The early days of 3D platformers were a Wild West of disparate ideas and mechanics as developers circled in on what worked, and different colorful mascots with their own hooks were introduced at a steady pace. Evening Star, a new studio formed by the developers of Sonic Mania, is looking to recapture that era with Penny’s Big Breakaway, a throwback platformer to the N64, PlayStation, and Dreamcast. And based on my experience so far, it’s recaptured that period in gaming history with aplomb.
This is most apparent in the visual style, which harkens back to a style of early 3D simplicity without looking quite as rudimentary as those older games. It leans heavily on simple shapes and saturated colors, but the designs of both characters and stages are a little more complex than you would actually see on those older platforms. It’s a decent compromise, delivering a dose of nostalgia without being overly reliant on it. As someone who doesn’t feel enamored with the style of that era, it does look a little garish to my eyes, but your mileage may vary.
The star of the show, both figuratively and literally, is an aspiring street performer named Penny who specializes in yo-yo tricks. When the Emperor summons performers to the palace to put on a show, Penny is excited to answer the call–but along the way, her yo-yo gets entangled with a cosmic string that transforms it into a rambunctious living creature. That in turn leads to a mishap at the palace, which makes Penny a wanted fugitive being chased down by the Emperor’s forces.
The stage design accents this “on the run” feel in some clever ways. For one, stages are linear paths meant to be traversed with stylish tricks and stunts, constantly keeping you on the move. In that way, it’s much more akin to Sonic Adventure than Super Mario 64, by the measure of classic platformer touchstones. There’s even a time-attack mode to further encourage speedrunning and stylish traversal.
Your trusty yo-yo is the best tool in your arsenal to pull off these feats, as it enables a wide range of moves. On top of simply attacking enemies, you can use it to spin around in circles to activate screw-like mechanisms and grapple onto swing points. But it’s the regular moves, which can be utilized anywhere, that really make movement feel fluid and natural. The yo-yo can hold in mid-air temporarily, letting you yank on it for an air-dash like move, or swing in mid-air. These types of moves give the platforming a sense of finesse, and once you get a hang of the various tricks of the trade, you can jump, swing, and spin your way through a stage with style.
The yo-yo is also mapped to the right stick by default, which does mean that you lack any direct camera control. Having direct camera control was a major change that emerged in the 3D era, and a pitfall for some early games like Sonic Adventure. That could have been a major drawback here too, but in my experience so far at least, the automated camera works and hasn’t led to problems. It was an adjustment for me to remember not to use the right-stick for camera control, but once I grew accustomed to it, it worked just fine.
The other major propulsive tool through the stages are the enemies themselves. While you’ll occasionally find a regular enemy in the stages, the major threat is the Emperor’s penguin army. And instead of doing direct damage, the penguins instead slow you down and try to capture you. The danger is being swarmed by too many at once and being carried off to prison, which results in a life lost just like a standard pit-death. You can shake them off, but since they travel in packs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed if one or two are clinging to your ankles and slowing you down. That lets the stages pepper penguins in strategically to put a fire under your ankles at moments that you might be more inclined to take a break or meander around. The result is a game that constantly pushes you forward.
That propulsive force is really what’s most engaging about Penny’s Big Breakaway. Everything from the traversal to the stage design to the hot-on-your-tail enemy mechanics seem designed to speed you through stages, stunting with stylish yo-yo tricks all the way. In that way it feels like a clever modernization, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it keeps up that breakneck pace through to the finish line.