Easily one of the PlayStation Vita's most anticipated titles, Freedom Wars plops you into a dystopian future that's full of typically stylish teens and giant mechanical beasts, and tasks you with whittling down a one million year sentence of service to your not-so-lovely community. For many owners of Sony's portable console, a lot of expectations weigh on the game's shoulders – but is it able to help carry the burden of a flagging handheld?
After crafting your avatar in a rather good character creation menu, you're dropped into your Panopticon – a city state that's both your home and your prison. In this dismal future, resources have all but run dry, and as a result, unwanted children are forced into becoming sinners. Essentially soldiers of their Panopticon, sinners are expected to carry out operations that benefit their homeland, dealing damage to rival states in the process.
Completing these dangerous missions also reduces your ridiculous one million year sentence of service, and allows you to move up in the world. With enough wins under your belt, you're able to acquire entitlements, which, for the most part, equate to basic human rights. Want to chat with a fellow sinner? Better get out onto the battlefield and risk your neck to save some important civilians. Feeling tired and want to take a lie down on your bed? Only if you go and dismantle a hulking, murderous mech first.
It's an incredibly grim premise, but one that works well, as many gameplay rewards tie into the narrative itself. The game's world and generally bleak feel are arguably its two best assets, and for the first few hours, its story helps to glue it all together. You'll meet other rookie sinners and hardened veteran operatives, and while none of the cast are particularly well written or even that memorable, they do a decent job of making you feel somewhat welcome in this otherwise soul-crushingly harsh reality.
Unfortunately, the main plot starts to falter as you dig deeper into it. Too many quests feel like padding as you hunt down just one more rare resource, and the narrative slowly descends into a disappointingly generic tale that really loses its lustre later on. In that sense, it's an absolute shame that the title doesn't capitalise on its captivating premise, because once you're used to life in the Panopticon, the title refuses to try and grip your morbid curiosity with anything else.
Thankfully, it's the gameplay, for the most part, that'll keep you coming back once the story loses its impact. In many ways, the release has been billed as yet another Monster Hunter-style title, that focuses on the development of your character through the acquisition of better and better gear, which is gained through farming resources from an array of different enemies. While the comparison is a valid one to an extent, especially when it comes to post-plot activity, Freedom Wars feels unique thanks to various design decisions and gameplay mechanics.
For starters, you're able to switch between ranged weapons and melee weapons at any time. From assault rifles to rocket launchers, you've got plenty of options when it comes to dealing damage from a distance, while the likes of futuristic swords and lances are used in close-quarters combat. Switching between the two is crucial to being effective on the battlefield, as shooting in third-person is a surprisingly large part of the game.
It's not a typical third-person shooter by any means, but the title will often force you into situations where running and gunning is the best way to survive. Ammo is spread across the mission maps, and in later tasks, it pays to know where the drops are located, especially when you're out of bullets and grunt opponents are swarming your position. Sadly, the gunplay itself is rather bog standard – that's not to say that it's bad, but it's about as rudimentary as shooting gets. Even after you've upgraded or crafted powerful new armaments, there's still no real flair or sense of weight to the weapons, although having said that, blasting off a mech's limb or gunning down several peons in a few quick bursts still feels pretty good.
Melee combat, meanwhile, isn't quite as basic, but it still doesn't offer too much depth. Standard combos are whacked out with square, while triangle allows for heavier blows. Running up to bigger, mechanical foes and slicing them up before rolling away from their attacks makes for some fun encounters, but duelling humanoid enemies can be a bit fiddly, as they're equipped with all of the same techniques that you are. Fortunately, the lock on mechanic helps you to stay centred on your opponent, but against groups of foes, you can be locked into place with a barrage of attacks, and as you can imagine, getting caught off guard only leads to frustration and a feeling of helplessness.
It's a good job, then, that thorns are here to save the day. Thorns are whip-like weapons that you'll always have access to, and come in three types: attack, defence, and healing. As their names suggest, each type has a different use in battle, and forming a party of yourself and three computer controlled allies usually requires you to make use of the variation on offer. In any case, thorns allow you to zip across the map with a tap of R, latching yourself to nearby surfaces or even enemies. From there, you let loose with your gun, or, if you've attached yourself to an opponent, perform a specific offensive action.
Thorns do a great job of mixing up a combat system that can otherwise feel a little bland, and when you consider that each type of thorn comes with its own unique abilities, like laying down explosive mines or erecting an impenetrable barrier, they add some welcome depth to your playstyle, which is a particular highlight when you decide to team up with other players in co-op missions.
Speaking of which, multiplayer becomes a big draw once you've grown a bit bored of chipping away at your one million year sentence all by yourself. Co-op tasks can be fantastic fun with a good set of friends, and prove to be rather refreshing after having to deal with your sometimes hapless artificial intelligence-driven buddies. No matter how you decide to play, though, you'll always be getting closer to nabbing better gear, and an in-depth crafting and upgrade system means that there's plenty of room for experimentation, even if its nuances aren't explained particularly well.
It's also a good job that most of the important resources and materials that you'll need are gained from the bigger foes that you'll face, because as we hinted before, missions that see you taking on rival humans can grow tiresome. Structured like competitive multiplayer matches that exclusively feature bot opponents, these objectives can feel frustratingly touch and go, especially when your aforementioned AI allies simply don't pay attention to your orders. Even worse is the fact that failing a quest kicks you right back to your dreary little cell, and if it's a new mission that you've failed, you'll have to sit through the same lines of dialogue to get back to it.
But, as hinted, your larger aggressors, commonly known as abductors, provide the real meat of the experience, as you and your party chip away at their health, and, at times, bring them to their knees in order to launch a full assault and dish out some real damage. Some of these later fights turn out to be grippingly tense affairs that you'll need to prepare for with healing items and an effective strategy, and in a way, we feel like the game would have been better off if it was purely a case of man-versus-machine, as these brawls seem to be what the combat itself was designed around.
Stepping away from the gameplay, Freedom Wars boasts an interesting art style and some great character and weapon design, but it's tainted by repetitive and disappointingly unimaginative environments. Similarly, the audio features some enjoyable electronic tunes, but the constant nattering of your customisable accessory – a robotic companion designed to keep an eye on you – wears thin very, very quickly when you're trying to concentrate on waging war.
Freedom Wars is a solid action RPG that's put behind bars by a slew of elements that end up lacking. While none of these flaws ruin the experience, they definitely put a dampener on some of the game's best qualities, such as its deliciously dystopian premise and intense boss battles. Although it doesn't deserve total freedom, this year's biggest Vita title certainly shouldn't be subjected to a life of servitude either.