The Next Penelope (PC) review
"Could have been improved by focusing a little more on racing"
The Next Penelope is a top-down racing game ala Micro Machines (or so I'm told, I've never played Micro Machines). The central control conceit is that no matter what direction you are facing, you turn right or left from the perspective of the vehicle you are controlling. This sounds counter-intuitive but actually works pretty well.
In this case you are piloting a hover car/space-ship piloted by Penelope, wife of the famous Odysseus. The game's story is a sci-fi re-telling of the Odyssey in which an injured Penelope is being forced by Poseidon to locate her long-missing husband or face the destruction of her home, Ithaca. Along the way, she'll encounter sci-fi remixes of various mythological characters, such as the minotaur, sirens, and the suitor and a few others, all of which are featured in really well designed, beautiful anime style portraits.
Each of the game's sets of levels include a first stage that introduces a new piece of equipment for Penelope's ship, a second stage that is an actual race, and a third stage that is typically a boss fight. There is a bunch of neat equipment to get in these levels, including a teleporter and a grapple, to name a few. The race stages are hard, as you have to very carefully balance your energy use. You see, your weapons drain your energy on use, but this energy bar is also your health bar, and since it isn't very easy to recharge your energy, you have to be very careful with your weapon and equipment use. But you also have to use your equipment as it is basically impossible to win a race without using your booster or shooting at your opponents. In fact, I had to quite liberally use my booster to win most of the races, which means I also had to recharge my energy from time to time. You can do this by flying through cleverly placed energy spheres that recharge you a lot like the pit stops in the original F-Zero, or by using the very clever parasite mines, which recharge your energy if an enemy hits them. Races are often a delicate balance of boosting through straight-a-ways to catch the leader while delicately dropping mines whenever you are confident someone will hit them. You have to be careful though as hitting your own un-exploded mines on the next lap can be very devastating and will happen if you aren't careful.
Boss fights take place either on a modified race track or in an arena, which is a nice change of pace. They are generally pretty basic, although I found a few of them to be particularly well designed. One I'm thinking of forces you to use mines in a really interesting way, and another has the amount of energy you need to use balanced to a “T” so that if you win, you'll just barely survive.
Pushing the action along is the exciting soundtrack, which ranges from techno to movie-score style orchestration and mixtures of the two. The whole music suite is very well put together and enjoyable and matches the game's fusion of mythology and technology well.
The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, although the game is very short. I'd say it took me about 4 hours or so. It's quite a difficult game, but also short, so it's a strange mix. You have to do the levels over and over again to figure out how to take that boss out or the ideal route through a race, but the game is also over before you know it. There are a couple of bonus levels to check out after beating the game, but none of them held my interest for more than a few minutes.
I feel that The Next Penelope could have been improved by focusing a little more on racing and adding a lot more content. It would be great to have many more races to participate in with more of a focus on driving well over using equipment to get ahead, even though the current system is balanced quite well. It's just that I never felt like I'd won a race through good driving maneuvers; it was always because I had pushed my weapons and gadgets to the limit that I came out on top, and that's a weird feeling for a driving game. Kind of like Steamworld Dig, which I just reviewed recently, The Next Penelope feels like it doesn't believe in its central conceit enough to let it develop into a longer experience. Both games feature extraneous things you have to do that kind of dilute the central idea that you would rather be working on, and they both also cut you short when you feel like you should just be getting started. I would say that's just the nature of these small team (or single person) developed games, but there are so many examples of games made under those same conditions that have huge amounts of content. Maybe it's intentional on the part of the developers (I think Steamworld Dig's developers have said as much), which can make sense for some titles, but I don't think it's a good idea in either of these titles. The Next Penelope is a fun ride while it lasts though. It's a 3 out of 5.
Community review by Robotic_Attack (March 19, 2016)
Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.
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