Review: Freedom Wings (Nintendo DS)


Freedom Wings
Genre: Dogfight Simulation/RPG
Developer: Natsume
Publisher: Natsume
Release Date: 8/21/06

Budget titles are an odd lot. Usually, budget titles are either foreign games that the developers have no faith in, but want to sell, or they’re ancient or poor titles that the developers/publishers just want to get onto the shelf to make SOME kind of money off of them. The latter is, of course, represented well enough by the bargain bin in your local Circuit City or Best Buy or whatever, so I don’t think I need to get into that. But the former has given us plenty of enjoyable titles on the cheap, games like Choro Q, Mobile Light Force 2, Xyanide, and of course, Katamari Damacy.

And to that list we add Freedom Wings. Developed by veteran game makers Natsume, the game feels like a next-gen port of their GBA title “Car Battler Joe”, only with planes. Both games feature going from location to location, defeating enemies along the way, for the sake of doing so. Both feature neat customizations. And both feature solid RPG elements, as well as a butt-load of originality. CBJ was an enjoyable little game when it landed on the GBA, but the question remains, does Freedom Wings follow in its footsteps on the DS? Let’s… um… look under the hood and find out.


1. STORY

You’re a patroller whose sole goal in life is to eliminate the various air pirates that dominate the skies. Seriously. That’s it. The storyline is bare bones to the point of virtual non-existence; the only place you’re even informed of it is in the demo attract. The game does attempt to progress the story in bits and pieces, by allowing you to talk to patrons of the various bars of the world and by having the air traffic controllers tell you where you should go next and what you should be doing, but by and large you’re not really given too much to work with. This works to the benefit of the title, oddly enough, by allowing you to simply play instead of dumping more story into your lap, but as it is, the storyline is nothing special or exciting. It’s good to see a game that places playing the game over telling you what you’re not playing, but what you’re given is pure old school RPG storyline, and you most likely won’t remember much of it when you’re done.

Story Rating: 3/10


2. GRAPHICS


The graphics in Freedom Wings are serviceable, but not terribly exciting. Depending on how you choose to play the game (more on that under Gameplay), you’ll either be staring at the plane view or the map view most of the time, and they’re both acceptable visually. The in-flight graphics look solid enough, as the planes look like planes by and large. The environmental graphics are substantially less interesting, though; you’ll be able to distinguish, say, grass from water, but in most cases the texture mapping of the world is bland and pixilated. Considering some of the visuals we’ve seen on the DS, this looks ugly in comparison. The map and radar views look acceptable, though they’re rather bland, though this seems to be on purpose; if they were heavily decorated, they’d be cluttered and messy, which would dramatically impede functionality. The various towns you can land in all essentially look the same, feature the same few NPC’s, and are identically non-descript. All told, the visuals of Freedom Wings are designed for form over function; there’s no slowdown or technical issues, and the graphics work with the game, but they’re not pretty or flashy by any means. You won’t find anything impressive here, but you’ll be able to tell what is what, so it could be worse.

Graphics Rating: 5/10


3. SOUND

The music is your standard “heroic war music” ad infinitum, but it’s solid enough and not too bad. There’s not nearly enough of it in the game, but what few tracks are here are acceptable and don’t get annoying over time. The sound effects mostly involve the sound of your plane flying around (which sounds good, but gets annoying after a while), and the rapport of machine gun fire (which sounds good). There are a few other effects here and there, which are also of decent quality, but the engine and the guns are the two you’ll hear most often. The end result is an audio experience that’s solid, but can get annoying over time, simply due to its own limitations.

Sound Rating: 6/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


How you score the gameplay depends largely on how you choose to play the game. There are two main areas you will spend your time navigating: “town” and “everywhere else”. “Town” is basically every city you’ll visit in the game, as they’re all laid out identically: there’s a hangar, a bar, and a shop, that’s it. The shop is where you’ll spend your time spending your well-earned cash, whether it be on upgrades or on new equipment for your planes. The bar is where you’ll meet up with random NPC’s, who will either want you to take on missions for them, impart random advice about the various locales, or thank you for saving them from getting shot down. The garage is where you can choose your planes, and equip them, and also your save point. Menu navigation is a snap, and getting to any of the locations is as simple as tapping where you want to visit on the screen. The interface is very straightforward, and while this does make things easier, the “towns” are ultimately nondescript and identical, as there’s no exploration in the slightest. Also, for some odd reason, if you want to access anything, you have to double-tap it, and while that means it’s harder to access something accidentally, it’s also kind of annoying.

