through Freedom Planet as it was originally envisioned as a Sonic fan game, and takes many clear inspirations from the series. Yet due to my previous experience with the game, there was one minor mechanical decision that simply prevented me from giving the game my full attention. One that I will get to in a little bit.
Freedom Planet Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, Wii U, PS4
Freedom Planet centers around Lilac and Carol, a pair of freelancers who rescue a peculiar fellow by the name of Torque. An alien who informs them of an intergalactic warlord by the name of Brevon who wishes to rob the planet of Avalice of its precious Kingdom Stone and hopes to do so by causing a devastating war between the planet’s three nations. So the task of thwarting the planet destroying bug man and saving the nations from devastation falls naturally into the hands of this ragtag group, as is often the case with these kinds of tales.
While the story of Freedom Planet does manage to get across a high level of characterization from the cast, mostly due to how characters are animated and their amateurish yet endearing voice acting, it feels rather rough in a few spots. The biggest problem is how exposition is handled and new concepts are introduced. The story moves by surprisingly quickly, and a lot of things about the plot, world, context, and characters are not very well stated. Almost as if a lot of things had to be cut in the final game or the project had been going on for so long that the developers forgot to explain things that seemed obvious to them.
However, I have heard that some people greatly detest the story, probably the same kind of people who thought Dust An Elysian Tail had a terrible story, and for those people, I would recommend (in addition to trying to find some joy in your lives) just playing Classic mode. A mode which focuses on the gameplay, and does away with all worldbuilding and context in order to provide something that I initially described as a Sonic game made by Treasure for the Sega 32X that was changed partway through development into a new IP. Though, that was not really the most apt description, mostly on account of how the game varies quite dramatically based on its player characters.
The default character is Lilac, a purple dragon lady who has the ability to run super fast, spin through the air via one of the most useful invaluable double jumps I have ever seen, and propel herself across the ground or air with a multi-directional super dash that bounces off walls. Combined with some fairly standard basic physical attacks, she has quite a useful repertoire and one that feels satisfying to use, as it allows for the player to focus on speed and fluidity while never going too fast or feeling as if they lack a level of control. Something that is only assisted by how well her unique mechanics work within the general framework of a 2D Sonic game.
In addition to that, the game does a number of smart things with the minutia of its mechanics. Such as not having enemies hurt the player character as they dash past them, allowing the player to more easily avoid them, characters traverse up walls regardless of their speed, and employing a health system that prevents every hit from following up with a ring collection chore. All of this is combined with some genuinely good level designs that offers varied paths that are enjoyable to run through and explore multiple times, and contain a multitude of secrets that feel rewarding to uncover, such as elemental shields and collectible shineys. Even if a few of them are annoying to actually find.
As for the other characters, Carol offers a slower and more platforming centered experience, and one that I could not help but find devoid of the same sense of fluidity and speed that makes Lilac such an enjoyable character. Carol lacks the same versatile boost ability, instead having a powerful rolling kick move that drains her special bar like mad, and having one of the most dispensable double jumps I have ever seen, to the point where I found it to be a hindrance than anything else. It has her thrust forward and slightly upward via a pounce motion that is both hard to control and predict, while also feeling incredibly limited in its useability.
She is made far better after obtaining her motorcycle power-up, which allows her to access further speeds, drive up walls, as opposed to kicking up them like in Mega Man X, dash through enemies, and even gives her a more useful double jump that has her roll into a ball. The problem is that the motorcycle can break, reducing Carol to her regular self, and making her feel like an even worse character by proxy.
Meanwhile, the final character of Milla is the most different. She lacks any basic melee attack and instead has the ability to summon a block of jelly she can fling at enemies, summon a shield that can also be used as a basic attack, and flutter through the air using her floppy dog ears. Based solely on the flutter jump, she is actually a very enjoyable character to control, and her base speed on the ground is high enough to still garner a sense of speed and fluidity that blends seamlessly into elongated jumps. I actually really enjoyed using her with regards to traversal, but when it comes to combat, I have no idea how to use her effectively.
She is bad at quickly dealing hits, and is best at standing back and attacking one before running away to then give another jab, but in a manner that felt both tedious and very difficult given the abilities of certain enemies. She is generally not enjoyable to use when it comes to fighting bosses or even regular enemies due to how low her damage per second is compared to other characters, and because of that I found myself completely stumped as to how to get past the fifth stage with her. Also, she has half the health of other characters for no discernable reason.
