For some reason I like to use burgers as metaphors for shmups, so let’s not change that wonderful habit. Back when I was living in Atlanta, I went to a burger joint called The Vortex. The place was really something else! Adorning the entrance was a huge skull with swirly eyes. Inside, the dim lighting and rock posters gave it a very punk vibe. It was one of those places that just oozed a punk personality and unapologetically shoved it into every corner of the establishment. The food was incredible as well! In many ways, Freedom Finger reminds me of my first time going to the Vortex burgers sans the food.
While still being a shmup at heart, Freedom Finger really feels like an artistic expression. It embodies the genre but also doesn’t hold any punches. Its personality is present in every aspect and the result is one of the most authentic games in a genre that tends to be same-y.
Developer: Wide Right Interactive
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Sep 27, 2019
Freedom Finger is the most american shmup you will ever play. For some reason, I can’t help but hum that song from the movie “Team America”. You probably should have caught a glimpse of this from the name itself, but rest assured knowing the campaign is exactly what you expect it to be.
There’s something about this game that takes me on several weird nostalgia trips. It reminds me of old school MTV. Oddly enough, I also get some 2014 vibes, but that probably just me.
In case you were also wondering, it is a 2D horizontal shmup. Freedom Finger combines fast air combat with melee attacks and musical gameplay. All presented in beautiful hand-drawn graphic! I want to mention the musical gameplay again because it truly is one of a kind!
An all american adventure
One of the coolest features of Freedom Finger is that it contains a fully voiced campaign mode. The campaign will follow the adventures of Gamma Ray and Major Cigar as they attempt to rescue several hostages and the Major’s own daughter from the moon. Joining the fray as voice actors are notable talents such as Nolan North, John DiMaggio, Sam Riegel, and Eric Bauza.
I really don’t want to spoil the campaign, because it is actually crazy, but I’ll say that it was definitely the highlight of Freedom Finger for me! It has some clever dialogues and some jokes which actually made me laugh out loud. I don’t think I ever felt like skipping dialogue because I was enjoying it too much. Keeping up with the nostalgic vibe, I would put the campaign on the same level as when I saw the Beavis and Butthead movie for the first time on MTV!
Perhaps something that is noteworthy is that the campaign is not linear. Well, the levels themselves are linear, as is tradition with shmups, but the story offers choices that alter the course of the campaign. New levels are available on different routes, so I encourage you to check the campaign multiple times to see everything Freedom Finger has to offer.
There are no “lives” or “continues” or any other survival resource on the campaign. You are free to retry stages as much as you need in order to proceed. In fact, the arcade mode is also a sort of free-play. This doesn’t mean the game is easy, but it is simple to lick your wounds and try again without having to repeat the game.
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of Freedom Finger is your ship, Eagle Claw. There are no references, innuendos or otherwise subtle cues. Eagle Claw is straight up a hand giving you the middle finger, and it knows how to capitalize on its unique shape!
Having opposable thumbs is really neat, which translates to 2 defining abilities of the Eagle Claw: Punching and grabbing.
Punching is your main way of performing melee attacks. I don’t think I need to describe how a punch works, but here we go. When punching, the Eagle Claw clenches its fist and reels back slightly, then flies forward to punch whatever’s in front. Punches deal high damage and grant extra score. They are also pretty good when dealing with hordes of low HP enemy to destroy them in a single motion. If you punch repeatedly, you will do a devastating 3 hit combo!
Grabbing lets you grab most of the enemies you encounter. Some of the enemies can be used as guns while grabbed. As the trailer states, every enemy is a weapon. Except those who don’t shoot… or can’t actually be grabbed like some mid-large enemies. Once you have grabbed an enemy, you can no longer fire your own gun. You can always get rid of the enemy your holding by just throwing it forward. Thrown enemies deal nice damage and also net you extra score.
A heavy burden
Punching and grabbing are the main mechanics of the game both in terms of scoring and survival. In terms of firepower, they vastly outclass your main cannon. There are no ship power-ups in Freedom Finger.
As you might expect, after a couple of levels your main cannon becomes mostly useless. Enemies come in greater numbers than the amount of bullets you can fire, and some won’t go down soon enough. It is at this point when you have to ditch your middle finger and opt to borrow some strength from the enemies.
Enemies who can fire when grabbed are pretty much the equivalent of weapon upgrades. Enemy weapons are much stronger and will allow you to keep up with what the level has to offer. The downsides are that having a weapon in hand will make you slower and getting hit will remove your weapon. The latter can be thought of as losing your weapon level after being hit in most shmups. I’ve expressed in the past how much I dislike that mechanic, but it’s here anyway.
As cool as I think the hand mechanics are in the game, I felt that they worked mostly against me rather than in my favor. Perhaps what bothers me the most is the slight displacement of the hand on both punches and throws. Because it moves your hand, it means you can get hit by enemies behind or slightly ahead of you. Maybe this could be classified as tactical usage, but ultimately it ends up feeling clunky.
It doesn’t help that the hand inputs are a bit strict. Timing combo actions such as grabbing > throwing or doing the punch combo often fail. The window for inputting those actions feels quite narrow, with combos being hard to perform unless you’re mashing the punch button. It doesn’t help that every now and then the game stutters, presumably altering the timing of the maneuvers.