Once you’re ready to go into the wild blue yonder, you get into your plane and take off for the skies. And that’s where the gameplay comes in. There are two control types available in Freedom Wings: manual and automatic, or as I call it, “simulation” and “RPG”. Manual gives you full control of the plane; altitude, speed of travel, flight path, firing, the whole bit. The controls are incredibly simple, but mastering them is difficult, as the flight control itself is touchy. You can learn it in time, and if you choose to do so, the game’s a blast as an action/simulation, and it’s a heck of a lot more interactive that way.

For those that aren’t interested in learning the controls, you’re offered “Auto” mode, which takes all of the touchy controls and throws them right out the window. Traveling is as simple as touching somewhere on the DS touchscreen, and combat is just as simple; tap an enemy on the radar, and you lock on target. This replaces the hairy dogfights with more strategic combat elements, as you can use the D-Pad to make minor adjustments to your heading (to make killing shots more likely), and you can more readily prepare secondary weapons. But, more importantly, it turns the game from an action-oriented dogfighting flight sim into an RPG. That the game caters to two wholly different styles of play makes it a far more interesting game than one would expect, and brings a lot more life to the product.


In both cases, however, the goal remains the same: shoot down pirates and liberate towns. As you fly throughout the game world, you will see pirates spawn on the map (sort of like random battles), and your objective is to shoot them down without them shooting you down. If you shoot them down, you earn gold (considered as payment against a bounty) and experience points; if they shoot you down, you and your plane are taken to the last town you’ve been to and fixed up, at the cost of half of your gold. You can also undertake the odd mission (either from the bar, or by randomly saving someone on the world map) for gold and prizes. As you go up levels, you become stronger in a general sense and better able to defeat pirates of higher levels (though there’s no statistical listing of your improvements). You can also upgrade your plane with various parts, including different cooling systems, wings, armor, and weapons, each of which affect different stats. You’re provided two different weaponry slots into which you may equip weapons; a primary shot for machine guns of various sorts, and a secondary shot for missiles and bombs, for dealing large damage to targets. You can also tune your plane in different ways, which also improves the stats of each plane. The game is also willing to provide several different planes for you to use as the game progresses, each of which is suited to different styles of play. There’s also a multiplayer component that features four players off of one game card, which is very cool, though it’s not terribly in-depth or anything, and really didn’t hold my interest above the actual game. It’s basically versus play, but with the option to play in automatic mode, well, you really need to be able to trust that your friends won’t switch to aunt and whip your ass. Some team-based missions would have been more interesting, but it’s nice to see they tried.

Sadly, for all of the positive things one can say about the game, the game does just as much bad as it does good, and a couple of the problems are nearly crippling. Aside from the hard to adjust to manual controls and the limited towns, the game has a very elementary feel about it; very little information is provided about much of anything, and you’re largely left to figure out what means what entirely on your own. When items are equipped to planes, that’s it; equipping a new item totally discards the old one, anmd if you might have wanted to use that item later, or on a different plane, too bad, so sad. There’s no option to quick save at any time, thus meaning you can only save in town, period. This wouldn’t be so bad except that if you’re quite a ways away, it takes forever to get anywhere on the map; even at top speed, planes travel very slowly. The game map is detailed in a very minimalist fashion, but one thing it really SHOULD have done is name towns on-screen; in most cases if you don’t know the name of the town you’re in, you never will. The game feigns a sense of being open-ended, but if you venture off the established path, you’ll find yourself facing down enemies that smite you in seconds, thus enforcing a strict sense of linearity in a game that would have benefited from NOT being linear. And most of the game amounts to leveling, AKA “munchkining”, which may not be terribly fun for most people, and even if you DO like that kind of game, no matter how much you level, the max level you can attain is 33, which is just a small and pitiful level cap for such an open-ended title.

