When producing a work of art as an homage to something that came before, there always exists the danger of the new product doing the job a little too well. It could very well be that the new product perfectly matches its inspiration beat for beat, yet it still feels hollow because it’s missing a soul of its own. Fortunately, Freedom Planet doesn’t fall into this pit; though it’s exceedingly obvious that this new release has drawn heavy inspiration from the classic 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games, it instils the familiar formula with new ideas and characters in such a way that it sets itself apart and establishes its own identity.
The story of Freedom Planet is intriguing, even if it isn’t particularly well executed. The plot ultimately revolves around a MacGuffin called the Kingdom Stone, an artefact imbued with fantastic power, being chased by the protagonists, two aliens, and the leaders of three nations native to the planet. The majority of the story beats unfold across voice-acted cutscenes which play between the stages, and though the heavier focus on story is an interesting experiment for this sort of game, it doesn’t pan out all too well.
The quality of the voice acting is unfortunately all over the place, with some performances being genuinely great and others being cringey at best, and this inconsistency can be rather jarring mid-scene. What’s more is that the story focus feels ill-fitting in a game focused on high-speed action platforming, although this gripe is mostly solved by the inclusion of a “Classic” mode. At the start of a save file, players are given the option to either play the game in “Adventure” mode — with all cutscenes enabled — or Classic, which just stitches together the levels one after another with no breaks between. It’s a nice compromise, one which ensures that players can get as much or as little story content as they prefer.
Gameplay is based heavily on the format pioneered by Sonic the Hedgehog in his glory days, but with some tweaks and additions that build something new with it. Levels are laid out with an unusual amount of verticality for a sidescrolling action game, with multiple different ‘tracks’ existing throughout; there are so many unique routes one can take to reach the end of a level, and they intersect and overlap each other at frequent intervals.
It’s encouraged that players go through these levels fast — which is supported all the more by the momentum-based physics and a timer in the corner — so the emphasis is placed more on the player replaying stages multiple times both to learn all the routes and to understand the quickest way through them. Enemies are dotted throughout the stages, of course, but they interestingly don’t deal any contact damage; unless the enemy explicitly tries to attack you, you can just run right through them. It’s a weird choice at first, but one that makes more sense upon deeper thought, and it certainly goes a long way towards making levels flow much better.
Your default character is a little purple dragon named Lilac, though you can also choose to play as Carol when starting up a file, and more characters are unlocked later. Each character has their own move-set to help make their run distinct; for example, Lilac has a boost move which in some ways mimics the spin dash, while Carol can climb walls and ride a powerful motorbike in certain circumstances. The characters hit that sweet spot of feeling familiar enough that they can be easily tried out, yet distinct enough that they make the next run feel fresh, and this individuality is only further hammered out by each character getting a unique level built around their abilities when running through their story.
Though the emphasis is on fast motion, there’s certainly more scope for exploration than one would perhaps expect. Levels are complex and expansive, and each one hides a number of special collectable cards which carry over between saves. Each card unlocks something in the game’s main gallery, whether it be concept art, audio tracks, or other unlockable goodies; it’s always exciting to go back to the gallery after collecting several cards to see what you got. Finding every card will test your abilities with each character and ensure you’re intimately familiar with the layout of each stage, heavily boosting the game’s replayability while giving you a solid and tangible reward for your efforts.
One area where Freedom Planet occasionally comes to a screeching halt, however, is the boss battles that punctuate each level. Unlike your typical Eggman encounter, these fights can be seriously difficult, often feeling wildly off-pace with the difficulty curve that the levels set. Though they aren’t all this way, it’s not uncommon for a boss to kill you in just a few hits, leading to many trial and error situations where you have to burn through several lives just to figure out how to best dodge and strike your enemy. Even so, many of the bosses are gorgeous and inventive set pieces that are some of Freedom Planet’s most memorable moments; thankfully, the game is quite forgiving in its checkpoint usage.
As for its presentation, Freedom Planet does a fantastic job of emulating the visual style of games from the days of the Sega Genesis, but embellishing that style where needed to bring it up to modern standards. Stages are rife with detail and packed with a deep and broad colour palette, finding that perfect balance where things look great both when you stop to take a closer look and when you rush past everything at the speed of sound. Roughly speaking, this is exactly how you remember Genesis games looking; Galaxy Trail has done a great job with the art direction. Right alongside this is the soundtrack, which mixes together retro sound elements with rock and roll to make for a high tempo sound that perfectly matches the intensity of the action on screen.
Freedom Planet may have started as a mere Sonic rip-off, but to view the game as nothing more would be an enormously reductive judgment. Despite its ho-hum story and occasional difficulty spikes, Freedom Planet manages to rise above and become more than the sum of its parts, imbuing a well-trodden gameplay style with fresh ideas and concepts. We’d recommend that you give Freedom Planet a try, even if you've sampled the superb Sonic Mania; it’s clear that a substantial amount of care and work went into making this game, and it’s an excellent love letter to fans of action platformers.