Freedom; it’s an interesting concept. Generally speaking, we can look back through the historical record and see the promulgation of freedom. Each subsequent generation builds on the work of the last, with the long road to the modern interpretation of suffrage and equality evident to all. Well, that’s how the theory would go anyway – in reality we’ve surrounded ourselves in this modern world with concepts and constructs that serve to bind us while offering the illusion of free will. You might not have to toil in the fields or tug your forelock to the local lord of the manor, but there’s likely still a mortgage to pay, or council tax to find. Freedom – it’s the new soma.
Unlike in our own murky world, however, freedom has very definite definitions in the world of Freedom Wars. It’s a devastated world, where in the distant future the remaining human populations huddle in gigantic Panopticons, engaging in constant conflict for the few resources that remain. It’s a world where even the slightest transgression could land you with a prison sentence of thousands – or even tens of thousands – of years. These sinners are expected to work for the greater good of their Panopticon, undertaking dangerous missions to secure resources and protect the citizenry; if they succeed, then their huge sentences will be reduced, and they might even get bumped up to a cell on a higher floor.
And it’s as one of these sinners, with a million year sentence to boot, that you’ll play. Starting off at the lowest rank of scum, you’ll have no rights and you’ll be forced to conduct operations with your fellow sinners, racking up entitlement points to purchase human rights so basic that you’ll be surprised that anyone could have ever thought to deny them to people. Being successful in operations will see you rise up the CODE ranks, unlocking additional missions and entitlements as well as progressing the story. Oh, and you get your own android sidekick, an accessory who monitors your every move and accompanies you into combat. A wide range of customisation options are available, and it probably wouldn’t surprise you how many people with scantily clad female accessories you can encounter in the online lobbies.
Throughout all of this much of the main gameplay concentrates on fighting giant machines known as abductors. These are sent by other Panopticons to kidnap valuable citizens, storing them in pods as they rampage through the ruins of past cities. The abductors are an awesome sight the first time you see them – they tower over the battlefield with comically oversized weapons, roaring with mechanical rage as they charge. Battling them is made a little easier through the inclusion of a particularly nice piece of weaponry called the thorn. Imagine a grappling hook, if you will, that looks like a thorny bramble wrapped around your arm that you can throw at nearby buildings and enemies and then jump to them. The thorn is one of the few pieces of functionality that differentiates Freedom Wars from the rest of the monster hunting crowd, and when you’ve mastered the use of one of them it’ll all look quite impressive, jumping from building to abductor to floor, laying down charged special moves and so forth.
Anyway, using the thorn you can ping yourself around the battlefield, clinging to walls or abductors as you make your attacks or dodge those coming from the abductors. If you’ve equipped your sinner with a small melee weapon (or the appropriate combat item) you’ll be able to latch on to certain parts of the abductors and then work to sever them – so, if you see a bipedal abductor strutting towards you with giant missile launchers mounted to its shoulders, feel free to throw yourself up there and start cutting away. There’s a good balance in the main game between the various melee and ranged weapons on offer, and with experience you’ll find your own middle ground between pumping ranged damage into abductors and then moving in to cut off anything that might be giving you particular trouble. Post-game is a little different, with there seeming to be far more reasons to pack two ranged weapons and mitigate a lot of the potential damage found in close quarters, but you’ll be playing for a fair while before this becomes a pressing issue.
All those bits you spend time severing won’t go to waste either; you can collect the resources from the battlefield, and as long as you have the entitlement to keep them you can add them to an ever growing horde of abductor parts and junk. The main use for these bits and bobs is found in the creation and upgrading of weaponry, although you can also manufacture combat items and augmentations that allow you to further customise your character. The upgrade system works in real time, which can be fairly painful if you’re undertaking a higher level upgrade and just want your item now, but at least there aren’t any microtransactions popping up, offering to sell you back your own time. There’s also a module upgrade system, whereby the rarity of a particular weapon governs how many modules it can hold. These modular upgrades are semi-random, meaning you can devastate your near-perfect weapon with one unlucky ‘upgrade’ – removal options exist, but are expensive. All this means that only a few hardcore players are likely to play with weapon customisation to the full, with the rest content to level up their weaponry as far as their CODE level allows and then risk only a couple of modules.
