A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.

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Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

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I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

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The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

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Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.