In any given week there is a wealth of video game releases in the digitally distributed indie platform. If you’re not heavily into the whole sub culture and constantly monitoring the social media like a hawk, then more often than not some real special gems completely slip under your radar. Through some random miracle you sometimes stumble upon a hidden gem and beat yourself for letting this one completely pass you by. Sometimes it’s better late than never, and if you’re among those gamers who is well acquainted with Galaxy Trail’s Freedom Planet then please give yourself a pat on the back. For the uninitiated, we are doing this later than usual review of a truly special game that launched in July of this year, because it would be a shame to let it pass us by.
Freedom Planet began life as one of many Sonic homebrew projects circulating on the internet, however at some point they realized that creating some derivative experience which was a mere shell of its inspiration isn’t the way to go, and certainly not worth the hassle of dealing with lawyers of SEGA. So they took a simple Sonic homebrew to a whole new level, creating something that will resonate with any SEGA fan who grew up with the Genesis, and any diehard gamer from the ‘90s who is affectionate about the Saturn. Freedom Planet may have started out as a Sonic game, but the end product takes that classic 2D Sonic gameplay to brand new places and ultimately provides an experience that can stand proudly and independently on its own two feet. Freedom Planet is what a retro homage should be, because it is only a Sonic game at heart with everything else being fresh and original.
When Sonic 3 & Knuckles was released in 1994, it felt like a true curtain call for the original Genesis lineup of Sonic games. It was the single biggest and most ambitious platformer on the Genesis and with the Saturn just around the corner, a lot of us were frothing at what the future held for the franchise. Freedom Planet will, to a lot of people, feel like the Sonic 4 that should have happened; a game that visually and musically shows us what a fully blown 2D Sonic adventure would have been like on the Saturn. It embodies what made gaming so special and unique on the Genesis and Saturn. The people over at Galaxy Trail took on the monumental task of implementing some big ideas into a game that not only functions beautifully, but also achieves its lofty gameplay and design goals.
Clearly Freedom Planet has a lot of Sonic going for it, and just being a worthy follow up to Genesis Sonic games would have sufficed. But Galaxy Trail added layers and layers of ingenious gameplay hooks and level design styles to create what a true next gen 2D Sonic game with crazy ideas would have been like. It may have the base of Sonic, but Freedom Planet also has the nefarious bosses of Mega Man X and Gunstar Heroes, the 2D visual feast of timeless Saturn classics like Astal and Silhouette Mirage, and gameplay hooks of Rocket Knight and Dynamite Headdy. You’re guaranteed to have a stupid nostalgic grin on your face when you experience the level based on NiGHTS into Dreams. However, at the end of the day Freedom Planet isn’t derivative of its influences at all, as it only really takes inspiration from ‘90s SEGA to create an original experience that invokes both intense nostalgia and an unbelievable sense of newness.
Freedom Planet has you take control of one of three unique characters that each bring their own gameplay styles and even fundamentally different level structures. The sense of speed is present but it is nicely balanced with slower paced platforming, exploration, and even puzzles. At the first instance you’d think that introducing puzzles and having sections where you unlock doors would break the flow and pace, but fortunately Freedom Planet executes all of its levels soundly with no issues. Each location offers something a little different, and yet at the same time there is some sense of familiarity. It just feels like the next stage of evolution for 2D Sonic, one that adds a boatload of new level ideas, including one stage that plays a little like NiGHTS into Dreams done in 2D, kudos to the team for pulling that one off. The levels are just the right length so they never feel like they’re over too soon nor do they drag on unnecessarily with fodder, and the action and pacing is nice and quick. The high speed platforming is often punctuated by cool events like explosive chase/escape sequences, maze like labyrinths, traps, and even SHMUP style shooting segments.
Freedom Planet is noticeably challenging and it isn’t as dead easy as its primary fore-bearer, in particular the tough as nails bosses that look to have come straight out something like Mega Man X or Gunstar Heroes. These bosses will kick you hard, and they demand attention to study their patterns and they even go through phases. Bosses range from mechanical behemoths to smaller equal-sized rivals, interesting the one-on-one rival bosses end up being more difficult due to their quickness and smaller hit-box. With three unique playable characters, a variety of seamlessly paced and uniquely designed stages, some crazy boss battles, and overall challenging and satisfying gameplay, Freedom Planet is as good as 2D action platfomers can get.
There’s two ways to experience the game; you can jump straight into Classic Mode and blast through the levels without any interruptions, but there is also an Adventure Mode which throws in a ton of story elements and voice overs. While subsequent revisits are probably best enjoyed in Classic or Time Attack mode, the Adventure Mode is still worth trying once. The story isn’t anything original but it is still charming and fun, and the plot and character development almost feel like they came out of Archie’s Sonic comic book series, especially with the way the vibrant cast of characters are introduced and played out. The voice dub will probably annoy some people, but there is genuine charm and enthusiasm on part of the cast. The story delivery is a little campy but it’s structured nicely with plenty of time given to characters and their relationships. They certainly put a lot of effort into creating an interesting story, but unlike certain story driven Sonic games, it is never once done at the cost of pace and design.
Visually Freedom Planet is beautiful, every inch of it exuding artistic diversity with high resolution sprites that resemble the quality of yesteryear. There’s just something about detailed sprites meticulously constructed pixel by pixel, and seeing them come to life is a joy to behold. The color scheme is bright and vibrant, the animations are highly expressive and give the characters a lot of personality, and the huge boss sprites fill up the screen in ways that only games from yesteryear did. The art direction is something special too, fusing Eastern medieval culture and architecture with a magical celestial setting to create a rich sci-fi game world. The music is remarkable; it’s like the musical styling of Sonic, NiGHTS and Treasure all mashed together to create this incredibly rich and varied musical score that you’d only hear in Saturn games. Featuring nice mix of catchy chip-tune style melodies with infectious synthetic beats.
Freedom Planet is deeply rooted in a lot of SEGA history, taking inspiration from that unique legacy and creating something that others can only vaguely imagine. It‘s among the very best indie releases of 2014, and is right up there with Shovel Knight as a game that is deeply embedded in the hardcore gaming culture of the ‘90s. Freedom Planet is thoroughly polished and engaging, and with every passing moment it becomes hard to believe that such an imaginative game can exist. It is perhaps the most Sonic game to have come out since 1994, one that feels like a true evolution and more importantly a resounding step forward. Freedom Planet is a love letter to SEGA fans, and newcomers are in store for a special gaming experience that they won’t experience elsewhere in this modern age.