[PAX East] Hands on with Liberated — Nintendo Switch

Written by Abram Buehner

Introducing: Liberated Switch Preview

Ever since I first laid eyes on Liberated back during one of Nintendo’s Nindie presentations, I had a suspicion that this title would be something special. One half comic book and one-half side-scrolling shooter, Liberated’s gritty dystopian future seemed to be wrapped in a very innovative package. That said, considering that the game’s narrative and gameplay moments flow into each other as Liberated moves the player from comic book panel to comic book panel, I was somewhat concerned that the pace of the experience or its overall sense of immersion would unintentionally be compromised by its overall vision. However, after going hands on with the game at PAX East 2020 my concerns vanished.

Comic Book Innovation

In true comic book style, Liberated is broken up into issues, and during my demo, I played through two of them. While the issues were presented without context in order to provide me with a vertical slice of the experience, I was still able to appreciate how thick the title’s atmosphere is. The world of Liberated is soaked in a brooding, greyscale aesthetic that effectively communicates that the game is set in one truly unpleasant dystopian society. Its story and dialog, while I saw only a snippet of these during my demo, likewise cemented the darkness and unrest that permeates throughout the game. The narrative here strikes tonal and thematic notes of Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb Batman arcs, while simultaneously feeling noir in its execution. Stylistically, the story and presentation feel like a hefty mix of influences, which certainly draws my attention, as Liberated takes cues from some of my favorite media.

The Batman comparison is especially apt considering the how Liberated adopts the structure of the comic book. The game flows from panel to panel, with non-interactive, narrative panels progressing with the click of a button, and then seamlessly transitioning into the gameplay panels as they appear. Considering that the only load times are at the start of an issue and the camera moves elegantly from panel to panel, there is nothing jarring about the setup here. To the contrary, Liberated is a brilliant mix of both art forms, coalescing in one of the most unique titles I checked out at PAX from a conceptual standpoint.

Gritty Gunfights

While its execution of the comic book-video game hybrid design is incredibly effective, the gameplay itself is less polished. In essence, Liberated is a 2D, twin-stick shooter with mild platforming and puzzle-solving elements. The game succeeds in blending together different gameplay components, knowing when to infuse some variety, and when to double-down on its gunplay. All of its mechanics feel solid, and during the two issues I played, I never felt disadvantaged. To the contrary, I felt massively empowered by Liberated’s punchy gunplay and intuitive puzzles. Where the game falters though, is in its less-than-reliable, context-sensitive cover system and the way in which enemies scroll onto the screen.

To the former, cover is entered with a button press in front of background objects the player can slip behind. However, not everything that visually appears to be cover actually is. This can be troublesome considering that Liberated treats gunshot wounds in a very grounded way, meaning that it isn’t going to take many to kill the player. Compounded with the game’s relatively slow health regeneration, not having constantly reliable cover can be frustrating, especially when enemies are able to start walking and sometimes shooting before they’re within view. As such, sometimes the combat in my demo leaned a bit too heavily into trial and error, forcing me to die a few times as I learned enemy positioning and practiced a viable route forward.

That isn’t to say Liberated is an inherently frustrating gameplay experience, though. As someone who greatly enjoys titles such as My Friend Pedro and Hotline Miami, I have a high tolerance for unforgiving shooters, as long as they’re mechanically satisfying. Liberated certainly is. Pulling off a few surgical headshots before dumping the remainder of the clip into whatever poor sap is still standing does have a John Wick-style elegance to it—even if getting to that point requires a little too much trial and error. As the game is still quite a few months out, there is plenty of time to fine-tune the cover system and enemy behavior, and doing so would make Liberated even better than it already is.

A Taste of Dystopia

Even with its gameplay flaws, I had a phenomenal time with Liberated and it is unequivocally one of my favorite games I saw at PAX East. The successful execution of its wholly unique comic book structure hooked me immediately, and its gritty world has me intrigued to learn more. While its combat can rely a bit too heavily upon trial and error due to extenuating design decisions, its gunplay is tactile and viscerally satisfying. Its puzzle sequences and other gameplay diversions serve it well, too, and kept the gameplay varied and enjoyable. While I was only able to see a slice of what Liberated had to offer, it certainly got my attention. From its concept to its aesthetic to its gameplay, this title has my name written all over it, and I can’t wait to write even more about Liberated when it launches later in 2020.

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