Developer: Shift, Dimps, SCE Japan
Oh Monster Hunter, why hast thou betrayed us so? After starting life with PlayStation, Capcom's hit series has gone on to become a huge seller exclusively on Nintendo platforms, particularly the handhelds, leaving Sony desperate to come up with a similar winning formula for the PS Vita.
Last year Soul, Sacrifice made a valiant effort and in many ways succeeded, although it was a little too niche for its own good. And boy was it all sorts of brown. So step forward Freedom Wars, a futuristic take on the genre that sees players trying to work off larger chunks of a 1 million year prison sentence by slaying monsters and harvesting resources for 'the greater good'. The world is ravaged by war and hunger and broken up into separate cities or Panopticons, with any child born beyond the strict family quotas imprisoned to earn their way back into society via this obscenely long sentence.
Years can be added to your sentence for minor infractions like running, sleeping lying down and daring to keep high level loot for yourself. As you play the game, you can pay for extended privileges, like running, earning better loot and so on. The game's attempts to make you feel the impact of this prison lifestyle work well, but considering your first few hours are downright miserable affairs, it isn't long before you question what you're doing with your life and the precious free time you have - more so than any RPG you may have played before. It's unlikely you'd spend as many hours reading a book or watching a TV series that you didn't enjoy in the hope 'it'd get going soon' and frankly Freedom Wars takes the biscuit even for an RPG.
What of the missions themselves though? Players of Soul Sacrifice will be able to hit the ground running here. For newcomers, you're dumped into areas like a desert wasteland or walled off city streets and tasked with taking out enemies, larger monsters and rescuing citizens. And that's about it.
The action is all real-time, with combat options coming in the form of interchangeable melee weapons and guns. Melee is a basic affair with a button each for strong and regular attacks, with the ability to charge the stronger ones too. There are many guns to find on the battlefield, including assault rifles, scoped rifles, rockets, miniguns and so on, but many of them are identical variants. The Vita's second analogue stick makes aiming weapons easy enough at a distance, but the controls get a bit finicky at close range, especially for flying enemies.
The best feature of the combat is the Thorns. These grappling hook-like attachments can be used to attach to any surface to quickly nip across a map, climb ledges, or even just stick to a wall and shoot from a fresh vantage point. Thorns can also be used against larger bosses by leaping onto them and attempting to engage a quick-time-event to hack off a limb or turret weapon, or you can opt to drag enemies down to allow the team to move in for a few seconds of risk-free damage. Aiming the Thorn controls for specific body parts can be an awkward affair though and the limb-hacking mechanics are very hit and miss. Plus, having to quickly bash buttons on the Vita is always a pain as it inevitably means the whole machine is going to be thrashing around in your hands, making it hard to see anything clearly.
Later, new varieties of Thorn can be unlocked for a more balanced team. There's a healing one for topping up the health of you and your teammates, and a shield Thorn allows you to create barriers, particularly useful for defending against ranged attacks.
Missions are unlocked as you plod through reams of unnecessary dialogue and there's an unbearable amount of backtracking through samey ugly environments just for a few chats or obligatory fetch quests. You'll frequently go an hour or so without getting in a fight.
After a while, you're given the option of playing the missions online in co-op. This begins well, as after opting to create a room I was given three teammates and a list of assignments. Playing in co-op skips the story bumf and just lets you pick a mission. I found the connections to be smooth and working with human players makes missions much easier, especially ones involving rescuing citizens as despite being able to assign commands to the AI, I never found them to be of any use. Once a mission is completed online, you're given a certificate that means you won't have to do it again when you resume the story mode. This is almost brilliant.
Unfortunately, this good idea is derailed by you still having to sit through all the dialogue, accepting the mission you completed in co-op and even load it up right until the point of the mission beginning before it allows you to skip it. The amount of time spent getting through all this twice makes playing solo a quicker option to progress through the story, if you can herd the lacking AI that is.
We're used to suffering rough edges in some RPGs, but Freedom Wars is sorely lacking in smooth ones. Looking for new weapons in stores is incredibly annoying as there's no chance to compare stats with your currently equipped items, meaning you'll have to remember them or go back and forth.
You can build factories to forge items and upgrades, but this is hampered by the fact that they have to be forged in real time (10 minutes for my first item) and if you want to upgrade an item, it can't be one you have equipped, so to make your best weapon deal more damage, you're going to have to run around with a rubbish one for a while. The menus for swapping items in the forge are incredibly awkward too, involving way too much backtracking. I often found it was a better option just hoping a random item drop would provide something better than going through the hassle.
As a regular RPG player, I understand that they can often take a few hours to get going, but Freedom Wars makes such an effort at making your life miserable and is one of the most mundane gaming experiences I've ever had. By keeping the quick travel option locked for so many hours, I found that I was truly broken by the time I was able to purchase it.
The amount of loading screens in the game really bogs down the pace of it too and when you're just nipping between rooms to chat in order to speed the story along, you'll be seeing an awful lot of them. The clunky menus and awkward upgrade system really let the game down too. There's a lot of depth on offer with forging items, but it's explained so poorly and the long-winded nature means the effort to worthwhile ratio is all sorts of wrong.
While the combat is reasonably smooth, as much as it can be with the Vita's cramped controls, it sadly lacks the depth to keep it feeling fresh whether you're playing it online or not. This isn't the Monster Hunter-esque game you've been after. To be honest you should invest in the means to play that series or try a different style of co-op adventure like Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition or Dragon’s Crown.
- Online action is smooth
- Cool character art style
- The Thorn is a neat tool
- Awful upgrade system
- Irrelevant and clunky campaign
- Combat and environments repeat quickly
The Short Version: Think Soul Sacrifice set in the future but with worse upgrades and less combat features. The smooth online co-op missions don't gel properly with making your way through the campaign though and the small number of enemy types and environments make this one of the poorer Monster Hunter clones out there. Play Soul Sacrifice/Diablo III instead or buy a Wii U/3DS for Monster Hunter.