I, as most other Vita owners are, am always excited for the next big AAA Vita experience. While there have been many excellent Vita games this year, we haven’t seen a top tier Vita game from Sony proper since last year’s fantastic Tearaway. Freedom Wars, from Japan Studio, was always intended to be that game. A lot of hype followed Freedom Wars at every turn, primarily since it was the only major first party release of the year. It quickly became the most talked about Vita game, and it’s most concerning. If Freedom Wars should fail, what would that mean for the Vita and its first party support, or for the fans that would be scorned by anything short of excellence? Luckily, Freedom Wars is simply outstanding and deserving of its AAA status and the hype surrounding it.
It would have been easy enough to just set Freedom Wars in a generic setting and let the combat do the talking. Instead, we’re treated to one of the most intriguing settings in years. Set in a dystopian world where resources like food are scarce and the major populations are divided into different Panopticons. The Panopticons deploy Sinners, individuals deemed a drain on society who must work off a 1 million year sentence before they can enjoy the prosperity of their own Panopticon, to attack rivals and requisition their resources. Every Sinner’s only goal is to improve the prosperity of their Panopticon, putting their lives on the line if need be to allow citizens an easier life.
You play as a Sinner who has recently lost their memory, a very serious crime. With your sentence reset, you must now use your skill to improve your Panopticon. Early on this is no easy task. As a low ranking Sinner you are victim to many restrictions that will require some serious adjustments to how you play the game. Take more than 5 steps in your cell? 10 more years. Run more than 5 seconds? 20 more years. Approach within one meter of someone of the opposite gender? 20 more years. Within minutes you can add a hundred or more years to your already lengthy sentence, but these restrictions are surprisingly welcome. It might be funny to hear, but making the conscious effort to run in spurts or, god forbid, not walk too much in my cell is a big part of what makes Freedom Wars special. This isn’t a game that calls you a criminal but gives you an unreasonable level of freedom to go with that status. No, you have to earn your freedoms by playing the game, gaining entitlement points awarded for completing missions, and buy those freedoms.
When not out on a missions you’ll either be in your cell or roaming the floors of the prison which you call home. Citizens will look down on you and your Accessory, an android companion designed with the sole purpose of monitoring your every move, shadows your every movement. As you earn new CODE levels, you’ll be given nicer cells and more unlockable privileges. Simply put, the more you play, the more you earn the right to play on your own terms. The wards act as a meeting ground for Sinners and shop location. The items in the shops are not of the same quality as those you find in the field, but they can act as a viable temporary solution. There are also missions in the Panopticon which are where you’ll find most of the story. It isn’t a particularly interesting tale on its own, a story of a mysterious girl needing to be rescued and what sounds like a plot to end the world. Fairly standard, but again, the setting is more than enough to hold your interest and make you want to keep going.
You’ll spend a lot of time fighting other Sinners, people like you just trying to serve their Panopticon. Melee Sinners are fairly dull and will charge right at you, dodging to the side every once in a while if you shoot at them, but if they get behind you their attacks are devastating, so keeping a close eye on the is advised. Ranged Sinners are rarely much of a threat until you get, funny enough, fairly close to them. There are also a number of smaller machines that will poke and prod at you, without proving too much of an issue unless ignored. Your most threatening foe in Freedom Wars is undoubtedly the Abductors (unless you are Ross, everything is Ross’ most threatening enemy). These giant organic machines serve to capture citizens from rival Panopticons, namely yours, and go toe to toe with squads of sinners, namely yours. Defeating an Abductor is no simple task, but can be made easier through some strategy and precision. If you notice that an Abductor has massive cannons on its arms, target those cannons first. If it has a shield, attack it with melee weapons. How do you get that close? Why, with your friendly neighborhood Thorn of course.
Your Thorn is as important as your weapon; it is arguably your most powerful weapon. It’s most apparent use is as a grapple, allowing you to scale walls and climb Abductors. From there you can target specific points for continued melee attack, charge right through to get out of a sticky situation while laying on some hurt, or attempt to pull it down and leave it exposed for an extended period. Each of the three types of Thorns also provides specialized abilities for combat and defense. Healing thickets, impenetrable walls, defensive buffs, and stunning attacks are just a few of the abilities at your disposal. Every attack drains your Will’O, the energy that powers the Thorns, so maintaining that is imperative to your continued survival, almost as much as maintaining your health.
