We typically approach new games in search of an immediate clarity. Though the fundamentals might be familiar enough to allow us to find a quick footing, we want for instruction on the finer details of our abilities and objectives – the rules of the game.
Freedom Wars addresses this want by placing players in the role of an amnesiac in need of education regarding those points of play. And that, my dear sinners, is only the first of many crimes you’ll be punished for in this desperate new world.
Freedom Wars confronts players with a world of scarce resources, where city states, or Panopticons, are set at each other’s throats, fighting over the scraps needed to survive. Within this dark reality, players are criminals, guilty of the crime of existing and thereby draining those same precious resources.
For the crime of amnesia, you’ll find yourself immediately sentenced to a million years of imprisonment, left sitting in a cramped cell in some twisted anime interpretation of Orwell’s 1984. The years of your imprisonment hang over your head. Cameras watch your every move. You are constantly accompanied by an artificial construct called an Assistant, which monitors your every interaction. And a giant screen occupies one wall of your cell, where a great unblinking eye eventually yields to a cute teddy bear that scolds you for your crimes while encouraging you to quit being a drain on society and become a productive member of your Panopticon.
It’s a premise that shines with brilliance for the elements it brings to a familiar gaming experience and at the same time proves a bit chilling for its commentary on our potential future.
In order to reduce your prison sentence and climb the rungs of this strange social ladder, you’ll need to achieve objectives that bring resources to your Panopticon – to contribute to the greater good. This opens to a familiar formula of play, particularly for mobile players, where players deploy to small battlefield areas to fight waves of soldiers and other monstrosities, while claiming resources scattered across the field and dropped by defeated enemies. While story driven events continually attempt to shake up the formula, the battlefield play is largely rinse and repeat.
While the key objective may rotate between simply defeating enemies and fighting to reclaim kidnapped citizens that possess essential skills, the end result is reward points and a growing inventory of bizarre items that are important to the Panopticon, and as the game progresses, increasingly important to you.
Combat weapons range between a variety of guns and melee instruments, allowing players to swap between long range projectile fights and close-up encounters with sharper killing tools. While the ability exists to modify your loadout, it’s a good idea to always keep a melee weapon handy given the nature of most battles.
The most powerful weapon at your disposal, though, is an organic vine wrapped around the character’s arm – the Thorn. This allows players to shoot a vine outward to latch on to enemies or terrain, allowing them to scale to higher ground, pull enemies, or simply lunge toward them for a powerful strike. Both vines and melee weapons are crucial for fighting large monstrosities, which include bipedal weapons platforms and powerful abductors – creatures that kidnap citizens and hold them in a cocoon within their chest. Often, your chief goal will be to reclaim citizens and rush them to reclamation tubes by carrying them across the battlefield.
While these larger enemies are weakened by projectile strikes, the Thorn presents multiple opportunities of attack, including latching onto key points and attempting to drag the creatures down to temporarily immobilize them, or launching your character at those points to strike and attempt to sever limbs, allowing players a chance to pick up said limbs for more resources. Pulling down enemies and severing limbs requires repeated button taps.
The Thorn comes in different flavors selected through your loadout that provide different advantages – offensive, defensive, and healing. Thorns can be linked for more power or charged to provide different effects. The offensive binding thorn can be used to set traps for enemies or tie an abductor. The healing thorn can naturally restore health and provide a large thicket that will heal all nearby allies. And the defensive thorn can boost defense and provide a thicket that shields against projectile attacks.
At the completion of each mission, you’ll see a screen of all the resources and weapons you’ve gathered. It will be illegal to keep some of these depending on your code level, forcing you to donate them to the state in return for entitlement points and a sentence reduction. Climbing the social ladder requires you to meet goals for testing, which in turn requires a certain sentence level and claimed entitlements.
Initially, everything you do will be a crime. Laying down will be a crime. Speaking to other sinners will be a crime. Entitlement points allow you to buy the right to do these things. And as you claim rights, you’ll gain the ability to do more with the resources you find than simply donate them to the state. The focus will be on building facilities for the production and augmentation of weapons, medical supplies, and munitions. In addition to keeping players supplied, this allows entirely new weapons to be created, assuming you discover the resources required. Each of these actions will require a certain amount of time to pass for completion, and rescued citizens can be assigned to a facility in order to speed up this process.
