The Next Penelope

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Aurelien Regard for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2015.
The Next Penelope is an odd amalgamation, mixing futuristic racing with one of mankind’s oldest surviving tales: The Oddyssey. In the original Greek epic poem, Odysseus travels home after the fall of Troy (as outlined in The Iliad), but he is waylaid by a series of adventures, resulting in the journey lasting ten years. Odysseus’ travels see him and his men facing off against Cyclops, overcoming the song of the Sirens, and steering their way past Scylla and Charybdis.

Meanwhile, Odysseus is presumed dead and his wife, Penelope, is set upon by suitors seeking her hand in marriage. She manages to keep them at bay for the duration of her husband’s absence (after which, he comes home and murders the hell out of them), but she is a generally passive character in a tale that is otherwise filled with grand adventure. And so, the developer has revisited the character of Penelope and created a new tale which sees her taking the part of the hero as she encounters many characters from Greek myth, including the Sirens and the Minotaur.

The game begins in Ithaca in the year 3044. With Odysseus not yet returned, the palace is attacked. Leaving her suitors behind, an injured Penelope departs, having lost an arm and an eye. At this point in the tale, Odysseus has just blinded Cyclops, and Cyclops’ father, Poseidon, is angry. Poseidon demands that Penelope deliver Odysseus to him, lest her people be destroyed… and so she sets out on a journey of her own.

The Next Penelope is a top-down action game that is split between racing, defeating bosses, and completing skill-based challenges. When Penelope leaves Ithaca, she comes under attack by a giant monster that pursues her down a lengthy track, and her goal is to simply survive to the end. Along the way, many of the basic mechanics are introduced.

Following the rules of top-down racing games, control is vehicle relative, allowing players to turn the vehicle left and right, rather than pressing in the desired direction of travel. Players must often make sharp turns, swing around hairpin curves, and realign themselves, lest they slam into the walls and slow themselves down (and lose energy). Along the ground are green arrows that boost the ship forward at high speeds, and hitting an enemy ship while boosting causes it to spin out. There are also green orbs placed in lines or clusters which restore some of the ship’s energy when passing over them, just as in F-Zero.

Occasionally, the player encounters gaps in the track. Hitting one of these gaps sends the ship flying into the air – which is the foreground from the player’s perspective – spinning it around before slamming it back down onto the track. If the player keeps the ship moving straight, it will land safely on the other side, but otherwise the player risks falling off the track, which spells instant death.

One strange design element – particularly in a game that features racing as a core mechanic – is the fact that the player has no direct control over the speed of the craft. The ship speeds up automatically until it reaches its maximum velocity. Touching an enemy, bouncing off of walls and obstacles, or getting hit with projectiles will slow the craft down. During racing sequences, players need to employ keen driving skills in order to keep the ship moving at top speed.

After completing an opening set of levels, players emerge on a world map where they are free to enter several other events in any order they like. Each event has a difficulty rating, so players may opt to steer clear of difficult sequences in favor of easier ones, or dive in and take their chances. Players earn a new ability upon entering a new event, but this ability can only be kept if the player completes the entire event. Each event is divided into three sections: a skill-based challenge using the newly-acquired ability, a race where the new ability features prominently, and a boss encounter.

The first powerup that the player gains is the ability to boost, operating in a similar fashion as the green arrows by bursting the ship forward, while and spinning out enemies it comes in contact with and breaking through certain objects. Players can also earn direct attack abilities including a forward-firing weapon as well as mines that drop behind the ship. The player also earns the ability to teleport Velocity-style to another section of the track - and time slows down while this powerup is engaged - allowing the player to take shortcuts or avoid a dead-end section of track. Other abilities include a harpoon that lets players grab opponents and open up alternate paths on the track, and a crystal that absorbs incoming projectiles and turns them into XP (more on this in a bit).

What’s interesting about these powerups is that they are all available simultaneously, and each of them draws from a power meter that also represents your health. So, taking damage reduces your capacity for using special abilities, and – more importantly – using your special abilities slowly drains your health. This is the game’s primary risk-reward factor, as each speed boost or fired projectile slowly reduces the player’s health, and health restoration pads are few and far between.

Since each race requires that the player take first place in order to proceed, he is often placed in a situation where he must use his abilities to overcome one or two racers on the final lap, putting his life meter at risk in the process. Players may retry races as many times as they like, and there are occasionally alternate paths or shortcuts (many of them opening through the use of special abilities) that players can use to their advantage to gain ground on their opponents. Also notable is the fact that these abilities do not activate until the start of the second lap, and each race is five laps long.

As mentioned, there is more to the game than just racing. At the start of each event, the player earns a new ability and must then complete a challenge using that ability. For instance, after earning the harpoon, the player finds himself in an open area where he must chase and harpoon giant bugs in order to harvest the purple gems in their backs. These challenge areas are generally low-risk affairs that allow the player to experiment freely with his new abilities.

Completing these challenges opens up the more traditional race mode, followed by a boss encounter. Some boss encounters occur while racing along a track, but many occur in open arenas where the ship is free to travel to any point. In these arenas, the player may use all of the skills in his arsenal to take down the enemy. Most of these encounters require use of the new ability earned during the event, but ultimately these require direct attacks in order to wear the creatures’ health bars down, often with no health-restoring pads to be found.

This is where mines come in… Mines are a game-changer when it comes to the balance between using abilities and keeping the energy meter filled. When the player drops a mine, a small amount of energy is expended. But if an enemy ship comes into contact with the mine, it explodes, causing damage to the enemy and restoring energy to the player’s ship. Players are encouraged to lure bosses to follow them and drop mines in their path, or to drop mines in narrow passageways during racing sequences, which is a great strategy for players at the front of the pack. It is actually possible for the player to fully restore his health through deft use of mines, but the player must be careful not to run into the mines himself – either on an upcoming lap or during an open-arena boss fight – as they cause tons of damage to the ship.

As mentioned, players eventually earn a crystal that turns incoming projectiles in to XP, which is very useful during boss encounters. Damaging enemies also causes them to drop XP, which may be collected on future laps, and completing each event awards the player with XP as well. XP may be spent in a shop on the overworld map to permanently upgrade a number of the ship’s attributes, including its maximum speed, the tightness of the steering, and adding a shielded section to the energy meter. In addition, players may unlock supplemental attacks to damage enemies on either side of the ship and cause the camera to zoom out a bit farther, making it easier to see what is coming up on the track.

In addition to the solo campaign, the game also features a 4P local multiplayer mode.

The Next Penelope was developed by solely by Aurelien Regard, who is based in Paris, France, and the game was built using Construct 2. Aurelien was a cofounder of Arkedo, a studio known for Nervous Brickdown, Big Bang Mini, the Arkedo Series, Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit, and Poöf vs. The Cursed Kitty. Arkedo was founded in 2006 and officially closed its doors in February of 2013.

Aurelien has been working in the video game industry since 2002, and his other credits include artwork for Soul Bubbles, as well as work on a number of Java-based mobile titles, including Fruit Factory, Shootadelic, and Bedtime Stories.