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Nintendo DS Review: Freedom Wings

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You could be a fan of Natsume’s Freedom Wings if dogfights and sky pirates appeal to you, but only if an empty storyline and long stretches of game with little action appeal to you as well. Limited interaction and less variety has made an exercise in tedium out of an otherwise amusing flight simulator.

The minimalist story of Freedom Wings enlists you in the Air Patrol, where your job is to protect civilians from the air pirates that prowl the skies. You fly from airstrip to airstrip, attacking bandits, rescuing planes under fire, and liberating occupied territories. Every plane you shoot down earns you extra money you can use to upgrade your plane and its equipment. Upgrades noticeably improve your plane’s performance, which you’ll need to match the increasingly powerful opponents found further away from your starting airbase. It’s fun to think about, but less fun to play.

It’s a large world, but an empty one. While there are scattered airbases all over the map, every one is inhabited by the same two people, one in the hangar and one in the store. Once in a while you will meet other pilots in the airport bar, but usually only to advance the plot. In the air, you might trigger a one-time event asking you to protect another plane as you draw close to a new airbase, but otherwise, it’s just you and the bandits, and they don’t talk much. Throughout the game, your radio stays silent; enemies never use their radio to taunt or demand surrender, and only talk to the player or themselves in the cutscenes before boss fights. They spawn, attack, and explode without saying a word.

The game’s issues aren’t so noticeable at first. A helpful autopilot makes navigation, dogfights, and landings almost too easy, allowing players to fly their plane themselves when they get the hang of it. Another feature, the ability to “bounce” off the ground without incurring any damage, makes flying easier to manage, but may enrage some flight simulator purists. Initial equipment upgrades for your plane are reasonably priced, and make effective additions. It starts off feeling like Natsume might actually succeed in grafting an RPG’s plotline onto a flight simulator’s game play. The problems come later, when you haven’t met a new character in over four hours, your plane isn’t strong enough for a boss fight, and the next best upgrades require you to defeat 40 or more opponents.

As you fly, the game spawns enemies for you to fight, but it keeps spawning them when you’re already engaged in a dogfight. It effectively gives you a time limit in which to dispatch your opponent, or else you quickly find yourself outnumbered and unable to withstand the combined attacks of multiple planes. Getting shot down loses half the money you have accumulated in the course of the game. It means that getting cash for upgrades is best done through the autopilot, letting the game run itself for long stretches of time.

The graphics and sound leave little to complain about, even if the music is repetitive and forgettable. Variations in pitch denote different types of engines and guns, while tropical islands and deep blue oceans whip past as you try to shake enemy fire. It’s easy to get immersed in the game play, which can become problematic when you realize that the nearest save point is an airport that is at least five minutes away. If you’re in a hurry, though, you can always waste your money getting shot down to save that much faster.

The complete package has something of an identity crisis. There’s not enough story and character interaction to make it feel like an RPG, but the superhumanly efficient autopilot and the ability to bounce off the ground without accruing any damage takes all of the realism out of the flight simulator. The graphics and sound capabilities of a console or PC have been traded for the convenient portability of a handheld system, but that convenience is negated by the fact that you can get tied up searching for a save point. While not lacking in ambition or potential, it’s a game that has come up short in its execution.

Pros: Intelligent autopilot, forgiving mechanics make flight simulator accessible for all skill levels.

Cons: It’s easy to get dogpiled by enemies, and a handheld game that lets you get five minutes (or farther) from the nearest save point isn’t very convenient.

Freedom Wings is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Violence.


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About Peter M. J. Gross