Penny’s Big Breakaway Review (PS5) – Rebound Breakup

Like a spinning Yoyo to the face, Penny’s Big Breakaway has a pretty heavy 3D Sonic feel to it, from menu UI and graphics to music, character design, and naming conventions. And that’s not surprising considering it’s the first game to come out of new studio Evening Star since most of its staff worked on the glorious Sonic Mania. Everything has the feel of 90’s plaformers in their heyday.

But have they managed to strike gold twice, or does Penny’s Big Breakaway walk the dog in the wrong direction? Let’s find out.

So the story is pretty simple because you don’t need a lot in a platformer. Emperor Eddie has run a one-performer talent show for years, when suddenly he decides to open it up to all-comers. The whole of Vanillatown is buzzing, and Penny fancies she has a chance to win with her yoyo skills. She cuts to the front of the queue (upsetting literally millions of citizens), and using her new sentient Cosmic Thread yoyo, accidentally tears the Emperor’s clothes off. That’s bad. The penguin guards are called and she is chased from the palace.

Instead of saving the world or friends like many platformers we could name, Penny’s motive is to make it in a talent show, and that’s a much more high-level need, and requires more setup. In the five minutes given, I didn’t really feel invested in that as a reason for moving through stages, even though I’d often have even less reason to chase down Dr Robotnik in your average Sonic level. That’s a simple good versus evil motive. Penny’s motive is also to escape, but that also loses any kind of narrative impetus after the second or third level. I only really remembered I was running away or about the talent contest when bosses would remind me in their opening spiels.

It’s only a little later in the game that you get information about the Cosmic Thread and the backstory that I think was needed upfront. Penny’s motive is expanded and made a little easier to get behind. But by loading it later in the experience (sure only 2-3 hours later but still) I felt it had lost its impact. I had long since lost interest in the narrative thread and was going through the motions of the levels. Feeding me the information then was too little too late.

Story may not be its strongest trick, but it’s a platformer and Mario has got away with saving a princess for decades, so, so what? Let’s focus on platforming. One of Penny’s Big Breakaway’s strengths is the fun and consistent invention put into Penny’s yoyo. You expect moves like maybe spinning the yoyo at things to hit them, or a swing move. But Breakaway manages to invent a number of normal moves you wouldn’t expect and a lot of in-situ one-offs that are also fun to use. Penny can boost by flinging the yoyo forward and then tapping again, she can use it as a kind of unicycle wheel to rush round the levels like a powered-up Sonic, she can jump and then fix the yoyo in midair and get a nicely unique-feeling swing off of it to get a longer jump distance. These all felt great to use.

There’s also hammer fixings to smash stuff apart, thumbstick-twirling propellers to hover over levels, rails to affix underneath as the Yoyo rolls along the top, bulls that turn into bowling balls, and many other twirling, yoyoing instances of small bits of gameplay fun. It’s not exhaustive, but Penny’s Big Breakaway successfully designs a plethora of interesting moves around its central gimmick, and apart from maybe the wheel, they’re all pretty fun.

Much like a sonic level is filled with obstacles and speed-ups, excuses to use Penny’s yoyo moves litter every odd restrictive 90’s throwback level, from rolling routes to quarter pipes, from trampolines to flagpoles to spin-up. And also like any good Sonic level, Penny’s stages are designed in such a way that whichever way you choose to go feels like a natural route through the level. There’s often at least a couple of different routes and half a dozen secret areas, so you never feel quite like you’ve gone wrong. Just a quick jump to the next reachable area and the level seems to naturally continue. However they can feel restrictive as you are very much funnelled through to the next area where a yoyo trick will work.

Enemies are virtually pointless in Penny’s Big Breakaway, which although strangely welcome in that there was less cognitive dissonance than usual (I didn’t suddenly need to kill anyone with a yoyo), it wasn’t really all that engaging. Emperor Eddie sets his penguin guards on you, a swarm of penguins that follow you frustratingly effectively. They jump on your back and try to ride you down, and if five of them get a grip it’s game over, back to a checkpoint. With just one it’s simple enough to shake them off with a boost or a trick. But they are just a nuisance enemy that mean whenever they appear the gameplay is just a flurry of button bashing and frantically trying to get to higher ground or just over a chasm where they can’t follow. The result? You just end up missing a bit of nice level and it’s unsatisfying.

