As a kid growing up in the early 2000’s and being interested in the retro-gaming scene (especially Genesis), there was nothing more exciting to me than going to my local mom-and-pop and finding some obscure action game or platformer for a couple of bucks. Anything that strives to evoke that same warm, fuzzy feeling of finding a hidden classic in a console’s library would inevitably grab my attention- and that’s exactly what Polyroll appears to have gone for. The question is…does it feel like finding a High Seas Havoc or is it just a modern day Bubsy?
The titular character and the landscapes he traverses will no doubt remind one of Sonic the Hedgehog, which very well may have been on purpose considering this is a throwback to not just 2D platformers, but that small timeframe in which every company wanted their own blue blur without always understanding what made him tick. Everything from his walking cycle down to the way he rolls up into a ball to ricochet off walls feels inspired. Under normal circumstances, this could be dismissed as a cheap cash-in like the countless Super Meat Boy clones littering the market. However, it’s clear that the developers wanted to replicate the “animals with attitude” era and in doing so…this was somewhat necessary. Bubsy, Aero, Zool and even the aforementioned High Seas Havoc borrowed from Sega’s finest. At the very least, the character designs and backdrops are all aesthetically pleasing. It’s just a shame that, beyond the bosses (which I’ll touch on later), none of these characters or environments have much of an identity beyond being reminiscent of what inspired them.
What helps Polyroll stand out, however, is its tight level design and solid controls. As mentioned earlier, designers in the 90’s attempting to copy Sonic often didn’t understand WHY the classic trilogy was so great. Multiple, distinguishable paths that allowed for copious amounts of replay value, a good sense of acceleration/deceleration and keeping the character centered at top speed are among many of the things classic Sonic got right. Polyroll understands all of this, and even manages to add a flair of Eurostyle/classic PC style design into the mix.
You see, you won’t be going fast *nearly* as much as you might in the classic Sonic trilogy. Polyroll is significantly more exploration based, with all of a level’s paths being easily accessible at any time. There are three diamonds to collect per stage, some of which are deviously well hidden or will require use of several different power-ups to obtain. These in turn allow you to unlock more levels and, eventually, take on the final area. The whole process is satisfying, save for the few instances where you’re given only one shot to reach a path holding a cache of goodies (something I had a major issue with in Playtonic’s recent Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair). Fortunately, resets are quick and the levels are bite-sized which helps alleviate the issue some. In addition, the game allows you to pick up the stragglers and back out to the map instead of forcing you to play the entire stage over again if you missed something. This is something I wish more big budget 2D platformers would incorporate if I’m honest.
Bosses, something that many platformers struggle to incorporate in a meaningful way, are a surprise highlight of Polyroll. From an electric cord that extends up and down the arena firing bolts to a traffic light that requires the player to jump onto incoming vehicles to reach, it seems a lot of love was put into this bizarre bunch. Some even incorporate puzzle elements, such as a cybernetic spider requiring the player to push three data chips down into three unique slots (all the while avoiding projectiles) before it is open to taking damage. While I may have trouble recalling the ins-and-outs of the main stages some years from now, several of these guys will linger in my memory as well as the antagonist screeching “So you’re pissing me off!” in a digitized voice in the penultimate battle. (That alone made the game worth of admission!)
In addition to the traditional levels and boss battles, there are several additional stages that will allow the player to pick up an extra hit point. These are incredibly difficult and will put your running, jumping, and wall-bouncing skills to the test under a very strict time limit. I wouldn’t say they’re necessary to beat or enjoy the game, but they’re definitely worth checking out and satisfying to conquer.
In conclusion, Polyroll is a short-but-sweet throwback that those with a knack for mascot platformers of the 90’s would do well to check out. It may not have the production value of Shovel Knight or the recent Shantae installments, but it’s clear SpicyGyroGames understood what made the classics and oddities it was inspired by fun to play rather than simply taking the pixel aesthetic and running with it for a quick buck. For only $10, it’s definitely an easy recommend to my fellow platforming fanatics waiting for the next Sonic Mania and Freedom Planet 2.
As of writing, there is one performance issue to note that isn’t game-breaking, but something that will hopefully be patched out in the future. Every so often, the game will slow down after multiple “restarts” and whenever the screen gets busy with enemies or obstacles. The dip in frame rate resulting from either event is far from jarring, but it is noticeable.