There's a prank I like that goes as follows: a team of performers go to a classy food fair and serve the taste-testing elite takeout from McDonald's cleverly disguised as fancy hors d'oeuvres. Cut into glamorous looking bite-sized appetizers and served on toothpicks, they suggest a far more refined experience than they actually provide. Everyone agrees that what they're being served is a cut above what it truly is. Omega Force's adaptation of the popular manga and anime series, Attack on Titan, is a lot like that.
The famous Dynasty Warriors developer's latest title, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, is extremely appealing in moderation. It looks great, feels great, and sounds great. One's initial couple of hours with the game is mesmerising in its presentation, controls, and sheer spectacle. Yet after a few hours it becomes clear that it's one of the most shallow and repetitive full-priced action games on the market today. It's both bollocks and brilliant.
For the uninitiated, Attack on Titan is a steampunk series about a world where mankind has been living in fear of giant, naked, seemingly braindead creatures called Titans. Where they come from and what they want is intentionally vague, adding a tantalising sense of mystery. Long story short, humans have erected a few colossal walls to shield themselves from these gargantuan predators. Of course, the walls get breached as the Titans have only grown bigger, stronger, and smarter over the years.
While the series is loved for its sharply drawn ensemble, memorable aesthetic, and elegant storytelling, there's one aspect above all that makes Attack on Titan a shoe-in for a video game adaptation: its peculiar combat system.
Yes, the source material has a "combat system" so excruciating detailed yet patently ridiculous that it almost seems like the franchise was designed with a video game treatment in mind.
Here's how it works: Titans only have one weak spot on the nape of their neck. Slicing off any other limbs - including the head - will result in them simply regenerating said body part after a minute or so. To combat this, various military groups use a woefully impractical, yet comically cool accessory merging grappling hooks and jet packs. Called the Omni-Directional Mobility Gear, this device essentially turns any would-be soldier into a sword-swinging Spider-Man.
This is where Omega Force absolutely nails the Attack on Titan license. Those peculiar peripherals make traversing Wings of Freedom's various battlegrounds an absolute dream. Slinging, boosting, and reeling about cities, forests and plains offers one of the most exhilarating expressions of movement the medium has manifested. It may sound simple, but merely traipsing about is a pleasure.
Things get even more cathartic once the Titan-slaying begins. To fell each colossal beast, you must latch onto the back of their neck, build momentum, then deliver the killing blow in one of the most viscerally satisfying attack animations in recent memory. Everything slows down, big bright numbers splatter on the screen in a whirlwind of blood, and the delicious term "Complete Subjugation" commemorates your accomplishment.
You don't have to go straight for the jugular though. There's incentive to lop off other limbs instead. Amputating arms prevents a Titan from grabbing you, while slicing them off at the knee brings them crawling for easier nape access. Severing limbs also results in material drops for crafting upgrades - like a more powerful sword, lengthier grappling line, or a higher fuel capacity.
It all feels amazing... to a point. The problem crops up early on when it becomes clear that Attack on Titan's combat system is extraordinarily elementary. Whatever benefit you receive from more powerful gear is negligible as Wings of Freedom is almost laughably unchallenging. Setting the game to the hardest difficulty mode initially available, I only succumbed to a game-over once - and this was only due to not understanding the mission objective. Usually I could even acquire the coveted S-rank with minimal effort.
As such, what begins as a breathtaking experience quickly declines into banal busywork. Swing towards the red dots on your mini-map, latch onto a Titan's nape, reel in, hit the attack button, rinse, repeat. It never gets more interesting than that and after awhile it recalls cleaning up a messy room as much as engaging in thrilling battle.
The ease of combat deemphasises the item and crafting systems as there's little reason to scavenge for specific materials when the base equipment does the job. The repetitive mechanics are further exacerbated by a series of over 60 optional Survey missions that offer little story progression and no unique objectives beyond slaying the horde. Unfortunately, if you want to enjoy the game's epilogue - which moves the game's plot into territory not yet covered by the show - you'll have to plow through these highly monotonous assignments.
At least you can play these side-missions in online co-op. This doesn't shake things up as much as one might hope since it's hard to stay close to your comrades. You'll likely split up and clear different parts of the map, which may be more efficient, but is hardly a game-changer. Disappointingly, there's no competitive mode or leaderboards to compete for best times or most kills - concepts that seem like a natural fit here.
Ultimately, Wings of Freedom's tiny toolkit never grows as robust as one would hope. Instead, it feels like an excellent first third of an action game stretched far too thin in hopes of supporting a lengthy umpteen-hour adventure.
And yet, Wings of Freedom remains intoxicating in brief sessions. After every hour or so of play I'd find the game boring, dull and tedious; yet every time I'd return, I'd find myself thoroughly enjoying it, in spite of knowing how hollow it is. It's the very definition of dumb fun. Wings of Freedom may be lacking in nutritional value, but sometimes you just want that cheap fast food burger. The fact that it's dolled up to look more dignified makes it far more palatable than it has any right to be.