A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom Review

A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom stands out amongst anime adaptations for its ambition. The main draw of the show’s trademark action – explosive, precise midair combat against giants – is thrilling yet frenetic. Despite the obvious risks in replicating such unfettered omnidirectional movement and combat systems, Omega Force has managed to capture lightning in the bottle in an admirable realisation of Attack on Titan’s conflict.

For the uninitiated, Attack on Titan is set in an alternative universe where humans are on the verge of extinction a century after the mysterious appearance of instinctively murderous, colossal humanoids called titans. The most effective way of dealing with titans is outmanoeuvring them to strike their weak points with hip-mounted gas-powered grappling hooks that allow soldiers to zip around like an army of Spider-Men. Humanity has long been complacent behind the huge walls of their territory, but a new assault by unusually intelligent titans actively forces the army into the fray once again.

Leaping into action is fairly intuitive once you get a couple of levels’ worth of practice under your belt. At the press of a button, dual grappling hooks are shot from your character’s 3D Manoeuvring Gear to latch onto nearby scenery, launching your character forwards. You can hold down the grapple button to keep sweeping over the landscape in your desired direction, or time your swings manually.

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When you encounter a titan, it’s time to lock-on. Set your sights on one of their knees, elbows, or fatal weak point at the nape of the neck, and you can shoot your hooks into their flesh. At that point you can orbit around the anchor point until you’re ready to reel in, dealing a well-timed slash with your dual blades. If you need to change your strategy on-the-fly you can switch your attention and hook to a different body part, lock-on to a different titan, or disengage from the combat scenario altogether to reposition or pursue a different objective with the aid of a burst of speed from replaceable gas canisters.

The inherent issue with each and every enemy being dispatched in identical fashion is dealt with through the diversity of titan design. In the manga, Hajime Isayama never used the same design twice over the hundreds of individual titans he’s depicted. The spirit of that philosophy is followed here; while you will see lots of duplicates, titans are drawn from a large and varied visual pool. Your foes can range from 3 metres high all the way up to 15 metre-class monsters. Moreover, although each titan is ultimately killed (or SUBJUGATED, use use the game’s preferred vernacular) by a fatal blow to the nape of the neck, you’ll often have to disable their limbs for the chance. More astute titans that track you and turn to keep their vulnerable necks out of reach will need to be trimmed at the knees, whereas grabby varieties need their elbow privileges revoked. Further to this incentive to slice off titans’ limbs rather than going in for the kill immediately, titans’ limbs often contain item drops that can be used to build and upgrade new equipment in between missions. Additionally sonic and flash grenades can subdue sound- or sight-reliant titans, respectively. In later missions, each titan becomes a little puzzle to solve, rather than another titanic body in your way.

Bumping up the diversity further is the inclusion of “abnormals”. These individuals will act differently to the garden-variety monstrosities. Sometimes they’ll doggedly pursue a specific civilian or soldier or make erratic movements like diving through the air at you. My favourites are the ones that run everywhere with this hilarious wet-pants waddle that makes me laugh every time. The only disappointment in abnormal design is the relatively restricted pool that “Final Target” titans are drawn from. For individuals that should be a thrilling and challenging conclusion to each mission, it’s eventually anticlimactic when you’ve seen every possible Final Target a number of times.

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A.O.T.’s adrenaline-fuelled, chaotic combat is simply sublime. At the best moments, you’re flitting across the battlefield dispatching titans like an ultraviolent aerial ballet from Rick Moranis’ worst nightmares (Winner of Most Dated Reference Awards, 2016) in a perfect translation of the anime’s most thrilling action scenes. When it all works, the mechanical joys of this game are an astounding show of power, grace, and momentum.

Even portions of gameplay that stray from full freedom of movement are well implemented; for instance vast plains that have nothing in the way of anchor points for your grappling hooks are crossed by horse. While it’s notoriously difficult to make horses anything less than infuriatingly awful in games, in A.O.T. they feature generous turning circles, a healthy stamina bar, and enough speed to easily outmanoeuvre and latch on to titans’ weak points.

It certainly helps A.O.T. that the Dynasty Warriors’ DNA woven into its battlegrounds feels like a perfect fit for the Attack on Titan setting. Each field is rife with enemy titans, fellow soldiers in danger, and side missions to pull your attention in half a dozen different directions. You’ve even got to keep an eye on your gas levels and blade conditions, and make resupply stops or risk getting stuck in danger without the tools you need to survive. Once you get into the swing of things, the initial chaos fades and you’re conditioned into a multitasking machine. Prioritising and reacting to the most immediate threat to victory elevates the experience to the next level.

