Exploding through the Finish Line.
Who’d ever thought that a mix between Homer’s Odyssey and F-Zero would make so much sense? It still shocks me as I type this review how well the lore of classic Greek literature and the mechanics of a top down racing game meld so well in The Next Penelope. It’s definitely an idea that I’m surprised wasn’t thought up of sooner.
Though it’s labeled Early Access on Steam, The Next Penelope’s core single player content is 100% complete for players to beat. The campaign is quite short, clocking in at two to three hours, but within that time frame it fits in more mechanics than most racing games ever get to touch. The Next Penelope is a lean, mean, game with no fat to trim, giving players a stylishly complex experience. Anyone who has been looking for an intense arcade style racer (a genre that is severing lacking in the PC game market) is in for one hell of a ride.
In this futuristic retelling of The Odyssey players take control of Penelope, queen of the warring planet of Ithaca, on a quest to find her missing husband of twenty years, Odysseus. The year is 3044, and instead of using boats to resolve conflicts at sea, people race in small weaponized ships to solve their issues on the race track. As Penelope’s new suitors start becoming more impatient about her husband’s return, Penelope hops in on her own flying ship to pursue him herself.
As the introductory cut scene explaining the story fades to black, player are shown a simplistic control scheme of using the left and right arrows to steer. Accelerating is done automatically; there is no button to speed up or speed down. Then suddenly I was subjected to evade becoming hunted as a meal for a giant worm like creature. Right from the get go The Next Penelope showed me what kind of game it wants to be; a fast, think on your feet racer, that’s ready to swallow me whole (literally) if I didn’t turn fast enough at each corner. Once you survive this first introductory level, players are placed in a central hub world where they can choose which missions and planets to visit to find out clues to where Odysseus might lie.
From this point on, the game quickly ramps up in terms of difficulty, showing players a myriad of different weapons they can utilize to win races and defeat bosses. Each world you pick is split into three parts to make sure you know how to use each ability to its fullest extent: a challenge level to teach players how to use the mechanic, a race against your suitors to see how it can work in a racing environment, and a boss level to help you master the ability. Each planet has an interesting theme, ranging from arid deserts to bubbling lava pits, they also usually house a cast of other famous mythological characters such as Arachne and the Minotaur. Unfortunately, you have to beat all three levels before your progress can be saved. There is no option to continue half way through a planet or keep your new ability until you beat the boss at the end. Though this bugged me bit, this level structure is what kept The Next Penelope from getting stale. I was always on edge, waiting to see what new goodies lay in wait for my ship on the next planet.
Learning these abilities is however not the only method of tricking out your ship, you can also upgrade it with the experience points you can gather while racing. The ship’s speed, health, handling, and even camera angle can all be increased to sweeten up your ship’s already impressive arsenal.
There are six abilities to learn in The Next Penelope: a gun to shoot down enemy racers, a boost to help you smash through obstacles, a hook that can drag enemies back, mines that gives your ship health when your enemies hit them, teleportation that helps you evade enemy attacks, and a black hole crystal which turns enemy projectiles into experience points. By the time I reached the final planet I was chaining these abilities together with ease, finding the most efficient and ruthless ways to finish levels.
However, these flashy new tools come with a price. Each time you use one of the abilities it drains a little bit of your energy bar (your ship’s health in the game). So, if you’re reckless with how you use each of your ship’s abilities you might just end up exploding into shrapnel half way through a race, or as the game’s game over screen says, “wrecked”. This constant management of resources combined with driving your ship, makes The Next Penelope one of the most challenging racing games I’ve played. If I wasn’t looking at my energy meter, my eyes were constantly glued on to the road making sure I wasn’t being bombarded with enemy fire or driving too fast on a hairpin turn. Every race won and boss beaten felt like a monumental task, and gave me a sense of exhilarating accomplishment. The Next Penelope demands player perfection in these aspects, and this is where a few of my complaints arise.
While the management of your own energy adds another layer of complexity to The Next Penelope, it also became a burden in some levels. The greatest enemy in The Next Penelope is your own energy bar; this is especially true in the uneven boss fights where sometimes the only way to recover your health is to strategically lay mines throughout the stage. For example, in the Minotaur boss fight there is no need to place mines since are energy pads laid around the track where players can just simply drive over to recover a bit of their health to carry on their fight. In contrast, in the Arachne fight you must lay out mines in one of the four directions Arachne can jump towards or areas where they can round up her hard to hit minion bots. If players miss these vital opportunities they would eventually run into the mines themselves resulting in double the energy loss.
The final boss fight(s) also feels extremely out of place in a top down racing combat game. Instead of having a final show down that forces players to use all the skills they’ve learned so far in an exciting race, the game changes perspective to a side scrolling shoot em up level. The movement in this level also feels sluggish compared to the sharp control players had of their ship throughout the whole game. Not to say the battle wasn’t fun, it just felt awkward to spend the game’s final moments in an point of view that seems to defeat the whole purpose of what it wanted to be from the beginning. Even with this sudden visual change, the concept of mine placement is more evident that ever in the level. Every second you’re not being fired at should be spent flanking the enemy and spamming the mine button to ensure you have enough health when the next round of attacks come around.
Thankfully, the visuals and audio of The Next Penelope is top notch, helping the already tight racing gameplay shine brighter. Even when it tries to be like a spiritual successor to games like F-Zero, Death Rally, and other classic top down racing games, The Next Penelope creates a unique identity of its own with how it looks. Its sharp, but simple geometric art style and bright eye popping color palette, makes the game feel like the perfect combination of old school aestethics with new technology. The same is done with the character art, making Penelope, Odysseus, and Poseidon all seem like something out of an animated sci-fi show for kids. The high tension sound track full of fast electronic beats always hypes me up for the next race, and each weapon on my vehicle has a distinct sound effect that lets me know what a badass I've become every time I use them.
- The risk and reward combat system keeps the action intense.
- Controls are tight and responsive.
- The variation of level types and abilities are robust.
- Both music and graphics feel retro, but at the same time modern.
- Interesting premise that borrows from Greek Mythology.
- Some boss levels feel a bit cruel.
- The game feels a bit on the short side.
The Next Penelope is a shamefully short game that feels like it just ends when it finally gets all its cylinders firing. Despite this, The Next Penelope never feels like an unrealized game. While I did wish to see my ship’s abilities to be fleshed out more, the game does an excellent job of giving an adrenaline filled experience in a small doses. Since its initial release time trial levels have been added in the game, and while these levels do extend the game's longevity, I just wish there were just a couple more core planet levels to race. The game also ran fantastic on my Macbook Air, running at a constant 60 frames per second with no real hiccups. For all it has in it right now, I feel that the $9.99 price tag is the perfect price for such a frantic racing experience.
The Next Penelope is being developed by one guy, Aurelien Regard. He is very active on his steam forums, and plans to add a four player multiplayer mode soon which will definitely extend the life of The Next Penelope. The game will eventually go up to $14.99 when the game exits Early Access, so grab it at this cheaper early price.