As with any hunting style game, there’s a large degree of repetitiveness on offer here. Once you’ve figured out the tells and the general strategy for a particular type of abductor it doesn’t really matter whether that abductor has shoulder-mounted ballistic shields or missile launchers, you’re going to be approaching that fight with the same standard strategy. There are, of course, wide differences between the abductor types, but there simply aren’t enough types to keep you going throughout the whole game. Later you’ll see some operations appear where the abductor is linked to a particular elemental type, but the whole elemental side mechanic is so underexplored you can pretty much ignore its presence and carry on, business as usual. Freedom Wars cries out for a greater variety of big things to kill, and the odd operation with smaller (or human) enemies just feels like unnecessary filler – and don’t get me started on the extremely pointless ‘stealth’ missions that pop up every now and then in the campaign.
The maps themselves further compound this feeling of over-repetitiveness; one of the major issues that Freedom Wars has is that it doesn’t make anywhere near a good enough use of verticality. By the time you’ve levelled up your thorn, and maybe stuck a thorn length augmentation on, you’ve finally got your hands on something with a decent bit of range. Throwing yourself at weak points on abductors is all well and good, but even better is zooming around the battlefield like a post-apocalyptic Spider-Man, stopping to recharge your thorn every now and then on a piece of glowing Will-o infused scenery. Or, it would be if each of the maps weren’t so full of invisible walls. Or, if there was a worthwhile reason for you to throw yourself to the top of those tall structures. Or, if those massive abductors did anything other than remain steadfastly rooted to the floor. So, you two remain rooted to the floor for much of the action, pinging upwards only to take out the odd errant enemy, or pick up an out of the way ammo pack.
However, even with these faults, it’s easy to say that the setting is unique; in no other game will you have to buy the right to lay down to rest, for instance. The constant infringements that you’ll experience in your first few tentative hours help set a dark, oppressive scene – one foot in the wrong place can land you with hundreds of extra years of servitude. The mix of hopelessness and ennui that you’ll encounter when talking to your fellow sinners more than adequately conveys the meaningless of an existence when faced with such large sentences, everything feeding into an overall design that paints the bleakest of pictures. It’s a crying shame that the supporting mechanics of Freedom Wars do so much to break this picture – you exist in a world starved of resources, but buy enough rare material entitlements and you can horde as many different items as you like. Every sinner lives with the humiliation of never-ending surveillance – except for when the story demands, and then it’s a solution so seemingly simple that you have to wonder why every sinner hasn’t employed it. These little things serve to degrade the power of the setting, and by the time you reach the end of the story the Panopticon feels more like a strict boarding school than a prison city-state.
For those willing to stick with the game a good few online (or ad hoc) options await you. There’s a VS mode, allowing you to play against groups of other sinners in various 4v4 modes and settings. Matchmaking seems painful, and uncommonly often you can enter a lobby full of relatively low level CODE players and then be matched against a team of vets, all with PvP oriented augmentations equipped. If you manage to make it into a relatively even match, then you’ll be faced with all the issues you find in single-player when fighting other human-sized enemies – ranged feeling overpowered, the action not being quite as fluid as a third-person shooter should be (for the obvious reason that this isn’t a shooter – you’re meant to be spanking giant baddies!) and comical turning and thorn throws from players who are too used to using the aiming lock-on instead of free aim. However, the co-op matches are a totally different story; here operations that seemed impossible with AI companions are suddenly a piece of cake, with teams actually daring to work together and fulfil set roles when required. Sure, you’ll still get the odd player with a healing thorn equipped who never manages to heal anyone or drop his healing special, but if you’ve got the patience to clear the game then you could burn a lot more time playing through special operations online.
There’s no question that the absence of Monster Hunter has hurt Sony, and the Vita is still looking for that breakout hit that fuels consumption in the domestic market – and by now, you’d be hard pressed to find an unbiased observer who would claim that such a hit still has a chance of coming. What’s also hurt the Vita is that all of these challengers need a second bite of the cherry to show their real potential – Soul Sacrifice needed Delta, Toukiden’s getting Kiwami and Ragnarok Odyssey got Ace. Freedom Wars hasn’t proved to be an exception to this trend – it stands alone well enough as a game, but it needs more. It needs a wider array of abductor types to battle, it needs greater integration of the supporting damage mechanics, it needs to push greater differentiation between weapon types, and present scenarios where your thought process flows along a chain that sees you wishing you’d taken a massive autocannon to a battle, rather than the current post-endgame where you upgrade your two favourite weapons to the max and then ignore the hassle of switching them up. It gets close to feeling like a breath of fresh air in the genre, and the thorn mechanics alone deserve a game that allows them to demonstrate their full potential. Freedom Wars sold well enough in Japan for the possibility of a sequel or upgraded version in the future, but you won’t be too disappointed if you decide to jump in now instead of waiting.