Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
There is an inherent joy in a ragtag crew toppling a Goliath. The precarious sound of metal groaning as the massive robotic creatures are dragged down to the ground, and the group of combatants crash forward like the tide, slashes and bullets spraying from the downed creature in frantic violence. There’s a symphony of blades, a cacophony of gunfire, and the shouts of delight that accompany the felling. Accompanied is the elation of opportunity, the hope that the rhythm of the battle has shifted, and meaningful offensive progress can be made.
These feelings are among the strongest aspects of Freedom Wars, a game by SCE Studios Japan, Shift, and Dimps. Freedom Wars paints a bleak picture of the future, a dystopian landscape scraped bare of resources. The only thing left of society are massive, sprawling city-states that operate independently, slashing at each others’ heels to collect resources from each other, stealing items, materials, and citizens in order to get an edge on the long-dwindled supply of necessities for life. Players play the role of a criminal, called Sinners, who either run missions for the good of their city, or are left to rot quietly in their cells, condemned for their drain on civic resources. Each Sinner boasts an enormous prison sentence, and it is only through resource gathering and rescue missions that they can take away from their seemingly endless sentence. Missions are often field operates that pit crews of Sinners against each other, and weaponized mechs from other cities.
These mechs are massive constructions, often as large as the buildings towering around the Sinners, and their job is to restrain captured citizens and defeat Sinners coming to rescue them. Players familiar with Shift’s previous work, God Eater, will recognize the familiarity in scale and scope of combat, not to mention the basic mechanics.
Therein lies one of Freedom Wars’ greatest strengths. Combat is utterly indulgent, and rightfully so. The mission structure allows players to throw themselves into the arena merrily and frequently. Wherein players are sent on missions where they must face these giant enemy mechs, called Abductors and enemy infantry, in addition to securing points or reclaiming kidnapped citizens. Even with the overall objective usually coming down to defeating an enemy, each skirmish feels meaningful. No single fight is challenging enough to seem impossible or daunting, but each carries enough risk to make pre-planning and strategy rewarding. Equipment on both yourself and your opponent determines little nuances in combat, and that enforces a lot of variety both in and out of battle.
And surprisingly, the nexus of citizen reclamation and combat doesn’t feel tacked on or phoned in. The citizens themselves are just people on a battlefield, unarmed, untrained, and terrified. They’ll flee to random corners of the map, run from friend and foe alike, and behave chaotically. When they’re in player control, they make terrified noises and curl up, fearful of their fates until they’re successfully extracted. They feel natural like that, flighty and concerned for their safety. They don’t always behave well, and because they’re untrained and unaware of life outside of their city-state, they aren’t really expected to be. When they’re in player possession, they’re impediments to combat, but the large teams of allies make carrying feel much better. The opportunity to achieve an objective feels completely normal in the context of missions, and the occasional requirement for saving citizens really does change the pace of each mission, and the game as a whole. There’s an immediacy there, one that is echoed mechanically by the erratic citizens themselves.
In the missions devoted exclusively to combat, the enormous, lumbering Abductors are very interesting foes. their stomps, weapons, and explosives can wipe out entire parties at once. In packs, they’re terrifyingly difficult to handle as the vulnerable moments from one are minimized by the aggressive covering fire from the other. When bolstered by ground forces and other Abductors alike, they can be the sorts of foes nightmares are made of. They’re terribly imposing. Massive. Dangerous. Well-armed. However, they’re not invincible.
Working in groups will whittle down their health surprisingly quickly, and the support in severing dangerous weapons and dragging the creatures from their feet is risky but rewarding. Given enough time and relative safety, even the strongest abductor can be taken down.
In that way, Abductors need the support of numerous weapons to focus on many targets, or with ground forces to keep from being overwhelmed. The swarm of player and cohorts would otherwise get enough ground to literally tear it apart, limb by limb. Death by a thousand cuts, as it were.
All of which is to say that Freedom Wars has beautiful, lively combat that is balanced, nuanced, demanding, and satisfying. It’s hard not to applaud the game during missions, because of how much done right in the combat mechanics and mission structure. When combined with local and online co-op, the sheer sense of joy and play that comes from the game is excellent. Compounded with that is the pure visual joy that comes out so strongly in the missions. The players costumes are well-realized, the details present are charming, and the bright flashes of sound and color from the various effects all combine beautifully. As is, the missions are a feast to the senses. Bright, beautiful, loud, wonderfully playful highlights.