Throwing left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it was pretty cool to deal with large hordes by flicking a single ship and eliminating all of them. On the other hand, later stages feature “homing” enemies, which introduces to issue of the forward throw animation. More often than not, several enemies will be coming you in formation. Ideally you would want to throw something at them, but remember that grabbing ships make you slow. So you would find yourself trying to put some distance between them by moving backwards before the throw (to offset the forward motion), but due to your low speed, the enemies will get you. It’s another instance of controllers feeling clunky.
As a small side-note, I’m not entirely sure what is the actual hitbox of the ship. From my experience, it seems to be the entire hand, which might explain why navigation feels tricky to someone who has gotten used to reduced hitboxes. Might also be because movement feels mostly slippery when using the analogue stick.
A musical adventure
Freedom Finger has a unique soundtrack for every stage, but what takes the crown is the musical integration with the stages! Every stage was hand crafted to follow the beat of the music. Enemies, bullets and obstacles all move in tandem with the beats. This not only looks really cool, but also opens up several opportunities on the field of anticipation.
The best way to put it is that if you know the song, you know the stage. While not easy at first, recognizing the music will go a long way to helping you navigate the stages. Several enemies or bullets will completely stop when the music calls for it, or go crazy when the action resumes. This means that you absolutely KNOW when the action is going to happen, which will help you know when you can stand in front of an enemy and when it will fire.
I’ll admit that catching the beats is tricky at first. After all, when you are trying a stage for the first time, you can be cheap killed by a bullet that suddenly stopped because you hadn’t heard the song yet. However, stages become easier over time as you master the songs and your trusty ears become the first to warn you of upcoming dangers.
One thing I will say is that the music is crucial, so not liking the style will probably sour your experience. On that note, I would advise everyone to listen to soundtrack first and seeing if it tickles your fancy.
Stealth and stage mechanics
There is an extra gauge I haven’t talked about yet, which is the stealth gauge. Since your mission is supposed to be top secret, stealth is paramount for your success. In this game, stealth translates into not letting enemies leave the screen. So basically… kill them all!
Stealth is a funny mechanic. I disliked that stages usually have horizontal dividers at some point, and if you chose the wrong side, then enemies would fly through the other half of the screen and fill your gauge. However, after playing a bunch of Freedom Finger, I never had a game over induced by the stealth gauge. Not even once. I actually feel like I should purposely try to fill it and see how a stealth game over looks like. Looks like my point is rather moot in this case.
For the completionists, stages feature several badges which can be unlocked on either the campaign or arcade mode for each stage. The ones I encountered were presumably punching a lot (lobster with gloves), not getting hit (bullet with angel wings) and for getting an S rank. Badges are shared for both modes, so getting an S rank on campaign will display it on arcade.
Despite having a lot of crude humor, the game features several censor modifiers. You can censor the middle finger, censor subtitles or even censor spoken profanity. I wouldn’t recommend this game to younger people though.
You can also adjust the difficulty of the game to your skill level. You can tweak settings such as your health, toggle collision damage or even disable the stealth gauge.
Then there’s the “Blizzard mode” which is a funny easter egg that mocks Blizzard as a result of the Blitzchung ban controversy. Not pulling any punches is something that Freedom Finger takes seriously!
Areas of opportunity
While I did enjoy playing Freedom Finger, I can’t help but think that there are some glaring issues which completely diminished my enjoyment at times.
One of those issues is the number of homing enemies. I’ve always thought of homing anything to be a slippery slope, because too much homing is never fun. Unfortunately, some objects in this game do seem to have some heavy correction when you are close to them. I’ve seen missiles and ships pull off 180s because I was too close to them. A great example is the dinosaur on 5-2. If you fly close to his mouth, the fireballs will perform some very obnoxious curving which results in death.
I also felt like midway through the game the experience turned grindy. Enemy numbers suddenly spiked and their durability increased as well. The main cannon was no longer enough and at this point I believed that the game was signaling me to start punching and throwing more to keep up.
Despite all my practice, the issue I mentioned with punching and grabbing became more apparent. I like the concept of punching and grabbing and I can see how clever usage could make stages much more fluid, but as I said, the mechanic felt mostly clunky in its implementation. It doesn’t help the debris exists and it only felt as if its purpose was to get in the way of grabbing enemies.
Freedom Finger is a shmup that has the makings of a great game and the talent to make it happen, but is held back by some poor implementations of its mechanics and some questionable design decisions. I had fun playing the game, but I also had plenty unfun moments.
Despite what I said, if you like the aesthetics, the humor and the music, then you will definitely have a lot of fun with Freedom Finger! It really is a game with a wild attitude and the musical integration is so great that I hope other games learn from it. I do hope there is a Freedom Finger 2 along the road. With some more polish, it could become a great game!
THE RANKING SO FAR:
- Psyvariar Delta
- Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade
- Rolling Gunner
- Blazing Star
- Raiden V: Director’s Cut
- Darius Cozmic Collection Console
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- Strikers 1945
- Black Paradox
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Sine Mora EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- Freedom Finger
- Ghost Blade HD
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Q-YO Blaster
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Red Death
- Task Force Kampas
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)