The PS Vita is a strange machine in its able to deliver advanced graphics and gameplay for a portable console, almost replicating what you’d find in a home console. Yet Sony has, willingly or not, steered it towards a niche made of smaller games, many of which would have probably run well enough on a PSP.
As the glitzy realm of the AAA gradually moved away from Sony’s portable, many saw the potential for it to become the perfect JRPG machine, and that potential has been partly realized by smaller developers and publishers. Freedom Wars has the chance to be the crowning of that potential, letting it finally explode with a big first party experience, but does it succeed?
The game’s story definitely is a first step in the right direction, coming with a full blown personality that reminds of the best anime series (which that are becoming increasingly rare), likable and rather complex characters and quite a few surprises that will bring back memories from the beloved JRPG of old.
Let’s talk about main heroine, for instance. You take a look at her, and you’d expect a gentle, loving and rather melancholic damsel in distress. Then you discover that she’s an overly excitable Otaku of the same robots which you fight against every day on the battlefield, she has plenty willpower and ability to fight on her own, and gets giddy every time she talks about mecha parts and engine oil. Talk about a handful, and an absolutely adorable one.
The story itself is definitely quite unique: we’re stuck in a dystopian future where giant megalopolis named Panopticons fight over what’s left of the depleted resources of the world. Our enemies aren’t inhuman aliens, but poor criminals exactly like us, sentenced to live what’s left of their miserable lives trying to steal a crust of bread from the other cities for the survival of their own.
The fearsome “abductors” aren’t otherworldly beings coming to bring vengeance against humanity, but robots sent by other humans to kidnap the work force necessary for the Panopticons to survive in their hostile environment. It’s something easy to overlook at first sight, but the grim world in which the game is set is so detached from the usual tropes that it feels refreshing, and it hits you with full force as soon as you start playing.
The protagonist is a criminal within this screwed up society. He has absolutely no rights. At the beginning of the game you can’t even walk more than five steps in your cell without being found guilty of excessive exercise and having your sentence extended. You can’t talk to people and aren’t even permitted to lay down to sleep.
All those little “entitlements” have to be regained little by little, while the sentence of a million years (or more, if you happen to make little missteps at the beginning, and you probably will) gets whittled down by taking part in the endless war against the other Panopticons.
The idea of having to actually earn the right to walk around with your character (and many other little things), may seem bloody awkward, but in Freedom Wars it really works, and it enriches the experience, helping a lot in communicating the atmosphere of despair and oppression hovering over the world. Add to that the fact that the political pep-talk is often delivered by Percy Propa (or Propa-kun, as he’s named in Japanese), who is basically the creepiest pseudo-Marxist teddy bear mascot ever, and you get a masterpiece of dystopian atmosphere.
Freedom Wars‘ graphics aren’t exactly what you’d call a technological miracle. Characters are definitely well designed and detailed, but environments tend to be lacking, with extremely simple models and quite muddy textures. In the end this isn’t a terrible deal, and it’s probably a good thing that the developers opted to focus most of the visual resources of the Vita on the cast, but visiting the same drab maps that seem to come straight out of a PSP over and over can get a bit old.
Luckily the art style, which is empowered by the pleasant characters mentioned above, definitely makes up for the less-than-ideal environmental design, most of the times keeping the eye focused on the most flattering parts of the game.
The audio aspect of the title is definitely pleasing with a well arranged and fitting soundtrack, but even more importantly with really solid voice acting. Sony definitely did not skimp on the cast, hiring some great actors that really highlight the personality of their characters.
If you love anime, you’ll definitely appreciate Freedom Wars‘ voice acting, because it’s very close, in terms of quality and distribution of roles, to the best anime series. Of course this also means that it’s in Japanese with subtitles, as Sony decided not to include an English voice track.
Personally, I love Japanese voice acting, so this doesn’t bother me in the least (the opposite would have annoyed me quite a lot more, as I prefer original voice acting over audio localization in all cases), but your mileage may vary.
