An Overlooked Gem that combines the Best of Classic Sega Genesis Titles into One
Next week on consoles, one of the most anticipated digital releases will be releasing, and believe it or not it’s a Sonic game (Sonic Mania). Mania looks like it came out for the Sega Saturn and the gameplay footage appears to perfectly mimic what made the 2D Sonic games fun to begin with. But before we get all hyped up for Mania’s release, I want to give some attention to a game that sort of got Sonic right before Sonic Mania (if its good). That game is Freedom Planet, an indie action platformer that started off as a Sonic Fan game (no for real it did), but formed its own identity as a KS funded love letter to the Sega Genesis. Developed by Galaxy Trail, it uses elements of Sonic and other Genesis classics to stand on its own as one of the best yet most underrated indie titles out there.
Before I get into how the game plays, I’d like to break down Freedom Planet’s presentation. First let’s look at the graphics and art style. Freedom Planet is a 32 bit game, but nails the retro look that evokes the feeling that you are playing a Sega Genesis title. Though like how Shovel Knight get the 8 bit feeling right, there are definitely a few animations and sprite work that were not capable for the console look its mimicking. This is not a criticism, however, as plenty of the sprite animations are smooth and add a definite charm. For the art style, I’d say it’s an hybrid of Sonic the Hedgehog and Kung Fu Panda. Obviously since this game started as a Sonic fan game, the character designs certainly take inspiration from Sonic but at least look different enough to not look too blatant. The Kung Fu Panda comparison comes in because the setting has a strong Chinese cultural theme that also happens to be inhabited by anamorphic animals.
Now as far as the audio goes, don’t expect it to sound like a Genesis game. The sound effects certainly have an old school ring to them such as the sounds of collecting items and getting a 1-up. It’s the music that doesn’t quite sound accurate. Let’s compare Green Hill Zone’s music to Dragon Valley’s music, the first level of Freedom Planet. It should take you 5 seconds to correctly guess which song came from a 1991 video game. FP’s music has guitar riffs and even light vocals that would be impossible to have in a Genesis game’s OST. That said the soundtrack is still awesome in its own right. Many of the tracks are incredibly catchy and adds plenty of personality to the levels. My personal favorites are Fortune Night 2, Sky Battalion, Jade Creek 1 and Final Dreadnought 1.
As stated before, there is definitely a Genesis Sonic vibe in the gameplay design. You’ll definitely run through loops, jump off bounce pads and depending on the character, will run very fast. Also much like Sonic 3, you'll find shields with different immunities to certain dangers like a water shield to keep you from drowning. The game isn’t a complete Sonic clone, however, as it has its own ideas to make the experience more unique. Instead of having to rely on any number of rings to stay alive, the characters have health bars that they can replenish by collecting red leaves. Also crystals are the collectable jewelry as the game has a nice little touch of using a countdown to show how many crystals you need to get a 1-up rather than seeing how many you have total. Another component about this that makes it more than just a Not-Sonic is the emphasis of combat and character abilities. Sure in the old Sonic games you have your spindash move and someone like Tails could fly around. But in Freedom Planet, the playable characters have their own skill sets that are more fleshed out and this is where Galaxy Trail's inspiration from games like Gunstar Heroes come into play. The combat really adds to the experience as you have multiple ways of defeating enemies and bosses.
Going further on the character move sets, you can play as 3 different characters. Each character has unique abilities that add some nice replay value. The first one being Lilac, a dragon lady who plays the most like the famous blue hedgehog as she’s the fastest character. She also has a special ability to dash attack, which may appear similar to a Spindash. However, she can also make an angled dash attack in the air to reach higher platforms, like Rocket Knight. She can also use melee attacks with her dragon hair such as uppercuts, divekicks and spinning mid air jumps. Next is Carol, a green wildcat who is the second fastest on foot, but has a power up where she can ride on a motorcycle and becomes faster. She can attack while on her bike as well as ride up walls and climb ladders on it, not caring for rules of gravity. She even has a few other abilities such as melee attacks, a multi kick and a wall jump. Lastly there’s Milla, a basset hound that you unlock after beating level 2 (Relic Maze). She’s got her disadvantages being the slowest character and having the lowest base health, having 4 health leaves compared to 7 for the other 2. Fear not though, because Milla has a very interesting move set that makes her inclusion worth it. She can perform a flutter jumps, form a shield around her and summon cubes to throw at enemies. She can use that cube power to pick up items like treasure chests, health packs and bombs and throw them as projectiles as well. Milla can also combine her cube power with her shield to form a bigger shield and release it for a wide, shotgun like blast as well as dig dirt to find items.
