The Next Penelope is a title that will likely catch many gamers off guard when it launches on PC and Wii U in early 2015. An alternate interpretation of the famous Greek tale The Odyssey, the titular Penelope must search across the galaxy for her husband Odysseus and drag him back to face Poseidon’s wrath before he lays waste to her kingdom and its people. The futuristic environment clashes brilliantly with the classic tale, but what’s most unbelieavable about the game is that it’s the creation of only one man: Aurelian Regard. He’s handling design, art, music, story, and of course, development, and from what I saw at PAX the man may have nearly endless talent.
With such a unique story based on such famous source material, many might expect The Next Penelope to be an open world adventure game, or even a sidescrolling platformer. It’s somewhat surprisingly, then , that it’s in fact a top-down racing game. Penelope’s pilots a futuristic vehicle that with no breaks to speak of, so players have to master swinging around corners and weaving around opponents to maintain the momentum needed to snag first place. Regard explained that he drew inspiration for the game from F-Zero and Micromachines, splicing their elements with a futuristic re-imagining of the famous Greek tale. The result is a futuristic racer that is both challenging and beautiful, and it doesn’t take long before it draws you in for good.
After the prologue, Penelope sets off into the stars in search of Odysseus. But without a pre-determined path, it’s up to the player to decide what order they want to tackle levels in. Each stage has a difficulty level and introduces a new power-up, like teleportation or mines, and contains three stages. The first two usually serve as warm-ups for the third, where Penelope faces off against a colossal boss that requires expert piloting and marksmanship to overcome. These boss battles often trade the game’s typical race tracks for more of an arena setup, putting the emphasis on high-stakes action instead of tense, tactical racing. However, no opponent, whether boss or otherwise, is a pushover in The Next Penelope, and it can be a very challenging game at times. But once you get the hang of things and really connect with your craft, the maneuvers you can pull off are incredible.
Through the course of the demo I collected lasers that bounced off walls like Mario Kart’s green shells, vampire mines that funneled my opponent’s energy to my ship, and the ability to teleport to different areas of the track, much like Futurlab’s terrific Velocity series. As amazing and powerful as all those power-ups are though, they don’t come without a cost. Every boost, blast, bomb and beam uses up some of your energy, and once your stores are empty it’s game over. Your energy bar is also a measure of your health, so while players have a fantastic arsenal of weapons at their disposal they must learn to use them tactically in order to survive. Regard hopes this balance will instill a sense of power, while also bringing the risk of death, and in practice he seems to have struck a perfect balance.
The Next Penelope‘s F-Zero inspiration is apparent just from looking at the futuristic vehicle and track designs, but the game’s energy mechanics have also been influenced by Nintendo’s brutally difficult racing series. All of your ship’s abilities, including boost power, are locked until the second lap of the race. That means you have to rely on your driving skills alone to get yourself in pole position during that first lap, so that when you do unleash your fury it can be most effective. The game also borrows F-Zero’s revival sections on the tracks, stretches of glowing green orbs players can drive over to replenish their energy bar. It worked well in F-Zero and it works well here, and is yet another example of the thoughtful design present throughout The Next Penelope.
One of the game’s most intriguing elements is the ability to grow Penelope’s “personality” however the players sees fit. Personality, in this case, envelopes traits like diligence and bravery. Players can spend experience points gained by completing levels to upgrade Penelope’s traits, which in turn alters the gameplay. Increased resilience affords a larger energy bar; boosted lucidity lets you see more of the track ahead of you. Regard explained that he designed the personality mechanic so that each player could tailor the experience to their own unique playing style, and I was personally quite impressed with the results. Being able to alter the gameplay as you progress means the risk of repetition is almost completely neutralized, and it was encouraging to see Regard actively attempting to flesh out the experience in every way possible.
All of these amazing ideas combine to create a game that offers not only non-stop arcade-style action, but also an extremely ambitious package as a whole. Regard’s desire to borrow the finest elements of some truly great games is noble in and of itself, but his execution, even in Alpha form, is so astoundingly sound that I honestly can’t wait to play the game in its entirety. The Next Penelope is extremely fun, breathtakingly colorful and surprisingly deep, and if Regard can continue to muster the multi-discipline mastery he displayed in the demo, we could be looking at a real gem.