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That said, though, occasionally the game’s rough edges jut out and rudely snag your immersion. As well-adjusted as the 3D Manoeuvring Gear usually is, you will occasionally get stuck on walls, shoot off in unintended directions, or shoot way too far ahead of where you want to land. Sometimes it can be a real pain to target a specific titan when a few of them bunch up. Occasionally your attacks seem to produce no damage or reaction, even though you’re sure you were reeling in at the right speed and angle. I’m not surprised that these hiccups exist, though, in a game this mechanically ambitious.

Less forgivable is the game’s story. Now, as someone that’s watched and read all of the available anime and manga volumes, I admire the way that the game has cherry-picked scenes and scenarios from its source material to follow the existing story. Were I approaching the game as a newcomer to the franchise, I’d certainly be underwhelmed by the cutscene exposition. Stunted animation and limp direction make watching these scenes a slog and a poor representation of the anime’s plot. I would highly recommend watching the anime or reading the relevant manga volumes before approaching A.O.T. if you’re at all interested in the story.

If you want plenty of the wonderfully addictive core gameplay, you’re in luck. Twenty substantial missions in story mode (AKA “Attack Mode,” to continue the game’s ongoing cute naming conventions) cover the plot of the anime, and five epilogue missions are unlocked by completing the majority of survey missions in five different areas – these are short, 5-15 minute long scenarios. If you’re simply aiming to complete all 25 story missions, then you’re looking at 20 hours of play or more. Admittedly chasing down each survey mission at the end of the game became a bit of a slog since I just wanted to see the game’s epilogue and trading over an hour’s worth of side missions for each new tidbit of story felt like a bizarre and repetitive wall for the game to throw up at that point.

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If you’re a completionist, you’re going to want to attain S-Rank on every mission (not as hard as it sounds-just kill as many titans as possible in good time and don’t ignore side missions in the field), fully upgrade all of your equipment, purchase all the extras in the in-game shop, and level up every character. You can even take on missions with friends in multiplayer mode with your unlocked and upgraded characters. A.O.T. feels at home in multiplayer with a group of competent players to take on whatever challenges the game throws at you. If you want substantial value for your money, you’re in luck here.

In terms of presentation, A.O.T. is a mixed bag. It’s certainly not the most graphically polished game out there by any stretch of the imagination, and animation in cut-scenes and gameplay is often wooden. Human character models don’t always feel well-realised or expressive enough to make use of their voice actors’ excellent performance. Plus, the setting of the show limits the game’s colour palette to greens, browns, and sandy yellows, which can become a little bit dreary and boring after a while.

On the flip side, titans possess a great and domineering presence with a variety of fittingly off-putting designs and distinctive animations. Up in the sky, characters’ movements are perfectly realised and true to the show. And you can’t fault that soundtrack, with its sweeping orchestral and choral compositions kicking up a storm behind everything onscreen.

A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom is a blast. Blisteringly cool gameplay sequences, cleverly implemented Dynasty Warriors design components, and a wealth of content cements its status as a superlative adaptation of its source material’s spirit. If you’re a fan of the franchise and always wanted to cut a bloody swathe through a city’s worth of titans like a rogue Borrower, A.O.T. has you covered.

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The Game Should Match The Name: Ghost In The Shell: First Assault

If you’ve read previous entries on my blog, you’ll know that I like to think about how to adapt certain properties into video games. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to adapt something to video game format, you should represent the source material’s themes and “feel”, in the handling of the mechanics and story. If you’re not going to rightfully represent the source material, then why adapt it? Well, other than easy cash from brand recognition and fans of the adaptee. With this in mind, Ghost In The Shell: First Assault has caught my eye.

Ghost In The Shell is a franchise which began in Masamune Shirow’s original manga in 1989, and has spread out to encompass anime films and books, as well as a few video games which most people don’t remember. On the surface, it’s an awesome Cyberpunk vision of the future, following a counter-terrorist organisation in mid-21st century Japan. At its heart, though, it’s a series of stories which explore the meaning of what it is to be “alive”, or “human”. This is a world where cybernetics are commonplace; many body parts can be replaced and upgraded, to the point that a human consciousness can reside inside an entirely inorganic body (hence “Ghost In The Shell”). What does it mean to be alive when your mind lives in an inorganic body? What is identity when memories can be hacked and altered? What does it really mean to be human in an age where A.I. is advanced enough to have opinions and emotions? These are the questions at the core of GITS.

