Freedom Planet – PC
Release Date (WW): July 21, 2014
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10 – Great
Video games are a passionate hobby for many people, and much like fan-fiction writers, people can be driven to make games with their favorite characters or settings. While this can result in mods or rom hacks, sometimes you find someone willing to go the whole distance—and sometimes, further still. Fan games can be a springboard for up-and-coming developers to start making their own games, much as what happened to the former Sonic fan game Freedom Planet.
Freedom Planet’s story, overall, is fairly par for the course in its contents. An alien invasion is happening and the heroes are the only ones who can stop the alien overlord from destroying everything. The evil overlord in question, one Lord Brevon, manages to maintain a fairly strong presence when he shows up, even killing one of the local kings at one point! However, the story bounds away from this with cartoonish behaviors and antics between stages now and then, and overall the story is its weakest point. Seemingly knowing this in advance, or just for the sake of fidelity to classic games, Freedom Planet has the option of playing with cutscenes turned off. Make no mistake, though; while the story is the game’s weakest point, it can still be fun to enjoy.
The heroines of this story are Lilac, Carol, and Milla. Each one has a different personality, and a different gameplay style to match with it. Lilac’s the main character, with Carol as her back-up, and they meet Milla along the way. The two seem to have a lot of history right off, with Lilac being a genuinely heroic woman while Carol reluctantly follows after out of dedication to her friend. Loyalty itself is very important to the group, as we see in several key moments across the story.
In terms of gameplay itself, Freedom Planet is everything that 2-D Sonic games should have become. The primary hype around the Sonic franchise is the speed, but there’s a lot more depth to it than that, and Freedom Planet capitalizes on both the speed and the deeper points that make an early Sonic game what it is.
All three characters share a few very important changes from standard Sonic formula that go a long ways to help both establish a new identity and advance the gameplay itself. The first change, and arguably the most important, is that enemies no longer hurt you just by touching you. This goes against pretty much every classic platformer game, but it goes miles in preserving that characteristic speed and flow you expect from a game like this. Enemies have attacks, and these attacks are what do damage, but you can speed right past some or dodge through others.
This subverts a massive pitfall in modern 2-D Sonic design, which can trend towards placing enemies right in your way when you have little or no chance to see them coming. The only exceptions to this no-touch-damage rule come in the form of enemies that are visually obvious. You’re not going to be fine touching an enemy covered in spikes, for example.
Secondly, Freedom Planet adds a health bar. You can recover damage by picking up red heart shards, and containers for these shards can be found in some boss arenas, if not all. This simultaneously makes things harder and fairer for players; harder in that you can’t just abuse one ring for immortality, but more fair because you aren’t depending on that one ring not bouncing off-screen or falling too far away to grab in time.
The third major change is the attack system. Each character has a different set of attacks they can use, while none really have a direct equivalent to the Spin Dash or Homing Attack. You can execute attacks regardless of where you are, whether on land, in water, or soaring through the air.
Lastly, the protagonists of Freedom Planet can all swim. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but with a well-executed swimming mechanic, you feel that much more in control of what you can do or where you can go. It also comes with an oxygen meter, letting players know how long they have until they die without terrifying them with the panicky music that still haunts some Sonic fans to this day.
To capture the essence of speed, Lilac uses her Dragon Boost. This is analogous to the Boost ability in modern 3-D Sonic games, but with some improvements. Rather than being based around collecting rings or scoring style points, the meter recharges quickly between uses. Furthermore, Lilac can use it in six directions: left, right, and diagonally up or down in either direction. While it’s a bit confusing that she can’t go straight up or down, it works out well enough. If you hit a wall while Dragon Boosting, you bounce off of it and keep going.
Carol’s gameplay puts a greater focus on exploration and combat, sacrificing Lilac’s speed for a greater general capability and a stronger focus on stage elements. On foot, Carol has a rapid-fire kick to supplement her standard claw swipes, a pounce in mid-air for extra distance, and a wall jump right out of the Mega Man X series. However, in various points of Carol’s stages you can find gas cans for her motorcycle. Carol’s bike can drive up walls, do a spin-attack in mid-air, and generally move faster than the driver herself, while Carol can still use her attacks. The bike can only take so much damage before it breaks, so fair warning.
