Freedom Planet has finally been released on the Wii U eShop around the world and I’ve sunk my teeth straight into the whole game. After a short experience with the demo I was captured by its Sonic-inspired sense of speed and platforming, but now I’ve come to appreciate it as even more than that. The game is HUGE, with levels longer than any Sonic game could dream of, and there’s a lot more of them. The biggest strength of Freedom Planet however, is how it creates a very coherent game world with a strong sense of identity that makes any comparison disappear into the background of your mind after a few levels. Freedom Planet is bursting with its own brand of energy and it feels so fresh. All its stages are unique, the characters are charming, the story is uplifting, the music is exciting, and everything has that new videogame feel that makes me so happy to be a gamer.
There are 3 playable characters to choose from and they all have their own gameplay style. Lilac, Carol and Milla bring their own boost charges, wall jumps and spin jumps but core movement is the same. Movement is hard to describe, but I’m going to try because that’s the whole point of writing. Haha. Don’t you hate when people say that? If you “can’t describe it in words” then you shouldn’t be a fucking writer. Anyway, Freedom Planet is really fun. Running along the ground and jumping all happen in a very casual way in terms of feedback. What I mean by feedback, is there’s no huge launch off the ground or concentrated effort, it just kinda happens without the character bracing themselves. It reminds me of Donkey Kong in the first Donkey Kong Country, how he just kinda appears in the air without the appearance of launching upwards. It just happens, he’s in the air and you’re already moving downwards, except in Freedom Planet there’s less weight. It’s very different to Mario for example, who always feels like he’s pushing up from the ground with effort. There’s also no major sound effect, just a “scratch” sound that is sometimes drowned out by other effects or music. Even Sonic who turns into a ball has quite a distinct “boing” sound effect to tell the world you’re jumping.
Despite this aesthetic simplicity, there’s a lot things going on physics wise. You have a LOT of control of your jump and can scroll multiple screens with the speed of it. This is not a negative towards the game, just something I just found weird to get used to. On the contrary, the casual animations makes the onscreen action look amazing even if you have no idea what’s going on. It all combines to showcase a style that looks “effortless”, even though a shitload of effort has been put in. That’s the very definition of cool right there. Another important difference to the characters is they all sport a different colour, making it feel fresh to replay in Pink, Green and White. They also have their own exclusive stage in each campaign, which are surprisingly some of the best in the game.
A lot of things in this game took a while for me to get used to, to the point where I wasn’t loving the game until Stage 6 or so. It wasn’t really the game’s fault, there’s just a lot going on in terms of level design and aesthetic. I think people are going to have different experiences with this game depending on what games you’ve been accustomed too. Some unique things here are the speed of the screen scrolling. Due to the retro look the resolution appears smaller and things are all pretty close. I don’t know what the actual display is meant to be in technical terms, but it just feels old-school with the speed and flexibility of a new console. It’s hard to capture how amazing the game looks in screenshots for this reason. Another thing that’s different is how you have to change your directional input while hanging upside down. This took me a while, because I’m used to holding the same button in Sonic games. It made sense that way because it just feels like you’re maintaining your initial direction, and Sonic gave no fucks about which way he was facing. Here though you have to change manually or you’ll fall down and it happens a lot. I guess it’s more skill based this way and you technically have more control, but it’s a mundane thing to memorise because there’s just no way of seeing what’s ahead of you the first time.
The game just feels amazing to play once you get your head around the structure. It’s not just a platformer because combat plays a big part, and you have a fairly simple scratch or kick attack depending on your character. Most enemies can be taken down while running past and it feels awesome to execute a hit and run, but a large amount require you to stop while they act as damage sponges. The stages are alive with enemies and hazards but the flow always feels pretty uninterrupted somehow, just because you can jump and move so quickly back on your way. The backgrounds are alive with detailed shrubbery, moving cars and ships, and all sorts of cool stuff depending on the level. It also connects with itself very well, for example the background of one level will be something that’s happened in another character’s stage. In addition to the loops and springs of Sonic, there’s a LOT of surprises in these stages. Switches to press, unique objects to grab and ride, paths to open. Every level has a few gimmicks that I really enjoyed discovering, and almost nothing in this game disrupts the flow. It’s refreshing to see a game pull this off without having any “guided” sections as this is all gameplay and execution. Some of the stage themes you might have seen before, like Ruins and Ice stages but the game does a good job making them its own.
When you start you have the option of playing in either Story or Classic. If you’re groaning at the thought of story in a 2D platformer I urge you to at least try it, the story was a big surprise for me. I expected some kind of dribble but ended up liking all of it. The character designs did not resonate with me before I played this game, it struck me as Sonic fanart with questionable intent. That was my ignorant impression as somebody who is quite distanced from the Sonic community. Now I absolutely love them. Their sprites look amazing during gameplay and they’ve got strong personalities that shine through the whole game. Lilac, Carol and Milla are all very good friends and care about each other but not in a cringeworthy way. The game basically is their journey and displays the power of friendship in a beautiful way. There’s always something to fight for when you have friends, always a reason to keep trying. The whole thing is voice acted and I don’t know anything about the voice actors, but they did a good job. Nothing overly dramatic, nothing in poor taste, they just say the lines fairly naturally and express things appropriately. It flows like the skits in a Tales game. The writing does a great job creating context and moving the story along between areas, with a bit of silliness thrown in to remind you it’s a videogame. It just feels like everything matters in Freedom Planet, which is so refreshing and uplifting.
