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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Penny's Big Breakaway is 2024's best Dreamcast game

Updated: May 31

Penny's Big Breakaway is all about excitement. Revealed in a Nintendo Direct in 2021, developed by one of the most exciting new teams of the current era, and released suddenly, Penny's Big Breakaway had all the potential to be the next big mascot platformer's breakout.

Does it make the grade? Should Sonic and Mario be quaking in their boots? Well that all depends on how you feel about yo-yos. Let's walk the dog, go around the world, rock the baby, and find out how we feel on the other end.

An in-game screenshot of Penny's Big Breakaway. Penny is diving through the air away from a giant ball of penguins that is rolling toward her on a narrow street.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Evening Star

Publisher: Private Division

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch

Price: $29.99

Release Date: Feb. 21, 2024

Review key provided by publisher.

The early '00s are so back

Penny's Big Breakaway comes to us from Evening Star, a team most known for revitalizing the Sonic brand with their hit 2017 2D Sonic remix, Sonic Mania. One of the most talked about things in the lead up to Sonic Mania was the team's background as fan game developers. They'd cut their teeth making games that they'd wanted to see, for nothing more than a passion for the craft. Now a wholly independent team, Evening Star is channeling their passion into an homage to the PS2/Dreamcast era of 3D platformers with Penny's Big Breakaway.

Set in the world of Macaroon, Penny's Big Breakaway sees you stepping into the shoes of yo-yo obsessed Penny, a performer who's looking for her big break at the Emperor's big gala. On her way to auditions, she stumbles upon a magical Cosmic String that turns her yo-yo into a sentient being. Penny and her yo-yo put on the performance of a lifetime at the audition (which Penny cuts to the front of the line for), but her new sentient partner goes rogue and rips the clothes off the Emperor's back. And the Emperor is really not chill about it, labeling Penny a felon and sending his army of penguin guards after her.

Penny spends the rest of the game being chased across the various regions of Macaroon, looking for a way out of this legally dubious situation she's in. I don't know if a nationwide manhunt is needed for a little accidental stripping, but Emperor Eddie's idea of a good show is to pick up heavy objects for a crowd, so...

While expectedly light, Penny's Big Breakaway nails the nostalgia from the word go with its simple setup and slapstick protagonist stumbling from scene to scene. Even the choice to have our hero be a yo-yo performer feels delightfully '90s kitsch in a way that the era was defined by.

With that in mind, I was shocked at how often I found myself chuckling at the surprisingly enjoyable bits of background writing found in each level. As you progress through the regions of Macaroon, you'll find the inhabitants and workers of each land lingering, and each one of them has a quick little line of dialogue to share with Penny. It's hard not to laugh at someone talking about the strong ennui vibes of a level made up mostly of an endless void or at some meta commentary made about trying to live within the strange level design.

These small bits of writing do a lot to fill out the world and help elevate the experience that tiny bit, especially when you're in the doldrums of going for high score runs or searching for some hidden collectible. A big part of a platformer's "narrative" to me is its level design, and Penny's Big Breakaway does incredibly well here. Each region of Macaroon, from the welcoming streets of Vanillatown to the lava-ridden prison world of the courthouse's Lawberry, is themed brilliantly, and it was a delight to uncover each new gimmick as the game went on. There's so much personality baked into the bubblegum color palette, into the bubbly post-polygon aesthetic of every character's design, and into the simply animated cutscenes that stitch the story together from end to end. They may have broken off from SEGA, but the art design comes straight out of SEGA's golden era in a way that highlights Evening Star's grasp on that generation of design.

Luckily, they've managed to do that in the gameplay side too.

An in-game screenshot of one of Penny's Big Breakaway's animated cutscenes. On a stage, Penny stares on in horror at something off screen. In front of her, an audience has all turned away from her and toward the same thing off screen.

The best of both worlds

Penny's Big Breakaway pulls straight out of that late '90s/early '00s epoch of platformers, capturing the momentum-based drive of games like Mario 64 and the high-speed variant found in the Sonic Adventure series. Penny's makes the most of its core yo-yo mechanic, replicating the controlled chaos of ripping move after move to create a yo-yo routine in the way you make it across each level. It blends the zippy vibes of Sonic with the more precise platforming of modern 3D Mario games to great effect.

