Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 10/29/12 | Updated: 11/01/12

You're gonna go far, kid...

Neo Japan is on the brink of annihilation. It’s been recently annexed to the Dominion, a nation hell-bent on conquering every country on Earth. What used to be beautiful areas have been consumed by factories and military bases. The citizens didn’t give up their beloved homeland so easily. They dissolved the old government and placed their faith and futures in a new president. Things looked promising…at first. Before his plans could be brought to fruition, the president was assassinated. With all hope lost, the people have now turned to Shoko Ozora, the daughter of the slain leader. Rather than cower and hide as an ordinary high school student, she’s assumed the title of the President of Neo Japan and thrown herself onto the front lines. Armed with the powerful Kamui mecha, she’s vowed to avenge her father and save the country she loves so much.

There’s so much potential to be had with a story this ridiculous. The president’s daughter learns how to pilot a deadly Gundam-esque robot and kills everything in sight? It’s as if the worlds of Zone of the Enders and Metal Wolf Chaos somehow collided and crash-landed in Japan. Once you get past the funny premise, however, the plot of Liberation Maiden falls flat. The problem is that the entire story revolves around Shoko gliding around and blasting whatever the mission control tells her is a target. There’s no character development or drama to be had, mostly because the protagonist has no personality. The narrative is underwhelming, especially when compared those of the games that influenced this title. Zone of the Enders took itself seriously, but made the effort to give its cast depth and development. Metal Wolf Chaos was a comedy, but its characters and scenarios were so over the top that they kept things entertaining. Both games had epic, villainous rivals that practically begged to get beaten. These are the kinds of things that make action games more interesting and memorable. Liberation Maiden has none of these qualities; just when things start to look interesting, the game abruptly ends after five stages.

While the missions are brief, their gameplay is remarkably well done. The Kamui floats around the screen with the circle pad, while strafing, speed boosting, and other fine-tuned movements are performed with the left shoulder button. By dragging the stylus around the touch screen, you can lock on to enemies and charge up a burst of tracer rounds or a laser cannon. There’s even a special sword-shaped nuke that incinerates everything in its blast radius. You can’t be too trigger-happy, though; the energy that powers your weapons also maintains your shields. If you unleash all your firepower, you’ll be left wide open for a counterattack. It’s not an issue for most of the game, but being careless get you slaughtered on the harder difficulties. The trick is learning how to budget your energy and dodge enemy fire long enough to recharge. In a nod to older arcade shooters, your shooting skills can rack up bonus point chains and other rewards. Thanks to the tight controls and easily accessible interface, it’s a breeze to master everything the Kamui has to offer.

Unfortunately, that’s all it has to offer. Despite being the single deadliest tool in Neo Japan’s military, the Kamui’s arsenal is limited to only a few weapons and features. Aside from a single upgrade you get in the second mission, there are no additional abilities to unlock or level up. You’d think that a game based on fast-paced combat and high-scale destruction would feature all kinds of customization options. That’s part of what makes similar games so fun; the mechas gradually become more powerful, thus rewarding good piloting skills. It would have added so much more depth and replayability; you could have had the chance to develop strategies and liberate the country in your own way. Even if there were such options, you wouldn’t get many chances to exploit them. The stage progression boils down to a cycle of killing a bunch of weak enemies, blasting a small tower, and then destroying a bigger, better-defended tower for the boss fights. The game tries to spice it up by having you avoid radar installations or blowing up factories and supply lines, but it’s never amounts to anything beyond flashy explosions. Even the optional sub missions don’t serve as anything more than brief, inconsequential distractions. It’s possible to “purify” a stage by killing every last enemy, but you’re rewarded with only a few pieces of bonus art. There’s no reason or incentive to deviate from your primary objectives, thus wasting the potential exploration of the large stage maps. All of the major battles involve dodging projectiles with predictable patterns and shooting at brightly-lit weak points. Only the final enemy provides anything that remotely resembles a challenge, and even that isn’t difficult to beat with a little practice.

At least it looks awesome. While several aspects of Liberation Maiden feels stunted and bland, the visual effects are a wonderful exception. The Kamui flies smoothly, and the way its deflector shields orbit its body is a great touch. The lighting makes dodging dozens of lasers and homing missiles seem engaging, even if there’s little risk of them actually harming you. Even the weakest battleships and anti-aircraft installations blow up with style. The terrain texturing isn’t nearly as interesting – the ocean areas look like something out of an old DS game – but the 3D effects with the clouds, snow, and buildings provide and sense of speed and scale. The unlockable gallery includes a decent amount of setting and character artwork, including details of the various areas and the overall story. The animated intro and conclusion have surprisingly high production values in both artistic design and music, some of which rival the best of what the 3DS has offered thus far. Even if most of the game is boring, the epic vocalized theme song during the final battle makes the experience almost worth it.

It’s not enough, though. The problem with Liberation Maiden is that it never dares to go beyond the basics of the genre it tries to emulate. Other titles have done what this game attempts, only better. The story has an interesting premise, but its characters are dull and have no development whatsoever. There’s no reason to care about Shoko, let alone the fate of Japan. The combat mechanics are interesting; having to balance the offensive and defensive capabilities of your mecha has a lot of potential, but it’s never used in creative ways. The controls are great and the gameplay is easy to master, but the missions never challenge you to fully utilize them. There’s no way to customize or upgrade the Kamui, which deprives you of ways to further develop tactics or a reason to replay. Granted, there is a decent assortment of unlockables and the artistic design is superb, but they won’t keep you distracted for long. It’s a kind of a reflection of the game designer himself; Suda has always been known for his stylish titles, but they usually have enough substance and charm to balance them out. Liberation Maiden lacks that quality. Unlike Neo Japan, this game is beyond salvation.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Liberation Maiden (US, 10/25/12)

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