Top-down racers were some of the most exciting games back in the '80s. The Next Penelope plays a lot like the 1989 arcade classic Badlands yet it tells a story that's basically a futuristic take on Homer's Odyssey.
The Next Penelope's plot involves the kingdom of Ithaca being under attack during King Odysseus' absence. Meanwhile, Poseidon plots his revenge on Odysseus so Odysseus' wife Penelope goes on a mission to find where he went in exchange for the survival of her people. Of course, if you only care about the gameplay then this premise may as well be: you pilot a nifty little racing craft while taking on a bunch of challenges. The gameplay is primarily like most other overhead racers although you automatically propel forward while you steer left and right to avoid the walls and obstacles. You'll acquire an assortment of power-ups, too, which helps freshen up the otherwise basic gameplay. Whether you're boosting, shooting at opponents, dropping mines, teleporting, or using a hook shot; the fast-paced action is nothing short of exhilarating.
The main mode of The Next Penelope is a single player campaign which consists of a handful of stages that contain three missions each. These range from races to boss fights and survival challenges to overhead item collecting missions. As you can see, the amount of variety is impressive and it makes the overall campaign much more enjoyable than if it were just races. That being said, it's over much sooner than you'd hope because there really aren't that many stages. There are a few bonus missions and extra time trials that help extend the replay value, though. In the end, the variety is fantastic but you won't enjoy it for very long.
The campaign may feature a lot of variety but it also has plenty of truly frustrating missions. The races are generally challenging, fair, and rewarding but other tasks can feel like luck factors in a bit too much due to their steep difficulty spikes. Whenever you come across a mission like this, you'll wish that you could just skip it and move on. Even after mastering these kinds of missions, there's little sense of accomplishment compared to the amount of frustration that they caused.
As you play through the campaign, you'll earn experience points that you can spend on enhancing your craft via six improvements. This might sound cool but it's extremely easy to unlock everything simply by replaying a boss a dozen or so times in a row which only takes about half an hour. Once you have everything unlocked, the benefits are cool but definitely aren't game-changing. As a result of these less than ideal aspects, the upgrade system is ultimately rather unsatisfying.
Finally, The Next Penelope contains a multiplayer mode that can be played with 2 to 4 local players plus CPU-controlled opponents. This mode simply consists of survival races where the last place contestant is kicked out if they lag too far behind. It's by no means a comprehensive game on its own but it can be enjoyable if you have a friend (or three) who likes overhead racing games, too.
The Next Penelope brings back the classic overhead racing formula in a fun, exciting, and surprisingly varied way but its limited single player content makes it a somewhat less than stellar Odyssey.
- + Enjoyable fast-paced overhead action
- + Campaign features a lot of variety
- + Additional competitive multiplayer mode is a welcome inclusion
- - Very short single player campaign
- - Unsatisfying upgrade system
- - Difficulty leans more towards frustrating than fun in certain campaign events