- Developer: Atomic Wolf
- Publisher: Walkabout Games
- Release Date: 02/06/2020
- Price: £17.99 / $19.99
- Review code provided by Walkabout Games
Introducing: Liberated Switch Review
After seeing Liberated at PAX East, I was energized to dive into the full game. Its innovative fusion of games and comics paired with its dystopian world and striking aesthetic resonate with me deeply. It struck chords of my favorite media across mediums; from Batman to Blade Runner. I was in. However, upon booting up my review copy of Liberated for the first time, it became painfully apparent that something was off. The more I played of the game, the more my hopes began to sink, and my excitement began to wane. Unfortunately, from its gameplay to its narrative, Liberated is roundly disappointing – even if it does have the occasional glimmer of brilliance.
Liberated immediately makes a great first impression with its aesthetic and overarching concept, which is undeniably the best facet of the experience. The game is a playable graphic novel, with the action moving from panel to panel and then page to page. One moment you’ll be taking direct control in a gameplay panel, and then you’ll complete the sequence and move back to narrative panels. It’s a surprisingly effective and innovative approach to storytelling in games.
As a comics enthusiast, I was both impressed and compelled by the way Liberated seamlessly moves from gameplay to storytelling throughout the pages. The team at Atomic Wolf nailed the pace and balance between elements very well. When combined with the striking, black-and-white illustrations that bring Liberated to life, the entire comic presentation is a truly fresh and exciting idea, and never felt like a gimmick. It never felt immersion-breaking either, even though both the narrative and gameplay segments are clearly framed by panel gutters. If anything, the commitment to the aesthetic and concept on a meta-level further sold the effect.
This concept isn’t without its flaws, though, and the largest issue stems from the game’s technical performance on Switch. Liberated is split into four issues, and within each issue there aren’t any traditional loading sequences. However, the game still has to load in the background between panels and often between pages. This leads to frequent, strange moments where a panel is clearly finished, but the camera won’t progress to the next one for an uncomfortable few seconds. Finally, when the content is ready, the camera will move ahead, and while these moments don’t last particularly long, they’re a constant speed bump that throws Liberated’s careful pace out of alignment.
Regrettably, this is only the beginning of Liberated’s flaws, which extend across every facet of the experience. While the gameplay is more egregiously flawed than the story, its narrative issues feel all the more disappointing. Set in a near-future dystopia where state surveillance and social conditioning have stomped out both individualism and disobedience alike, Liberated has serious themes to tackle. The catalyst for the world turning down this oppressive road is unnerving and incredibly bleak too – involving an attack on a school and children by a dubiously identified assailant. I don’t take umbrage with the heaviness of Liberated’s narrative and its beats. To the contrary, I was fascinated by Atomic Wolf’s boldness and I wanted to see them really “go there,” but Liberated never does.
In execution, the narrative in Liberated has the nuance of a sledgehammer. For a game presented in black and white it shouldn’t be particularly surprising, but it is deeply disappointing how Liberated feels like a caricature of legitimate social critique that doesn’t explore the grey area that it continually dances around. The issue isn’t helped at all by the game’s paper thin characterization and half-hearted emotional moments that feel unearned and insulting. The underlying ideas and world are here; they just weren’t given the room to be unpacked and explored with the attention they deserve.
The storytelling isn’t irredeemable, though. Liberated plays with perspective in fascinating ways, placing you in control of both the rogue, anti-government dissidents and the police captain depending on the scenario. Getting to see the conflict from both sides creates an interesting dynamic where you’ll often be gunning for the characters you just played as moments ago. This leads to an engaging tension where you actively work to undermine goals and plotlines you just set up and achieved in the preceding pages. If nothing else, this structure kept me engaged, even as the writing failed to evoke anything of substance. The ending is rather effective, too. It ends perhaps even more bleakly than it began, yet it is a poignant and resonant endcap on the experience that left me satisfied by the destination, even though the journey left much to be desired.
Where Liberated really falters, though, is in its gameplay. In essence, Liberated is a side-scrolling, twin-stick shooter with light puzzle elements. In some respects, the game feels good to play. The gunfire is punchy and every shot that collides with an enemy has weight to it. This is elevated by the comic-book like “bang” and “pow” sound effects that accompany each round, further tying the game’s aesthetic together. The puzzles, largely tied to hacking, are good fun, too. They’re simple but varied enough to be engaging. I was never stumped, and some intuition combined with a bit of trial-and-error got me through.
The trouble is that aside from the puzzle-solving, Liberated is a thoughtless experience. Its mechanics are painfully shallow, and its level design does the game no favors. Its line-of-sight stealth is so basic that it hardly warrants mention. It doesn’t feel rewarding nor is it necessary outside of a few highly scripted moments. However, if you’re so inclined, it is incredibly exploitable. You can stand behind cover objects in the background, wait for enemies to walk up to you, and choke them out one after another with a very basic QTE input. Regardless of whether the enemy AI knows you’re hiding there or not, this can be leveraged to guarantee an easy way out of some otherwise difficult situations.
The gunplay is likewise exploitable, but to an even greater extent. Since Liberated is a twin-stick shooter, the right stick aims, and in doing so, it casts a white line from the barrel of your weapon, acting as a reticle. Well, considering that nearly every enemy dies to a headshot (a few have helmets, and will die in two headshots), considering that every enemy is just about the same height, and considering that enemies can be shot off screen, the optimal strategy is to simply find the sweet spot to hit headshots, and keep the right stick aimed accordingly.
This way, as soon as you’re alerted to an enemy’s presence, you can simply hit ZR and instantly headshot them, over and over. It’s just bad design. With unlimited ammo and no need to vary strategies, there is absolutely zero challenge in Liberated as soon as you understand this aiming trick. This is especially true considering that enemies almost always scroll onto the screen eye level with the player from the left or the right, rarely changing elevations or coming from multiple angles.
In the end, Liberated failed to impress by almost every metric. Neither its story nor its gameplay are particularly compelling, and while both have glimmers of excellence, they’re bogged down by a laundry list of issues. Its most effective element is its overarching concept, but past that the game falls short. Combining comics and games is a novel idea that I hope Atomic Wolf returns to with a better handle on the execution. As it stands, though, Liberated epitomizes style over substance, and I’m largely disappointed by the end result.
- Stylized aesthetic
- Innovative approach to storytelling
- Satisfying ending
- Punchy gunplay
- Storytelling lacks nuance
- Unearned story beats
- Thoughtless gameplay
- Technical issues hurt pacing
Liberated’s conceptual excellence doesn’t translate to its execution, resulting in a promising dystopia that doesn’t make the grade.