The level design in Freedom Planet not only has various gimmicks, has a great balance between speed and platforming. The formula for most of the levels is that you have one half of the level to run through then reach a mid boss. Next you get through the second half of the level where the music and environment changes and later face the level’s main boss. This may sound pretty simplistic, but the way each level is designed makes for a fun and refreshing experience. The game will encourage the player to run fast, but only when necessary. The levels do an excellent job mixing up challenges where you might go from cautiously finishing a platform segment to using momentum to run through a loop or outrun a threat. Its not like how some modern Sonic games are designed where too much focus is on the speed but the levels might have hazards that don’t give you time to react. Each level also shines by having specific themes and schemes. In 1 level, you’re on an airship and 3 other airships are after you. You need to board all 3 ships to neutralize their cannons, but each ship has their own theme (Metal, Fire and Earth) and their own obstacles for you to master. All 3 characters have a distinct level, such as Lilac roaming through these ancient Dragon ruins that have floating tops that let her spin attack to reach different platforms and has a power up to let her dash attach twice. Galaxy Trail did an excellent job adding different schticks per level that makes the experience fresh. If anything negative to say about the levels, some people might see them too long as you don’t get a stage clear cue for beating the first half of a level. You really have to power through the entire level, which might take 15-20 minutes to complete. Luckily, there’s a nice checkpoint system where say if you all your lives on a boss fight, you’re placed at the point right before the boss so you don’t have to start from scratch again.
The bosses are simultaneously fun and intense. The characters’ multiple attacks add a layer of strategy in finding different ways to win, but these bosses have a steady difficulty curve that will require you to study their patterns. One of the earlier boss fights is a mechanized leopard piloted by a snake man who is chasing you through a city. As you’re running and fighting back, the other playable characters help you by attacking and dropping health. One of the later boss fights has you alone against a lava producing, Jellyfish like robot that shoots lava and launches giant spiked balls at you after you hit it enough times. I just wished there was a life bar for all the bosses as you only get that for the last phase of the final boss. Some mid and main bosses show visual damage indicating how close you are to beating them, but not all of them do and those who don't tend to be the more frustrating fights.
Though one of my favorite things about the game itself is that it’s drenched with secrets. Each level has collectable cards that are viewed in the game’s gallery. Each card can contain sound effects, voice clips, music or hand written artwork. Plus the levels themselves have plenty of secrets too. The second half in Fortune Night in particular is a gold mine. For example, you’re in a giant mall that has restrooms that you can enter and stay long as you want while the enemies have the dignity to wait on you. But because all the playable characters are girls, entering the men’s bathroom will get you kicked out and that action serves as a minor speed boost. The mall also has giant piano keys for you to play in a specific pattern to get a reward and dance floors where you can stop and let your character dance. There are even blooper cut scenes from the adventure mode that are not only hidden, but the developers bothered to animate.
Speaking of adventure mode, that is probably the one portion of this game that I’ve cared for the least. To clarify, there are two modes to select: One is classic mode which is just the levels and the mode I’d highly recommend and the other is adventure where it adds a narrative and fully animated and voiced cut scenes. Adventure mode is there if you want to know about Freedom Planet’s lore, but its not for everyone. The story has an evil alien emperor called Lord Brevon who crash lands on the planet Avalice, where he learns about the Kingdom Stone and how it powers the planet's 3 kingdoms. He tries to secretly get each kingdom to declare war with each other so he can take the Kingdom Stone himself to repair his ship while no one is looking. Lilac and Carol watch a different alien pilot, named Torque, crash his spacecraft. They save him and learn about the villain's intentions as well as decide to help. It’s a very anime-ish type of story that has voice acting that’s certainly aiming to sound like a Saturday morning anime dub, which I wasn't much of a fan of. Classic Mode takes out those cut scenes and most of the voice acting. Also FP has the Knack problem where despite the cutesy atheistic, it takes its story too seriously. There’s a moment where Brevon is torturing Lilac with electricity to make her surrender. Look, you can build your villain up as an unstoppable force, but something like that for an E+10 rated game is just unnecessary. The story doesn’t take itself seriously 100% of the time as there are humorous moments, but I found the level’s funny bits more entertaining than the cinematics themselves. Plus you can skip the cut scenes if you want.
Though despite my few complaints, I had a blast playing Freedom Planet! For a developer's first title, Galaxy Trail masterfully uses elements of 2D Sonic's speed while throwing in some fun platforming and combat to mix things up. Plus all the levels are memorable from the great music to the level specific challenges and are worth replaying with different characters or just for finding secrets you missed the first time. If you want something that can scratch that itch of playing a classic Genesis-style game, I’d highly recommend Freedom Planet. If I could give this game a 4.5/5 stars, I would because truly I think this is a 9/10 game. But because I can’t do that with Giant Bomb’s review system and because I want to weigh in my criticisms, it gets 4 stars.
*There's also suppose to be a sequel called Freedom Planet 2 that's slated for release this year. However, no official release date has been announced. Perhaps a delay for 2018 is coming since it can release simultaneously with PC, Mac and maybe the Switch since it initially was releasing on a Nintendo platform. Also despite it saying this was reviewed on the PC, I beat FP on a Mac.