Indentured servitude is one hell of a cheeky hook for a game like Freedom Wars. Wrought in the mold of hunting RPGs like Monster Hunter and others where multiple characters (either human or AI-controlled) spend the bulk of their time trying to bring down huge beasts slowly and steadily, it demands an inordinate time investment. Right from the start, players are customizing characters and poring over multiple menus. They’re building and leveling up factories so they can build and upgrade equipment. All of this is so players can play and replay missions, in a grueling—but hopefully luxuriously pleasurable—grind to bring down bigger and bigger targets.

That Freedom Wars frames its grind around a utility-obsessed apocalyptic society where average folks are sentenced to 1 million years of hard labor takes some serious creative balls. Flat out telling the player that they’re tying themselves to a digital chain gang the moment they press start might convince them not to play at all. Once you start the hard work of a sinner serving his city-state, slowly learning how the world works when humanity’s reign is winding down, the conceptual gambit seems like it’s going to pay off. Manipulative or not, the grind can be euphoric, and slow character strengthening married to earned freedom makes for a heady high. Unfortunately, Freedom Wars limits its reach by building its premise on a foundation of awkward combat.

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Sinners and panopticons: This is how folks are forced to live in the wreckage of the world. Not much is left, and the remains of humanity congregate in fortresses inside cities—those are the panopticons—competing for meager resources. The demand for highly skilled people is as high as the demand as food and water, so panopticons like New York and Bangkok send monstrous, skeletal creatures called Abductors to snatch citizens in raids. Holding back the biggies are Sinners, grunts sentenced to a cool 1,000 millennia of service fighting. Sinners have committed the worst possible crime in the world: living without contributing.

At the beginning of the game, your own personal Sinner has committed the second worst crime: damaging memory. After getting knocked out while fighting off an Abductor raid, your character meets a ghostly lady that looks like she’s about to hit a rave in 2001. Turns out you’re destined to help end the fighting and get humanity back on track, but you’re in for a rough time since you’ve forgotten who you are.

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Amnesia is the most threadbare storytelling device out there, but it’s another example of Freedom Wars’ coy, antagonistic sense of humor. Forgetting things is a common problem in a world where cannon-fodder people are constantly getting concussed in fights with monsters; hence why you’re sentenced to a fresh million-year sentence and pushed through your chosen panopitcon’s training again. Alternately funny and terrifying, the early going of Wars is aggressively weird in the best way. Cartoon bears in prison cells explain how you’ll move through the ranks, from code one to eight, and why an android in a white trench coat will follow you at all times. Your accessory android is there to aid in fights but also to enforce the law. Code one sinners have no rights. Choosing menu options to converse with the android at the wrong time or even lie down to sleep will add more years to your sentence, which appears as a floating number over your head.

Oppressive and dense, Freedom Wars compels out of sheer curiosity. If I play with the menus, spend points to earn new rights like the ability to run for a 10 consecutive seconds or talk to a member of the opposite sex, what will happen? Will I be a prisoner for even longer? Will I get into a rhythm and move into a better cell as a higher-ranked sinner? Even asking why humanity’s been brought to this point is a choice that carries risk.

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Sinners’ work is also conceptually appealing. Gradually, you start heading out with other sinners, like big man Uwe and overeager Jet Set Radio reject Mattias, to fight on behalf of citizens. Missions are typically variations on repeated goals: kill off other panopticons’ sinners, rescue a set number of citizens, or bring down a massive Abductor. Freedom Wars is admirably spare in its approach to conflict. Skills and strength are primarily equipment-based, so you want a quality gun, a close-quarters weapon that suits your style (speedy and swift, strong and slow, etc.), and a thorn for either trapping enemies, shielding yourself, or healing.

Thorns are awesome toys, considering they’re passed out to society’s lowest class, and another playful visual metaphor. They’re used for both grappling up and over walls, as well as jumping onto or tripping the behemoths you face. But the glowing, spiky whip is a symbol of your bondage as much as a tool, which makes the fact that it feels so good to use slightly disturbing. I shouldn’t like being a tool of violence, not even free to take a walk by myself, but every time I whip a giant glowing skeleton, saw off its arm with a sword, and rescue a trapped engineer from its guts, I feel great. Just as great as using the materials earned in the battle to make new gear so I can fight even more, especially with real live human beings online.

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But the thorn’s pleasures aren’t reflected in the rest of the game. The farther into Freedom Wars, the more stilted it becomes. Even though there’s an exciting, versatile tool like the thorn at the core of Wars’ action, battles against Abductors can be sheer drudgery. Bringing down a giant, robotic tiger with a full squad of four fighters and their attendant androids can take upward of 20 minutes. Part of the problem is that it adheres so closely to Monster Hunter’s formula, which involves chunky action focused on controlling stability. You’re constantly trying to knock down your opponent, and they’re trying to do the same to you, so rather then swinging around on your thorn, you’re mostly just trying to stay upright. That’s just when you’re fighting. When you’re constantly getting knocked over while trying to carry a citizen to an evacuation point, Freedom Wars doesn’t feel like a goading challenge or even a thrilling trial. It just feels like work.

The work isn’t without rewards, though. Once past the first hump of missions, the mystery of how the world got to where it is unfolds in peculiar ways. Discovering more, feeling your shackles loosen, and constructing better and better equipment makes for a satisfying grind. Every time you have to go back into a massive Abductor fight, though, it feels like you’re punching the clock again to get back to the satisfying conceptual meat beneath a brittle husk of repetitive action. If Freedom Wars is trying to say something about putting ourselves through drudgery to have a good time, that statement’s buried beneath the sound of it telling you to get back to earning your keep.

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Freedom Wars
Developers: SCE Japan, Shift, Dimps
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Price: $30
Rating: T