Penny's Big Breakaway Review - If It Ain't Broke

  • First Released Feb 21, 2024
  • PC

Penny's Big Breakaway is a loving homage that accurately captures what was both fun and awkward about the early days of 3D platformers.

Penny's Big Breakaway is a loving homage to a somewhat awkward period in gaming history. The early days of 3D mascot platformers were defined by garish saturated colors, exaggerated character designs, and a variety of gimmicks as the genre found its footing in this new environment. Penny's Big Breakaway fits right into that legacy, like a lost gem that just got a shiny new remaster. But while its stylized look will probably be an acquired taste, it makes good use of its gimmick to avoid some pitfalls of the era it emulates.

The story revolves around Penny, an aspiring yo-yo performer who goes to a talent show audition put on by a stodgy Emperor. Along the way, her toy prop fuses with a creature, becoming a sort of sentient and voracious pet. The creature grants her all sorts of special abilities but also causes trouble at the talent show, angering the Emperor and putting her on the run from his army of penguin goons. Her "big break" turned into a breakaway, get it?

That sets the stage, so to speak, for a few different elements. For one, it sets the expectation that stages will be propulsive with constant movement. You're a wanted fugitive! As a result, stages aren't wide open worlds to explore so much as they are courses to navigate, often with great speed, as you stunt and trick your way past traps and obstacles. You can occasionally pause to catch your breath or find a collectible, but for the most part, each stage has you running from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.

The premise and stage design ethos also facilitates the major threat of the penguin army. While there are standard enemies and a life bar like you might expect from any 3D platformer, this is a more novel element. Instead of having your health whittled down by enemy crash damage, the penguins are trying to capture you. They don't damage you at all, but they do cling onto you and slow you down, and if too many swarm you at once, you'll be captured. You can fling them off in small doses, but it's easy to get overwhelmed if too many come at once. They aren't a constant presence in the stages, but the threat allows them to be peppered in at key moments to keep you on your toes or lightly encourage you to pick up the pace. It's a clever little move that I appreciated more as I saw the way the stage design slyly inserted them at key moments.

Finally, there's the yo-yo. This is the major gameplay gimmick of Penny's Big Breakaway, and the impetus for your whole suite of special moves and abilities. You can fling it at enemies, naturally, but you can also use it to cling onto ziplines, to spin giant screw-machines, ride like a unicycle, and facilitate acrobatic mid-air moves. You can yank yourself forward for a pseudo-air dash, or make the yo-yo stick in mid-air a single time to swing off it like a grapple point. It's a versatile set of moves that feels very natural after only a few hours, which helps you feel properly equipped throughout the progressively increasing difficulty.

On top of your regular abilities, the yo-yo can also get a variety of special abilities when it eats certain foods. A hamburger will make it extra heavy and able to knock down walls, and a red pepper gives you a speed boost for your unicycle ability, while a cake lets you spin into the air and flutter your way down. Like the standard abilities, these are scattered throughout stages to add a little spice and variety.

By default, the standard yo-yo attacks are mapped to the right stick, which means you have no camera control. This is mostly fine, as the levels are built to move in one direction and the automated camera tracks your movements well enough that it isn't often a problem. But the very rare occasion that I did hit an obstacle or pit I didn't see made me wish for my own camera control, and besides that, I didn't actually use the stick-based yo-yo controls often anyway--aside from the spinning maneuver, which can only be performed with the stick controls, I favored button-based controls. The right-stick control does allow you to fling your yo-yo in one direction while running in another, which is a nice touch, but not often necessary. Maybe it's just because I'm used to the standard jump and attack button placement, but I used those much more often, so the trade-off for full camera control left me wanting.

Sometimes, though, and especially in later chapters, the level design is a little too sparse with its checkpoints. Since levels are designed to be chains of traversal, tricks, and stunts, it's easy to get sent back to a checkpoint and then have to fight your way back to where you died just to try it again. Fortunately, there's no real penalty for death other than a cost to your high score, since even if you run out of life, your checkpoint spot is retained.

Penny zooms down a ramp on her magic yo-yo
Penny zooms down a ramp on her magic yo-yo

Then, of course, there's the visual style, the most direct homage to the era that it's imitating, and the one that leaves me with the most mixed feelings. The transition to 3D was a particularly thorny one in gaming history, as the rudimentary polygon-pushing could only do so much with its power and settled on simple shapes and saturated colors--think series like Banjo Kazooie or Klonoa. It's a distinct style, but it's one that was defined by very early limitations, and so it's not one that has aged gracefully. Penny's Big Breakaway approximates this style well, with characters who are often little more than bulbous spheres with faces drawn on and draped in a few other bubbly clothes. I'm not nostalgic for video games having that look, so I didn't find this visual style appealing, but I can imagine it will feel cozy for gamers who came of age alongside the N64 and PlayStation.

The story comes to a sweet little conclusion, though I couldn't even begin to explain much of what happens in between. The story meanders, sometimes seeming as if it's coming to a head only to jump off in some other direction. One of my favorite boss-baddies was a strident, by-the-books judge, but his part was so minor and quick that I wished for more time with him at the expense of less memorable antagonists.

But then, even a hazy, dreamlike story could be interpreted as a tribute. Penny's Big Breakaway is a loving tribute to a bygone era, warts and all. Its new and inventive ideas, like the acrobatic yo-yo mechanic or the penguins hot on your tail, show a level of cleverness, but it is also a sweet, earnest throwback. I'd like to see Penny return, though maybe next time, this lost-gem motif can be applied to a less restrictive era in 3D platforming.

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The Good

  • Yo-yo mechanic is a simple idea that provides a huge and intuitive suite of moves
  • Penguin enemies introduce a clever hook that provides momentum through stages
  • Visual style very accurately captures a bygone era...

The Bad

  • ... that hasn't aged gracefully
  • Story is hazy and forgettable
  • Checkpoints can be too sparse, especially in later levels

About the Author

Steve completed Penny's Big Breakaway in about eight hours. A review code was provided by the publisher.