As a 2D platformer, Freedom Planet draws much of its inspiration from classic Sonic the Hedgehog. The game exhibits a riveting sense of speed, lively retro visuals and music, and clever level design packed with exciting touches. Challenging large-scale boss fights typically reserved for 2D side-scrolling shoot ’em ups, such as Gunstar Heroes and Contra, are frequent and satisfying. There’s great ambition in what Freedom Planet manages to blend together, and while some of its highest moments are accompanied by a few blemishes that are difficult to look past, it’s still a joy to play.
Freedom Planet’s story starts out simple: when an alien force invades the peaceful planet of anthropomorphic protagonists Lilac, Carol, and Milla, the three are called upon to help thwart the tyrannical ambitions of its evil leader, Lord Brevon. Despite sounding rudimentary, the story makes a big show of itself with lengthy cutscenes interspersed between each of its 10 stages. There’s a great amount of detail written into the world and surrounding lore with characters and locations given more background than you’d expect.
Unfortunately, none of this development ever amounts to anything remarkable or intriguing, often relying on a bevy of tropes to push the narrative forward. What’s worse is the main cast’s painfully overacted performances, which results in a litany of cringeworthy moments in both funny and serious scenes. It is possible to play the game in Classic Mode, which removes all the story cutscenes. While this benefits the experience as a whole, you simply wouldn’t know this to be the best way to play the game without having experienced the mediocrity of its writing and presentation first.
Where Freedom Planet is likely to hook you is in its level design. There’s a ton of pleasure to be had zipping to and fro across the varied multi-lane pathways of each stage, which feature a wealth of loops to pass and well-placed hazards to avoid. The routes are generally easy to navigate with brief platforming challenges that keep you moving from one pathway to the next. Like the 2D Sonic games that inspired it, Freedom Planet’s stages are split across two parts, but the separation between them isn’t heavily signposted, instead pushing you from one section to the next as soon as a boss is defeated. This subtle shift increases your time spent running across stages, and as each one comes to close, you’ll feel a stronger sense of accomplishment to the trials and tribulations you experienced in your journey through it.
Each stage exudes its own personality, and there’s plenty of visual diversity present. You’ll clear through shopping malls inspired by Chinese-motifs, explore bamboo forests, and cross a fleet of airships. There’s some decent pixelated art on display, but a lot of it appears flat with textures from the foreground and background often blending together, which can cause minor inconveniences during certain platforming challenges.
Speaking of which, a higher focus on platforming provides some welcomed respite from racing towards a stage’s finish line. In addition, you’ll often stick around in some areas to engage in melee combat against crowds of enemies. All of this is aided by how each of the three playable characters have their own distinct modes of navigation and combat. While Lilac can use her Dragon Boost ability to instantly zip across the environment and make short work of enemies in her way, the more combat-oriented Carol and defense-focused Milla have to rely on their pounce and energy shield abilities, respectively, in order to pick up speed and dispatch foes. Each of their abilities lead you toward new paths you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise, and you’re rewarded for putting in the time as other characters, as they occasionally get their own stages designed specifically around their abilities.
Bookending Freedom Planet’s stages are boss fights that are as tough as they are ostentatious. They’re not too demanding at first, but as you progress, they start to require advanced tactics that test both your timing and reflexes. There’s an impressive sense of scale to the battles. One fight has you dueling against a giant robotic mantis who jumps all around the battlefield to slice you, while another has you engaging in a high-speed chase with an an evil snake mercenary piloting a massive dog mech. These moments are some of Freedom Planet’s most memorable, especially because each character has very different ways of dealing with them. Lilac has to rely on her standard melee and jumping spin attacks to hit bosses, using her Dragon Boost to fly up in the air to avoid screen-filling attacks. On the other hand, Carol doesn’t have the same conveniences as Lilac, instead relying on precision platforming and her wall jump ability to avoid larger boss attacks.
Lilac and Carol are the definite highlights of the roster, as their utilitarian movesets make them a joy to use. Both characters are rewarding to play in their own right, providing their own unique thrills and challenges. However, the same can’t be said for Milla, whose abilities feel more like an afterthought to round out the pack. Compared to her more able-bodied comrades, Milla lacks any meaningful way to quickly pick up speed, which often slows down the pacing of levels that are more built around moving swiftly. Her energy shield’s short range is a pain to use, and its various attacks aren’t all that functional when you’re moving through areas filled with enemies due to their slow startup.
Milla’s abilities are admittedly entertaining to use against bosses–whose difficult patterns oftentimes feel more built around the abilities of Lilac and Carol. At times, these instances feel like they’re weighed against you, but they often pave way to tense and fulfilling uphill battles that demand you to act more defensively. A momentary satisfaction, this sense of reward quickly wears off when you begin a new stage and realize just how much you’re bypassing threats simply because of how long it takes for Milla to fight against normal enemies.
Despite echoing the design of early 2D Sonic games, Freedom Planet manages to create its own take on the formula that’s well worth playing. For a game that emphasizes tightly-paced stage design and challenging boss fights, it’s disappointing that the game’s story never reaches the same heights. But if you have any vested interest in Sonic-like games or 2D action-platformers, you’d be remiss not to add this one to your queue–just make sure to play in Classic Mode.