The Next Penelope: Lost in Space?

The Next Penelope, developed by one-man machine Aurelian Regard, puts a unique spin on the classic tale The Odyssey, taking players on a journey across the stars where Odysseus’s wife Penelope will face off against suitors, sirens and all sorts of creatures in order to save her home. The heroine pilots a sapphire spacecraft, capable of breakneck speeds and incredible maneuvers, in a top-down racer reminiscent of classics like F-Zero and Micromachines.

Much like the original The Legend of Zelda, The Next Penelope lets players tackle mission in whatever order they see fit. Each stage is comprised of three separate races, and always introduces a new item or ability to your ship that you can take with you upon completion. It’s a wonderful feeling to be unleashed into deep space with nothing but a ship and a mission, but the difficulty labels plastered on each stage like “Easy” or “Very Hard” betray the sense of discovery The Next Penelope attempts to offer.

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It’s easy to forgive small blemishes once you hop into the cockpit, though. Succeeding in The Next Penelope requires finesse, and the smallest of errors can often leave you without a chance of snagging first place. But with a bit of practice, you’ll soon be swinging around corners and crashing through your opponents on your way to victory. It’s a constantly invigorating experience, and Regard has really done some great work in creating a futuristic, neon-infused setting for his game.

When I got my hands on The Next Penelope at PAX Prime back in August, I was particularly intrigued by the “personality” augmentations available for purchase with experience points gained in missions. Regard explained that the system would allow players to tailor the experience to their own specific tastes, such as increasing the speed or field of vision, or perhaps enhancing your maneuverability. It all sounded immensely promising, but as it was an early build of the game I could only ponder the possibilities of the upgrade system. Having experienced it in action now, I must admit I’m slightly underwhelmed. Sure, there are noticeable differences in the way the game plays when you max out certain personality traits, but I was expecting a bit more of a risk/reward system, and I definitely expected the changes to carry more impact.

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Maxing out any particular trait acts like a small performance upgrade. I appreciated having theability to tweak the performance of my ship, but the upgrades felt far too shallow to really have much of an impact on the game overall. When Regard originally explained the system to me at PAX, he emphasized that focusing on certain traits like “recklessness” or “aggressiveness” would have negative as well as positive effects, allowing the player to heap additional difficulty onto the game. I couldn’t find any evidence of that system in effect while playing this latest build, but it could well still be in the works.

I was, however, happy to test my mettle against a slew of new challenges and bosses. The Next Penelope maintains an incredible pace, demanding precision and deft strategy at all times. I had a blast, but as I explored more of the game’s worlds and challenges I began to wonder how Regard plans to tie everything together. The pieces are all there: difficulty gradient, non-linear progression, intriguing upgrade system, and a multitude of items. The problem is, I have yet to see any instance of those solitary elements combining to form what the game seems to be building up to. The Next Penelope has everything it needs to be a non-linear, skill-based, Zelda-esque adventure, letting players explore the worlds in any order they choose and acquiring useful items and abilities that can be used in tandem further down the line.

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Furthermore, I also found myself questioning just  how long Penelope’s journey would be. My time in the cockpit lasted just over two hours, but I was already armed to the teeth with tech and nearly maxed out in every element of my “personality.” If this is all Regard has in mind for The Next Penelope, he’ll be turning his back on some enormous potential. My hope is that this is merely a prologue, setting the scene for a significantly longer space expedition that has Penelope utilizing multiple gadgets throughout each race, speeding through complicated, colorful tracks and battling sprawling bosses. To be fair, The Next Penelope is achieves most of that already. I just hope Regard has the ambition and confidence to see his vision through completely, because his talent is unquestionable.