Natsume, the company that's best known for producing role-playing games based on fishing and farming, has now produced an RPG with aerial dogfighting. You earn experience and money not by raising animals or catching fish, but by shooting down enemy aircraft and liberating occupied islands. That reward money can then be used to purchase better planes and to outfit each aircraft with a variety of weapons and upgrades. Unfortunately, some aspects of Freedom Wings feel underdeveloped or unpolished. The story is barely there, for instance, and the combat is simplistic and repetitive. Anyone looking for the next Final Fantasy or Ace Combat should probably look elsewhere. With that said, when you consider the overall game, it's a pleasant and quirky hybrid that people of the right mind-set will enjoy.
Just like any other role-playing game, Freedom Wings puts you in the role of a lone hero trying to rid the world of evildoers. In this case, the lone hero is an unnamed teenager who was separated from his parents as a young boy when the family's passenger plane was attacked by pirates. Our hero has joined the Air Patrol Association to bring air pirates, which now control the skies, to justice and in the hopes of one day finding out what happened to his parents. The plot is RPG cliché, and the structure and progression of the game aren't much different from what you would find in a traditional RPG either. You must wander from one town to the next, talk to people, engage in random battles, and fight powerful boss characters. The twist here is that the towns are airports, the people are pilots who hang out in cafes, and all of the battles are real-time dogfights played out in the skies. Experience and money are earned by fending off pirates and clearing the skies around airports, and these rewards function as you would expect them to, allowing you to buy new planes and outfit them with dozens of part upgrades and weapons.
The game's role-playing aspects are more focused on collecting and building planes than on advancing a meaningful story with developed characters. Much of the dialogue involves thankful pilots telling you where to go next or brash pirates challenging you to a showdown. Character development is nearly nonexistent, with the exception of Sebastian, a helpful mechanic who turns out to have an interesting past, and the eventual plot payoff involving the nameless hero and his parents. As it is, the translation from Japanese is riddled with spelling errors and grammar gaffes. Some role-players may also be disappointed that the main character doesn't turn into the typical RPG superhero as the game progresses. Gaining experience doesn't upgrade his skills or give him any new attacks. Instead, you become stronger by buying better airplanes and constantly upgrading them with meatier parts. That aspect is one of the game's high points. There are six different planes to unlock and dozens of parts to buy. New engines, armor, and wings influence a plane's fuel consumption, speed, and durability. Meanwhile, the succession of guns, bombs, and missiles lets you go from shooting down a pirate aircraft with a handful of bullets in multiple passes to downing them with one or two shots in a single run.
Up in the skies, Freedom Wings gives you the option of controlling the plane yourself or letting the CPU do all the work. Playing in artificial intelligence mode sucks all the fun out of the game, since all you have to do is tap targets on the touch screen and wait while the computer automatically shoots them down. Once you have a decent set of armor and weapons, you can literally let the game play itself. People who are more interested in the game's role-playing aspects may prefer AI mode, but real air combat aficionados will want to play in manual mode. Here, every aspect of the aircraft's handling is under your control, including throttle, steering, and weapons. It doesn't take long to get used to steering with the D pad, shooting with the buttons, and adjusting the throttle with the touch screen. You'll have to work harder to lead targets and stay behind enemies while playing on manual mode, but those uncertainties are exactly this mode is the best way to play. Most players will probably resort to a combination of both modes, such that they handle the aircraft in battle, while the CPU takes the stick when traveling the long distances between airports. Despite the simulation-like controls, the combat in Freedom Wings has more in common with an arcade game like Afterburner than a sim such as Ace Combat. Your plane won't stall if you fly straight up, for example, and you can bounce off the ground and water without incurring so much as a scratch. Even on manual mode, landing the aircraft is as simple as smacking into the airport's runway. Enemy AI is also rather rudimentary. The enemies are slow to react and, with the exception of battleships, can usually be destroyed before they fire a single shot.
Thanks to the dumb AI, most battles are predictable. For that reason, random dogfights and even some boss encounters turn repetitive in a hurry. They don't provide much challenge, so there isn't much reason to get excited over them. Skirmishes involving sea-based targets are more challenging, however, and more interesting, because they typically take multiple passes to destroy. The scripted escort missions handed out by people in the airport cafes also provide better thrills and more challenge than standard dogfights do, because in the escort missions, you're usually escorting a flimsy transport while dealing with multiple heavily armed bogies. If you kill time fighting random pirates, you'll definitely find the game more tedious than if you keep moving from airport to airport and make it a point to participate in escort missions. The game is at its best when you stick to the program, so to speak, even though doing so does significantly decrease how long it takes to finish the overall campaign. In all, there are seven airports to liberate and approximately two dozen side missions, which should take the average player about five hours to run through.
There's also a Wi-Fi mode with support for up to four players. As is the case in the regular game, dogfighting against your friends is much more enjoyable when the controls are set to manual mode. If everyone plays with the controls set to AI mode, the winner, without fail, is the person with the strongest plane or who fires the first missile. The nice thing about the game's Wi-Fi mode is that it requires only one game card. Players with their own copy of the game can use their own planes. Anyone who doesn't have a copy of the game is limited to using a duplicate of the host's plane. That's not a horrible limitation, especially considering that all of the other graphics and audio, as well as the entire gameworld, are sent to the receiving system's memory in just a few seconds.
The game generally manages to put the DS's hardware to good use depicting the sights and sounds that people expect from a 3D air combat game. The graphics engine keeps a healthy portion of the scenery in view at all times and has no problem handling a half-dozen bogies at once. Most players will be happy sticking with the default behind-the-aircraft viewpoint, although you can toggle between three other chase cams if need be. The terrain looks blocky and ugly at low altitudes, but the various islands and cities come across as picturesque at cruising altitude. Similarly, enemy planes and battleships are rather plain and appear as jagged blobs until they're within gun range. Once they're closer, though, you can make out details like insignias, cockpits, and gun ports. Player aircraft flex a higher polygon count and show significantly more detail than pirate aircraft. Fans of World War I and World War II planes will appreciate the retro style of the game's aircraft designs. As for the audio, there's a healthy variety of different engine and gun noises, and they all sound sufficiently realistic. The same two music tracks play constantly--one for standard flight and another for boss encounters--but they fit the action and aren't obnoxious. Overall, the graphics and audio are roughly on par with similar games produced for the original Sony PlayStation console, which is right in line with what the Nintendo DS is capable of.
Though it covers a very different type of subject than Natsume's popular Harvest Moon series, the games still have a lot in common. It's low on flash, it's clunky in spots, and it doesn't quite live up to its potential, but it also brings together two divergent genres in such a way that's bound to please a certain segment of the population.