Liberated is a game that relies heavily on its narrative, so for the purposes of this review we’ve vaguely discussed some spoiler content. Please keep this in mind before you carry on reading.
Liberated feels like it’s launching at the right time. A game about a corrupt government using its technology to oppress the population, its depiction of ideas like fake news, cover-ups, “credit scores”, corrupt politicians and authoritarianism gone mad seems quite apt with the world we’re living in right now. All Liberated needs is some kind of deadly disease and it’d look like a snapshot of the future. It’s a powerful story that lands about as many hits as it misses.
In the near future, the government utilises the Citizen Credit System, or CCS, to control the population, which assigns credit scores to people in order to determine those who don’t conform to the government’s idea of social norms. If your score is low enough, you can expect a visit from the cops, and a swift size 12 boot planted squarely on your jaw. It’s a very similar idea to China’s Social Credit System, and it’s utterly horrifying.
The CCS is born out of a terrorist attack on St. Martha’s School, which led to the deaths of hundreds of children. Eager to avoid a repeat, the government creates the CCS and the algorithm behind it, Themis, to weed out potential threats in society before they become a “problem”. With a population all too willing to sign over civil liberty in the name of freedom, CCS becomes law, leading to a revolutionary movement called The Liberated attempting to find the truth behind the St. Martha’s School attack, and bury CCS for good.
A 2D action platformer, you move through the levels using guns and technology to solve puzzles and dispense stylish looking headshots on hordes of goons. There are stealth elements at play in the game, as you can hide in certain alcoves for enemies to pass by, but you’re popping heads until the credits roll for the most part.
As a whole, the gunplay is simple but solid. The right stick controls aiming while the right trigger fires. Aside from jumping and reloading, mapped to A and right bumper respectively, and the occasional QTE, you won’t be needing any other buttons. It’s rudimentary, but it works, and nailing headshots is pretty satisfying, particularly because of the game’s art style.
What makes Liberated stand out is how it’s presented as an interactive comic book, with different panels depicting different scenes. The majority of the story plays out over hand-drawn artwork, with the black and white colour palette nailing the grimy cyberpunk/noir aesthetic. It’s dark and foreboding; the blackened concrete monoliths of the city enhancing the oppressive nature of Liberated’s world.
Certain panels will then switch to gameplay, as you control one of several characters throughout the game’s story. While the graphics aren’t fantastic, they work well within the established aesthetic, with comic book sound effects appearing in the background of the action to add neat little visual touches.
Animation-wise, Liberated could use a lot of work. Jumping and pulling your gun out often looks weird, undercutting the visual aesthetic that the developers have worked so hard to create. Atomic Wolf are a small team, so these issues can be forgiven, but it’s still a bit jarring to see your character reacting oddly to the environment around them.
One of Liberated’s biggest strengths is the actual story, as it accurately skewers a lot of key themes that are present in our everyday life, such as the idea of governments using private data to sell to insurance providers to essentially tax people for having diseases like diabetes. There’s also the idea of the police force abusing systems like CCS, wielding the credit score like a cudgel and fabricating charges just to remove problem people from society. If your score is low enough, you must deserve it, right?
Unfortunately, Liberated’s biggest strength is also one of the game’s biggest weaknesses. At a base level, certain moments in the story suffer from narrative dissonance. The latter half of the first chapter follows The Liberated on one of their missions, in which the leader, Meg, states that “we’re the good guys, remember?”, before the level ends with a body count tallying in the dozens. Again, stealth is possible in certain moments, but a purely sneaking, “no-kill” playthrough is impossible. Like it or not, you’re a murderer, but it’s fine because someone said you’re the good guys.
It’s the same kind of tonal whiplash that comes from games like Watch Dogs 2, which portrayed a group of fun loving, “good guy” hacktivists with one hand while allowing you to gun down whoever you please with the other. At least Watch Dogs 2 encourages you to try non-lethal methods, but Liberated doesn’t. There’s a morally grey area here that isn’t quite addressed.
I reached out to the developers, as I was curious about the possibilities of a no-kill run, and they did mention in a clarification email that they’d love to incorporate incentives and alternative paths for a no-kill run in a future game, but “the resources for the small indie team are what they are”. It’s an understandable concession, and the wanton slaughter makes a lot more sense with later chapters, but it’s still a weird tone-setter for the game’s first chapter as far as I’m concerned.
On top of that, the first chapter offers some illusion of choice regarding the narrative, but those choices only lead to the same outcomes regardless. Aside from a QTE that rounds out the chapter which affects a character’s fate, the choices on offer in Liberated are fairly meaningless, and the choices aren’t really seen again until the end of the game. Credit where it’s due though, that endgame moment initially seems insignificant, but hits like a damn freight train.
It’s a moment that basically rescues what could have been a cynical and disjointed conclusion. After a few hours of playtime, Liberated presents an ending where everyone’s arc and motivations can be eradicated by the government’s push of a button, which feels unsatisfying as a player. However, Liberated uses this moment cleverly to illustrate the public’s reaction to wide-reaching corruption and injustice. What could have been a “what was the point?” moment morphs into something visceral and effective, and will linger long in the memory.
While the game’s problems are fairly obvious, Liberated is an ambitious effort from Atomic Wolf and one that has plenty of merit. If nothing else, it’s a sobering look into a world where governments and the police force can and will do as they please, which, I guess, doesn’t seem too different to our world actually. Turns out you can see things more clearly in black and white.
A Nintendo Switch code was provided for the purposes of this review.
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Liberated is a game that hits as much as it misses. Certain story beats and animation issues drag down the experience, but the overall narrative and art style make Liberated worth a look.
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