Written for XPGain, recreated with permission.
The opening cut scene is frantic. A giant, lumbering, beautiful mech of some kind of luminescent, sinuous fiber is hulking over a group of fighters. They coordinate with efficient desperation, clearly outclassed by the sheer bulk and size of the creature. Alongside the giant creature come a wave of opposing forces, whose dark clothing and glowing red eyes promise death. The protagonist takes to an aerial perch, firing into the approaching enemies. Without warning, one of the warriors is flung from the shoulders of the giant mech into the protagonist. This ends catastrophically for both, their bodies both tumble from a great height. Just as the protagonist begins to recover, the giant creature takes aim and crushes an enormous fist down, swallowing the protagonist in darkness.
The next waking moment occurs in a cell. Unfinished concrete floor and walls surround the player. The only color comes from the gentle drifting of green and black from the opposite wall of the cell, whose giant display is simply a large, black eye. It stares silently as the protagonist attempts to come to some sense of self. A single, robotic assistant-slash-guard informs the player, in no uncertain terms, that they are guilty of a capital crime. This cell is to become their home, their rights almost entirely forfeited, and a sentence of one million years appears overhead, terminal and oppressive.
These two contrasting atmospheres: the chaotic, vibrant glowing panic of the missions and the cold, sterile isolation of the prison cell are the only life the player will know within Freedom Wars. The grand design is a very sobering one, where discoveries the player makes, freedoms each mission earns, and opportunities players get are always distant. Each entitlement, or personal freedom, a player earns pales in comparison to what is next to unlock. Every inch of progress or shred of luxury is taxed, catalogued, and only shared when it is deemed less useful for the greater good of the city. There is a losing desperation to every action, where some rights are never earned, even major progress is minimal, and each new opportunity is just a pittance in the face of an all-consuming oppression.
The entire game just oozes this aesthetic. The walls are metal or concrete, drab, empty, and utterly devoid of life. Surveillance stands mere feet away at all times, walls are decorated largely by cameras and warning signs, and any moment spent in the cell hub is peppered with a loudspeaker droning above. There is nearly no respite from the pervasive sense of detachment.
During missions, however, the shackles come off. A dark, cramped van brings a group of criminals, called Sinners, to combat zones. Once out of the van, everything changes. Colors spring from the walls, ground, and sky. Enemy units glow red and orange, the whip-like grappling tools on players arms glow with internal luminescence that rivals the amber glow of the mechanical goliaths the Sinners are tasked to take down. Characters chatter constantly, shouting short-term battle plans, screaming defiance as they strike, and an on-going mission feed appears both on the side of the HUD and as provided by the voice of the robotic assistant, reminding the player of mission objectives and giving tactical updates where appropriate. The hulking footsteps, the sound of gunfire and explosives, and upbeat music showers the players and game with life and energy.
Missions are the truest freedoms a Sinner can experience. Their weapons are theirs to configure, their companions and equipment are theirs to pick, and the oppression simply ceases to be during combat. It is loud, frantic, and unabashedly alive.
When the missions end, the players find themselves as scourges of society. They have no freedoms, they have no social rights, they are simply tools to be used. And while not discarded outright, are scarcely more than expendable. While within the walls of the city, Sinners are given next to nothing. Any information they find out, or freedoms they squeak by with, aren’t really theirs to explore. It takes a Citizen, or a computer, or an information network, to make heads or tails of anything.
Senses within the walls of the city are practically void. While the player fights and clings to every scrap of information sourced, volumes of information is gathered, disseminated, and returned to the player after the fact. Elucidation, the big picture, and grand designs are not the player’s to have or know. Throughout the game, no matter how effective in combat or how high-ranking a Sinner becomes, they are still a Sinner. Period.
Such as it is, the aesthetic in Freedom Wars is astoundingly good. On that rubric alone, the game’s successes are beautifully realized. However, for as much as the aesthetic shines, the mechanics lack. There is technically nothing wrong with the gameplay, as it is more often than not executed well. Weapons all feel visceral and effective. The various options players have when selecting their chosen styles of combat are as varied as they are intuitive, and the actual clashing with foes large and small is a joy to experience. The play is fast when needed, slow and lumbering where appropriate, and filled with the right hazards and tools to make evolving situations the right mixture of challenge and opportunity. The ultimate sensation of victory over numerous foes and goliath titans of death is nothing short of euphoric.
Put simply, combat is largely fluid and easily comprehended. However, it clunks when switching gears. Seguing smoothly from combos to reviving to dodging in the frantic pace of a packed battlefield is seemingly impossible. The enemies will swarm and swell, any overabundance of damage-dealing foes on the battlefield will quickly shred players and party alike, making the difference between an easy battle and an impossible one sometimes a feature of luck, and how well the various elements of battle gel. While this isn’t impossible to overcome, the best way to avoid it is to go into battle over-equipped, which makes players who fail to grind, or use their limited resources incorrectly too often, will find the combat becoming more of a slog than a joy.
And while it does wonders for the aesthetic, the distance the story keeps from the player is awkward. The first half of the game is window-dressing, really emphasizing the setups and settings of the Sinner society. When the story begins, it does so disjointedly, frequently interrupted by the incessant demands of citizens and government officials. When the story really gets moving in a significant way, the game is already ending. The final string of missions is a cacophonous piling of narrative, combat, and death. The difficulty spikes sharply, story beats collide into one another, and it all ends on an ambiguous note.
Given all of that, Freedom Wars is a strange game to pin down. Where it works, everything comes together to make an amazing, fun, and beautiful experience. The mechanics are familiar, polished, and worth the money and time alone. The aesthetic, despite a middling soundtrack, is inescapably well-realized, effective, and evocative as much for its lackings as where it succeeds. The challenge is inconsistent, and at times more punishing than entirely necessary. When playing, it will be hard to put down despite that, for good reason.
As a whole package, it’s a great game made to seem much worse for where it missteps. Easily worth the cost, easily worth playing, and were it not for a few mistakes, might have been the killer app the Vita needed. As it is, it’s still an excellent game, but one that shamefully isn’t perfect.