Combining the power of your Thorn with powerful weapons is also very important. Every weapon in the game is strong at something, finding the type of strong you want to be just takes some experimentation. Do you want to be the rocket launcher and cement block maul wielding powerhouse, or a machine gunning, katana wielding front line attacker? However you like to play, there is a weapon for you and your play style. Don’t like the weapons you have now? Build new ones with your facilities. Weapon facilities can construct new weapons while you are out on missions or while your Vita is asleep. You can even upgrade and modify weapons you like to make them stronger, or to change their form and passive abilities such as damage type. There are other facilities you can construct as well that create combat support items such as those that heal or those that stun enemies and facilities that can create items that passively improve your Sinner.
These weapons, items, and upgrades do come at a cost, and that cost is items found on the field. During missions you’ll come across glowing blue orbs, these orbs are general items that are primarily used for low level items and upgrades. You’ll find them scattered across the arena so it is worth your time to take a quick look around in between fighting enemies. The most important items will fall from Abductors. Abductor parts are required for higher tier upgrades and for augments, though they are much more restricted at lower Sinner levels. Until you hit CODE 5 you’ll find yourself forced to donate most high level items away, lest you continue to add time to your sentence. Stronger Abductors drop better items, and destroying individual pieces will guarantee more items. It becomes a circle of life of sorts, killing more Abductors gives you more items, more items allow you to become stronger, being stronger means killing more Abductors, killing more Abductors gives you more items and so on and so forth.
Combat, especially with Abductors, required coordination, coordination that your A.I. allies generally lack. You can give orders you your accessory, but other allies and their accessories act on their own. Against single opponents they are competent enough, but multiple enemies, especially more than one Abductor, prove to be too much. It also doesn’t help that enemies will often prioritize you over allies, even if you are not actively engaging them. This isn’t always the case, but it can be frustrating when it is. Luckily, you can play with other humans online or via Ad Hoc. The system for joining rooms certainly harkens back to the PSP days with multiple rooms to sort through, but it gets the job done despite being a bit archaic by today’s standards. Once you have your desired number of players (up to 4 in co-op), you can select and begin a mission. Pending the competence of the other human players in your game, you’ll find that more difficult missions are much easier. Coordinating pull downs, targeting specific parts, and dividing enemies into more easily handled groups is an almost blissful experience. If online just isn’t an option you can complete the game with A.I. allies, just expect a bit more difficulty in later missions.
As far as Vita games are concerned, Freedom Wars isn’t the best looking game on the platform or the best performing, but it more than gets the job done. Frames can drop a bit during larger fights or against animation heavy enemies, but it never becomes unplayable. Visually it looks fine enough, relying more on its style than its fidelity. The post apocalyptic setting merges well with the fairly uniquely designed Abductors. Though many models are color swaps with different weapons and resistances, there is a good variety of different designs with their own unique animations and moves. Some adhere more to traditional mecha designs, others maintain the early and common bone and muscle look, which I am a particular fan of, and then there is the winged tiger. You can customize your Sinner in a variety of fashions from practical to ridiculous and unlock more styles with each new CODE level.
Sound design is particularly impressive thanks to some great effects and solid soundtrack. Subtle sounds like the chime to indicate an new Panopticon announcement and the cutesy voice of the bear…thing that follows never get old. Then there is the cry of rage from an Abductor that means things are about to get real. The voice acting is good, but keep in mind that the game only includes a Japanese voice track, which may be a turn off for some. The music is also quite good with some decent ambient music in the Panopticon and some heavy guitar riffs in combat. Each serve their purpose dutifully, with combat music being good enough to stop and just listen every once in a while.
Though it is certainly far from perfect, Freedoms Wars does enough right to stand out in a year punctuated by some stellar Vita exclusives. The Vita needs more games like Freedom Wars, and Sony’s first party has proven themselves more than capable of making a AAA Vita game, with this game possibly standing as their best effort. It’s blend of unique setting and excellent combat are of a quality you’d usually expect to find on the PS3/4, and I can only hope this doesn’t go down as a wasted effort. As I always end Vita reviews, remember to buy a Vita and keep it here on ThoseGamingNerds.