Combinations. Sometimes they work really well. Most of us like peanut butter with chocolate, fluff, or jelly. In gaming, we often see developers experiment with different elements from one genre, and blending it with elements from another. The Next Penelope is one of many such games. But the components it assembles are far more removed from one another in comparison to other titles.
PROS: Minimalist art style works well.
CONS: Technical hitches. Lack of options. A.I.
HOMER: Expect Iliad, and Odyssey references.
The Next Penelope bills itself as a top-down racer in the vein of the old Codemasters Micro Machines games that appeared on the NES, and Sega Genesis. But in reality that’s only one part of the game. The Next Penelope utilizes these kinds of races, but attempts to cross-pollinate them with bits of F-Zero. You can boost, which drains the health of your vehicle, and you can drive over pit stop lanes to repair your vehicle.
But it doesn’t stop there. The game also includes elements of vertical, and horizontal shoot ’em up games like Raiden, and R-Type. As with the boost mechanic, using the weapons throughout the game will also drain your vehicle health meter. There are several great weapons to use throughout the campaign, and you’ll find that they’re almost always the key to victory.
So how does the game work? The Next Penelope references Homer’s Odyssey. From the subtitle; Race To Odysseus, to names of characters, and places from the epic poem. In this game you play as Penelope who is trying to get to Ulysses. But in order to do so you’ll have to go to different star systems, and proceed to win different racing circuits. The reality is that each of these circuits has one race. Each circuit lists three races, but only the second race is actually a race. Your first race is usually a trial where you have to master one of the weapons or abilities. Complete that task, and then you’ll enter a race. A race you have to place first in. If you don’t win, you can’t advance. Winning the race will put you up against a boss for the third event. If you defeat the boss, you’ll get to take the weapon you gained in the first event with you through the rest of the game.
You can technically, go through the game in any order you want, a la Mega Man. But the game really wants you to go in a specific order. Because you’ll quickly find the races are almost impossible to win without the weapon or item required. Where as in Capcom’s games starring the Blue Bomber, you can get through an entire stage using only an arm cannon, here you can’t. You won’t even beat the course required to get to the boss to use your weapon on, without said weapon. That’s because the rubber band A.I. in this game is ridiculous. Even if you lead three laps because you’re good enough to do it, the last lap you will be bombarded with enemy racers’ firepower, and get overtaken.
Over the course of the game you’ll get laser guns, a teleportation device, a grappling hook, and even a cloud that turns bullets into experience points. Win the races, and it’s off to fight a boss. Admittedly, the boss fights are some of the best parts of The Next Penelope. Most of them are pretty creative, and involve some level of puzzle solving skills on your part. There are a few that are disappointing though, because they boil down to trial, and error gameplay as opposed to the puzzle solving twitch action of the better ones. Still, these are where most of the fun times happen.
That isn’t to say the racing is terrible. Most of the tracks have some pretty cool designs, and you’ll have to get your turns just right, to drift around a corner or make a jump over a gap safely. Tracks have some interesting hazards too, like flooded streets, blockades that require specific items to avoid, and even have shortcuts that require expert timing, and speed to use. What kills the fun a bit is the aforementioned A.I. if you thought some of the old Mario Kart, Need For Speed, or Cruisin‘ games had cheap CPU racers, you’ll have flashbacks when playing this. The pain is doubled when you realize this game has the same steering scheme as games like Super Sprint. Your space car also moves automatically, so you can’t brake around corners, or to avoid hitting something.
Thankfully the controls are responsive, and if you don’t want to use the classic D-Pad controls, you can use the triggers on your controller to steer left, or right. Once you have a handle on them, and you get a few circuits in, it will become a lot more manageable as the items, and weapons will help keep you in the lead a lot. Once you’ve gotten through a set of races you can move along a star map to the next set you want to attempt. There are also extra courses you can attempt. But these won’t be playable until you’ve completed the campaign for the first time. You’ll also earn XP throughout the game, and there is a store on the star map where you can spend your XP on upgrades. In my time with the game, I found it best to wait until near the end to do this, but you can also go into the shop whenever you want between circuits.
Once you beat all of the main circuits, you’ll be able to enter the final showdown. This is a two boss rush. Here the game ceases to be a top-down racer, and becomes a horizontal shmup. What makes these fights challenging is that the game continues to use the F-Zero drain mechanics from the races. So as you shoot at the bosses you’ll drain your health. Beating these guys will take careful resource management, and all of your cunning.
The story here isn’t particularly great. It references Homer’s poems a number of ways, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s really just there to set up each of the circuits so that the boss encounters make more sense. On the plus side, the artwork is very nice. It could easily pass for one of the late 90’s action shows that aired on Cartoon Network with minimalist designs that are accented with a wonderful use of color. This moves into the mainline game graphics too, which use an interesting blend of background tile art, and shaded shapes for the vehicles, and characters. It reminded me a bit of Another World’s look. vehicles appear to be almost like models when in actuality they’re an animated series of sprites. It’s pretty impressive for a such a small game.
The Next Penelope isn’t a bad game, by any means. But it isn’t going to be for everyone. The worst part of the experience is the brutal A.I., and there are a number of technical hitches in it that don’t help. Sometimes the game will hiccup for no apparent reason. I played the game on both my gaming desktop that far exceeds the requirements, and an old laptop. In both cases they came up at arbitrary times. It didn’t matter if I had the settings maxed or set to minimum. The game also has a CRT filter you can enable. Again, sometimes this would happen with or without simulated scan lines. In my case I had been playing for a few hours before it would happen. But when it did it was awful, as it would cause me to drive off course, or crash into an obstacle. I don’t know if this happens on any of the console versions as I haven’t played those. There was also the strange omission of any kind of volume controls in the game. This makes it a tough game to stream as you can’t just go in, and lower the sound if it drowns out your voice. Instead you’ll have to go tweak your system’s microphone, and sound settings. Which isn’t always a simple task depending on your configuration.
That said, it’s worth experiencing if you’re looking for something a little bit different to play. It looks nice, controls fine, and there are some truly fun moments in it. But only the truly devoted will go through the bonus missions, or care to accomplish all of the game’s achievement milestones. It’s not a terrible game, but don’t expect the moon either. If you come into it looking for something on par with an F-Zero or Wipeout game, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if you’re open-minded, and want to try something new, you might be surprised.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10