If I didn’t already know going in, it would’ve taken just a few minutes of playing Penny’s Big Breakaway to hazard a guess that it’s a game by the folks behind one of the most celebrated modern Sonic the Hedgehog games, Sonic Mania. Now working as Evening Star, an LA studio formed in 2018, these aren’t just ex-Sonic devs but ex-Sonic devs that got their start as hardcore Sonic fans. Who better then, to craft a brand-new IP that takes some of the most compelling design ideas from that franchise and spins them into a fresh, 3D platforming adventure?
I was recently able to spend a couple of hours with Penny’s Big Breakaway, playing through the first handful of worlds, and those Sonic influences are both clear and a huge part of what will be this game’s appeal. I was personally drawn in by the colourful, abstract visual style and creative gameplay ideas, but it wasn’t until I dug in for myself that the potential beyond that became much more clear.
The basics first though – Penny’s Big Breakaway puts players in the shoes of the titular Penny, an aspiring street performer who finds herself on an impromptu adventure and on the run after a chance encounter ruins her audition with the local Emperor and turns her yo-yo into a living creature (appropriately named Yo-Yo). Armed with her new friend, Penny must move through a series of worlds to escape an army of the Emperor’s penguins (heh), clear her name and get to the bottom of the mysterious Cosmic String that started this whole charade.
Yo-Yo forms the crucial point of difference in this game amongst your garden variety 3D platformer. The vast majority of Penny’s moveset relies on the momentum of her yo-yo tricks, from swinging it out in front to rapidly pull her in a particular direction, to hooking it onto poles or ziplines and riding it across dangerous surfaces or down slopes to gain speed. A stand-out for me is the ability for Penny to spin Yo-Yo in place in mid-air and then use that as an anchor point to swing from, which is much more graceful and impressive in motion than it is in words. It all comes together to make Penny and Yo-Yo a super dynamic and acrobatic pair and lends a distinctly unique feel to platforming. The controls do a great job of supporting it too, with a lot of flexibility and even the option to launch and swing the yo-yo in 360 degrees with the right analogue stick, Ape Escape-style.
The campaign in Penny’s Big Breakaway is comprised of a number of distinct themed worlds with a handful of mostly-linear levels in each. From as many as I played in this preview, each of these levels does a great job of offering up a unique suite of interesting and inventive platforming challenges that continually build on Penny and Yo-Yo’s skillset and the players’ steadying command of them. Much like the typical Sonic the Hedgehog titles, a lot of them have multiple potential routes through, and there are plenty of collectables and added challenges to find if you’re a completionist. A fair few of the levels I played also had unique gimmicks that transform Yo-Yo temporarily with new powers, which is another great old-school 3D platforming tribute.
The crucial thing that this game’s target audience is really going to latch onto though, is the potential for some ridiculous speed-running and score chasing action. Every aspect of the game’s design is set up to create opportunities for some super high-level play, whether it’s finding increasingly absurd lines through levels or flashy, point-scoring trick sequences. Pairing Penny up with a sentient yo-yo is just the perfect fit for this whole setup, even if I don’t think I’ll personally ever be one of those skilled players given I did struggle with the controls and camera angles at points – though I suspect a lot of that is a me problem.
If I have a gripe this early on, it’s that the game’s only real “enemies,” the penguin army, are a bit of a momentum killer when you’re trying to do well within each level. They’re a novel idea – swarms of clumsy penguins bursting out of the scenery at inopportune moments to capture you and send you back to a checkpoint – but more often than not they just become a barrier to the fun parts of the game. The couple of boss battles I tried, on the other hand, were a ton of fun with creative designs and truly unique mechanics.
And naturally, since this is coming from the minds behind the Retro Engine powering those modern 2D Sonic games, there’s yet again a really great visual representation of a forgotten time in gaming – this time in the early era of 3D. Powered by the new “Star Engine,” Penny’s Big Breakaway is hugely reminiscent of those classic SEGA Saturn titles like Nights Into Dreams or Manmaru the Ninja Penguin with basic but strongly-stylised geometry, a bright colour palette and energetic animation. There are some great effects going on to really dial in on the mid-90s vibe, and it runs incredibly well, which makes it all the more effective.
I’m really keen to get my hands around even more of Penny’s Big Breakaway after this small taste and spend the time to get properly good at it, but I think most of all I’m excited for the gaming community at large to get into it and start showing off some of those incredible runs. The game launches at some point soon in 2024 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch and PC.