The final character, Milla, is unlocked a few stages into the game. She’s the most challenging to play, but can make for an interesting challenge. Instead of the standard melee attacks or special moves used by Carol and Lilac, Milla can create green blocks to throw, or project an energy shield that can block projectiles if you hold down the button and explodes into an attacking melee spike upon release. The shield can be held in one of six directions, much like Lilac’s Dragon Boost, and you can change its position without letting go of the button. However, she can’t move while the shield’s up.
Milla is able to stay in the air longer using her long, flapping ears. This is less Tails and more Yoshi, despite what you’d expect. Despite the somewhat awkward and difficult combat approach, Milla can make it a lot of fun just to traverse a level. She can even pick up some stage objects, or catch them when she’s holding a green block. She can run and jump while she’s holding a green block, but she can’t use her flutter jump.
Fans of the Sonic franchise may have some muscle memory problems now and then, as it can be hard to remember you can’t spin-dash or roll into a ball as you run, but the quality of the game makes such concerns a distant, faint whisper at most.
As you play through each character’s story, you’ll find that they share most of the stages. They do have some variance in order, and there is the occasional character-exclusive stage, but it doesn’t feel repetitive with how dissimilar their play styles are. As you go through a stage with one character, you’ll come across parts where you might need one of the other two, encouraging a replay with those others. As if there wasn’t incentive enough, right?
Freedom Planet’s stage graphics are a bit obvious in their inspiration from Genesis-era Sonic games, though I feel that the visuals here manage to be a step or two above what its predecessor produced. The character designs and other visuals aren’t a one-for-one replica of Sonic’s style, though, letting Freedom Planet continue to build its own identity separate from its predecessor’s own. Overall, it’s a constantly pleasant view with some breathtaking sights now and then.
Even more amazing is how the longer stages can smoothly transition from one theme to the next, giving a lot of variety within each one. One of the earliest stages starts out as forest ruins, moves into a segment where you’re going along a convoy of villain vehicles to break the one in front, and ends in breathtaking crystal mines. While you’ll find yourself replaying a lot of the same stages, you won’t likely be getting bored of seeing the same thing with this sort of variety.
The music of Freedom Planet is very enjoyable, and in spite of its roots, it doesn’t seem to carry any of the problems that Genesis music would. It’s a joy to listen to, and many themes seem well-suited to the stages they’re paired with. Sound design is pretty spot-on too, with most or all of the actions sounding just right.
Freedom Planet does have voice acting, which is actually a point I tend to worry about with indie productions of any sort. It can take a lot of experience and practice to sound good on a microphone, let alone when you’re playing a role at the same time. It’s not something you just do. That said, the actors and actresses of Freedom Planet put on a surprisingly good performance. In cutscenes, the dialogue tends to flow well and the characters convey their emotions convincingly. In gameplay, the characters have grunts, shouts and the occasional named attack. Again, this is something that can go very badly, regardless of if you’re an indie developer or a pillar of the industry, and again it’s something that Freedom Planet manages to pull off without getting annoying or grating in the slightest.
Some creators frown upon fans using their intellectual properties for fan-fictions or fan-made games, citing the dubious nature of copyright law. Others accept it, even welcome it, knowing that such things can only bring more joy to a given franchise. I see things differently: fandom creations are a chance to test the waters and develop your own skills, before you go out and make something all your own. While not everything that comes out of it is good, that’s true of any medium or movement. Shining examples of the end goal do exist, though, and they stand among other indie gaming champions like Cave Story or Shovel Knight. They inspire others to think, “Maybe I could do something like this.” That’s what Freedom Planet represents to me, and I couldn’t be happier to own a copy. Keep chasing your dreams, people.
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