I love the music and it does an amazing job giving this game an identity. It doesn’t take the Sonic or Mario approach of being in your face with drastically different level themes, but a more rhythmic one allowing a consistent style throughout the whole game, and it opens up lots of space for complex melodies. The whole soundtrack carries a strong feeling of hype and each level has its own mood and a individual sense of place. One thing Freedom Planet does better than Sonic is the invincibility music, with a fucking amazing rendition of the main theme. It’s upbeat and you feel invincible and strong, instead of a party hedgehog who has rings to give away. I always hated getting invincibility in Sonic games, simply because the music in the actual stage was always better. Here it’s more natural, and the length of the stages give you a good dose of the music in any case. It’s not uncommon to take 15-20 minutes to complete a stage, they are gigantic. When I was looking through posts on the Miiverse I noticed some of the level timers were as high as 38 and 45 minutes.
The boss fights are spectacular or frustrating depending on what kind of player you are. I fell in-between and loved some of them but hated most towards the end. In my opinion they are just too difficult for this type of game. Yes I beat them all, but even I admit I had trouble and died close to a hundred times. Most of the reason I like this game is the fast-flowing platforming, and the boss fights don’t capture this and take so long to beat. It’s all just combat execution and memorising patterns. I just described every boss fight in history, but these go too far. I’m going to use the boss in Frosted Glacier as an example of annoying bullshit. It has attacks that can hit you from off-screen, with nothing you can do about it. The window to dodge certain attacks is not consistent, meaning if you’re in the air at a certain point when an attack starts, you’re screwed. Nothing you can do about it, until you learn to evade 3 phases in advance. Furthermore his actual attacks have such an obscure way of dodging it took me a lot of trial and error before I “accidentally” found the pattern. I can tell this was intentional design but I just don’t enjoy when patterns are so obscure. Not just from a player standpoint, but it makes the bosses look extra stupid when they basically are bracing themselves to get hit, after you’re clearly in position.
I’m not going as far to say it’s broken, because if you know everything about the bosses movement, you can have a perfect fight. If you love difficult boss fights this game is going to blow your mind. It’s very satisfying to learn and execute if you are patient. The game also had a billion play-testers as shown in the end credits, I just think they all got too good at the game. Like when someone makes a bad Mario Maker level and decides “yep, it’s beatable!!” and that’s enough. If this game had a publisher, they would have said “nope, trash that idea” to about half the bosses here. For better or worse, this kind of design is seen a lot in Indie games and it provides a new experience. To me it feels unbalanced because this kind of difficulty is never in the actual levels. I had the patience for it but many people will not. I posed this question in a Miiverse discussion and one person loved the challenge, while another admitted to lowering the difficulty to beat them. I heard it compared to Gunstar Heroes which I admittedly haven’t played, so I think I’m just ignorant and lacking at that whole genre.
I enjoyed figuring out some of them and there’s some impressive design with the visuals and over-the-top nature of the bosses. There’s probably over 20 unique bosses and mini-bosses in this game which is very impressive for a platformer. It’s also pretty damn satisfying when you take down the bosses, with a nice slow-mo and crunchy explosive sound effect complimenting the final hit. If you’re struggling then you can just turn the difficulty down to Casual for a smooth ride with re-generating health, so it’s not something that will completely halt your enjoyment of the game. On the topic of pacing, the game has some SHMUP levels to “mix things up” and they were the worst levels in the game. I fucking hated them but luckily they’re over in a few minutes.
Freedom Planet has a more relaxing side with some optional collectibles to look for. Cards are scattered through the levels and these unlock music and character art in the menu. It gives a good incentive to try different paths, platforms and get to high areas just to see what’s there. This is mostly how I played the game, just taking in the awesome environments and seeing what was down every path and inside every room. The music, graphics, and controls are so good that the mere act of moving in this game is fun. That’s the sign of an absolutely fantastic videogame that will be remembered fondly.
Overall despite being shit at the combat I still absolutely loved playing this game. There are ways to deal with anything, including 4 different difficulty options. You can play it fast and go for speedruns, or simply explore the levels to find every last thing. Freedom Planet lives up to it’s name in that respect because it’s just so much fun to be free in this game. However you play it’s going to be an amazing experience because the levels are a joy to discover, with great graphics, unique themes and an outstanding soundtrack. To me it doesn’t really feel like an old Sonic game in gameplay, but it captures the same excitement as when I first played those games. It’s very rare for a game to feel as new as this one does, especially when it has the illusion of a retro throwback title. Freedom Planet creates its own rules and does an outstanding job fleshing out its own ideas. It’s dense in creativity and you’ll find so many enjoyable moments in just one level. I feel really comfortable with the controls after playing so much, and the level design becomes more evident and natural the more I replay them. Who knows, maybe I’ll even enjoy the boss fights when I get them down perfectly. I highly recommend Freedom Planet if you love fast 2D action and want to pretend videogames are still exciting in 2015.