Amnesia is one of those old go-to tropes in gaming: an oft-used narrative device, conveniently paving the way for some nice scene-setting while also justifying drawn-out tutorials. If you will, it’s the all-purpose filler of the game developer’s toolkit yet, somehow, in Freedom Wars, it works a treat.
Sony’s latest action role-playing game for the Vita starts by dropping players in at the deep end. With little more than a few basic pointers, you’re prodded in the direction of a hulking robotic construct, pounding its way through an urban wasteland. It’s a brief, frantic tussle to say the least and one that ends up with your character taking a blow to the head before everything fades to black.
With no recollection of what happened you eventually come to, resurfacing in a grim dystopian depiction of the future. Planet Earth has been stripped to the bone and whatever resources remain are contested bitterly by the totalitarian city-states known as Panopticons. Within these Orwell-inspired strongholds exists a social hierarchy as well as a long list of draconian laws to keep their populations in line.
How harsh are these laws, you ask? Well, the mere act of being born into a world where resources are limited is a crime within itself. God forbid, then, that a citizen would burden their Panopticon by falling in the field and completely lose their memory. Oh wait… Slapped with a sentence of 1,000,000 (yes, one million) years in prison, players don’t exactly get off to a good start. Branded as a criminal or “sinner”, the only way to achieve freedom is by serving your Panopticon dutifully. Gathering resources, rescuing civilians and defeating enemy Panopticon forces will win you favour and reduce your sentence.
It’s this “Big Brother” theme that serves as Freedom Wars’ trump card as well as an occasional source of humour. For instance, as a low-ranking member of society, you will find yourself booked for small transgressions such as running more than five paces or talking to members of the opposite sex. As you progress, however, you’ll be able to purchase “entitlements”, each one granting small liberties as well as unlocking gameplay and aesthetic elements.
The game flow in Freedom Wars is ultimately divided into two halves as you travel back and forth between your Panopticon and the urban wasteland beyond. While at the Panopticon you will prepare for missions in the field by crafting and upgrading gear as well as talking to the myriad NPCs floating around. It’s during this downtime that players will engage with the game’s somewhat underwhelming plot. Although teed up by a sound premise, Freedom Wars’ tale of corruption and revolt against authority is a fairly drab affair, carried by an unremarkable cast of characters. What’s worse is that it’s rammed down your throat at every given opportunity, making the gap between missions both dull and exhausting. This isn’t helped either by the lack of English voiceover.
Outside of the Panopticon, however, there’s a complete change in pace. After gearing up and selecting from a pool of AI companions, players are thrown straight into the action as the timer starts ticking. Gameplay itself is a combination of third person shooting and hack n’ slash with plenty of similarities to Monster Hunter, God Eater etc. What sets Freedom Wars apart, however, is that characters can instantly switch between weapons on the fly, toggling between melee and ranged weapons. That and, of course, the Thorn.
Unique to Freedom Wars, the Thorn is essentially an amped up grappling hook. Whether evading enemy attacks or looking to navigate your environment, the Thorn can be used to zip across the battlefield and scale surfaces. It’s finicky and definitely takes some getting used to yet its utility in combat makes it a worthwhile addition to your arsenal. There are three types of Thorn and although all have the same navigational capabilities, each one is imbued with a cluster of powers, including binding, healing, and shielding. Combined with the game’s array of weapons and combat items, these options allow players to define their own role within a team.
Though there are plenty of missions archetypes floating around, most of your time will be spent fighting against Abductors – huge robotic sentinels that come in a variety of classes. Each encounter is treated like its own boss battle with players working alongside their allies to exploit weaknesses and co-ordinate attacks. Even after fighting the same Abductor on multiple occasions, these battles never seem to lose their appeal, especially when you consider the rewards on offer.
When battling against the rank and file grunts of other Panopticons, however, Freedom Wars is notably less fun, like playing against bots in a third person shooter. Though few and far between, it’s these missions that really expose the game’s weak points. Even when playing online against real opponents, it simply doesn’t match the thrill of taking on the Abductors. It’s a relief, then, to see that Freedom Wars supports online co-op missions, even if the existing four-player lobby system could do with a rework.
Progress in Freedom Wars is defined not only by your sentence (which is always displayed above your character’s head) but also the level of your equipment, too. Whenever coming back from a mission, you’ll net bonus resources which can then be donated or turned into new gear. It’s a simple system yet one that lacks the wealth of aesthetic options seen in Monster Hunter, Toukiden, and similar games. It’s nothing major yet detracts from that sense of player individuality this sub-genre is well known for.
Freedom Wars is far from being the Vita flagship fans were hoping for. Though it makes a sound first impression it’s ultimately held back by a forced narrative and gameplay segments that fall by the wayside. Thanks to its unique tone and approach to gameplay, Freedom Wars manages to distance itself from Monster Hunter, yet it’s difficult not to compare the two. After all, Capcom’s power-selling franchise didn’t just popularise the genre, it single-handedly created it.
Though Freedom Wars’ appeal is limited, there will doubtlessly be many who find themselves hooked. For them, the game has a lot to offer, even beyond the limitless hours of content thanks to a suite of online features. Those who aren’t willing to put in the time, however, may find themselves short-changed.