Imagine a world in which a totalitarian government exploits our reliance on social media to take control of every aspect of our lives. It's not a particularly radical thing to conceive of, is it? You could even be forgiven for calling it a fairly clichéd premise. But as Liberated demonstrates, there's a reason why clichés become clichés; because they work.
Liberated takes comic book presentation to its logical extreme, with the narrative and gameplay taking place within digital issues of, well, a comic book. Each panel is a story scene or playable section of varying length, and in the early game, you'll find there's a lot of scene-setting and talk and not a huge amount of actual time spent playing. This would be a problem if the story wasn't a well-presented, skilfully-written and interesting take on what we acknowledge are familiar tropes. The art in the comic book segments is superbly drawn and fits beautifully with the black-and-white noir-style graphics of the side-scrolling gameplay sections. This lends Liberated a consistency that a lot of narrative video games don't manage to deliver.
The side-scrolling action itself starts off so slowly that you'll wonder what on earth you've gotten yourself into – initially you'll sneak through extremely brief stealth sequences in which you duck into alleyways to evade the fascist government guards on the lookout for you. It's so basic and simple, and over so quickly, that you may feel your heart sink as you go from yet another minuscule gameplay section into a relatively lengthy comic book cutscene. Stick with Liberated past the first half-hour, though, and it begins to shine a lot brighter.
In our view, its closest gameplay analogue is the relatively obscure Deadlight, with its cinematic platformer style and environment full of urban decay, not to mention the shadow-heavy art style. The initial focus on stealth evaporates when you acquire a gun, which is used intuitively; the right analogue stick aims, ZR fires and R reloads. Drawing the gun and rapidly emptying a clip into an enemy (ghoulish as it sounds) feels good, especially when you skilfully pull off a headshot. The comic book style enhances these actions with pop-up sound effects that fit in perfectly and add to the satisfaction. You still have the option to use stealth, of course, but we didn't find a lot of compelling reasons to do so once we were tooled up.
The levels expand in size and complexity, seeing you break into government strongholds, solving puzzles, exploring and of course blasting a lot of baddies. The atmosphere is pitched brilliantly and shows its hand early – a section in which we passed through a desolate, near-pitch-black forest accompanied only by the sound of the wind screaming through the trees was the moment we realised that Liberated was going to deliver.
You play as multiple characters in Liberated, each offering a different perspective on the overall story. The game feel remains as consistent as could be, so you'll never find yourself floundering. That said, there are some niggling issues. While dying is barely punished – you'll just start the segment over – the use of the dreaded QTEs throughout the game is not especially welcome. While they're far from the worst examples we've seen, it is galling to see them at all when it wouldn't have compromised the effect if the sequences that used them were just cutscenes with no interactivity.
A car chase early in the game, for example, has you tapping the face buttons seemingly arbitrarily, with a failure to do so resulting in you repeating the section. It's not difficult, but it's not interesting either. The inclusion of QTEs almost feels like a concession; an admission that there may be too much story and not enough gameplay here. But we don't think that's the case! The story here is interesting, and the comic book framing device only enhances it. These QTE sections, then, seem like they've been included because it's a video game, as though Liberated is sheepish about the way it tells its story, lacking confidence in its own vision. But it shouldn't be.
There are also some technical issues to consider. While it's an attractive game – a wholesale commitment to a noir style that works excellently – the game suffers from fairly shoddy animation, low-res-looking visuals and a very messy framerate. A lot of times, it does feel sub-30 fps, and there are often big drops when you enter more complex rooms. As a result, it feels like Liberated has been forced onto the Switch rather than tuned for it. As ever, though, these technical issues could be patched out with time, and the game here is strong enough to overcome such shortcomings.
Liberated tells a rollicking tale with plenty of style. It doesn't run as well as it should do, and it's far from lacking in clichés (some of the "people would rather take selfies than open their eyes" stuff is a little eye-rolling) but it's a fantastic take on a dystopian platformer that avoids the major pitfalls that such games often fall into. With responsive controls, enjoyable shooting and strong level design, Liberated is an atmospheric, absorbing treat and far more than the sum of its parts.