Neither Mutant Nor Ninja
At first, TurtlePop: Journey to Freedom looks like an easygoing game with cute turtles. Indeed, the adorable reptiles and colorful backgrounds promote the kid-friendly vibe, but the intricate mechanics may confuse younger gamers and even some adults.
Here’s my Video Review for your viewing pleasure!
The premise is straightforward, but gameplay becomes increasingly complex. Your mission is to guide several turtles to the rainbow-shaped goal, while avoiding hazards and long falls that demobilize your shelled animals. You can either control one at a time, or link nearby turtles together to move them simultaneously. The latter option is more efficient, but they’re clumsy when clumped together. The turtles travel freeform as opposed to a straight line. Coupled with the fact that the turtles are annoyingly slippery to control, at least one tends to fall behind.
On the other hand, if you leave turtles unlinked, their unreliable AI can get them lost or lead them towards dangerous bombs, so you have to manage them carefully. Unfortunately, switching between turtles can be tough to keep track of when there are multiple on the screen; instead of manually choosing a different character, you cycle through them via button press. There’s a surprisingly steep difficulty curve, but the game provides a unique challenge if you can master its controls.
If TurtlePop was just managing turtles to the goal, it would be a fun, challenging platformer for kids. However, an additional mechanic muddles it up. A few levels in, you encounter the genie, a friendly creature who flies freely and throws helpful items at you, such as watermelon slices that allow you to jump higher or flying block platforms. You select a loadout of items to bring into each level, which adds an intriguing complexity of resource management and optimization, but it’s held back by its awkward execution. When you summon the genie, you lose control of your turtle and instead move a reticle to aim your item toss. At first, it doesn’t seem like a big issue, but it gets messy constantly juggling between the genie and turtles. I often lost track of whom I was controlling, which was disastrous during autoscrolling levels. Touch screen support would have been ideal here, and it’s a shame that it’s not supported, especially since TurtlePop otherwise performs well on the Nintendo Switch tablet.
Gameplay gets more convoluted when you realize the genie is also in charge of solving the match-3 puzzles embedded within levels. That’s right – match-3 puzzles. Colored blocks impede your progress, but the genie can make matches to eliminate them. They aren’t super difficult, but it’s frustrating when your progress is halted simply because of unfavorable block configurations. I like when puzzles are used to enhance the platforming, but in TurtlePop, they’re used as literal walls.
A welcome mechanic are the unlockable playable reptiles, each of which have slightly varying attributes and powers, such as the ability to hover or eat bombs. I liked levels that utilized their various skills. They’re introduced at a fair pace too, spread out throughout the game’s seven worlds. On that note, the game is longer than one might expect. In addition to the 100+ levels and bonus areas, you need high scores to unlock subsequent worlds, so you may end up replaying levels often. After completing levels, you unlock treasure chests filled with loot and random upgradeable cards that bestow items. It’s admittedly a confusing and superfluous system.
Having stated my criticisms, TurtlePop’s co-op mode actually alleviates some of my problems. In 2-player co-op, one person controls the turtles, while the other controls the genie. It’s liberating to move the turtles without worrying about items or puzzles, and the same applies when you can focus on support as the genie. For all I’ve said about the single-player campaign, co-op was actually pretty fun, and I can see it being the ideal way to play with a younger gamer.
There is also a multiplayer mode for up to four players. One uninspired minigame merely pits players into levels where they can compete for score attack. I was fonder of the arena battles, which include a game where players fight for control of a crown and another where players must lick their opponents to possess them. Hmm…turtles are weird. At a minimum of three minutes per round, the games overstay their welcome, but they’re nice inclusions for a change of pace.
TurtlePop: Journey to Freedom’s cheery visuals, bouncy music, and adorable turtles make it an attractive game, albeit one that’s tricky to manage. The developers at Zengami were certainly ambitious, cramming multiple interesting ideas into one game. Unfortunately, due to the convoluted execution and sloppy controls, it’s hard to recommend it unless you specifically play 2-player co-op. It doesn’t fix every problem, but it’s an ideal playstyle that frees partners up to focus on their specific tasks. And it certainly gives these turtles’ journey to freedom a little more pop.
Note: A review copy was provided by the publisher for this article.