penny's big breakaway

Penny’s Big Breakaway Review – It’s Got Ups And Downs

A new spin on classic 3D platforming.

As someone whose first ever video game console was a hand-me-down SEGA Master System with a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog, I pretty regularly find myself in search of the sweet nectar of nostalgia for those old-school experiences. Usually though, when I happen to sit down to some form of retro collection, classic port or even a loving homage like Sonic Mania, I’m pretty quickly humbled by the unforgiving nature of an early 90s platformer no many how many dimensions it’s in.

Penny’s Big Breakaway, a brand-new 3D platformer from the folks behind Mania (under the new banner of Evening Star), swings freely between modern design and concessions, and those same razor-thin margins for success that cause adult me to wonder how child me ever finished a video game. It’s a noble pursuit, and one that this game very nearly nails with some soaring highs, but it’s held back by frustrating lows.

A bit of context first, though. Penny’s Big Breakaway stars the titular Penny, a spinster yo-yo artist attempting to pull herself up from the busking life by auditioning for the Emperor himself. Before the show though, Penny’s yo-yo becomes powered-up by a “cosmic string” and given sentience, going on to make a mess of things and painting her a wanted fugitive by the Emperor and his army of penguins. This kicks off her adventure through 11 distinct worlds full of obstacles and angry penguins, armed with her toothy new toy.

It mightn’t come as a surprise, but said yo-yo forms the basis of this game’s unique core mechanics and design, giving Penny an acrobatic moveset and a sense of momentum that really manages to capture the feeling of those early 2D and 3D Sonic games, albeit at a more measured pace. Levels are designed specifically to keep Penny moving along, and the game’s somewhat-unorthodox controls exist to service that same goal, encouraging players to hit Tony Hawk-esque lines and keep a combo going as they navigate the 40-odd stages on offer. The penguins who’ll accost and capture you if you let too many of them get near are a neat way to add encouragement to hoof it as well as you can.

penny's big breakaway

Technical mastery of the game is also supported by the tracking of both your time and your skills in each level, with a score at the end as proof of how fast, thorough and cool you were throughout. The team at Evening Star has done a pretty commendable job of making sure that levels still feel fun if you’re taking them at your own pace, but the desire to perform eventually takes hold and that’s when a lot of the design really comes into its own. There’s a heap of replayability that comes with it, as well, with better performance in levels leading to more tokens to spend on bite-sized bonus stages as well as a gallery of unlockable goodies.

Unfortunately there are factors holding back all of that fun. Some, like the consistent bugs where Penny will clip through environments and get stuck or fall to her death, or the player’s controls will lock up unexpectedly, are hopefully part of an update plan. Others, like often-unfair checkpointing and controls that aren’t always up to the task, are more inherent frustrations that definitely dull the experience.

penny's big breakaway

Penny’s controls are nicely set up to allow for some pretty novel traversal mechanics, like hopping aboard her yo-yo and riding it down slopes and across environment hazards or spinning it in mid-air as an anchor to swing from. The trouble starts though, when these interact or the player needs to go from one to another in quick succession. Even after completing the game in its entirety and coming close to nabbing its platinum trophy on PS5, I haven’t gotten the hang of throwing the yo-yo to smack a barrel or enemy without accidentally doing a dash move that sends me flying into the abyss, nor can I get my head around having to press the “ride” button to stop riding my yo-yo before I can use it for any other move.

Yes, some of that could be considered a skill issue and there’s definitely a particular rhythm to it that’s rewarding to master, but some minor tweaks would have made the whole thing flow the way it should with far more grace. Boss encounters, much like those of early-era 3D platformers, veer wildly between excellence and travesty, but that could certainly be written off as homage at a stretch.

penny's big breakaway

Despite all that, there’s something so intoxicating about Penny’s Big Breakaway that keeps me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the remarkable soundtrack that’s as bop-worthy as some of the 90s’ best, or the visuals which similarly evoke a time forgotten while offering the kind of rock-solid performance on consoles that its platforming requires – developed on the bespoke Star Engine, no less. Whatever it is, it’s nostalgia-fuelled heaven when it works, and only slightly infuriating when it doesn’t.

penny's big breakaway
Penny's Big Breakaway is a melting pot of fresh ideas and slow-cooked nostalgia that'll caress the palate of the speedrunners and score-chasers out there, while potentially cooling a little thanks to some technical flubs and awkward controls. If you've got a hunger for Saturn and Dreamcast-era 3D platformers you'll be more than satiated here.
Novel, momentum-based platforming
Easy enough to pick up with a high skill ceiling
Vibrant, retro-inspired visuals and great performance
Banger of a soundtrack
Frustrating bugs
Some exhausting checkpointing
Controls aren't always up to the task