Penny's is at its best a few hours in, when you've got a good handle on its controls and on the expectations of each level. Some of the best platformers are the ones that are immediately fun to hop into, but Penny's platforming style and approach to speed takes some learning before the fun reaches its apex. Unlike Sonic, you can't just hit top speed at a moment's notice. You've got to really build your speed by sledding down ramps riding on your yo-yo and keeping that momentum from beginning to end. Unlike Mario, you can't just rely on its most basic mechanics to find enjoyment. You've got to experiment with combo-ing moves in a way that's almost reminiscent of a fighting game to truly appreciate Evening Star's work. It's surprisingly technical in a way that will both pull people in and push them away.

Every level has three hidden collectibles and three unique mini-challenges dotted across the map, adding at least three layers of replayability to each level.

  1. An exploratory play where you see all the level has for you in your first run.

  2. A collection play where you gather everything you can for completion.

  3. A speed play where you try to route out the best path through the level with all the knowledge you've acquired in the runs before it.

Outside of that, there are fun challenge maps, reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine's secret levels. These serve as tests of very specific pieces of Penny's platforming abilities and almost as training grounds to perfect them and identify the scenarios in which they're best suited to be used. Don't worry, they aren't as mind-breaking as Sunshine's. But beating them can be just as satisfying, as they ultimately require tapping into that platforming flow-state to beat.

All told, the game took me about 13 hours to 100% and could take anywhere around 10-15 hours to play through at various levels, which just about hits that sweet spot for any modern day platformer in my eyes.

You've got to experiment with combo-ing moves in a way that's almost reminiscent of a fighting game to truly appreciate Evening Star's work.

An in-game screenshot of Penny's Big Breakaway. Penny is flipping through a water-park like city, over giant spouts shooting out water. Coins can be seen ahead as well as a ring that will shoot her back up if she lands in it. Green penguins can be seen at the bottom of the screen patrolling.

Yo-yo in quality

As much as Penny's Big Breakaway embodies the retro platformer design sensibilities, it remains at odds with itself when it comes to embodying one specific trait of the '90s and '00s: creativity. While levels are themed beautifully and generally introduce interesting new systems and mechanics in each new world, the overall feel of playing through Penny's Big Breakaway remains a little same-y. That sameness is fun, don't get me wrong, but I kept waiting for the game to ask me to use the platforming toolbox in different ways. I could only ride my yo-yo down a ramp, dash into a zipline, and land on a jump pad so many times before it lost its glimmer.

Another example of this frustrating back-and-forth came in the presence of the penguin guards that chase Penny throughout every level. This mechanic is meant to add a constant tension to each level, to keep you pushing and moving. But it's so easy to shed these penguins by doing yo-yo tricks and so easy to evade them in the first place that they can quickly become an annoyance more than a threat. Toss in some wonky hitboxes that had me "falling out" or dying with no logical explanation, and Penny's was a bit frustrating at times.

Where all those complaints shed away, though, are the game's boss fights. Every boss level in Penny's Big Breakaway is wholly unique and showcases why I want even more out of the game's regular levels. There's a chase reminiscent of Sonic Adventure 2's iconic killer whale scene. There's a game of pool you'll play. And a race against a puppet version of yourself that makes full use of the trippy world it's set in. Each boss level showcases just how creative Evening Star can get, and by the end of my playtime, I found myself driven to see what each new boss had in store.

Penny's Big Breakaway has both a high floor and ceiling, so even its same-y lows are enjoyable, and its explosive boss levels are some of my favorite things I've played this year.

An in-game screenshot of a boss introduction in Penny's Big Breakaway. A pool ball-headed villain stamps a foot toward Penny in a dusky technology ridden city. Penny and her yo-yo watch on in fear.

Penny's Big Breakaway embodies the best of the era it's emulating and showcases just what Evening Star is capable of when not tied down by an existing IP. Its surprisingly technical platforming and momentum-based systems make for a satisfying play, even if it can be a bit much to wrap your head around when you start out.

I can't wait to see what Evening Star does next, because just like Penny auditioning for the gala, this debut is an exciting look into their potential and their future.

Video Games Are Good and Penny's Big Breakaway is . . . GREAT. (8/10)

+ extremely satisfying yo-yo based platforming, bubblegum pop aesthetic just works, chasing 100% completion is addicting

- level design a little same-y and never takes that big step up, a few glitches, takes a bit to get used to its systems

The key art for Penny's Big Breakaway. A giant ball of penguins is crashing forward in the background, breaking through buildings with debris and penguins flying out from it. In the foreground, Penny, a hero with a v-shaped cap and white hair, is riding on her yo-yo out of the scene. The yo-yo has a mouth and is letting its tongue hang out, like a dog.

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