For all of the flack it catches, some pretty good things have come out of the Sonic the Hedgehog fan-base, all things considered – but no, I’m not talking about your hedgehog-unicorn OC who has all the superpowers and is really into Bring Me the Horizon. Sonic Mania released last year, with the Plus DLC coming out last month, which was essentially a fan project by fan developers (albeit backing from SEGA and a nice big budget), and that was probably the best sonic game in two decades – and alongside Stardew Valley it’s the only indie game on my Switch that I’ve never uninstalled because I’m too cheap to buy an SD card. So when a port of indie darling and successful sonic-like – yes, that’s a thing now – Freedom Planet was announced for Switch, I jumped at the chance like a certain blue hedgehog jumps at a fat bald scientist wearing pajamas.
One of the most important elements of a sonic-like is the plot; it must focus around a Magical Mineral Macguffin(™) containing a great power, that some designated do-badders want for said power. Not the “it could end our dependence on fossil fuels” kind of power, you understand, more the “turning yellow and glowy and start floating” kind – the cool kind. There’s a big kerfuffle, some kind of moral lesson gets snuck in, and status quo is restored, everyone gets home in time for tea. Freedom Planet follows this playbook but with extra steps – for one there’s several factions after the stone, five if you include the protagonist’s lot – Lilac, who is a dragon (apparently), Carol (who got the short end of the naming stick alongside characters like “Spade” and “Arktivus Brevon”) the Wildcat, and Milla Basset the Basset Hound (no points for guessing that one).
I’m not sure how I feel about the game’s story overall; full voice acting paired with very well-animated sprites gives the characters a lot of, well, character, but also some of the voice acting really isn’t very good – given the game’s aspiration of invoking the style of Sega Saturn / Playstation 1 platformers like Mega Man X4, as well as the obvious connotations of being an ex-sonic fangame, the “hamminess” may to a certain extent be intentional but that’s really no excuse. Moreover, some of the cutscenes are really, really long – not quite Metal Gear Solid “settle in and get popcorn” level long, but some are still pushing towards 10 minutes a piece between levels – which can really interrupt the flow of what is supposed to be a fast-paced game. Ultimately, and I don’t at all mean this in a disparaging way, but you can tell by looking if the cutscenes in this game appeal to you or not – they’re catered to a certain type, and given there’s an option to play “classic mode” for non-stop gameplay, that’s absolutely fine.
With that griping session out of the way, I can finally get into what I like about the game – which, fortunately, is pretty much everything else. While you can see the game’s sonic skeleton easily enough – ramps and loops, character that can fly with appendages that really shouldn’t do that, character that does roly-polys like an armadillo on an incline, etc – Freedom Planet also changes up a significant portion of the gameplay that really gives it its own identity. Most notable are the several new systems that replace scrapped sonic ones – all of which I consider almost direct improvements. The levels are more open and the wealth of collectibles encourage exploration, and the speed you’d expect is slightly reduced to compensate – Sonic sometimes had exploration-focused sections but it felt at odds with the speed mechanics, like trying to knit a hat while riding an ostrich. The standard platformer combat of “jump on thing, thing dies – don’t jump on spiky thing!” is dead and buried, with a fairly robust combat system in its place, providing a number of attack and movement options that vary between characters, helping them feel distinct and justifying additional playthroughs. This also sensibly leads to a more standard health system, which means enemies can be more of a threat and have more varied attack patterns since you don’t die to a butterfly’s wingbeat.
There are some problems with this system, though minor; the bosses vary wildly in difficulty from the stages that precede them at points – they’re never too hard or too easy but the whiplash is noticeable and slightly jarring. You’ll also quickly notice that most “hard” bosses have a laser / beam attack of some sort – which, because the invulnerability frames don’t quite work properly, stunlock you and take half your health in one blow. It’s frustrating but not at all a deal-breaker – a small stone in a comfy running shoe.
Then we come to the presentation, which is a real tour-de-force for sprite-based games. I played Freedom Planet when it was released on steam four years ago (holy moly I’m old), and it looked good then, but the graphical style really feels at home on the Switch’s handheld mode. The game runs like Usain Bolt’s dreams both docked and undocked, and the spritework is densely detailed and coloured to really pop – though occasionally it’s hard to differentiate foreground and background elements. The characters are always easy to follow at high-speed, and each “zone” has a unique and gorgeous aesthetic. The music veers away from typical, hummable and for want of a word “boppy” (which is not a word but gets the point across) tunes in favour of a more full-bodied, equally brilliant soundtrack – “boppy” when it needs to be, but also atmospheric and moody at points, almost unrivalled at setting an appropriate tone.
Overall, Freedom Planet is the same “very good” (-Metacritic, 2014) platformer it was when it released a few years back. While perhaps a couple Switch-exclusive features would’ve been a nice incentive, a music player in sleep mode for the brilliant soundtrack or something, the longer more involved level design is a perfect fit for the Switch’s portability and in-built sleep mode. If you like indie-platformers, end-of-golden-age style platformers, or reaaally like cute weird anthropomorphised dragonlings things (you know who you are), Freedom Planet justifies Switch double-dipping. Ha, try saying that three times quickly.