Foiled with that are the non-mission segments. Cold, gray, unforgiving, and desolate. Compared to the high energy, high input missions, the other parts of the game are downbeat, almost downtrodden, and quiet. A Sinner’s life is best served running operations and missions. Any behavior otherwise is a blight on society, and the atmosphere reinforces that unilaterally. Any time spent outside of the mission takes place largely in a prison cell or cell hub, under constant surveillance from a robotic accessory who plays more a role as a guardian Big Brother than assistant, guards, and cameras. Such as it is, between missions, everything feels oppressive. It all seems Orwellian.
Given the narrative of the game, though, it really should. The disquieting isolation and featureless gray concrete and metal slabs enforce a feeling of significant uncaring. Sinners have to earn even the most basic rights, and even the particularly stalwart contributors never earn them all back. They go through life as though wearing blinders, able to see only little bits and pieces of the things they accomplish, while nearly everything goes on behind closed doors. It’s a bleak existence where the only meaning and vibrance seems to come from the bombastic missions, where explosive combat feels like an overdose of sensation compared to the muted silence of the cell block. Sinners are well and truly imprisoned to their fates, even when accomplishing their own designs, pursuing stories, and meeting objectives, everything is still very remote.
That unfortunately puts a damper on the proceedings. Players can only really gather information, they can’t really do anything with it. The majority of the moving and shaking happens off-screen, out of the player’s hands. Missions are the only time when players have a direct hand on their objective accomplishments, but even the significance thereof is lost. Being given a mission like “Rescue these two civilians” have clear goals, but they lack global context. Players aren’t informed why they’re sent on these missions, just that they are, and whatever is accomplished by completing the mission successfully happens beyond player knowledge. Things just happen, for better or worse, and the player has very little hand in anything.
This makes for a very distant story. A few story beats feel really rewarding, and have very visual and permanent results, but a majority of the goings-on are simply occurring for… some reason. They’re never really elaborated on, and they’re never expected to be. Sinners don’t need that sort of information, so they don’t get it. Simple as that. During the long stretches between missions where players stay in their cell blocks or granted the brief freedom of time in the common area, it all feels so remote. The slog of being in such dark and dank settings makes the whole of the assembly become grating. The missions, when they arrive, are breaths of fresh air and wonderful respites from the uncaring grays.
Once the story really kicks in, and the beats start happening in earnest, the game is already largely over. So much of very minor significance happens during the course of the game, it can be hard to really glean the purpose of things when they do happen. So the real importance the mounting crescendo is lost to the player, and when it finally dawns, it all feels so rushed. The story beats all pile onto one another, the climax suddenly resolve into a succession of multiple missions with no saving between, the difficulty spikes significantly, and the storyline resolves so many threads at the same time that the preceding several hours of game feel retroactively unimportant. A feeling that is further ground-in with the many repetitions players will need to successfully pass the mission.
With that spike in difficulty comes a lot of grind. Which, generally very amiable for how good combat feels, still has its hiccups. Mission variety does start to feel a little limited toward late game simply because the game has no more big reveals for new mechanics or reframed challenges. Playing becomes a bit more rote, and when there’s no narrative progression to it, the combat is still lively and enjoyable, but feels more muted. Little, entirely excusable issues like the really bizarre control scheme or struggles with the shoulder buttons seem to magnify when it seems like the player just drills the same mission or mission type over and over. Looking for the one upgrade or crafting item needed to augment the player that little bit to make the final battle(s) much less daunting grinds down the will to really invest the time needed.
Between the self-sabotaging elements of the game’s aesthetic making the non-combat sections feel dry and seemingly unimportant, and the occasional control scheme quibbles, Freedom Wars isn’t the game it could be. It accomplishes such an amazing aesthetic, produces many highly satisfying combat situations and gameplay features, and gives players near total freedom in how they want to go about playing the game, but it has just a few elements holding it back. Controls could have been a lot better, the small size of the Vita occasionally hinders hand movement comfortably to changing combat situations, and the story could’ve been paced in a great deal more satisfying way.
That said, the feeling and tone that the narrative distance accomplishes is also an amazing feature, making criticizing it too heavily almost feel wrong. Freedom Wars is an excellent game, and well worth Vita players’ time, but just isn’t quite good enough to be the killer app the Vita really needs.