June 2, 2020
Atomic Wolf, L.inc
Sometimes, video game and graphic novel narratives aren’t all that dissimilar. Bombastic, over the top, stories can be aplenty. The two can allow for some minute by minute, or even second by second, means of telling a story. So much emotion, impact and emphasis can be explored in a single and effective graphic novel panel. Similarly, watching the feedback of how gameplay unfolds lets even milliseconds be crucial and provides the same feeling. Atomic Wolf and L.inc’s Liberated is a cyberpunk game that looks to achieve both, with its fast gunplay, adventurous platforming and noir graphic novel style narrative.
Like many cyberpunk stories before it, the world of Liberated is very much in an Orwellian nanny state. The scary thing about this type of narrative is that arriving at this state is often plausible. Prior to the game’s events, a terrorist attack puts a government into a state of worry. Desperate for safety and security, a monitoring technology algorithm known as the Citizen Credit System (CCS) is created. With the “promise” of safety, this algorithm notes the compliance (and lack thereof) of citizens. It can track anything from skipped train fares, to knowing what an individual’s ventures outside of their home entails. All activity is monitored, with no privacy. Unnerving, no?
Liberated takes an untraditional approach in its cyberpunk narrative that doesn’t always pan out
The ideas here aren’t anything new or special to the cyberpunk genre, but they at least mostly work. In the first of four issues (chapters, laid out nice and separate but continued, as comic issues are) of the game, you’re an off the grid individual, joining up with the titular Liberated group. This group are intent on rebelling on the recent laws put in place. They want to tear down the bad and ever ruling watchdog police force and government, hiding behind white masks and searching for any dirt they can find. Think your Anonymous organisation, except gun-toting.
Before you can say “narrative whiplash”, you yourself become a cop for pretty much the rest of the game. Your motives are mainly just to take down any Liberated member you see standing. Through later reveals, it eventually makes more sense and tracks, though I can’t help but note the blurred messaging here. I was ready to go on this journey with the rebellious type but now I’m the authority? That fast? In this, the story tried to take the risk of an untraditional approach in cyberpunk narratives, but probably should’ve gone for the safer option. Personally, I just don’t want to be asked to empathise with a brutal cop or authoritative figure in a cyberpunk game.
Great in theory, messy in practice
What Liberated actively has going for it is the grim, but visually pleasing, art style and direction. Gameplay aside, it’s easy to feel like I’m delving deep into a noir graphic novel when playing the game in handheld. Flipping through pages and scanning each panel provides you dully lit streets, miserable rain, towering skyscrapers, and dramatic character interactions. They’re powerful, and at times confronting thanks to the black and white art style the game offers.
Inspirations for the game such as Frank Miller’s Sin City have been cited by the developer and they’re here, clear as day. Barring some onomatopoeic noises and reactions, there’s no voice acting in Liberated. A sweet synth soundtrack plays and the atmosphere invites you right in. You’re left to simply admire the vibes and cyberpunk world, taking in every word, panel and frame.
Within Liberated, a simple press of a button will take you between each comic panel frame. Sometimes, the images are moving or even change between a few before settling, communicating several exchanges in one. For the core gameplay, you’ll be in a large landscape frame. These are mostly side-scrolling moments, where you’ll be either taking upon a role of stealth or running, gunning and jumping your way through enemies. Some of these are quick, merely moving through a room or two before you’re smoothly taken into a new frame or even page. Others linger and drag on, breaking the momentum and removing the immersive feeling of a flicking through a graphic novel.
One moment in particular has you playing as the cop in an underground facility. Platforming here is very much like Playdead’s Limbo or Inside. Whilst these games are fantastic, the same mechanics don’t work so well here. Push a box to the side to reach higher ledges, swim through sewers, complete puzzles to adjust the water levels, then continue. This scene felt over 10 minutes long. That’s not something you want for a game that’s meant to be based within the confines of a graphic novel.
It’s a marriage of narrative and gameplay that doesn’t fit the tone of the game. I’d take the occasional QTE or hacking minigame over these more drawn-out gameplay segments.
Thankfully, Liberated isn’t a long game and though the narrative had beats I found frustrating, it never outstays its welcome. It can be completed in a number of hours and should get some nods just for attempting something new in a game. It’s a peak indie project.
- Gorgeous Frank Miller inspired noir art style
- A comic book and a game, combined!
- Odd narrative choices that didn't end up being all that rewarding.
- Frustrating gameplay that just at times didn't work with the story.
- A basic and stock standard Cyberpunk world at best.
When pen comes to paper, Liberated unfortunately doesn’t work in the way I so desperately wanted it to. With pretty hand-drawn images, atmospheric vibes and decent ideas, there’s nuggets of good in here. Still, style isn’t always enough. Messy gameplay and narrative twists and turns that are just frankly unrewarding litter this game more glaringly. It makes Liberated more challenging to recommend to those who aren’t superfans of the graphic novel or cyberpunk style.