Unfortunately the subtitles do suffer from the usual problem from which this kind of game almost never escapes: at times the translators resorted to “poetic” license, and if you’re even vaguely familiar with the Japanese language you’ll occasionally notice that subtitles and voice don’t always perfectly match.
Gameplay-wise Freedom Wars is a very competent action game with RPG elements. Technically many would call it an action RPG, but most of the progression is performed through loot, leaving character advancement mostly based on the ability to acquire more advanced materials, resulting in more powerful equipment.
That said, the combat system is extremely enjoyable, fast and furious. There are several classes of very distinctive weapons divided between melee and ranged. You can deck yourself out to be a nimble swordsman or an heavily armed long-distance fighter with rocket launchers and sniper rifles.
The real treat, though, is the Thorn, an unique weapon that extends from the character’s arm like Spider-Man’s webs, and lets you perform a wide variety of actions. You can use it to traverse the environment extremely quickly, crossing large distances both vertically and horizontally. You can bind abductors and drag them to the ground, heal your companions, create bulletproof barriers, traps and more.
It’s basically your Swiss Army Knife that gives combat an unique flavor and a lot of depth and personality, departing sharply from the usual run and gun (and even more from most action RPG titles). It’s a lot of fun to use, and it can be combined with the environment in a myriad of ways.
The only arguable little flaw is that it does take some of the already limited control estate of the PS Vita, conflicting with shooting. You’ll have to assign one or the other to the square button, making it extremely awkward to aim and shoot at the same time.
A separate control scheme for the PlayStation TV using both R1 and R2 would have improved the playability a thousandfold, but unfortunately Sony either did not think about it, or decided against it, and that’s really a pity.
Control woes aside, combat is really exhilarating and fun, especially when the most powerful abductors are involved. You’ll find yourself dashing between buildings, trying to drag the powerful giants to the ground, cutting off limbs and dodging with no time to draw breath.
Unfortunately the camera can’t always keep up, and at times you’ll find yourself fighting against the visual angle more than against your enemies, but that doesn’t happen often enough to be overly annoying.
Single player missions can also be played in co-op mode, and if you manage to get a good connection (which happened about 70% of the times for me), that definitely multiplies the fun. AI companions during the single player campaign can’t be defined tactical geniuses, but they do perform their duties as ordered (even if at times they do so en-masse, so you’ll find yourself with four people trying to revive you at the same time). Replacing them with human friends definitely changes the pace and adds to the enjoyability of the battle.
Unfortunately I can’t say much about the PvP feature, as I didn’t ever manage to launch a single match. That’s probably because there wasn’t an enormous number of players online to begin with and it was unlocked just yesterday. In any case it’s pretty much an afterthought, as it was introduced with a patch just a few days ago in Japan. If you don’t enjoy competitive gameplay you can pretty much ignore it, and the core of the game is definitely elsewhere.
As mentioned above, most of the character progression is performed via loot, and weapons can be upgraded and modified through a series of facilities that you can build in your Panopticon. There’s a lot to tinker with, especially thanks to a pretty deep system of elemental modifiers that will radically change the ways your arsenal will interact with the Abductors.
To top it all, you have your lovely (or not so lovely, considering that you can fully customize it) accessory. It’s an android that will follow you around everywhere (unless you earn the right to leave it home) and will fight alongside you. Basically it’s a second character that adds further depth to combat and tactics, and that can provide invaluable support.
As a funny note, the “accessory” name is a bit misleading. It seems to imply that it’s subordinate to you, but it’s actually the opposite. As a prisoner, your accessory is your jailor, keeper and taskmaster, and at least story-wise it’ll be the one cracking the whip.
Ultimately, while not perfect, this title is exactly what the PlayStation Vita needs. It’s a very solid action game with a strong Japanese flavor, a ton of content and all the competence of a first party game condensed into a neat, tight package.
A better control scheme, especially for the newly PlayStation TV, would have turned it into an even better experience, but exhilarating combat, great depth, well designed characters and a really interesting setting and story turn Freedom Wars into something very close to a must-have. Hopefully Sony will realize that this is a step in the right direction, but more steps like this might be needed for the PS Vita to see its full potential.