Shoot-em-ups and bullet hells are really one of the most basic kinds of games one can make. Give the player something that shoots bullets, throw a bunch of enemies on screen that attack back, bing bang boom, you have yourself a shoot-em-up. Hell, one of the first programming classes I took back in college had us create a basic game of this style as an early coding project.
That simplicity, though, allows for heaps of creative freedom for the developer. The object a player controls, the style of enemies they fight, the aesthetic and artistic direction of the presentation, all can be taken in wild directions without throwing the player for a loop. You can make a game about a flying unicorn shooting torpedoes at cherries, so long as you follow the basic formula, anyone can sit down and jump right in.
And, no, that example there wasn’t random. That’s a game that I made as a kid when trying out a game maker engine for the first time.
The game we’re looking at today is much the same, not straying far from the basic shoot-em-up formula. The inspiration for its presentation, though, isn’t one I would have expected in the genre: crude politically-incorrect western animation.
Developed and published by Wide Right Interactive, Freedom Finger was released on March 24th, 2020, for PS4 and Xbox One. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Proud to Be an American
Freedom Finger puts you in the shoes of Gamma Ray, the pilot of a spaceship inexplicably shaped like a hand flipping the bird. An American research facility located on the moon has been captured by Chinese terrorists, and you have been tasked with saving the hostages and taking the facility back.
Assisting you from back on Earth is Major Cigar, the crass foul-mouthed super-patriotic head of the mission, and another character in Mission Control, who attempts to approach things with a more level head.
The story here is like watching a cartoon on Adult Swim, and its definitely not aimed toward the younger demographic. Humor is raunchy and decidedly politically incorrect…and I found myself laughing constantly during dialogue. Freedom Finger isn’t here to tell a serious story (if the fact that you control a giant middle finger isn’t proof enough of that) but rather to go way over the top and just be plain entertaining.
That’s not to say the plot is a complete hand-wave either. We get bits of political intrigue, some truly entertaining characters playing off each other to great effect, and even branching dialogue points that can affect the story being told. While the game includes a standard arcade style mode to just play through the levels, ignoring the story mode would be doing yourself a major disservice.
The humor, however, can sometimes tread into what some might consider “offensive” territory. It’s not a point against the game in my eyes, but rather a warning that what’s on offer here isn’t for everyone.
Wiggle to the Rhythm
As mentioned earlier, Freedom Finger is a shoot-em-up, this time of the side-scrolling variety. You’ll be travelling across the screen, taking out enemies as they appear from the opposite side, occasionally fighting a boss, you know the drill. So, of course, we have to take a look at what twists to the formula the game brings to table. In the case of Freedom Finger, there’s…quite a lot, actually.
In the case of your ship, aside from standard shooting, you get two more functions, both making use of the fact that your ship is…well…a hand. At the pull of one trigger you can ball your ship up into a fist and punch whatever is in front of you. With the other trigger you can reach out and grab enemies, potentially being able to use them as a weapon.
This grabbing enemies mechanic is easily the most stand-out part of the game engine. Judging whether to destroy an enemy or weave your way through bullets to grab it and knowing when to get rid of it (by throwing it as a projectile) to switch to something else adds an entertaining layer to the standard genre gameplay.
I didn’t find the punch maneuver too useful against enemies, but I used it much more in another of this game’s aspects: environmental puzzles. Freedom Finger doesn’t just have you flying through wide open space, but rather, you’re often navigating through caves, mechanical mazes, and mind-bending hallucinations. Cutting a path through is as much about hitting switchs to block deadly laser beams and punching debris out of your way as it is shooting down enemies. This environmental interaction is rather basic, admittedly, but it’s another interesting twist for the genre.
The big twist, though, and the one that originally brought my attention to the game, is the addition of rhythm aspects. Every stage is set to a specific track, with enemies moving and shooting to the rhythm. It’s not as rigid as something like Aaero, but paying attention to the music playing can help you predict attacks and dodge enemies.
Speaking of dodging, there’s one last unique thing to discuss: “stealth.” At the game’s outset, Major Cigar tells you that your mission is a stealth mission, and that nobody else on Earth can know about it. This translates to gameplay as the Stealth Meter. This meter slowly fills up for every enemy that you let make it past you undestroyed, and if it maxes out, it’s game over. It does provide good impetus to get you out in front of bullets to take enemies down, but for those who like to challenge themselves by playing through this kind of game pacifist style, that’s not possible here.
Lastly, for all the weird setups and general insanity going on in both the story and in levels, Freedom Finger still takes itself seriously as a shoot-em-up. Enemy layout is interesting and often unpredictable, commanding you to pay attention rather than just holding the fire button and killing things before they appear on screen. The difficulty curve is just right, ramping up from simple romps at the beginning to controller-throwing at the end stages.
My only complaint here would be the length of the stages once difficulty starts to ramp up – stage length is dictated by the song playing, and if you’re playing a five-minute-long song and die just before the end, you get to do it all over again…and you’ll likely be repeating stages a lot as you approach the endgame.
Saturday Morning Madness
Visual presentation is a place where shoot-em-ups get to let loose and go wild, and Freedom Finger doesn’t disappoint. Much like the story, the visuals here feel like playing an Adult Swim cartoon, and some of the environments you get to fly through are wild. You get your standard space segments, sure, but there are moments you’re navigating through the inside of an asteroid filled with weird creatures, playing as a toy held by an even larger hand shooting down other toys, and even suddenly tearing through a stage that feels ripped out of the original Contra.
The music and voicing here is of particular note, mostly due to the talent Wide Right brought in for it. The soundtrack here is almost a who’s-who of underground music talent, ranging from licensed songs from Com Truise and Drab Majesty to original tracks from Aesop Rock. The songs are perfectly paired with their levels as well; the aforementioned toy room and Contra stages are matched up with some excellent psychedelic rock tunes.
With such a varied tracklist, though, it’s unlikely all players will like everything…which can affect the game as a whole. I can’t say I was much a fan of the Com Truise tracks here, which made the stages based around them rather boring to play through.
The voice actors are a similarly solid stable, including Nolan North, John DiMaggio, and Sam Riegel. Everyone turns in excellent performances, particularly North as Major Cigar. Really, it’s these performances that make the story as off-kilter and hilarious as it is, bringing the writing to life.
The Middle Finger Salute
As a fan of shoot-em-ups, rhythm games, and crude stand-up, Freedom Finger feels almost like it was tailor-made for me. The game is a solid shooter wrapped up in unique engines and wild aesthetics, and was a joy to play through for the most part.
The difficulty near the end of the game did get frustrating, though, and playing through stages paired up with music I wasn’t really feeling did create some dull moments here and there. Overall I feel it was worth the experience, and I’m looking forward to replaying the game in the near future.
If you’re down with often crass humor and underground music, Freedom Finger is a game that should be on your radar.
Review copy provided by Wide Right Interactive for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.