Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Planet

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, a 2D platform with an innovative form of storytelling and the word "freedom" in the title. Let's go for two.

Freedom Planet
  • Publisher/Developer: Galaxy Trail 
  • Lead Designer: Stephen "Strife" DiDuro 
  • Release: 
    • PC, 21 July 2014 
    • Wii U, 1 October 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1
But before I get to Freedom Planet, let's talk about fan-games. A lot of the great series of old have had people make their own installments of them. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog are some of the big names with even bigger fan-game libraries. Even I used to dabble in the stuff back in the day, although nothing I've worked on survives to this day. If you need examples of fan-games, some of the big-name ones are Street Fighter X Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros. Crossover, so apparently the more intellectual properties you can roll into your project, the the better it becomes. The reason I diverted your attention with this intro is because our current subject, Freedom Planet, started life as a Sonic fan-game, but replaced the "licence" with original characters and setting, and evolved from there, and was all the better for it.

Freedom Planet offers three characters to play as: Lilac, a purple water dragon, Carol, a green wildcat, and (unlocked after the second level) Milla, a white basset hound. It turns out that these characters started life as drawings by Ziyo Ling, a Chinese deviantART user, who gave permission for the team at Galaxy Trail to user her "fursonae". Each of them have their own slightly unique styles of play. Lilac and Carol have a faster flow to their experiences, although never quite as fast as the real Sonic, since instead of just jumping into enemies to clear them, you have to use dedicated attacks instead. Milla is the odd dog out, since her system of defence revolves around generating green globby blocks to serve as shields and attacks. Other than that, Freedom Planet plays just like any other 2D Sonic: you run around rampy, loopy paths, jump off platforms and springs, pick up rings crystal shards for extra lives, and break TV monitors larger crystals for various flavours of shields. I should note that even though the game purports to have a lives system, if you do run out and continue, you just return to the last checkpoint with your progress otherwise intact, so they needn't have bothered.
Instead of jumping into enemies, you must use one of several attacks to clear them.
Freedom Planet also hearkens back to the 16-bit era by not having any story to speak of -- if you so choose. See, when you start up a game, you get to choose between "Classic" and "Adventure" mode, the only difference being that Adventure Mode inserts additional cutscenes in between each level, all of which are done in the same art engine as the rest of the game. And let me tell you -- unless you absolutely want to know what is going on, stick to Classic Mode, for the following reasons. 1) These cutscenes are way too long for this type of game; some can reach five minutes in length. 2) The writing is hokey as all get-out, often falling back on snarky joking for the heroes and dastardly boasting for the villains. 3) The voice acting is hit-or-miss. Some actors seem to have had more fun with their performances than others. Still other characters' sound quality is all muffled and lo-fi; I'm singling out Torque in that aspect. And 4) This could have all been done without the traditional notions of cutscenes.

To help explain myself, take a look at what passed for cutscenes in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog 3. That game had zero voice acting, and not even any text boxes at all, but got its story across purely through the characters' actions. It was clear how Knuckles was stealing your Chaos Emeralds, or dropping you down a trap door, and you didn't need any quips from Sonic or Tails to punctuate those moments. Freedom Planet does this as well, even in Classic Mode, and if you ask me, this is the best storytelling method this game has to offer. Why couldn't they have just stuck to that? So yeah, the story's there if you want to check it out, but you don't have to -- and that's the important part.
The game world has a heavy Chinese influence, almost like a modern-day Legend of Korra.
But voices aside, Freedom Planet is a joy to look at and listen to. The environments are colourful, just shy of Knuckles Chaotix's epileptic palette, and bear a clear Chinese influence. There are levels ranging from bamboo groves and crystal caves to a giant shopping mall and a fleet of airships. It's like if the world from The Legend of Korra existed in the present day and got taken over by furries. Graphical performance is also top-notch for what it tries to do; sprites speed about the place and rotate smoothly when running over hills and through loops. The controls are alright, although there's a little too much forward momentum when trying to make precision jumps or spring-bounces, and some of the attacks feel unnecessary. The soundtrack, composed by Leila "Woofle" Wilson, is also a knockout. The melodies are emotive and, given time, catchy, and the sounds selected to portray those melodies match the setting of the level they're presented in. Of course, the graphics and music have always been the most consistently good things about Sonic the Hedgehog, even after the "golden age", so it's nice that Freedom Planet takes that approach to heart, if nothing else (not that it doesn't do anything else).

Freedom Planet does for Sega Genesis games (read: Sonic the Hedgehog) what Shovel Knight did for the NES (read: Mega Man). (I probably should have reviewed Shovel Knight first, but oh well. It's great. Take my word for it.) It picks up where Sonic Team left off from, after they discovered 3D and everything went to pot. But most importantly, it doesn't steal all of Sonic's trappings, but instead creates a new world with both new and familiar mechanics. Moving to a new IP was a wise move on Galaxy Trail's part indeed. But even if it were a new Sonic game, it would still be a thumpin' good one. Just be sure to stick to skip all those cutscenes, okay?

+ Tight, fast-paced gameplay.
+ Multiple characters with distinct play styles.
+ Gorgeous artwork and music.

- The voice-acting quality is inconsistent, but mostly poor.
- The story bits are too long -- good thing you can skip them!

Controls: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Design: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Writing: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Graphics: 5 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Sound: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Value: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

[1] GalaxyTrail (August 12, 2012). "The Evolution of Freedom Planet". ModDB.

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