Before playing The Next Penelope, I did some reading on the Early Access page on Steam about the title and discovered that the number of developers working on it was one. Just one. A single guy managing the coding, art direction, animation and music. A lot of time and care has gone in to what’s currently developed and being presented, and it shows.
The game’s basic premise is based off of the Odyssey of Greek mythology fame. While Odysseus is mentioned, the story chooses to focus on his wife Penelope instead. She must grudgingly work for the God Poseidon in order to save her people in Ithaca and find her missing husband. The story serves as a nice backdrop for the game, and gives it the flare that makes it unique. Because of that, I want to talk a bit first about the presentation of the game before we get down to brass tacks, because a lot of effort was put into the overall look of the game.
"The story serves as a nice backdrop for the game, and gives it the flare that makes it unique."
The art direction here is clear and for the most part, well executed. With the combination of white pillars and neon lights, we’re presented with a neo-Greco look. There are times where the two elements seem to clash more than combine, but on the whole it works. All of the bosses are based off of creatures and figures from Greek mythology, and their levels are designed to reflect their personalities. Due to this, the game succeeds in never making you feel like you’re trudging through samey environments. There’s no recycling of assets here. Other small touches like the flickering of character windows when they speak, the UI reacting when you take damage and seeing your ship rocket off into space on win screens keep the game engaging. The music is also quite good and adds an extra bit of personality of the levels.
With all of that being said, let’s get in to the actual game play. The Next Penelope is an overhead racing game, and an unforgiving one at that. Since it is on PC, you have the option to use either the keyboard or a controller. The game recommends a controller, and having tried both I agree. I was using a Dual Shock 4 controller, as it’s my personal preference. The buttons are mapped out to work on the X-box controller, but you don’t lose anything using the DS4. Either way, it was much easier to manage my abilities using buttons versus trying to remember which keys to keep my fingers on. Everything’s just a little more at hand on a controller. Which is good, because you will be making constant use of the abilities given to you just to eke out a win.
"The game succeeds in never making you feel like you’re trudging through samey environments. There’s no recycling of assets here."
Spamming your abilities however, will result in your death due to the fact that your life and your power supply are the same thing. Everything filters out from your energy bar. When you run out of energy, you’re done for. This means that both dealing damage and taking it result in the same effect and you need to be choosy as to when to use your abilities. There are places on the track were you can recover energy, and one of your weapons will bring back double the energy put out to deploy it should someone run in to it, but these aren’t always options. This is where the main challenge of the game is. Winning while preventing your own death.
The actual handling of the ship is fairly loose, and takes some serious getting used to if this is not the kind of game you typically play. The tutorial spans three levels, and goes from being incredibly simple to brutally punishing. Over all, I feel like this game had an issue with pacing the difficulty. Even in your fist race, a less than perfect run equals being lapped and having no hope of winning.
"While I appreciated the break from racing and enjoyed the dramatic presentation, all of the skills I’d learned and honed on the race track were then irrelevant in the boss battles."
What’s more, I found the bosses of each level to be far easier than the races. It made for what felt like a very uneven experience. I’d spend dozens of tries on a race course and just scrape a win out of it and then blow right through the boss level like it was nothing. This is most likely due to the fact that the bosses play more like a shmup game instead of a racing game. While I appreciated the break from racing and enjoyed the dramatic presentation, all of the skills I’d learned and honed on the race track were then irrelevant in the boss battles. Yes, I would be forced to use whatever weapon I was given that level, but I was also thrown out into a larger, more forgiving space. I think the most tries a boss took was two, where as I must have tried about thirty times on some of the race tracks.
"The Next Penelope has a lot of potential with some more development time, and I know the designer is listening to the input of his players."
General difficulty issues aside, the other problem I found was the gathering of experience points and leveling up. Each of the tracks are littered with XP points, and you’re also given more hefty sums after each level complete and finished boss battle. But as a player I want to buy upgrades to my ship, not features that make the game more playable. Dumping points into an option to make the ship handle more like it should have from the start feels terrible. I ended up farming xp by constantly beating the same boss over and over just so I could have features that to me, should have been there from the start. Not all of the leveling up options are problematic though. Some of them end up being great additions to the game.
On the whole, I enjoyed The Next Penelope. I think it has a lot of potential with some more development time, and I know the designer is listening to the input of his players. As it stands, it definitely is built more for the player who either already has an aptitude for this type of game, or someone who enjoys honing a new skill. The easily discouraged will most likely be turned off from the game, which is a shame. I feel like with some difficulty tweaking, or some difficulty options, the game could be much better.
Review by: Erin Conley | Reviewed on: PC