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Micro Machines meets epic poetry in The Next Penelope

A race through the classics.

Somebody once told me an interesting fact about Homer's poetry, and I'm now going to abuse it in a shameless fashion to kick off a short feature regarding a battle-racer that I've been playing all morning.

Here we go. You know those descriptive epithets you get in The Odyssey and The Iliad? The way that the seas are wine dark or that the ships are hollow? Those epithets are there because Homer's stuff was never written down. These huge poems were recited from memory, and there was often a degree of fudging involved. While the story never changed, the performer might recite the lines a little differently each time. The epithets were handy because they offered the performer different syllable counts, and they could be swapped in and out on the fly to make sure the meter always stayed consistent. Sometimes, then, the ships were hollow. Sometimes they were dark hulled. this wasn't about getting across a theme or a specific mood, it was just fleet-footed work to make sure the whole thing would scan properly.

Anyway, I thought about this while playing The Next Penelope, the latest game from Aurelien Regard. I thought about the way that ad-libbing can be made to add a little excitement to proceedings without damaging the overall finesse. The Next Penelope gives you a lot of options as you race around its top-down tracks, sighing through chicanes and dodging enemies, but it never seems scrappy. You can always make it scan.

The harpoon is amazing. Harpoons always are.

Mainly, though, as I played I thought: I've missed this. Aurelien Regard comes to Penelope fresh from Arkedo, the Parisian micro indie behind Hell Yeah, whose recent closure left a tiny hole in my heart - a hole that bleeds costume jewelry and jelly beans. Arkedo's games were riots of lush colour and quirky ideas: pinks, purples and oranges blooming outwards as a rabbit chain-sawed through deformed Pokémon or as a little puppy built electrical towers to blast the fillings out of advancing orc armies. Penelope reworks the story of Odysseus' love as a series of hectic intergalactic races strung across a galaxy of reds and blues and greens and golds. It works beautifully.

The current preview build suggests a game that's happy to build outwards from the simplest of foundations. This is Micro Machines or F-Zero territory: devious tracks and nimble craft, fighting for position. Acceleration is automatic, which is always a lovely thing to read in the tool-tips, and that leaves you free to focus on a handful of systems that emerge from your energy meter. You know the deal: energy's health, but it also powers your weapons and your boost. This quickly becomes a primary concern as you balance taking damage, blasting away at foes and making time to top-up resources whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Regard can't stop adding new wrinkles. One race might stop you from replenishing energy at all, making three laps against aggressive rivals a real nail-biter. Elsewhere, new weapons muddle with things even further. Vampire Mines cost energy to plant but allow you to leech back a lot more from anyone you hit. The level where they're introduced starts you off with almost nothing in the tank, and charges you with filling up completely to win. It's brilliant fun.

Vampire Mines encourage you to push your luck to the very edge.

Explore in any order. That's another nice thing to read in tool-tips, and it refers to Penelope's galaxy map, which very swiftly leaves tutorials behind and gives you a wide range of options as it tempts you with races of different difficulties, all of which promise different rewards. This ties in nicely with an upgrade system that converts XP earned into money you can spend at an in-game shop. I sense a little of the playful spirit of Arkedo even here, where a speed boost is referred to as an increase in your Recklessness.

These interlocking systems promise to keep Penelope honest even as the AI starts to cheat and the levels become more frantic. I also suspect that, despite the simple components, Penelope's one of those games that won't be running out of ideas in a hurry.

Oh, and it gives you a grappling hook that allows you to yank other cars off the track. Sold.

The Next Penelope hits Steam Early Access on January 22nd, and is also slated for release on Wii U.

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