Since the game was originally announced, Freedom Wars has been - justifiably - compared to the Monster Hunter series. At the end of the day, both games plop you into a hub-world where you create and modify equipment to venture out into other mission hubs to defeat a certain number of enemy or a certain “boss” enemy. Both reward you with more materials, experience, funds to return to the hub-world to start the cycle over again. Having experience with both versions of this model, however, I have to recommend Freedom Wars over Monster Hunter for a few reasons, if not for the fact that the latter has yet to land on Sony’s current handheld console.
Even if Monster Hunter did appear on the Vita, I would still be hard-pressed to recommend it over Freedom Wars. SCE Japan Studio has crafted one of the most intriguing settings of any game I’ve picked up in quite some time. The story, which takes place in the year 102014… starts out with the world in ruins after an unexplained war. Humanity is unable to live on the Earth’s surface, so different pockets of humanity hunker down in massive cities underground called “Panopticons”. These Panopticons function as city-states and are constantly at odds which each other, forcing the populations of each to rely on the governments for protection. This protection comes at a steep price, however, and each citizen is expected to make contributions towards the state. While all citizens are closely watched by the state and expected to contribute, the criminals are the ones who are by far the worst off.
Each criminal, your character included, must work off ridiculous sentences by fighting or gathering resources for their Panopticon. For example, your character starts the game with a 1,000,000 year sentence. What was your character’s crime? “The crime of living.” Oh yeah, your character is also stripped of all - and they do mean all - rights. For example: want to take a break and rest early in the game? Nope, you will be fined for reclining - a stripped right - and more years will be added to your sentence. Once you are finally given the opportunity to leave your cell and explore your Panopticon, you had better not run for longer than five seconds otherwise, you guessed it: you get fined.
It’s this attention to detail that really made me enjoy my time with Freedom Wars. The first time that I got fined for running, I laughed. Then I started to time my sprints. I would sprint for four seconds, walk, sprint for four seconds, walk… It was very immersive and, along with the other little details, went a long way to make me feel like I was in a new experience in a video game, not to mention real life!
The game has a story, which I will not get into, which unravels as you whittle-down your sentence. It’s serviceable at best and a little too drawn-out. However, it’s purpose is to bring you from mission to mission while allowing you more and more freedoms as you go. In that last regard, it succeeds well-enough.
There are a variety of missions on offer with Freedom Wars, but they eventually run the risk of feeling old despite the change in scenery. Sometimes you are harvesting resources, sometimes you are fighting other Panopticon’s forces, other times you are rescuing citizens captured by Abductors. Abductors are giant monsters that serve as weapons platforms and also transportation for captured citizens. Fighting these Abductors is - by far - the most enjoyable of the combat on offer here. As you damage parts of these behemoths they will lose armor, limbs, et cetera which you are able to collect as resources to contribute to your Panopticon or keep for upgrading equipment. While shooting them from a distance or laying mines is an option, my favorite tactic is to grapple onto them using my “thorn” - think “whip” - and then hacking-off limbs with my blade. It makes for some intense moments when you incapacitate an Abductor, grapple onto their arm, begin to hack it off, only to have the monster rise and continue its assault on you and your squad. It reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus when I’m balancing on the back of this huge beast and praying that he doesn’t toss me before I can complete my violent goal.
But combat isn’t always a pleasure. There were plenty of times where I felt that Abductors were simply bullet sponges and there were plenty of times where I ran completely out of ammunition. While hacking off limbs with a blade is fun, you need a few tools at your disposal to competently take these monsters down. When fighting enemies, spawns are frequent and obnoxious. Truthfully, fighting the smaller, harder to hit soldiers can be a chore in and of itself. Still: if you aren’t afraid of a little monotony here and there, then you owe it to yourself to try Freedom Wars.
The remarkable presentation doesn’t just end at the setting, however. Freedom Wars is also a beautiful game on the Vita. The character customization is well-rounded and, as you unlock the freedom to wear more clothes and colors… it’s a great time to swap-out costumes. The sound is great as well and I would recommend you having a good set of headphones at the ready. All spoken dialogue is in Japanese, which can be jarring at first to the untrained ear, but I found the - at times - overacting and colorful language a fun part of the experience. Do not feel put-off by this little feature. Tying everything together quite nicely is the clean and simple menu system which does not provide the frustrations of a few other games this year. Navigating to the next mission or perhaps to buy a few more freedoms is a breeze once you learn where everything is.
Overall, Freedom Wars is a compelling reason to own a Vita. This is especially true if you like the Monster Hunter formula but are intrigued by a different skin. The setting and abundance of detail from top to bottom really makes Freedom Wars stand tall above the crowd. About 40 hours into the game, I found myself thinking that this was my game of the year. After coming down from my Freedom Wars-induced high, I have to back away from that statement, but I can definitely say that Freedom Wars is my portable game of the year.