For all its explicit aspirations to be MicroMachines reincarnate, to me The Next Penelope falls far closer to the original F-Zero on the SNES, a game which easily captures my fondest memories of the platform and was one of the first experiences in my life which served to cement my love of gaming. The perspective might be more in line with arcade top-down racers like Rock’n’Roll racing, but the feel and structure is distinctly similar to Nintendo’s iconic futuristic racer. But calling The Next Penelope a racer is where things start to get weird, because while it seems on one hand to wish to recreate the minimal, fast paced style of 90’s racing classics, The Next Penelope is also equally if not more concerned with incorporating modern structural trends (such as leveling up and a heavy narrative focus) while simultaneously blowing out the scope of the game to explore genres which don’t necessarily work well together.
The level of variety The Next Penelope attempts to implement at times boarders on an identity crisis, with new game modes and entirely different genres constantly being introduced and subsequently cast aside over the rather brisk 1-2 hour campaign. The level of experimentation The Next Penelope is willing to explore is compelling from a design perspective, and in certain ways allows the game to feel more contextually entwined with its cyberpunk Greek mythology narrative (a combination I would never have expected to work as well as it does), but more than that it creates a problem in the way progression is conveyed or felt. Because each race (or one off minigame) brings with it such a dramatic change in how The Next Penelope plays, often with an agonizingly high difficulty level, much of the game is devoted to tutorial levels explaining how these new ideas work. In a game this short it creates a sense of constant stagnation, as well as a fair amount of frustration given you are often only given one iteration on each idea, some of which are significantly better than others and I would have loved to see explored more (insert: standard races).
When The Next Penelope plays it straight with its races it is often hugely entertaining, helped in great part by the phenomenal art direction which manages to reflect a recognizably Greek artistic sensibility while still adhering to a heavy scifi setting. But then there are all the times it tries to do something different, some of which work…OK, and many of which are actively bad in their design. Every boss fight for example is a torturous abuse of a great racing system, either by placing you within an arena which is impossible to navigate in a vehicle designed primarily to go straight, or choosing to throw everything out and build the game anew as a sidescrolling shoot’em’up. The Next Penelope is best when it is just you and several other racers on a looping track blowing each other apart in pursuit of the lead, but these sections are bookended by such bizarre deviations on an excellent formula that it rarely feels worth shoveling through the garbage to find what works.
The Next Penelope is also really bad about making itself seem even smaller than it is, from how its level select screen is designed to the miniscule upgrade system. None of this matters, practically speaking, but it gives an impression of brevity and incompletion to a game which is already rather light on content, which left me feeling as if I wasn’t moving toward anything of importance far before I actually got to the end. It isn’t a problem with how much game is here, but that the way it portrays that content leads me to feel as if the game is just spinning its wheels and I’m wasting my time.
And that’s incredibly sad, because The Next Penelope could have so easily been great simply iterating on its most rudimentary levels rather than trying to reinvent itself with each stage. It’s a game in need of an editor, or at the very least a brutally honest playtester, to be there to reign in an admirable but overzealous ambition which is ultimately The Next Penelope’s downfall.