I like to think I know what I like. Computers, science, cats, computer-science cats. I seek out what I like, and I like I what I seek out. It sounds like a foolproof plan for consistent satisfaction - but of course, it’s absolute rubbish. Review, ratings, recommendation: it’s easy to think that with these in hand, I always know exactly what I’m getting into. But that’s exactly the kind of thinking that surprise relies upon. Expectations are ripe for subversion, and overconfidence only enhances the power of the humble surprise.
I’ve been caught blindside twice recently by games that turned my expectations on their heads - you’d think I’d learn, but I’m not exactly the brightest spark in the storm, sometimes. On a whim, I decided to take a look at two games in my backlog that came with a couple of Humble Bundles. Neither game seemed like my kind of thing, so my expectations were low. That underestimation ended up working in my favour: the fun I had with both titles was refreshing and exciting in a way too few games have been for a long time.
First up is Freedom Planet. A little backstory: growing up, I was never a Sega kid. At friends’ places and arcades, I tried my hand at a few of Sonic’s high-speed adventures, but the blue hedgehog was always much too fast for me. My ineptitude has kept me away all these years, and so when I heard Freedom Planet described as a spiritual successor to the ol’ spiky-haired demon, I expected it too to speed right on past me.
It was a wonderful surprise, then, when nearly two hours after apathetically booting up Freedom Planet I was still zipping through its beautiful faux-16-bit world, keeping pace with the totally-not-hedgehog protagonists spinning and stomping their way through a delightful assortment of whacky robot monsters. It didn’t take long to figure out why Freedom Planet was clicking for me when Sonic never had. The key is in its pacing. Rather than being all about racing frantically from one side of the screen to the other, it places greater emphasis on solid platforming and clever puzzle-solving, with the road-runner hijinks used sparingly to keep the action fresh.
Bosses are something that a lot of games cheap out on, simply throwing bigger versions of normal enemies with longer health bars and maybe a few minions for good measure. Freedom Planet avoids this trap with some genuinely creative boss design, like a giant robot leopard with a laser mouth or a flying robot peacock that summons the power of storms to aid it. For the most part, defeating them requires the standard pattern memorisation of the games it pays homage to, but the small tweaks here and there keep them from getting too frustrating.
The game also encourages exploration in a way that Sonic games, as well as the 2D Mario games, rarely do. Rather than a countdown timer constantly urging you to hurry up, Freedom Planet counts with you, merely adjusting your end-of-level score based on how long you take. Not having to worry about a time constraint allows you to fully enjoy the expansive levels, evoking an almost Metroid feel that I really appreciated.
If Freedom Planet has one weakness, though, it’s its story. Voice-acted cutscenes tell a bland narrative ripped straight out of a cheap Saturday-morning cartoon. To be fair, the fact that upon starting a new game you’re given the option to skip the story entirely by playing the ‘classic’ mode says to me that developer GalaxyTrail knows exactly what its strengths are.
Moving onto my second surprise, it’s another homage to a classic property I missed out on as a kid. Mercenary Kings wears its Metal-Slug inspirations on its sleeves, from its gorgeous art design to its slow-tracking bullets to its fragile protagonists. Unlike it’s spiritual forebear, however, Mercenary Kings mixes in a comprehensive weapon-crafting system capable of producing an eclectic variety of firearms. Slap a high capacity magazine onto a sniper rifle and you’ve got a DMR. Increase the barrel size of a sub-machine gun to give it a meaner punch at the cost of lower accuracy. You can even install a toilet seat for a barrel if you really want to give your enemies the shits.
Mercenary Kings has received a lot of comparisons to the Monster Hunter games, and for me that was not an endearment. I’ve never been able to get into the hunt, craft, hunt, craft loop that the franchise is famous for, so knowing that Mercenary Kings employed a similar methodology didn’t exactly fill me with hope. I just don’t have the dozens of hours to devote to learning how to track enemies, brew buffs, build traps, and craft an armoury. Fortunately, the Monster Hunter corollary extends only to the system of gathering resources to craft better equipment, and the system itself is simple enough to grasp within minutes of jumping in. You can grind to build up higher quality gear if you want, but it’s hardly necessary.
Another concern I had going in was the game’s potentially repetitive mission structure. Again like Monster Hunter, missions recycle the same environments with slightly different objectives: go here and talk to this person; kill x many of this enemy type; gather y many of this resource. In the first area alone, this got stale fast. The combat itself was good, but not good enough to offset the monotony of the rinse-repeat mission design. I was about to abandon the game entirely when I finally made it past the first zone and moved onto the second. Not only was I treated to a host of new environments and enemies, I discovered a huge flaw in my approach to the game that was contributing to my ambivalence: I was forcing myself to go through every mission even though the vast majority of them were optional, there for players who enjoy the grind. Realising this, I shifted my focus to story missions only and increased my pace threefold. With it, up jumped my enjoyment, and suddenly I couldn’t put the controller down.
Surprises are great. The mysterious Christmas present is always more tantalising than the unwrapped gift you already knew you were getting. Freedom Planet and Mercenary Kings shine brighter in my mind thanks to the way they subverted my expectations. I can’t believe I almost wrote them off; if they hadn’t been bundled in with other games I knew I wanted, I would never have given them the chance they so greatly deserve.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has flipped completely on a game that gave a bad first impression. I’d love to know what games you’ve done a 180 on, or ones that have just flat-out surprised you in how much you enjoyed them. Hit me up with your comments below!