Life isn’t easy for a Sinner in Freedom Wars. You’re dropped into a ruined, vaguely urban area, armed to the teeth with guns and technologically enhanced melee weaponry. As you begin to get a feel for your surroundings, you mow down a few stray drones with your submachine gun. To see what’s ahead, you bust out your Thorn–a specialized piece of grappling equipment that also sports healing, defensive, and binding features–and propel yourself up to a crumbled balcony. That’s when you see your target, a hulking, aggressive Abductor battle mech built to kidnap the smarter caste from enemy Panopticons (dystopian enclosures that serve as countries) and deliver them to work for their captors. Your job is to liberate these “resources” and get them back home.
You take a couple of pot shots from on high, then spring into action, catapulting yourself into the thick of the fight with your Thorn. This particular model is protected by shield generators on either shoulder, so you switch to your hi-tech short sword and use your Thorn to grapple onto one of them in order to cut away and eventually sever the generator while the rest of your team is keeping the mech occupied. Once the shields are down, you fling your Thorn at the mech once more, this time in an attempt to drag it down and immobilize it. Your teammates join in, making the task that much easier. When it finally falls, you all gang up on it, eventually destroying the central pod and exposing the Citizen encased inside. Once again using your Thorn, you leap up, grab the Citizen from a flaming, near-wrecked Abductor, and make a mad scramble for a specialized transport tube that will take him to safety as the Abductor frantically chases after you in order to reclaim its bounty.
That’s the beauty of Freedom Wars in a nutshell. Equal parts Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online, Freedom Wars thrusts you into bite-sized maps with a team, a mission, and a plethora of ways to approach them, including assault rifles, chain guns, rocket launchers, swords, flamethrowers, and even guns that fire sticky webs at enemies to slow them down. Each weapon can be equally destructive in the right hands, but they all feel distinct, encouraging players to find their own play styles. Supplementing these weapons are a number of other battle items such as mines, grenades and decoys, letting you employ a number of inventive strategies.
But it’s the Thorn that gives the player flexibility and allows the levels and missions to feel more alive and open than many Monster Hunter-type games. Freedom Wars doesn’t have a class system per se, but the Thorn’s powers go the furthest to define roles in combat, whether they be immobilizing Abductors, erecting barricades that you can shoot through but your opponents can’t, or healing the party. The Thorn’s base abilities give players a staggeringly large amount of versatility. The grappling element means there are levels in which verticality actually matters, and between dragging enemies down, clinging to them as you hack pieces off them, and using them as anchors to launch yourself elsewhere, the Thorn lends the game a feel not unlike the popular anime Attack On Titan.
This variety extends to the mission types as well. You’ll often be rescuing Citizens from Abductors, but sometimes you’re tasked with destroying the mechs completely, taking the protection angle out of the equation. Or you may be pitted against another team of Sinners, turning the proceedings into a traditional third-person shooter deathmatch. You’ll also occasionally see Citizens thrown into the mix to make it more like a frenetic game of Capture the Flag, or terminals you must rush to control like a big King of the Hill match. Freedom Wars deftly repurposes shooter game modes as old as the genre itself with its cooperative conceit, creating an experience of play that is distinctly its own.
All this is complemented by the game’s commitment to its theme. Your control prisoner is sentenced to a million years for being a worthless drain on society as you’re forced into “voluntary” militarized missions to gather resources and engage enemy forces. Completing these missions reduces your sentence little by little and gives you points that can be used to buy entitlements to make your stay more habitable, though until then you’ll also commit such crimes as pacing too much in your cell, sleeping while lying down, and daring to come within five feet of another Sinner. It stings a bit getting a hundred more years tacked onto your sentence for such stupid infractions, but you soon realize that’s a pittance compared to what you earn from completing missions, making it a neat detail inexorably tied to the game’s theme. Online play also continues this trend, pitting your home Panopticon (mine is New York) against every other one in the world. You can even invade enemy Panopticons, and though it’s ultimately a small part of online play, it’s yet another thematic tie-in that lets you buy into this world. Plus it’s fun to have rivalries against top Panopticons. (Damn you, Hong Kong!)
The grappling element means there are levels in which verticality actually matters.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the game’s story, which does fill in the neat details of the world, but also merely attempts to string together your missions with a frail skeleton of anime tropes. Worse still is the narrative’s insistence on interrupting your time with the game to constantly force you to wander around a static-feeling town and talk to plot points until the next mission appears. (This becomes much less annoying once you purchase the fast travel Entitlement.) And then there’s the awkward forced stealth sections that don’t allow you to use your Thorn or equipment. Though they’re painfully easy, they’re also painfully pointless and awkward to play through. It’s a shame that a game as thematically rich as Freedom Wars has to be saddled with such an inept story.
And then you have a handful of little issues here and there that keep the game from being truly superb, such as the fiddly lock-on system that makes the camera go haywire if you’re too close to a target. The game’s crafting system also feels much more complicated and arbitrary than it needs to be. Over the course of the game, you accumulate an obscene amount of resources you can use to upgrade your weapons. The problem is that you’ll usually stick to a handful of preferred weapons once you get a feel for the game, so you’re either going to only care about a small number of the mountains of items you’ve acquired or none at all. And the crafting for battle items and medical supplies proves even more puzzling given that you can plug in any amount of any resource and get a pile of goods back, but what you get is randomized. A pared-down, simplified crafting system would have made the game that much better.
None of that matters, though, when you’re flying around the battlefield toppling giants, making daring escapes with Citizens, chopping entire pieces off an Abductor, clinging to walls like Spider-Man, and climbing tall structures only to dive down and slice an unsuspecting Sinner with impossible force. Every action in the meat of the game just feels good, especially when you join up with three other people online to take down missions or even pit yourself against other teams. Once you get the hang of the complex controls and slight camera issues, you’re in for a breathless, exhilarating time staring down giant robots, outmaneuvering your rivals, and rescuing your betters. You may be battling for your freedom, Sinner, but you may not want this battle to end once you get going.