Review: Freedom Planet
Freedom Planet is quite possibly the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made. There’s a lot of baggage with that statement, but it’s also the clearest, most succinct way to make you understand what this game is. Freedom Planet could have exploded straight off the Sega Genesis with its wise-cracking heroes and manic levels and funky platforming physics and infuriating bosses. While all of those elements might not be good things, it forms a package that’s one of the best nostalgia trips and all-around solid platformers on Steam.
You play as Lilac the dragonlady or Carol the catlady as they try to stop an interplanetary warlord from totally boning their pleasant little planet. Both characters have dramatically different styles of play, down to being able to utilize different features of the levels. Lilac can double-jump and fly short distances, while Carol can pounce and climb walls. Though their abilities are lifted largely from the characters of the early Sonic games, the ways they are combined in Lilac and Carol give you an enormous amount of control over your characters and how they interact with the levels. In truth, I came away feeling like Freedom Planet controls better than any of the games it was inspired by.
Part of this success stems from the levels themselves and their open designs. Sonic games had a habit of splitting stages into fast stages where you run through loops and tunnels, and slow stages where you do careful, plodding platforming. The levels of Freedom Planet are far more open than that, and are designed around letting you progress however you like. The main paths have lots of straightaways and loops and such to tear through, as well as plenty of open air to launch into. But there are also side paths and platforms you can navigate to using your character’s powers that hide secrets and collectibles. The open-ended designs do a lot to keep you playing, since if you tire of one style you can just switch to another.
The levels themselves are explosions of hues, seemingly pulled right from the 256-color excesses of the 90s. Each of the many areas also has plenty of gimmicks, from slot machines to levitation and everything in between. One clever level lets you board enemy airships and disarm them from within. The music and sound effects are more than up to the task, taking you back to your days camped out in front of the TV with familiar tunes and jingles. There are plenty of power-ups and doodads to pick up, but if I have one gripe with the gameplay, it’s that a lot of the items are not clear in their use or explained in any way. Much like the games of old, you need to consult a manual to find out what all the shields and tokens do.
That’s not my only gripe, either. The bosses in Freedom Planet are an eclectic and creative mix, but become very unforgiving in their patterns only a few levels in. They are absolutely fair, and learning their patterns well enough to beat them is very gratifying, but there is almost no margin for error with some of them. The game showers you with extra lives but I went through a huge portion of them just on the bosses in the last quarter of the game. And if it seems like I’m talking around the story… well, I’m very thankful there’s a mode that loses all the voice-overs and cutscenes. The plot is nothing special but many of the cutscenes drag on and on, and the VO work is awkwardly amateur-hour. Some of the story beats are unusually melodramatic, including a seriously overblown torture scene which doesn’t help matters in the least.
It’s a shame the story falls so flat and is told so poorly, because everything else about the presentation is fantastic. The graphics, sound, and controls evoke all the best parts of the Genesis era and make Freedom Planet a joy to experience. There are plenty of collectibles to find, an extra character to unlock, time attack modes to tackle, all on top of gameplay that’ll take a good three to four hours to get through. It’s not quite the accomplishment that Shovel Knight is for NES games, but if you long for the halcyon days of Sonic, or just really solid, frenetic platformers in general, Freedom Planet is for you.