Freedom Finger is as irreverent in its comedy as it is reverent of the shmup genre. Developed by Wide Right Interactive, and written and directed by Jim Dirschberger (creator of Emmy nominated cartoon Sanjay and Craig), Freedom Finger includes hand drawn art, a ridiculous premise, and a curated soundtrack that interweaves with the eye popping visuals. Its both a handcrafted, hilarious cartoon drawn by the talented Travis Millard (check out his art here) and a damn good shmup.
“Shmup” is videogame jargon for “shoot ’em up,” a genre that got its start back in the 1980’s with games like Gradius and R-Type. These games ruled the roost at the arcade, and for good reason. They offered blistering action and identifiable patterns, while requiring pinpoint precision and deep pockets. To see these through to the end, you’d need all the quarters. If you were to be whisked away to a 1980s era arcade and stumbled upon Freedom Finger, the same would be true of it. This is a great thing. Thank the powers that be that it’s 2019! Instead of wasting all those quarters at the arcade, you can enjoy Freedom Finger at home on PC or Switch.
As a shmup, Freedom Finger does some creative things. Before we jump into the gameplay however, I need to mention the art style, music, and voice acting. The art is all hand drawn and animated. Its not dissimilar to Cuphead. Instead of 1930s era animation, Freedom Finger comfortably sits in the present. Its bright and colorful, while having a definite grittiness. Its a good looking game.
The art style is intricately tied to the music as well. Not only does each level get its own licensed track (from artists such as Com Truise, Metz, White Fence and Ty Segall, among others), but all animation, enemy patterns, and even bullets are orchestrated to fit the music. As a result, there’s a palpable quality to the music as you anticipate what comes next. It remained an interesting and impactful design choice from the first stage to the last. I can definitely see myself zoning out to the soundtrack and these levels after a long day.
The characters are voiced by some talented actors. Nolan North (Uncharted), John DiMaggio (Gears of War), Eric Bauza (TMNT), and Sam Reigel (Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney) bring a liveliness and audacity to their roles that’s great fun. You’ll be entertained from start to finish. The script is confident, punchy, and riotous, encompassing a war between the USA, Russia, and China. I won’t go into specifics to save the spoilers, but know that no topic is too sensitive to broach, or outright mock. A good bit of it is on the nose (like your ship, shaped like a fist with middle finger proudly extended), but is executed with confidence and gusto. If this sense of humor sounds at home for you, dive in. You will love it.
If this humor doesn’t sound like your thing, you can make your way to the “Options” menu, where you’ll find some nifty toggles for censoring the audio, subtitles, and even your ships middle finger. Turning this on and flying around with a giant censor bar emblazoned across my ship kept me laughing, but on a more encouraging note, it looks like Wide Right Interactive knows Freedom Finger could bother some people. The option to censor the more offensive parts of the game while keeping the core is a cool thing to see. I am in no way a fan of censorship, but when offered by the developer in an effort to make a game more accessible, I can’t help but applaud the effort. I think what they did is wise and will only open Freedom Finger up to a wider audience. When self-censoring is this easy, while retaining the core of the experience, I say its a win-win. The humor still shines through, maybe even more so with that censor bar over the middle finger!
A lot of that humor comes from your fist shaped ship, middle finger and all. The middle finger shoots lasers. The ship itself can punch enemies. The combat had me grinning far longer than I thought possible. But the most creative ability of the ship is the grab ability. Most things can be grabbed and thrown, but enemy ships, cannons, and a few other items can be grabbed and wielded as a power-up. These range dramatically and most levels have a number of ways to deal with any given obstacle. Some of the levels have one way that’s better than others, and it makes for a fun dash for the best power-up while you then cling to dear life till you really need it. There’s a good range of power-ups, but my personal favorite is a giant laser cannon that spans the screen. Any power up will slow your movement down a good bit, creating a nice risk/reward mechanic. Power-ups in Freedom Finger are handled with a loose grip, giving a new kind of creative space to the player.
There’s another interesting facet to the combat: the stealth bar. As the story goes, you are infiltrating behind enemy lines. There is a little meter indicating the amount of ships that have gotten past you. Letting too many get past will result in the enemy knowing of your whereabouts leading to a fail state. In addition to staying alive, you gotta figure out efficient ways to down most enemy ships you come across. In my experience, most of the systems are forgiving, but let that bar creep up too much and things can get tense quickly. The game does a superb job of easing you into all this. By the end of the campaign, the screen will be absolutely filled with enemies and figuring out how to not only avoid them but destroy them brought a pleasant tension to the combat. Its something I thought would be a gimmick when introduced, but turned out to be one of the more memorable elements of Freedom Finger. It gave real weight to the enemies and the challenge of dispatching them.
The campaign, spanning 37 levels, is well paced, balanced and brimming with energy. The way the story and levels were presented, I was ready for for a fairly linear journey, but found dialogue options that led to different stages. There isn’t a heavy focus on dialogue, but it did surprise, adding a little interactive wrinkle. I really enjoyed the branching paths, finding that I missed out on significant portions of both game play and story, giving me a reason to jump back in. After completing the campaign, a mission select feature opened up, presented as a map reminiscent of Star Fox, offering a quick way to do some clean up or revisit some favorite levels. The levels are a nice mix of different locals, offering stage specific challenges as well. Some of the latter levels particularly will challenge some of the most veteran shmup players. Its a rush that when paired with the incredible soundtrack, is a winning combo that kept me pressing “continue.”
This challenge is inherent in the genre, but can scare some players off, myself included. Shmups are all about difficulty, and developers and players alike pride themselves on making and playing tough as nails games. Freedom Finger has this, but is also generous, offering sliders for health, collision damage, whether you lose power-ups when hit, and more. Not only are these available but can be adjusted at any time. Including these will increase the reach of Freedom Finger substantially. When things get too heated to think straight, being able to adjust sliders, to either get past a difficult spot or practice a grueling segment with increased health, was a godsend. Wide Right Interactive knows how to handle difficulty. To see this from their first game, in a genre known for its hardcore base, is impressive.
Jim Dirschberger and his team at Wide Right Interactive, have given a vibrant and strong first outing in Freedom Finger. From its licensed music, to its hand drawn art, to its punchy wit, its a game worth your time. It starts off gentle but soon becomes a shmup worthy of the genre. If this genre scares you off, no worries. Its got something for you too, with its myriad of difficulty sliders and off-beat humor. As I played through Freedom Finger, I found not only a game with the confidence and skill to deliver, but a studio who wants as many people as possible to enjoy what they’ve created.