Now that I’ve addressed that, onto the mechanical decision I brought up in the introduction. Throughout my time with Freedom Planet, there was one nagging irritation that drove me up a wall and that is the way the game handles death. I really should do a post about this separate from a review, but for now, I will just describe my thoughts in full. I am of the mindset that deaths, failure states, and game overs should not be treated as punishments from the game, and should be handled as lightly and unobtrusively as possible. In Freedom Planet, the game keeps a tally of player deaths in the file selection menu, and utilizes a lives system. Two things that are massive gripes of mine and I feel the need to circumvent in order to enjoy the game.
One of the factors that prevented me from loving Ori and the Blind Forest was how I internalized that I could not die in the game due to a omnipresent death counter in the main menu. Something that had me fast quitting, save scumming, and file copying my way to success simply because of how much I could not tolerate how dying was presented and actively did not want the game to recognize my shortcomings in such a way.
I have a similar mentality for games with lives systems, in the sense that I will often exit out of the game, reload my save, and start the stage over again simply because I did not want to lose a life. That is actually how I have played every single Sonic game for the past decade, and the only memorable exception to this self-imposed is Super Mario Galaxy, where lives reset after the game is quit, so lives are intrinsically worthless.
I am aware this is a hypersensitive thing that most people do not care about, at all, but I cannot help but be frustrated when playing a game that numerically penalizes the player for failure in a manner such as this. It has always been an issue for me, and I genuinely cannot have a fun time with a game unless I impose this rule. Although, I did overcome my values simply to beat the three-phase final boss of Freedom Planet, because even my anal mind has a point where it will it will just give up.
In my defense, that final boss is easily the most brutal part of the game, due to his rapid movements, weird attack pattern, and move that takes away half a character’s health in a single blow. If I were to try and do it without dying, it would have easily taken me 5-6 hours. Instead, I persevered and got it on my tenth try, ending the game with a sense of bitter dejectedness as I felt I did not truly win as I had to circumvent my own desires to do so.
In order to do so however, I also put the game on Easy difficulty after a point, simply because I found it too easy to get hit during bosses, especially ones with health sapping beam attacks, and I lacked the patience to truly learn the fights on account of the stage-long commutes to get to them. That being said, some bosses feel like viscous toxin filled sponges that have loads of health themselves and quickly drain the player character’s health away at an alarming rate. In response to this, I went over to the difficulty mode that has the player character gradually restore health and never looked back.
None of this is to say that the game is poorly designed. Its collection of 14 levels do contain a few low points, but they are generally all enjoyable and inventive stages with unique attributes to all of them combined with boss battles and mini-bosses. Plus, in spite of my irritation with the game at some point, I was able to enjoy my run through it, characters other than Lilac notwithstanding, possibly because I simply did not “get” them. Also, the decision to have 200 crystals to constitute an extra life is questionable
Based on the accompanying screenshots, it should be evident that Freedom Planet is trying to evoke the look of a classic Sega Genesis or Mega Drive game, a system that I have not seen many try to replicate. not only does Freedom Planet do a surprisingly good job at nailing the art style of the era, most especially the Genesis Sonic games. Each stage is filled with vibrant colors, interesting backdrops, and unique enemies while characters have just enough detail to them to shine in cutscenes and during gameplay. The game can be genuinely beautiful a lot of the time, and manages to get the most out of its distinct style of sprite work without superseding it too much beyond the capabilities of the Genesis. Or more realistically, the 32X peripheral.
Like many games I cover, I find Freedom Planet to be positively glimmering with greatness and potential for excellence. I find the story rough yet promising, and at its core, the gameplay is a more action driven 2D Sonic title with gameplay that I found far more enjoyable than the classic Genesis titles, and the game can be gorgeous at times. Yet when combined with the disproportionately enjoyable characters and an archaic approach to difficulty that irks me on an irrational level, I’m left with complicated feelings on the game which I suppose can be interpreted as a recommendation for most, but a worrying grunt from me as I contemplate whether or not things will shape up in Freedom Planet 2.
Actually, I learned that a demo of Freedom Planet 2 was released after I finished writing this review. It’s actually really good and I enjoy the changes made to the cast, but I still think the lives system is unnecessary now that the game now uses a points system to score the player after a level. Also, Carol’s jump is better, but it still lacks the verticality that I expect from a double jump. Thankfully she now has an aerial teleport that uses her special meter, which makes her a lot more fun to play as.