'Penny's Big Breakaway' Review: An Inviting Flashback With Old-School Annoyances

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One of the biggest fumbles in Sega's long and storied history was the dissolution of the partnership between the development studio Sonic Team, Christian Whitehead, and an assortment of other talented developers that helped bring Sonic Mania to fruition. It broke my heart to learn that one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) Sonic the Hedgehog games ever made had a sequel in the works before it was unceremoniously canned. Due to that unfortunate decision, Sonic fans were treated to the mediocre release of Sonic Superstars. Thankfully, Whitehead gathered up a crew of like-minded platforming fans to birth a brand new project that evokes the look, feel, and sound of retro 3D platformers. After putting it through its paces, I've concluded that the development studio's first release is certainly rough in places but still a fun time. Here is my Penny's Big Breakaway review.

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Upon first glance, it's easy to see how this game is meant to evoke everyone's warmest memories of throwback 32-bit platformers. I still look back fondly on the old days of games such as Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Jersey Devil, Mischief Makers, and Super Magnetic Neo keeping me busy across a myriad of consoles. The visual splendor of Penny's Big Breakaway looks great in every aspect imaginable - I constantly stood in place to marvel at all the colorful sights and sounds that make up the game's varied locales. The neon colors splashed across towering buildings, beachside destinations, and the rest of this lively platformer's numerous destinations are all wonderful sights to behold. The creative character designs are another aspect of this game that points to just how strong its art design is - I love how all those relentless penguins look, especially when they morph into a massive rolling ball that forces the main character to do their best Indiana Jones impression.

Now if we're talking about the music that accompanies your playthrough, one word comes to mind - "catchy." Noted game music composer Tee Lopes (whose musical contributions to plenty of recent Sonic games are celebrated by many) and Sean Bialo sat in the recording studio and recorded pure heat for Penny's Big Breakaway. Both composers went for a musical feel that wouldn't have sounded out of place in an obscure 32-bit platformer from the mid-to late-90s. The upbeat jingle that is "Jig's Up, Penny," the calming tune that is "Refracting Feelings," and the funky "Sleep? No, Throwdown!" stick out as my faves from one of the better original soundtracks I've come across in a game in 2024. Penny's Big Breakaway went for a vintage theme in regards to its graphics and music - it passes with flying colors with that attempt.

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The main story thread in Penny's Big Breakaway starts on a hilarious note - during a performance for a bored emperor, Penny's sentient yo-yo makes the grave mistake of tearing up the kingdom leader's clothes. This angers him, which leads to him siccing his army of penguins on Penny with hopes of capturing her for yo-yo's transgressions. That simple plot results in players helping Penny make her great escape from the emperor, constantly staying on the move from rampaging penguins, and surviving boss encounters with the individuals who are also miffed at her for some reason. Stories in platformers are never known for being super deep and emotionally draining - that sentiment rings true for Penny's Big Breakaway. What's presented here is simple and easy to wrap one's head around. Thankfully, the speedy gameplay that's presented here has a lot more meat on the bone compared to the plot.

Penny's Big Breakaway plays like a combination of Sonic's fast-paced platforming and Devil May Cry's combo system that rewards stylish maneuvers. The focus on using Penny's yo-yo as her main tool of transportation makes for a good time - there's a ton of fun to be had as you get into a groove and use a cool combination of moves to get around as fast as possible. Speeding across & leaping off ramps while riding atop your yo-yo, zipping through the air to land on a far-off platform, and smacking angry penguins off of you are a few examples of the fun that arises from completing each of this game's amusing stage runs. I also got a kick out of tackling the random missions I was tasked with by random NPS across each stage since they helped freshen up the action a bit. Something as simple as bringing a certain item to someone and beating the clock in the process led to a fun mini-run while I was in the middle of getting to a stage's end goal.

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Penny's Big Breakaway does a lot of things right, but two fatal flaws keep it from being a total win. For one, there is the presence of progress hampering bugs and glitches. There were moments when I became infuriated as Penny became stuck in a piece of stage geometry or trapped in a floating animation whenever she got caught in a body of water. Game-breaking moments such as that are even more of a nuisance when they happen during boss fights. I almost wanted to rip my hair out when Penny fought herself trapped on a piece of the first boss' boat! Another element of this game that knocks it down a notch is its horrible checkpoint system. Dying during the game's later stages killed my mood quite easily since I knew I'd be forced to play an entire section all over again before I reached the area where I previously met my demise. That less-than-stellar checkpoint system is even more rage-inducing during tough boss fights where you're taken back to a previous part of that encounter after perishing, which quickly grows annoying. I'm all for 3D platformers that harken back to the classics of the sub-genres golden age, but I hate the fact that the problems those old games had (like the mood-killing checkpoint system I mentioned before).

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