Christian Whitehead gained a pretty devout following after his work with Sonic; with some great mobile ports and the fantastic Sonic Mania under his belt, he was undeniably one of the key components that helped drag Sonic out of the mediocre mire that he had found himself in.

Most people expected his team to work on a new 2D Sonic game, capitalising on Mania‘s success, but instead they decided to go and do something completely new – and the result is Penny’s Big Breakaway. Trailers and previews sure looked great, so when it shadow dropped during Nintendo’s Partner Showcase, many people clambered to pick it up.

Will this be the great new IP that everyone is expecting?

Many thanks to the publishers for the review code.

A PENNY FOR A TALE
The titular Penny is a street performer who is looking for her big break as an entertainer at the palace and so heads off to audition in front of the Emperor. Unfortunately, a chance encounter with some cosmic string on her way to the audition ends up giving her much more that she bargained for as it transforms her yo-yo into a living creature intent on causing trouble.

After this playful creature causes the Emperor to reveal his nipples in front of a large crowd, Penny soon finds herself named in the book of law and to be placed under bars. Rather than accepting her punishment, her big break ends up becoming a big breakaway (hold on a minute, that’s the title!) as she flees from the Emperor and his minions. With his penguin pals hot on her trail, she’ll need to escape the city and find a way to make things right.

It’s a cute concept, and the vibrant and colourful visuals really help to give the game that cutesy SEGA vibe that Whitehead is no doubt more than familiar with. It’s minimal art-style and garish colours reminded me of the GameCube era of platformers that typically leaned into that style, but this one feels quite unique – even if it is somewhat lacking in variety (which I’ll go into a little more later).

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The first thing that you’ll notice as you enter the prologue is that you’re completely unable the camera. As you inevitably reach for the right stick in order to pan the camera around, instead you’ll probably find that Penny shoots out her yo-yo instead. With the camera controlling itself, the stick is instead used to offer 360º control to your makeshift weapon, with a tap shooting it off in the chosen direction and a spin resulting in you circling the yo-yo completely around. The Y button can be used to target specific objects or throw directly ahead of you, but the advanced stick controls are how the game is intended to be played.

This loss of a manual camera is certainly very jarring at first, but it’s not as much of a dealbreaker as you may think it is. The main reason for this is due to the levels being quite linear in structure, thus allowing the game to have a good idea as to where you want to see. Whilst there are divergences in the path that may be obscured initially by the camera’s positioning, they’re still usually visible enough to give you a fair chance to spot where they are. Given that these often lead to one of the game’s side missions or collectibles, they’re well worth seeking out – but you’ll still effectively always be moving forward towards the goal in every single stage.

That’s because the emphasis of the game is on the platforming and making the most out of your traversal abilities. Your yo-yo can be hooked onto objects allowing you to interact with them in various ways, such as catapulting yourself from a tree or swinging from a pole, but it can also be used as an in-air swing for you to gain a little extra distance and height, or as a rideable wheel for you to get around on. Your entire moveset is unlocked from the start, which is quite handy as the game really wants you to get used to and master the controls as quickly as possible in order to be ready for the later stages.

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Each of the game’s stages are divided up into eleven worlds, which vary in stage number and whether or not they contain a boss. There’s a lot of creativity in the worlds, but the highly saturated colours and familiar platforming puzzles can make many of them blend together after a while. There are some that stand out due to certain gimmicks or unusual aesthetic style, but I’d find it hard to recount many of the world’s theming. Thankfully though, a lot of the actual platforming is quite good, and there are some neat little gimmicks that help make the most out of Penny’s yo-yo.

Getting used to the mechanics can be tough though as momentum is a huge focus as to how stuff works. Your yo-yo-cycle, for example, will barely move if used on a flat surface, but if you activate it as you’re dropping onto a slope, you’ll go flying. If you can get used to the controls, you can fly through the stages with great ease, but that can be quite a high bar to achieve. Partly because of the aforementioned momentum, but also because of a certain degree of clunkiness and occasional unresponsiveness too. There were times when a swing just didn’t work when it was supposed to, or Penny ended up bugging out and being unable to move temporarily, and that often resulted in an unintended death. Given that checkpoints aren’t always as frequent as you may like, such instances can be a source of great frustration.

But, despite those issues, the game still has an undeniable charm to it. As well as the standard platforming, there’s lots for you to do. As mentioned earlier, there are collectibles for you to find and side-quests for you to do too. A lot of those quests can feel a bit samey, as many of the tasks tend to be rather similar, but they do add an extra layer of challenge to that is already a tricky game. Combat also exists, albeit with a much lesser focus as enemies are more about piling on top of you in order to catch you. Shaking them off will ensure you can keep going, but many areas put you under threat of being overwhelmed. It’s a very refreshing approach to enemies, and you always feel their presence even though you’ll rarely find yourself fighting them.

Instead, proper combat is relegated to the game’s boss fights and I found these to be a particular highlight. Some may feel a tad awkward as you attempt to move around a small arena and fight the boss using your unwieldly moveset, but they’re all so refreshingly different that you won’t really care. There are giant penguins, a ball-headed sorcerer on a snooker table, a rival race, and much more. Going into more detail would spoil these moments, so I’ll let you experience them for yourselves.

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With regards to the game’s content, you’ll probably get through the main game in around five hours or so if you’re focusing on mainly beating each stage. Getting all the collectibles and side missions will bump that up a little more, and more stages can be purchased in the store too for an extra bonus challenge. Those who click with the main game will probably find plenty to keep them busy here, and the addition of a time trial mode will encourage hardcore Penny fans to see how quickly they can blast through each stage.

It’s a great package overall, and feels really unique for a modern 3D platformer. In many ways it reminds me of one of SEGA’s other classic titles: Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. Much like that game, we have a relatively linear 3D platformer with weird controls that people are going to either love or hate, and even those that do like them will probably not be fully used to them until near the end of the game. As such, it’s a hard game to recommend, as I personally found myself growing fatigued by the repetitive stages and control issues later on in the game, but it’s still hard to deny how much love and creativity the game is brimming with.

VERDICT
Penny’s Big Breakaway is a fresh feeling 3D platformer that instantly wows you with its creative new mechanics; unfortunately, a mix of stages that all tend to blend together and wonky mechanics that tend not to work in your favour can make that initial rush wane as the game progresses. That being said, if you’re looking for a quirky new game that harkens back to a time when developers experimented with wild and weird ideas then you’ll probably get a kick out of this.