PlayStation Vita has received a few Monster Hunter-style games along the way, but none of them have managed to reach the high acclaim that series is wont to do.
Nonetheless, Sony Computer Entertainment, in collaboration with Japanese developers Dimps and Shift, has taken on the project with the prospect of giving PS Vita owners exactly what they’ve been looking for: a title that makes owning Sony’s handheld a necessity. However, with the console’s track record thus far, the idea will demand some convincing. Step forward, Freedom Wars.
In the heat of battle and philosophical narration, the main character is caught off guard by a bipedal robot adversary and knocked unconscious with a massive blow. Once awake, the main character is found under arrest by the hierarchy Panopticon. At this point, the main character can be customized and created so as to fortify the character’s new life after amnesia. In this world of the year 102013, every single resource is hazardously limited, and the world revolves around how those resources are obtained and distributed. In light of this, 50 different Panopticons based directly on major cities on Earth, each of which is a society oversaturated with inhabitants, are at war with each other. The military for each Panopticon is each one’s Sinners, who are their prisoners with drastically hyperbolized sentences.
Every Sinner faces one million years of imprisonment, and the only way to get out from under such a heinous life sentence is to fight for a Panopticon and gather resources for its citizens. The narrative was intriguing enough to keep me jumping into matches and fulfilling the runaround, which can’t be said for a lot of mission-based games. The featured Eastern style holds a more serious tone throughout; and while a lot of the tropes are still present, nothing but the narrative takes the forefront, since the diversity of character development across both genders gives a lot of credit to both. A spiritual essence named Aries makes her presence known whenever the main character rests, and her prime objective through most of the game is an undeveloped form of foreshadowing that doesn’t justify itself until late in the game.
Each character’s Accessory is an automated humanoid that acts as a reporter for the Panopticon, as Accessories keep track of misdemeanors and positive performances, which makes Accessories like acting parole officers. Accessories also keep track of their Sinner’s Entitlements: actions rewarded for providing services to the Panopticon. Those who are not prisoners are called Citizens, and they also have free reign to request services of Sinners whenever they please.
Initially, the main Sinner, like every Sinner, starts with absolutely no Entitlement: they’re inhibited from doing almost anything, which includes talking to members of the opposite sex, moving too far away from his or her Accessory, or even lying down when sleeping. This gives a feeling of consequence for everything, including holding out weapon and munitions upgrades from the Panopticon, since keeping resources from the Panopticon is worthy of an extended sentence and it always stings to get a surprise penalty after knocking chunks off a sentence. As expected, progressing through the game gives more allowances, like high-level weapons retainable without penalty.
The dialogue in the game may be a mixed bag, since the entire game is voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, but the voice work isn’t jarring or overzealous. Coupling that with a healthy, diverse soundtrack–ranging from calm, upbeat tracks to stark, driving bass lines–yields a game that may not make audible waves, but Freedom Wars doesn’t do anything wrong in the sound department. Even the train station-esque announcement that plays over and over gives a sense that the world is being delegated constantly, though it’s still voiced in Japanese.
Equally so, the visuals of the game are stupendous, as the anime-inspired aesthetic is crisp and detailed with only a slight degradation during actual combat, which is justified by the high frame rate. The combat itself is significant as it compiles navigation from Soul Sacrifice and combat from the likes of Monster Hunter and Ragnarok Odyssey in the sense that combat flow isn’t too fast or too slow—a happy middle ground between those two titles. Four Sinners can go into battle, be they actual players or AI allies.
A Sinner’s thorns are literal thorned lines wrapped around their left arms used to move quickly across short distances and reach ledges, as well as grab enemies. In grabbing enemies, players have choices between jumping right into the fray, clinging to the enemy and attacking; projecting toward them, allowing for aerial attacks; or pulling on enemies. In performing the latter, larger creatures can be tripped to then be broken down for collectable parts (Monster Hunters will be right at home with this concept). The great appeal to breaking apart large enemies like Citizen-housing Abductors is that every part that falls off is visible and collectible. The thorns also differentiate the classes, as the Binding thorns are for damage dealers, Healing is for healers, and Shielding is for a tank type.
Generally, the flow of combat is unhindered and versatile, and there is a plethora of weapon options ranging from melee to guns. While a target-lock mechanic is included, however, quick enemy movements or missed attacks make keeping composure a little too challenging for this otherwise convenient function; frankly, the controls and camera work perfectly well without using the lock-on system, which can introduce more trouble than it fixes.
Overall, the level of customization is vast. As mentioned earlier, weapon choices are plentiful and upgrades are equally diverse, as parts and weapons collected throughout the game are used in upgrading stats and adding elements to them. Customization isn’t exclusive there, as the Sinner’s attire and Accessory have tons of options from which to choose, ranging from appearance to equipment. Even further still is the Sinner’s access to optional facilities, which is where player stats, weapons, and equipment can be created and leveled, that also can be developed and leveled in order to create higher-level items and weapons.
Looking back over the content, the flow of it all is linear in a way that the base of a tree is linear: there are a bunch of branches that stem off the base, but the base is what drives everything forward and none of the branches stray too far. This means that all the extras and customization and navigation are directed in tandem very nicely. To help keep focus, Freedom Wars includes an always-accessible Notification system that can be filtered from every notification into just objectives, removing all the updates for items received and penalties made.
Even better still is the pace of development and exposure. While there are significant lulls at times, the overall pace is very accommodating to both the learning curve as well as exposure to new aspects of the game. One negative to it all is that missions become longer with further progression, and while more content and gameplay is generally welcome once an expertise is developed, the portability of it all begins to be lost. Granted, playing this game in long stints is easy, but not everyone may have that ability; luckily, there’s plenty of micromanagement, from upgrades to unlocks, that can be done in smaller chunks of time later in the game. Regardless, your utmost attention is needed: Freedom Wars requires a great deal of running around while progressing with the narrative, and even though the Notification system does well to keep a focus, the game requires an attentive mind when getting around the Panopticon.
The multiplayer side of things, called Vs. Operations, takes missions from the single-player campaign and has teams of four players compete to score points and meet objectives like rescuing Citizens and holding territories. Players can use all of their upgrades and weapons they’ve developed against each other. Unfortunately, while this mode offers further replay value to the game, its long-term appeal was hard to gauge in our pre-release review period. Elsewhere, cooperative play of the game’s campaign missions can house up to four players and their Accessories, and co-op can be fulfilled in both online and the local AdHoc play. On that note, communication in both modes is clean, crisp, and uninterrupted, and being able to battle Abductors with a friend makes breaking them apart very entertaining.
Freedom Wars is an ambitious title which combines an array of inspirations from Monster Hunter-influenced titles with big pay-off. Only a few things keep this from being a perfect exclusive on the PS Vita, but there’s plenty of reason to give it a try. The length of the game doesn’t accommodate a portable medium, and a feeling of ‘go there, do that’ persists, but exciting gameplay, customization, and narrative make it a hearty contender. And with the way new content was patched before the game release, it’s likely that Freedom War’s few issues will be addressed before long.