We’re at a point in the maturation of video games where it seems like the culture is starting to homogenize a little bit. Western style games have been highly influential, to the point that the last bastion of bizarre, off-the-walls ideas, Japan, has also started trying to ape these design philosophies. A lot of games start to focus on these ideas, resulting in games that are a mishmash of ideas and weird tonal inconsistencies. It’s become more difficult to find a game that is just happy being a game, having transparent scoring and gameplay systems that just screams “I AM A VIDEO GAME! HAVE FUN WITH ME!” Luckily, here come Japanese developers Level 5 and Grasshopper Manufacture to bring you just that sort of game, with Suda 51 himself being involved in the development. You want a game that revels in its systems and absurdity? How about one with a president who hops into her mech suit to defend her home nation against an invading force? Yeah, I bet you like the sound of that.
Seeing as this is a downloadable game, I really expected it to wind up being something simpler, like a side-scrolling or top-down shooter—you know, the kind of game that fills the screen with more bullets than air? It was actually pretty surprising to see that it’s much more than that: this is a third-person shooter that gives you free-roam around the battlefield, letting you go wherever you want in your quest to liberate Japan and restore its natural beauty.
The game actually follows a very similar control scheme as this year’s fantastic Kid Icarus: Uprising, with the player controlling on the circle pad and aiming with the stylus. Your character, Shoko (female president of New Japan), is surrounded by a series of shield panels that actually double as the ammunition. As you lock in on enemies, you give up a part of your protection, which offers an interesting on-the-fly choice: do you give up your shield to make a stronger attack, or do you constantly fire weaker shots for the sake of keeping yourself well protected? The panels recharge very quickly, but you can still be caught with your cheese in the wind if you’re taking too long to fire. If you get hit, chaining combos together restores shield panels, and you can have up to 24. As you fight, you also fill up your “Blade Gauge”, which will both automatically counter-attack if you’re hit while it’s full, and also unleash a super attack if you activate it manually.
Most of the missions involve going against enemies called “Spikes”, large devices that are sapping the energy from the earth. Each level has 3 Lesser Spikes, which are revealed after completing another goal, like defeating submarines or shooting it out from below the planet’s surface. After these 3 are gone, a Greater Spike opens up, and these act as the boss battles for the areas. They all have their own designs and attack styles, with one shooting out giant fiery rocks or another with a shield that reflects your shots at you, so you have to change up your fighting style for each one, which is a smart way of assuring that you don’t just fire blindly until everything’s dead.
Sprinkled along the way are several sub missions. These can include things like blowing up a bunch of reactors or hunting down submarines to one of the types of sub-goals that each area has. Below this is also an achievement structure, offering up rewards for beating the levels or defeating a certain amount of each enemy type. Unlocking these actually gives backstory for the world and the characters, so it’s not just a pointless unlock and can help fill in some of the otherwise sparse-details in the main game.
It’s also a game that has some environmentalist leanings, so along the way you’ll also be getting a percentage for how purified you’ve made the areas. It’s possible to purify an area without killing all of the enemies, and you do get a score bonus for purifying the entire level, so it might be worth it to go out of your way if you’re looking to ramp up your score.
The story is a little basic, so you’re really coming to this game for that arcade high-score challenge you’d get from older games. To that end, the game does keep track of your score across the story, as well as in a separate Stage Attack mode. The preset scores aren’t too hard to defeat, but since you can go between the three difficulties, it ideally gives you a lot more game to go through.
Liberation Maiden is a fine looking game, and you can tell that a lot of production effort went into this game. The menus are sleek and a lot of the UI is very smooth and useful. The in-game models are also pretty snazzy looking, and it’s overall a sharp looking game. A boss battle at the end of the game has a great sense of scale, and motion, and really looks awesome.
It does seem like it’s taxing the 3DS a little bit, though. That’s not to say that the framerate drops—it actually stays surprisingly smooth throughout—but the draw distance isn’t very good. As you fly your mech around, you can actually watch large swaths of the world draw in at the edge of your screen. It’s a very smooth effect, and doesn’t cut down on visibility as much as you’d think it would, but it’s difficult to not notice when you know it’s there.
The anime cutscenes are also gorgeous. I’m not sure about anything else the animation team, Bone, has done, but it’s smooth and colorful and clearly made by people who knew what they were doing. The voice acting is very well done, too, and avoids a lot of that anime “I clearly have no idea what the context of this sentence is” problem.
I beat Liberation Maiden in 48 minutes.
See, Liberation Maiden is actually a very fun game. I had a blast playing through it—the levels were interesting, the differences in the bosses made for fun ways to toss up the gameplay structure, and it looked fantastic. There had just been a major boss battle unlike anything that had come before it in the game, and another cutscene played that showed a gigantic enemy ship coming down that I had to go destroy. Clearly, I thought to myself, this game is just getting started and is about to get REALLY crazy!
Wrong. Credits. 48 minutes.
But surely there’s more to this, like it’s just the first act, right? Like it’s doing an Asura’s Wrath thing of playing the credits after every act.
Nope. That’s 12 minutes less than an hour.
Which leaves me baffled. How can this game exist like this? 5 levels? This isn’t 1985 where Donkey Kong is expected to be replayed despite only having 4 screens. It’s 2012, and when games like Angry Birds can come out for $0.99, or even FREE, and be played for longer than this, how can this game justify an asking price that’s 8 times as much?
I’ll grant that the production values and depth of Liberation Maiden are much higher. This is a great game that I really wish there was more of—I’ve actually played through it a couple of times just because I really wanted to find MORE to do in it. It is fun, it’s well made, I loved to play it, but it just stopped too early for me to really know what to do with it.
The short run-time especially bothered me because it seemed like the game was just about to get REALLY crazy when it ended. In a mission right before, I found a giant piece of cake that was buried in a mountain. Cake! For no reason! And the characters were just like “oh hey, it’s just what I was looking for!” and move on. It’s not like this is even a running gag, it only happens this once, and that just makes it even more conspicuous. Plus, the final cutscene, like I said, is just a giant battleship coming down, Shoko getting all jazzed to fight and flying at it and then… end. I actually had to set my 3DS aside and think about what just happened for a little.
On one hand, this is actually the sort of thing that shines on a handheld console. It’s a fast game to pick up and play, focusing on bite-sized levels and score above story. It’s fun and well made by people who clearly knew what they were doing. Even as an eShop game, though, it’s still conspicuously lacking in content. Something like Mighty Switch Force can still be beaten in a few hours, but with free levels added in and just more levels overall, there’s a lot more there to work with and more that you can actually do. Instead, you wind up, less than an hour later, really just wishing for more, and wondering if someone just forgot to include the rest of the game or something.
The question of dollars-to-gameplay is asked all the time, even amongst games that are longer than this. It’s really easy to go onto any given forum and catch people asking questions like “Is Assassin’s Creed 2 worth $20?” despite that being a long, fully-featured game. It’s much more difficult to give an answer like that to a game like Liberation Maiden. Despite being a fun game, it’s very bare, with few levels just relying on replaying for it to get any kind of lasting value. No matter how much you loved the game, though, replaying the same five is not enough for me to give this amazing, fun, beautiful game the high rank that it deserves.