One of the most famous Greek myths of all time might not seem like an ideal starting point for an intense, top-down combat racer, but the setup for The Next Penelope feels perfect. You assume the role of the titular heroine, wife of the long-absent Odysseus who is famed for her undying loyalty despite the advances of many persistent suitors. While this might make Penelope sound like your tiresomely stereotypical passive female character and little more than a trophy for the hero to swoop in and rescue, she is not content to simply sit and wait for her beloved to return. Instead, she hops into a spaceship and explores the intergalactic kingdom of Ithaca, desperate for news of her husband.
Inspired by the likes of the Japanese / French cartoon series Ulysses 31, The Next Penelope combines engaging action with superb presentation, and is all the more remarkable for being the work of just one man, Aurelien Regard. It borrows concepts from the likes of Micro Machines and F-Zero as well as 2D shooters, throwing together a startling number of ideas into the same bubbling pot. What's truly stunning is how well this medley holds together.
The controls in The Next Penelope start out quite simple, but quickly grow in complexity the more weapons and abilities you unlock. Acceleration is automatic and there's no means of slowing your speed, beyond hitting trackside objects or flying over special panels designed to halt your pace. You can essentially steer left and right using either the analogue stick, D-pad cluster or the ZL and ZR buttons. Weaponry and abilities are assigned to the button cluster on the right-hand Joy-Con and the L and R shoulder buttons.
Penelope's quest to find Odysseus sees her participating in a series of three-stage challenges which comprise roughly of an opening level – which gently introduces the player to a new weapon – followed by a race against those aforementioned suitors but ending in a boss encounter; the latter two stages are usually focused on effective use of the new weapon bequeathed in the opening level. For example, one trio of stages teaches you the basics of the teleport move before placing you in a race where – at a certain point in the track – it's possible to teleport ahead of your rivals. The third stage is a boss battle against the legendary Minotaur (re-imagined here as a floating bull's head spaceship) where you have to teleport across various lanes while constantly firing at your opponent.
Each weapon adds a little wrinkle to the way the game plays, and once you've unlocked one it can be used on other courses in the game. One weapon gives your craft a short boost which can be used to smash through obstacles, ram other racers or simply gain a bit of pace. Your guns can be used to take down suitors and each bullet satisfyingly ricochets off walls. Mines are perhaps the most useful of all of the armaments, as they slow down racers and also suck away some of their precious shield energy, adding it to your total. The aforementioned teleport move is only really useful on certain levels, as is the grappling hook which allows you to remove large blocks in your path and – in one boss encounter – peel away armour. The final weapon turns enemy projectiles into experience points, which are used to boost the capabilities of Penelope's craft.
All of these powers deplete your shield energy when used, so the game is a constant balancing act; fire your guns too many times or use too much boost and you'll run out of power, which brings a premature end to your race. Recharge points exist on certain parts of the track, but it's the mines which you'll rely upon most, especially during boss fights where they are often your only means of replenishing health. In races you can happy drop them in the path of your onrushing rivals – but caution is still required as these mines will damage your ship as well.
Throughout this review we've spoken a lot about racing, but in actual fact that's rather misleading. The Next Penelope isn't really a racing game as such; granted, many of the stages pit you in a dash to the finish against other ships, but there are levels which are totally open and allow you to fly in any direction. Similarly, the boss battles we've touched upon so far play out more like a 'shump' where you're blessed with the ability to move wherever you wish. This variety ensures that The Next Penelope feels fresh throughout, with each new challenge offering something very different from the last.
Experience points are dished out for finishing a level and wrecking an opponent, and can even be found lying around certain stages in small quantities. Using these points you can boost the speed of your ship, increase its manoeuvrability and even zoom out the camera a little so you have a wider view of the action. In order to accrue all of the points required to unlock every one of these abilities you'll need to re-play several of the challenges – this is something we had to do repeatedly as we found some of the later levels to be quite tricky.
Indeed, The Next Penelope will pose a stern task for even the most experienced player, although it should be said that in most cases, it's simply a matter of adopting the right strategy rather than having lightning-fast reflexes. A good example of this is the spider-like end-of-level boss Arachne; our on first few goes we blindly tried to blow her up with our main guns only to fail several times over. We soon discovered (thanks in no small part to a handy hint system which flashes up before each encounter, which we'd foolishly ignored) that it made more sense to use mines to take her down, carefully laying them in her pre-determined pathway while avoiding incoming fire.
The Next Penelope's main campaign lasts for around five hours – if you're a veteran player you may even finish it sooner. There are bonus missions to unlock post-game but after seeing the end credits you may well find your interest in the game diminishing. Thankfully an excellent four-player race mode (single Joy-Con support is included here, even though it's not in the main game) keeps you coming back for more. Each player assumes the role of one of Penelope's suitors and the aim is to be the last racer standing at the end of the challenge. While online play would have been nice, this mode is still jolly good fun when played with a group of friends.
In terms of presentation, The Next Penelope is near-faultless. From the stylised low-poly graphics – which call to mind the likes of F-Zero X – to the intricate anime portraits and the infectiously catchy soundtrack, it looks and sounds like an entire building of artists has been working on it – yet every single element has been produced by just one man (admittedly, Aurelien Regard didn't handle this Switch port, it was done by Seaven Studio). An incredible solo achievement.
The Next Penelope may be quite a short experience but it's one that will challenge your skills and dazzle you at the same time. Fans of the classic '80s series Ulysses 31 will appreciate the excellent adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, while those of you who like your gaming to be fast and intense are sure to be pleased by the thrilling racing, engaging shooter sections and overall variety in the experience. The amusing four-player mode picks up some of the slack when it comes to longevity; the short nature of the solo campaign is the solitary black mark in The Next Penelope's copybook. That aside, this is a truly amazing indie title and one that deserves to do well on the Switch eShop.