I’m easily pleased. Just adding a grappling hook to a game automatically increases its overall worth by 31%. So when I saw The Free Ones has leaping and grappling and swooping and jumping, I was in. Set in a world where a group of enslaved humans are escaping an unseen enemy, you are equipped with a special glove that allows you to latch on to any wooden object in the world and propel yourself toward it. Added with what appears to be a preternatural ability to leap huge distances and fall from any height, you’re immediately equipped to fling yourself around the pretty nighttime world, on a series of missions to make good your escape. Which all sounds splendid. It’s just, The Free Ones, by a whisker, just isn’t good enough. Well, it’s a bigger problem that that: it’s just not good enough by too many different whiskers.
It begins well. It understands how to deliver a moment. In introducing you to your grapple – that uniquely attaches to wood – it quickly trains you in running, grappling the few wooden beams available, then jumping as you’re dragged along to propel yourself great heights and distances. And smartly does this in restrictive caves, corridors and caverns, such that when you emerge into a beautiful valley it’s not the greenery and pretty birds that causes you to go, “Oooooh,” but rather the numerous wooden structures that festoon the environment. “Ooooooh! Playground!”
And once you’re out and about, grappling, jumping, diving and grappling again, you quickly gain a sense of freedom that’s really splendid. The issue The Free Ones has is never really being sure what to do with it once you do.
The game is at its best when it’s about picking your own route through its surprisingly large world (albeit always a single corridor), choosing which outcrop of wood, or which tree, or which platform, to attach to next, and then risking the leap to reach another before finding safe purchase on solid ground. Hit water at any point and it resets you to the last checkpoint, which – until the final stages of the game – are many and fairly placed. It allows you to be experimental, albeit never quite managing to feel like you’re overcoming difficulty. It feels good in these moments, the grapple feels freeing and useful, but it doesn’t feel tricky. These spaces make up about half of the overall game.
The other half are the sequences of meticulously timed jumps you must execute to get across a lengthy stretch of game, where routes are limited and failure means returning to the beginning of that run. And here the issues reverse. It feels pleasingly difficult, spoilt by the game’s execution of the grapple revealing its weaknesses. It just isn’t forgiving enough when used on the fly to gimme you a click when you’re a micrometre away from the pixel you were after, as you fly through the air at goodness knows what speed, aiming for a moving target. Nor is it nearly accurate enough, as clicks when the reticule indicates a connection can be made seeming to fail at all the most crucial moments, causing you to have to repeat a run far too many times when it really doesn’t feel like your responsibility.
This is all loosely draped in a story that feels incredibly dismissible. The notion is you’ve been trapped in some tunnels for many years, and on being set free find other escapees who want your help getting out of these valleys. To do so, you’ll need to reach the end of very long outdoor corridors filled with obstacles and platforms and tunnels and outcrops, each time ostensibly to flick a switch, or open a door, or similar, and then have a rather jolly ride all the way back along metal rails that you can’t help wonder if you could probably have used to get there in the first place.
The issue here is, while often presenting fun playgrounds in which to leap about, they are astoundingly repetitive. The second run has cargo trains running along elevated tracks, pulling wooden crates, and you can ride them until they reach tunnels or barriers, at which point you must leap off and negotiate your way onward. Again and again and again. It repeats this so, so often, sometimes almost identically, to the point where I would wonder if I’d accidentally looped around and repeated a section. (I hadn’t. But I could have, as it’s all too easy to get off the game’s intended path and leap over the sides of the game.)
I think, streamlined significantly, with the repetition removed, this could have been a really neat two-to-three hour game. Instead, with so much that feels like padding, it gives all the mistakes so much space to become a problem. It’s often a lot of fun to grapple and leap about in, but it’s always too quickly spoiled by something else.
The Free Ones is out July 12th, on Windows, Mac and Linux for for £11.39/$14.99/14.99€, via Steam