But the most depressing thing of all is that the game FEELS like it could’ve been a great game, if only more effort had been invested into it. The idea of flying from town to town, liberating people from under the thumb of air pirates, all with an action or RPG bent, is really cool. You can see where the game COULD have been really great, if only the problems that exist simply weren’t there, or were reduced to something manageable. Even so, if you’re willing to forgive the gameplay its flaws, you’ll find an amusing, if limited, experience. Unfortunately, the flaws that are built in are harsh enough that you may not want to.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 5/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Once completed, the only motivation one will find to come back to the game is “New Game +”, which allows you to play again with your stats intact. This is nice for those that want to accomplish what they might have missed in the game the first time around, but as there’s a maximum level you can attain, and there’s nothing new beyond the original game itself, there’s not much reason to come back. The game’s enjoyable and whatnot, but it probably won’t stay in your DS after you’ve completed it.

Replayability Rating: 4/10


6. BALANCE

Like most RPG’s, enemies scale up in level and difficulty as you move forward, but even in the early goings, enemies that are two and three levels above you most likely won’t beat you. If you play with manual control, the game will offer you more of a challenge, but once you get the feel of the controls down, you shouldn’t have many problems then, either. There is some challenge later in the game, especially when confronting multiple foes, but by and large, the game can be dealt with without too much trouble, and if you take the time to level up in-between liberating bases, you should be able to take out anything thrown at you with little difficulty.

Balance Rating: 5/10


7. ORIGINALITY

A flight simulator/dogfighter/RPG? No, I don’t believe I’ve seen one of those before. Natsume’s big on the originality (I mean, really, who thought a FARMING SIM would work as a game?) in most of their releases, and Freedom Wings is no exception. The concept combined with the DS implementation makes this one of the more original titles to come out in a while. You may have seen many of the things the game is trying to do, but certainly not like this.

Originality Rating: 8/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

Assuming you can get into the title, flying around shooting down pirates is a surprisingly large amount of fun. If you take the time to learn the manual controls, you can get into some pretty intense dogfights, especially later in the game, and in automatic mode, there’s a solid amount of strategy involved in what you’re doing, enough so that the game charms you with its simplicity and you find yourself wanting to come back to get more levels or money or whatever. By the time you’ve completed the game, you’ll most likely have had your fill of it, but it’s a surprisingly amusing ride getting there that will keep you playing purely by the simplicity of the game itself.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Natsume games tend to be of low appeal, due in large part to their odd design and quirky concepts. Sadly, Freedom Wings is no exception; while it’s a cute little game, and it carries a budget price, it’s a limited experience that will really only appeal to fans of Natsume games (or those looking for something a little different). That shouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out, mind you, but it’s quirky enough to scare off the average person, and probably won’t set the world on fire.

Appeal Rating: 4/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


I really like Freedom Wings, but I can’t in good conscience give it a good score, numerically. It doesn’t matter that it’s $20. It doesn’t matter that it feels like an NDS version of Car Battler Joe (and if you liked that game, you’ll probably like this). It doesn’t matter that it’s Natsume. I’m tolerant of bullshit if the game charms me. Freedom Wings has accomplished this. But I know better than to try and justify a high score for the game, no matter how much I love it.

It’s just not a very good game.

It COULD have been good. Some more time spent fine-tuning the flaws in the gameplay, cleaning up the polys, and giving the player a reason to come back to the game upon completion would have helped immensely. Sadly, it just feels like an unfinished idea that never made it to completion; great concept, poor execution.

If anything positive can be said about the game, it’s this: Natsume has a habit of taking their small-concept hand-held games and remaking them on consoles as larger, more in-depth concepts. Harvest Moon and River King saw such treatment, as did Car Battler Joe (though only in Japan), so it’s entirely possible that Freedom Wings may see such treatment. I’d like that. If this game were presented properly, I’d have no trouble recommending it to anyone; as it is now, however, you’ll only be able to really like it if you can get past what it does to break the experience.

I hope you can.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores:
Story: 3/10
Graphics: 5/10
Sound: 6/10
Control/Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 4/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal: 4/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Overall Score: 5.3/10
Final Score: 5.5 (AVERAGE).

Short Attention Span Summary
Freedom Wings is a good game thanks to its concept, but ends up being a mediocre game due to various gameplay and variety issues. Limited replay, slow gameplay, frustrating design issues and a lack of polish hurt the game to the point that the only people who will come away from the game happy are those that can see what the game was TRYING to do instead of what it DID. Those looking for something meaty and substantial for the DS should look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for something quirky and different, and willing to forgive the game its flaws, Freedom Wings might end up the best $20 you ever spend.