Freedom Wars also centers heavily on customization. From the outset, players customize their gender and appearance, but begin the game in drab prison garb. Gaining entitlement points allows players to access many freedoms and options, and also the right to new clothing and items to personalize your character. There’s a delightfully strange pleasure in doing so, of being stripped so entirely of identity from the start but slowly claiming a certain level of individuality in this world. This sense of identity even extends to choosing a real world location as your Panopticon, with leaderboards showing rankings based on contributions made by players claiming allegiance to these locales. Toronto was sitting at number nine overall, the last I checked.
Missions are broken up by sections that take place within your Panopticon, where you can meet other sinners and citizens, gaining sinners as allies that you can bring along on missions. As the story begins to unfold regarding the mysteries of a higher society above you, a strange girl and the promise of healing the world, minor fetch questing and socialization become the chief distractions between battle grinds.
The familiar game of fighting and resource gathering also brings some typical camera issues however. With the ability to launch yourself onto enemies or around the screen while fighting large adversaries, there are many times where you’ll be fighting to keep your perspective focused on your target. Locking onto enemies or sections of larger foes makes using the vine easier in this regard, but far from perfect. It’s also far from game breaking, but provides a consistently nagging frustration that cuts into the ability to execute moves with the same speed and accuracy seen in cinema scenes.
Perhaps as a concession, larger enemies that tend to shake up the camera move slower, and allies are quick to aid with healing Thorns or supplies. But there’s certainly a degree of frustration trying to keep your perspective fixed while splitting your attention between large enemies and battlefield events – such as preventing enemies from claiming citizens with their own reclamation tubes.
Beyond providing a consistently creepy watch over you, your personal assistant provides a great deal of aid on the battlefield. Players can issue commands to keep it close for healing and tactical support, or order it to carry citizens to reclamation tubes. While your assistant and allies will sometimes require your assistance to revive them, finishing an objective can often skirt this concern, immediately removing foes and giving you a brief period to gather more resources and check on your party.
There’s plenty of incentive to grind through some control and camera frustrations, and while I can’t verify it yet, I suspect a PlayStation TV setup might alleviate some of this as well. While providing space for multiplayer versus and co-op battlefield sessions, the game also allots the space to determine whether you want to progress with others or on your lonesome.
The learning curve to combat can prove incredible sharp at times. Attempting to tackle an optional special ops mission with a large sentence reduction quickly taught me that I hadn’t learned to play quite so well on my own as the story missions had encouraged me to believe – enemies are increasingly aggressive and your health can slide away in the blink of an eye.
While plenty of games offer deep levels of customization, Freedom Wars finds the means to encourage a deeper investment in these features. Whether sitting in your prison cell, or walking around the Panopticon while your assistant continually reminds you that social interactions aren’t productive, the game creates a believable air of oppression that makes character interactions and personal customization feel more rewarding than other titles with similar mechanics.
Really feeling the restrictions of imprisonment in a world stripping me of identity gave me more incentive to explore every opportunity to express sparks of individuality and encouraged me to grind and contribute.
Personality also goes a long way, and the narrative play made here to encourage an investment in the deep but familiar customization options does pay off and allows Freedom Wars to become something of a bright spark on the Vita despite some hiccups – reinvigorating the familiar with fresh purpose. The controls work well enough to survive the war and revel in the presentation, but also left me feeling that I’ll never be quite as good at battling as I’d like to while splitting my focus between frantic moments of combat and resetting my camera view to gain a fresh lock on strike.
The flaws here feel familiar to other games in this vein, and while the atmosphere might lessen the wear of repetitious grinding, the level of play the controls reach for sometimes hit a wall on the Vita and create a daunting task trying to avoid large enemies while swiveling the camera to keep an eye on every element at play. However, frustration gives way to how much action the game allows players to take during battles and the battle options open to players, at times coming very close to creating gameplay that reaches for the style of combat seen in Attack on Titan – all while mobile to boot.
Although, my willingness to grind, participate, and contribute, could be a worrisome sign that the Panopticon’s system of indoctrination and behavioral rewards have worked too well on me.