Longstanding readers will know that here on MoeGamer, I dislike focusing on negativity; rather, I much prefer to make a specific effort to try and “find the good” in games, particularly those that have had a rough deal from the mainstream press or community.
Sometimes, however, “the good” is so blatantly obvious that you can’t help but be taken aback by it somewhat. This may not happen often, but when it does, it really leaves an impression on you.
The most recent game where this has happened to me is GalaxyTrail’s Freedom Planet, quite possibly one of the finest video games I have ever played.
Freedom Planet first came out for Windows PC in 2014, and there’s quite an interesting story behind it: it began life as a Sonic the Hedgehog fangame. This will not be surprising to anyone who has actually played Freedom Planet, but over time, creator Stephen “Strife” DiDuro decided that remaining too closely affiliated with Sonic would hold the game back.
Sonic Mania — essentially a fangame given Sega’s official blessing — was still a good few years off, after all, and thus it was reasonable to assume that however good DiDuro’s creation was, it would only ever have a limited audience, and would not be able to make any money without the risk of Sega’s lawyers coming crashing down on the project.
Writing on ModDB in 2012, DiDuro noted that he “felt more and more like it was becoming a waste of time because I was ultimately creating something in the shadow of an established franchise, and that it would never truly be my own work”. As such, he decided to design his own protagonist — but met with little success.
He needed help, it seems, and so he turned to the various online artist communities for inspiration, eventually stumbling across Chinese artist Ziyo Ling on DeviantArt, who had created a series of original characters that DiDuro felt would be ideal for his project — particularly the purple dragon Sash Lilac, who looked decidedly Sonic-inspired, but had enough unique features about her to clearly distinguish her.
“The design of this character captivated me from the beginning,” continued DiDuro, “as well as the designs of her two companions, Carol and Milla. I felt that the three of them combined would present me with a lot of opportunities for interesting character dynamics. So, I asked Ziyo for permission to use them in the project. She was very excited at the idea of her characters appearing in a game, so she agreed to let me use them.”
And something very special was born.
The world of Freedom Planet, known as Avalice, is populated by anthropomorphic animals with a level of technology similar to what we currently enjoy on Earth, and architecture that pays homage to that found in East Asia, particularly China. There’s a bit of a difference from our world, though; the majority of Avalice’s energy comes from an artifact known as the Kingdom Stone.
As the story opens, an extraterrestrial warlord known as Lord Brevon has crashed to the surface of Avalice, and seeks the Kingdom Stone as a means of repairing his vessel and continuing his galactic conquest. Thinking quickly, Brevon hatches a plan to manipulate the three main kingdoms of Avalice into fighting one another, thereby weakening one another and providing less resistance to his attempts to capture the Stone. He begins as he means to go on: by beheading the king of Shuigang and brainwashing crown prince Dail to do his bidding.
Elsewhere, another ship crashes to the ground near the home of Sash Lilac the dragon and Carol Tea the wildcat, two adventurous youngsters who immediately rush off to see what on Earth is happening. The occupant was another extraterrestrial named Torque, who initially claims to be a “shellduck” in an attempt to blend in with Avalice’s population (and follow his people’s Prime Directive not to interfere with planets that are not yet spacefarers). Upon realising he’s definitely not fooling the rather perceptive Lilac and Carol with his disguise, he reveals his true nature as the last remaining member of the Spectrum Chasers — a force dedicated to intergalactic peacekeeping — and explains the situation with Lord Brevon. From here, a grand adventure begins.
Freedom Planet can be played in two distinct ways. “Classic” mode simply allows you to pick one of the three playable characters — Lilac, Carol or Milla — and play through all of the game’s side-scrolling platform stages in order. “Adventure” mode, meanwhile, gives each character a unique sequence of stages to play through as, along with fully voiced cutscenes that tell the full story of how Torque and “Team Lilac” (a collective moniker that Lilac herself is not altogether comfortable with) aim to battle Brevon and protect the Kingdom Stone.
Regardless of how you play, Freedom Planet’s playable stages unfold like the 32-bit 2D pixel art Sonic the Hedgehog game that we never got. We’re talking high-speed, beautifully detailed environments, characters with abilities that are used as much for traversal as they are for defeating enemies, and non-linear pathways to the finish line, encouraging exploration and experimentation.
Each of the three characters play very differently.
Lilac is the fastest of the team, and is capable of whipping enemies with her hair Shantae–style, as well as double-jumping into the air as a “Dragon Cyclone”, performing a Dragon Punch-style uppercut or charging up for a moment before boosting at high speed either horizontally or diagonally upwards in a “Dragon Boost”.
