A great 3D platformer seems to be a rare and special thing these days. I think Psychonauts 2 was the last one that really took my breath away, but outside of that (as well as obviously every 3D Nintendo platformer), I often struggle to think of many games that could be considered its equal. There’s always something holding them back, isn’t there? Whether it’s a wonky camera, slightly unwieldly controls, or the platforming itself is just a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination.
So where does Penny’s Big Breakaway fit into the equation? This is the next game from former Sonia Mania dev Christian Whitehead’s new studio, Evening Star, and yep, you can definitely tell this was made by some real Sonic heads. Penny and her (strangely toothy) sentient yo-yo, err, Yo-Yo, feel like a ball of energy just waiting to bust out across the colourful scenery of their home world of Macaroon, and golly, they sure can fly with just a couple of timely button presses. Alas, there is a but. For me at least, Penny and Yo-Yo are perhaps a bit too energetic for my platforming tastes, and having spent a few hours with an early preview build, I often found them quite a rambunctious pairing to keep under control.
Then again, I’ve always never been much of a Sonic head myself. Mario was my platformer of choice growing up, and Sonic’s dizzying speeds and homing dashes have never been quite my cup of tea. Penny clearly shares a lot of Sonic’s underlying DNA, too. She’s takes a second to really get going from a standstill, for example, but once she gets going, she can feel quite slippery under the thumbs – and as someone who prefers their platforming mascots to be able to turn on a dime, this made even basic navigation around Macaroon’s various themed levels more challenging than I was expecting.
I do like how Evening Star have made use of Penny’s Yo-Yo, though, and incorporated it into her moveset. Not only can she sit on its axel and ride it like a tiny go-cart, but she can swing it around in a whirlwind attack, fling it outward to smash capsules and dash forwards, and even spin it in midair as a makeshift swing point. They’re all great platforming moves, and at speed can really zip you through a level without much time spent touching the ground. The problem is that most of these moves are all mapped to the same button. Jump is A, dash is a double A tap, and you hold down A to swing, and you can also backflip by pressing A again mid-jump. The latter is sort of like an arrested double-jump, but man alive, that’s three too many things all on the A button for me, and I was frequently messing up the timing of everything in the process.
Now I don’t know about you, but my first instinct whenever I mess up a jump is to try and hastily course correct by vainly mashing the appropriate button combos again and again. But Penny’s fixed camera can be a right devil in these situations, making it hard to judge the distance between you and your next platform. I was constantly falling short in a lot of cases, or worse still, overshooting because I’d underestimated the sheer force of Penny’s forward propulsion. Of course, there’s a very strong chance I simply need to spend more time mastering its controls and getting used to the pace of Penny’s movement. But I never really felt fully in control of where I was aiming Penny during my time with the preview build, and I must admit I found it all a little too frustrating for my liking.
I can’t say I was a huge fan of all the penguins chasing you, either. These actual blue balls of energy will repeatedly burst out of the scenery to chase you in every level, and if five of them clamp on to you at once, it’s game over (or back to the nearest checkpoint, anyway). It’s easy enough to fend them off in fairness, as they can be swiftly disposed of either by whirly-gigging Yo-Yo around in a spin attack, or simply running away from them. But when Penny herself is a bit of a handful to control at the best of times, trying to platform under pressure just adds a whole extra wrinkle of friction into the mix.
Why penguins? Well, after humiliating the (human) emperor Eddie during a performance with your Yo-Yo bud, he sets his fleet of penguin guards on you to bring you to justice. That’s the real reason why you’re bounding across these colourful biomes. You’re making your making your escape and trying to stay out of trouble. A very twee, cheerful and upbeat kind of escape, admittedly, but an escape nonetheless – even if half the time the penguins come across as more of a low-level nuisance than a truly serious threat.
It’s also an escape where you’ve got plenty of time to help out the locals with various sidequests, too, the successful completion of which will add lots of bonus points to your end of level score at the end. These mostly consist of ‘bring this item to my friend way over there’ and ‘please collect x number of objects in a set time limit’, but they’re pleasant enough diversions most of the time, and they usually take place right there in the world map. That’s another thing I quite like about Penny’s Big Breakaway – its levels are just about big and twisty-turny enough in their multiple pathways that it can fit everything it needs to on the main concourse. There’s no whisking you away to separate little rooms like Mario that break up the flow. It’s all there in the level in front of you, and it does quite a good job of tempting you back in for another round to see what you missed. The flip side to this, of course, is the constant and crippling anxiety that you’re missing something by accident, which I definitely felt more than once, but I also had to resign myself that this was just going to be the way of things.
So yes, a bit of a wobbly start for me and Penny’s Big Breakaway, but maybe I’m just being a big old sausage fingers and need to spend more time with it. My lack of Sonic prowess is almost certainly a factor here, and I suspect that true blue blurrers will find more to like. It’s coming to Steam in full in early 2024, so hopefully we’ll be able to take it for a longer spin very soon.