It feels like not enough development was put into enemies. One enemy type is not enough, and only one way of dealing with them is also not enough. There needed to be the equivalent of sliding some types, or bopping shells, or only the spin yoyo worked on little penguins, where swinging from the static yoyo meant you could kick the big penguins in the face – their only weak spot. Alas, this is not a part of the game, only my lament.

Bosses were also remarkably unengaging. Similar to Sonic or Mario three-hits-and-its-done style bosses, some of them didn’t even need to be hit. Just approached and then some gimmick involving the yoyo. Most of their motivations revolved around being mad that Penny cut the line at the talent contest, and to be honest I felt that too. My sense of fairness said that Penny was at fault and these bosses were basically justified in being pissed with her for cutting the queue. The first for example, was a ship captain who was the next in line before Penny cut, and the stage is simply jumping on her ship and ‘fixing’ the screws on it. She bashes you off twice, and you need to wheel on water to make it back, and this section was full of glitching water.

Further bosses do get better and do involve an actual one-on-one with the central characters, but once again the game keeps back-loading its better material. The trouble with that was that as I wasn’t enjoying the beginning I would have been unlikely to experience the better content in the second half. Had I not been reviewing it, I might have just given up.

Where cute animal avatars and mascots from the tribute period have stood the test of time, many of the more human ones rarely have – Mario and his ilk being the exception. Penny isn’t all that likable, and is designed as a pretty sharp-looking avatar, that reminded me too much of stuffy stylised royalty on a pack of cards or something like a jester or harlequin. It’s not quite the person I want to go yo-yoing with. Looking like a court jester was a little different, but it brought to mind 90s-era platformer Pandemonium.

Art and therefore character design is pretty subjective so if you enjoy the style from the trailer, you may be fine. I did not like the designs, especially of supporting characters, nor of Penny when animated. They certainly evoke the 90s era of platformers, but beyond that I wasn’t enamoured. I also found the Zelda-style bumbling voices incredibly grating, which meant I didn’t look forward to the scant cutscenes.

Something that’s come through beautifully from the 90s aesthetic is Penny’s Big Breakaway great selection of stage tracks. They evoke, you guessed it, Sonic’s strange array of glitchy trip-hop techno music and I was happy to keep the soundtrack going throughout my playtime.

One of Breakaway’s main issues is that it’s still a bit rough for release. Controls feel inaccurate and like they have a mind of their own. I lost count of the times I used the Yoyo throw to grab a rail only to be thrown back off again, or used the Yoyo wheel to travel on water only to hit invisible obstacles or sink or to do a little triple bump instead of just starting to spin. At best something goes wrong and you scrabble to correct. At worst it’s glitchy and broken. The first boss had me losing more often to glitches in the water than to any difficulty in the boss itself. If the game gets a few post-release patches this stuff may end up being evened out, but in the launch build it’s pretty noticeable.

I’ll be honest that many of the issues I have with Penny’s Big Breakaway are issues I’d level at the doors of Sonic in general. It’s not the style of platformer that really captures my attention. I much prefer the likes of Crash Bandicoot or Rayman Legends/Origins – precision platformers that require some skill to master. PBB with its lack of enemies until you get swarmed and have to button bash, or its forgiving life system, or its scrabbling approach to platforming, doesn’t have that feel. It’s more akin to Spyro and the 3D Sonic games that have come before, or 3D Mario if I was being generous.

Also much akin to a Sonic title, the first run-through is quite easy and short-lived. You can take a run at all eleven worlds and their stages in around five hours. Of course, there’s plenty of replayability in time trails, finding all the secret items, or getting high scores.

For a new IP a bit rough round the edges, there’s plenty to like with Penny’s Big Breakaway and her excellent array of platforming Yoyo moves. But hewing too close to the Sonic formula means it rarely feels unique or essential.

Penny’s Big Breakaway is available now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series S|X Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.

Developer: Evening Star
Publisher: Private Division

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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