Carol, meanwhile, is still reasonably speedy but lacks Lilac’s double jump and boost abilities. However, she is able to cling onto walls and repeatedly jump up them to “climb”. Her attacks are also considerably faster than Lilac’s, consisting of a rapid combo of punches as her basic attack, and a Chun Li-style flurry of kicks as a special move. She is also able to summon a motorcycle any time she discovers a gas can in a stage, and this can be used to get around more quickly without sacrificing her mobility abilities; she can even still climb ladders and hang from handholds while mounted.
Finally, Milla is a strong contrast from the others, having considerably less health and speed. Her abilities to raise a shield and create blocks give her stages a distinctly more “puzzle platformer” feel with more than a hint of Super Mario Bros. 2; it’s a very enjoyable change from the more speedy gameplay of the other two.
The gameplay is smooth and handles extremely well, with responsive controls and a nice balance between the 16-bit Sonic games’ sometimes unforgiving physics-based platforming and more modern, refined approaches to the genre. Combat has a lovely sense of impact and weight to it thanks to a combination of hitstun and solid sound effects, and it’s a genuine pleasure to get around the various levels in different ways according to who you’re playing as.
In Adventure mode, the choice of character also alters the perspective of the story you see. At various points throughout the narrative, the three characters split up and do different things; in a few cases, they visit completely different stages to the other. They usually end up reconvening for the next story beats, with a few exceptions.
The narrative is very much worth talking about at this point. Despite the game being rated as suitable for those 10 and older, and while there absolutely is light-hearted humour throughout… there’s a distinctly dark, mature tone to it all — and the juxtaposition between the occasionally horrific events of the story and the candy-coloured visuals give the whole game a really unsettling atmosphere. If you’ve ever played Cave Story, it’s a similar kind of feel to that; it looks cute and cartoony, but this is all a ruse; it absolutely hides a heart of absolute bleakest, blackest darkness that I find quite upsetting, so I shudder to think how a young child would take to it!
A big part of this is antagonist Brevon, who is one of the most horrendously amoral villains I’ve seen in any game. He justifies his actions as him doing the best thing for his home planet, but he doesn’t hesitate to murder, mutilate and torture over the course of the narrative — and we get to see all of it in full, traumatic, emotionally scarring detail.
The buildup to the four “Final Dreadnought” stages and the climactic boss encounters at the end of the game is handled wonderfully; the stakes are raised quickly and by a massive amount, and you’re presented with a formidable, terrifying challenge to overcome. If you’ve been engaging fully with the story in Adventure mode up until this point, it’s impossible not to enter the home stretch of the game with your heart in your mouth. It’s thrilling, it’s dramatic and you’re kept constantly guessing if everything really will turn out all right by the end; it’s exactly what a good finale should be.
To say too much more would be to spoil the experience of encountering these stages for the first time, so let’s return to the gameplay for a moment and contemplate a real highlight of the whole package: the boss battles.
Freedom Planet begins deceptively simply, with fairly straightforward levels and bosses that don’t seem to be overly challenging to defeat. By about the fourth or fifth stage, though, the gloves are well and truly off, and you’ll be coming up against bosses that demand careful observation of their attack patterns and the ability to take advantage of often narrow windows of opportunity to deal damage.
The wonderful thing about the bosses is that they frequently seem completely and utterly impossible the first time you encounter them, but in every case you’ll encounter a clear “Eureka!” moment when you realise what it is you’re supposed to do. The game never holds your hand in this regard; it simply provides you with enough freedom and opportunity to experiment that you always feel like you stumbled across the “correct” strategy to win yourself, rather than being spoonfed the solution.
This is especially apparent in the aforementioned finale sequence, which — in Adventure mode, at least — takes the masterful stroke of using your own emotions against you. Prior to the Very Definitely Final Battle, there’s a particularly dramatic cutscene full of screaming and yelling that is clearly designed to both be awesome and to elevate your heart rate to dangerous levels. You want Brevon dead when that fight starts, and the game knows this, luring you into dangerous situations and hitting you with devastating attacks if you just try to go in flailing in a blind rage. Which you absolutely will want to do.
Freedom Planet is just a beautifully designed game that caters to a wide variety of players. Want a dramatic, emotionally engaging story? It’s got it. Want some good humour with likeable, adorable characters? Right here. Want some well-designed levels to explore? Come on in. Want some challenging boss fights to test your skills? Yep, here too. And want plenty of post-game challenges such as collectible cards, achievements and time attack stages? You guessed it. Also the music is fucking great.
If you’ve somehow passed up Freedom Planet up until now, I encourage you to rectify this at the earliest opportunity. It’s an absolutely unforgettable experience — and I cannot wait to see the adventure the sequel will take us on.
The MoeGamer Compendium, Volume 1 is now available! Grab a copy today for a beautiful physical edition of the Cover Game features originally published in 2016.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
If you’d like to support the site and my work on it, please consider becoming a Patron — click here or on the button below to find out more about how to do so. From just $1 a month, you can get access to daily personal blog updates and exclusive members’ wallpapers featuring the MoeGamer mascots.