BOSTON – Reading a comic book is fun, but the experience is usually very passive. Playing an action game is fun, but the story is usually a little sparse. Liberated, a genre-bending game from Walkabout Games, aims to solve both of these problems by mashing the two together. Liberated requires a little patience, as it’s just as much about dialogue as run-and-gun action. But if you’re looking for a hardboiled cyberpunk mystery with a lot of story and a fair bit of gunplay, the game looks promising.
I went hands-on with Liberated at PAX East 2020, and admired what the game is trying to pull off. Visual novels and side-scrolling action games are both a dime-a-dozen, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game combine the two before. Liberated isn’t just an action game with motion-comic cutscenes; about half of the experience is simply watching the gorgeous animated panels and reading the generous amount of dialogue. The other half is taking down bad guys in side-scrolling action sequences that combine gun combat with light stealth.
Like a real comic book series, Liberated will split its story into a handful of different “issues,” each focusing on a different playable character. During my demo, I played abbreviated versions of two issues. I took control of Barry, a newly recruited freedom fighter, and William, a jaded police detective.
Both segments followed similar patterns. Each issue begins with animated motion comic panels, which combine comic book dialogue balloons with impressionistic film-noir art. The whole thing has a dreamlike quality, with its blurry edges and blue-gray color scheme. The story concerns a futuristic society in which surveillance tech lurks around every corner, and political freedom is a distant pipe dream. The story seems to tick all the required cyberpunk checkboxes: huge corporations, a restrictive government, nearly hopeless protagonists and hotshot hackers who might just be able to make a difference.
The first issue focuses on Barry, who joins up with a group of idealists who call themselves Liberated. Barry is in it for a paycheck, of course, but he’s still involved enough to take up arms in Liberated’s defense. After an opening cutscene, I took control of Barry, who had to wield a handgun and take down a collection of drones. After that, he made his way through a warehouse, gunning down enemies and hacking computers as he went.
Gunplay is a pretty simple affair. You hold down the left stick to move, and the right stick to aim. The right trigger fires; the right bumper reloads. If you get hit, you can hide behind cover and heal more quickly, but enemies can also come and try to drag you out. You’ll need to respond to a fast quick-time prompt to survive. Both you and enemies can take a few hits. It’s engaging, but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
What struck me about these action sequences was that they were short. After a few screens of bad guys, Liberated went right back to the graphic novel setup and continued the plot. This game isn’t about long stretches of gameplay followed by short, expository cutscenes; it balances both elements pretty evenly.
In William’s section, the comic-book-alternating-with-action-game format was about the same. The only difference is that William learned a few new tricks during the action sections. Rather than a handgun, William had a much more effective submachine gun – but so did his enemies. There was also a clever sequence in which he got to control a drone to take out enemies remotely. But the drone didn’t have enough explosives to clear the room, so I had to pick and choose which enemies represented the biggest threats.
Liberated doesn’t seem like a deep game, but it does have the capacity to be a unique one. As a comic book fan, I found the mix of styles appealing, and the cyberpunk story seems timely. The game will launch in Q2 2020 for PC and Nintendo Switch, and while Walkabout hasn’t listed a price yet, the devs told me that they don’t expect it to be very expensive. To start, the game will consist of four “issues,” but if fan response is positive, there’s always the chance for additional DLC.