Playing through Penny’s Big Breakaway feels like a trip into a 90’s 3D platformer that never existed. Visually, there’s influences from Sonic, Bonanza Bros, even Kid Klown kind of, which makes sense given this is the first game from Evening Star, the studio founded by developers responsible for the wonderful Sonic Mania. And yet, it also has some really neat concepts that would have been almost impossible to do at the time. What results is a platformer that feels both like a throwback and its own unique thing, far from an echo of some other property.
Penny herself is a fun character, a kinda-circus styled performer who finds a living (and devilishly hungry) yo-yo. This yo-yo is the hook of the entire gameplay, as it can be used with either buttons or the right analogue stick for an impressive number of moves and traversal options. Firstly, it can be swung as a basic attack, to fling back enemies. Penny can swing it around to take out groups of enemies, or unscrew giant floor-level screws. She can also hop on the back of it and roll along, although its usefulness in this fashion highly depends on slopes being around to gain momentum, even if it can be spun up in the style of Sonic’s spin dash. She can even use it to dash across gaps, and even more usefully, swing in mid air to chain together some great platform-bypassing moves that will no doubt be useful to speedrunners.
In general gameplay, Penny’s Big Breakaway isn’t necessarily a fast game, as you might expect from the Sonic Mania developers, although it does have moments of speed. Instead it’s a balance of platforming and traversal puzzles, some of which may take you more vertically than you’re expecting. Along the way in each level, Penny will come across bystanders who have problems she can assist with as well – delivering letters, finding lost items, that kind of thing – which can be completed alongside the standard mission of finishing a level for bonus points.
Penny’s moveset is relatively well explained in the tutorial icons you come across in the early game, but it does take a little while to get used to the way she moves and her momentum. Jumping and landing, especially when using your mid-air swing, sometimes can feel not as precise as you might be expecting, as you need to take into account her natural arc of movement. The hardest mechanic for me to get my head around, even if its one of the simplest fundamentals, is the pole-swinging. Even with the game indicating where you’re going to land, I still found myself missing key platforms by not quite landing high enough, or far enough. It can also be a bit of a learning curve to understanding how her momentum works while riding her yo-yo, as to when it’s more useful to simply run or dash as opposed to rolling around.
By far the best thing in my time with Penny’s Big Breakaway is the way the game handles its enemies, the penguins of Emperor Eddie. After an embarrassing mishap at a royal audition sees Eddie sick his legions of penguin guards after Penny, she’s constantly followed by swarms of penguins out on patrol across the levels. First up, they’re cute as hell, and the way you see them lay traps and ambushes for Penny ahead of time is adorable. But beyond that, there’s just a torrent of them, so much so that they often appear like literal waves or streams of penguins. Combat in Penny’s Big Breakaway isn’t so much about defeating singular enemies, as it is about not getting caught. The only way Penny can be ‘killed’ is if a group of several penguins latches on to her and slows her down enough to hold her down, meaning the best course of action is to simply not get caught, and failing that, try to shake off the penguins as quickly as possible. It’s a neat way of dealing with enemies that feels original, and leads to some really cool encounters, such as a collective boulder of penguins rolling after Penny.
There are also various power-ups that Penny can collect with her yo-yo that power up its functionality in different ways, as you continue through the levels. For instance, the hammer lets you crash through breakable walls once, while the burger fattens up the yo-yo into a bowling ball that can wreck through several walls and enemies.
Aesthetically, Penny’s Big Breakaway takes cues from 90’s platformers of the past, but still forges its own identity, particularly thanks to some insanely catchy tunes from a team including the composer for Sonic Mania. Levels also feel different from each other enough to make them all distinct, not just visually but in they’re designed and the platforming challenges they throw at you, from rails to swing along to winding slopes to roll through.
Penny’s Big Breakaway is set for release later this year, and still has some work to be done, but even now at this stage it feels like an important step for the former Sonic Mania devs. Divorced from the Sonic property, Penny’s Big Breakaway is an opportunity to try out new ideas and find a new platforming moveset that works in its own right, while still providing the colourful visuals and boppy music we would expect. It’s nostalgic, fun, and even more importantly shows the great creative possibilities ahead for Evening Star.
This preview is based on pre-release code provided by the publisher.