Now, let’s take a look at GITS: FA. To the game’s credit, it looks like a pretty fun multiplayer FPS. The visuals are characteristically slick and smooth, showing off the cyberpunk setting. The gadgets look like interesting modifications to the gunplay, which from what I can tell seems solid enough. I’m sure that GITS: FA could be an interesting diversion. It’s just that I can’t help but wish that we were getting a game more representative of the source material. In a GITS game I want intrigue, murky morality, subterfuge, investigation. I want subtlety. I can’t help but feel that a GITS game which is focusing mainly on action is shooting itself in the foot by using the GITS name.

I appreciate the power of brand recognition and fan loyalty, and perhaps a game in the context of a certain universe doesn’t necessarily have to match the themes and tone of the previous stories told in that universe. But at a certain point, an adaptation isn’t a successful adaptation, and is just using the name of an existing franchise to cash in on the name.

What’s The Best Way To Make An Attack On Titan Game?

Attack On Titan is, for the uninitiated, awesome. It’s a manga/anime series in which giant humanoid creatures, the eponymous titans, have appeared and driven humanity to near-extinction, retreating to a large city surrounded by giant walls too tall for the titans to scale. About 100 years since the occupation of the city, humanity’s military forces are divided into three main forces- the Garrison Corps who protect and maintain the city walls, the Military Police, the elitist force which protects the upper classes and monarchy, and the Survey Corps, who perform reconnaissance missions beyond the city’s walls to learn about and repel the titans. The story mainly follows the Survey Corps members, since they’re the guys who are most interesting and actually proactively try to fight the titans. Titans can only be killed through damage to the nape of the neck, and so soldiers have to utilise “3D manoeuvre gear”, essentially twin grappling hooks and boost packs which allow them to Spider-Man around the place so they can close in and slice at the titans’ necks from behind. It’s kind of hard to explain how awesome this is in action, but believe me: it’s awesome in action.

So, here’s the question: what might be the best way to represent Attack on Titan in game form? The most obvious question is how best to represent the action; swinging about between buildings and through forests, avoiding being swatted away by your towering quarry and closing in on that all-important slash to the nape of the neck. The swinging mechanic is so indicative of Spider-man that we may as well draw our parallels from there.

There are two potential swinging mechanics used in the Spider-man games; the Spider-Man (PS2) method, where you press a “swing” button and leap into action, and can be steered until you press the “swing” button again to stop. The problem with this method is that it’s too automatic and lacks a feeling of momentum. The Spider-man 2 method is more promising, in that you control the shot of each web as you swing. The problem with this is that manoeuvring yourself in order to circumnavigate and attack the specific weak point of the titan could be too fiddly when you have a greater degree of control over your movement. There could be a system where you can either go straight for the neck, or you go for weakness points like the knees to bring down your targets for easier dispatch, but overall it could be difficult to get the feel of movement right; the joy of swinging around New York in Spider-Man 2 was in the steady, hypnotic momentum, while AoT’s 3D manoeuvring gear should have a wilder, breakneck feel to it.

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Another issue with full control of your movement for AoT is that, by its nature, combat with titans is repetitive; you’re always dealing the death blow with a slash to the back of the neck. Furthermore, a great deal of the draw of AoT is in the human drama. Watching characters intelligently plan their way out of tight spots and react to the daily traumatic hell of their existence is the real heart of the story. That’s why I choose to put forward a different angle; Attack on Titan would be best represented, in my opinion, as an adventure game.

Picture a Telltale- style game in which you are the squad leader of a Survey Corps team, sent out into titan-infested territory to carry out an intelligence mission. You’ve got to lead your team in an incredibly hostile environment, keeping as much of your group alive as possible while pursuing the mission. Much of the gameplay would revolve around making decisions on how to best proceed on the mission- do you take the risk of taking out a wandering titan, or try to sneak past? Perhaps it’d be best to get rid of the potential future threat, but it might use up too much of your precious 3D manoeuvre gear fuel, which could bite you in the tuchas later on. Of course, your actions will please some of your squad members and displease others, and the interpersonal tension could come into play later on. Of course, this kind of game lives and dies on the writing, since no narrative is engaging if the characters aren’t well written.

Then, there’s the all-important titan fights. This style of game often favours the QTE-prompt, split-second-decision style of mechanic, which are very capable of engendering the kind of tension and desperation in Telltale’s Walking Dead games as well as recent release Until Dawn. This method would also allow for differentiating fights to a greater degree, since you can have each new threat occur in a completely different environmental situation without the fear of your action mechanics not quite working in that context.

And so I put it to you that the ideal AoT game might be an adventure game. What do you think? Would you like to see a talented team take on AoT in the adventure game style, or is there an alternative that I haven’t thought of?