Surveillance is out of control, technology is numbing the minds of the masses, and the government (or corporations, or some combination thereof) has become fascist and corrupt, stripping freedoms and assassinating dissidents in the name of security. That familiar premise has been utilized again and again in works ranging from 1984 to Westworld, and it’s also the state of the world in Liberated, a cyberpunk-ish side-scrolling action game that’s as much comic book as video game. The tech dystopia is well-worn territory in movies, books, comics, and video games, and Liberated offers little that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.
Liberated’s story is pretty much a carbon copy of its more interesting inspirations. The same is true with its frustrating side-scroller gameplay, which is both overly simplistic and often frustrating. It’s unfortunate that the playable parts and the story that are meant to drive the game can’t match up to its gorgeous, comics-inspired art style–paging through all those great-looking panels will make you wonder if Liberated wouldn’t have made a pretty good comic, instead of a lackluster game.
To be fair, Liberated’s story is mostly a comic book. The game is presented as though you’re reading through four volumes of a graphic novel of the same name. As you pass over panel after panel, you’ll occasionally pause on one that becomes a playable side-scrolling level, where you’re generally tasked with shooting a lot of enemies, or hiding from them and breaking their necks as they pass by.
The story is set in a world in which surveillance technology and social media have become tools for controlling society in the name of safety. Fighting back are the Liberated, an Anonymous-like faction of rebels who resist freedom-stripping technologies and insist the government is using fear of terrorism to grab absolute power. It’s almost exactly the story of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but instead of one masked vigilante, you have several cells of them. All that’s missing is the Guy Fawkes mask–although Liberated has its own slightly different take on that idea as well.
In the first volume, you play a hacker hunted by the cops and then recruited by the Liberated to help with their missions, which include attacking data centers and hacking into the airwaves to tell the rest of society to wake up. From a practical standpoint, gameplay is mostly just walking from place to place, trying not to get spotted by cops as they patrol back and forth. In the stealthier portions, you can duck behind walls and objects as your character passes them, and then ambush enemies as they pass by. Most of the time, though, it’s better to just aim your gun with the right analog stick and walk forward, taking out the cops and flying drones as soon as they enter your field of view.
Most of the game is gunplay, and it’s never much fun. Liberated wants to evoke titles like Shadow Complex, but it plays like something half-remembered from a bygone era. Trying to be stealthy at all is a pain–you move so fast and your vision is so limited that you pretty much barrel straight into enemies before you see them, alerting them immediately. If a level requires you to be sneaky, you’ll need to trudge along at a walk until you see a distant flashlight, then duck away to hide. That results in a lot of failure, despite the fact that enemies do nothing more than walk back and forth in a given area.
Shooting is at least quicker and more reliable for progressing than stealth, but only marginally less frustrating. Because enemies can see you from off-screen before you can see them, it’s better to just walk around with your gun raised, leveling the laser sight at head level for a quick kill shot on whoever might stumble into the frame. Throughout the game, gunfights are dull, since enemies do nothing but come straight at you. If your headshot aim is off, you’ll just wound the enemy, allowing them to return fire in a more prolonged “shootout” in which your only recourse is to just wail on the trigger button as fast as you can until the other guy is dead. Liberated offers no dodge button or other mechanics that would encourage skill or strategy in combat, so basically, if you miss that first headshot, it’s a battle of attrition where you and the bad guys stand still, blasting at each other until the screen is clear and your health recharges.
Most of the time, the fights are simply boring, and even if you lose, all you’re required to do is remember when you’ll run into enemies and whether they’ll come from behind or not. At some points, though, Liberated’s battles were absolutely infuriating, thanks to how the encounters are designed. One encounter requires you to ride an elevator up past enemies on both sides who are just standing there, waiting to shoot you–the only way to survive is to quickly kill each one before you take too much damage, but the elevator shaft is designed so you can’t hit them before they can get a bead on you. It’s a fight that doesn’t come down to skill, reflex, or smart positioning, but dumb luck as you stand there, trying to manhandle the slow aiming animation to take down each enemy before he has a chance to slug you in the face. Liberated is only a few hours long, and that one 10-second elevator ride took me a good 15 minutes to clear all on its own.
There are a few other ideas at play in Liberated, but they come off as underdeveloped additions. At some points, you can make choices that take you down different story branches, but the choices just add a couple of short levels. If you choose to run from the cops over surrendering, you play another sidescrolling escape level that takes you to the same place as if you had given up. Later in the game, the choices pretty much dry up altogether, which raises the question as to what their function was to begin with, since they don’t seem to add any meaningful differences.
You’ll also complete some puzzles along the way, like deducing a code by guessing numbers and getting clues about their positions, or rotating squares on a grid to complete a circuit diagram. They’re standard as hacking minigames go and are at least a nice diversion from the shooting portions, but are pretty rare and don’t do much to sell the idea that you’re part of a cyberpunk rebellion.
Finally, there are also a few quick-time events during cutscenes like a car chase or a police ambush, which at least make you active during moments when you’d otherwise just be watching. The game plays like these events might influence the outcome of the story, but it’s ultimately a bait-and-switch–trying one key scene over and over, it felt like the game kept upping the difficulty to force a failure so the story could go on as planned.
While it’s not especially fun to play, Liberated isn’t bad to read. The motion comic portions are all hand-drawn and look great, and the black-and-white, noir-ish art style translates well from 2D panels to 3D gameplay animations. The game wears its inspirations, like the works of Alan Moore, David Lloyd, and Frank Miller, on its sleeve, but it’s a pity it doesn’t do more with them. The story is convoluted for no reason as it jumps between viewpoint characters–the first volume introduces a bunch of plot points that, bafflingly, don’t matter to the other three. And as mentioned, if you’re familiar with the kind of material Liberated is drawing from, you’ll already know where its story is going long before it gets there.
Really, the comic book presentation of Liberated makes the gameplay portions feel like an afterthought, shoehorning some weak gunplay into a tale that’s really more about political intrigue and moral quandaries of balancing safety against the preservation of personal freedoms. The best parts of Liberated are the character beats in the comic panels, and the worst are the moments when you have to shoot a bunch of dopey, stilted bad guys in order to get back to more comics. It’s nice to look at, but Liberated’s uninspired levels and often-frustrating design make it feel more like a cage.