Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, the first expansion episode for Ubisoft’s pirate adventure, tells the story of Adéwalé, previously Edward Kenway’s Quarter Master and now Captain of his own ship. Though a recent convert to the Assassin brotherhood, Adéwalé must face a different threat to the one posed by the insidious Templars. Freedom Cry opens by throwing you into the middle of a naval fire-fight and you soon find yourself re-treading the core mechanics and gameplay of Black Flag. However, the buccaneering world of the West Indies is very different to the one you may remember as Edward Kenway; Adéwalé must traverse a society that has branded him, and his people, as nothing more than slaves and animals.
This gives the game an altogether darker dimension than its predecessor, with the new environment of Port-au-Prince teeming with danger, suffering and misery. In contrast to previous Assassin Creed games, you are never truly ‘incognito’ – jailers stalk the island, believing you to be an escaped slave because of your black skin, and shops for equipment, ammo and upgrades now take the form of slaves hiding inconspicuously in the shadows to sell their wares. Even when you rid a plantation of its overseers and free all the slaves, the land only remains abandoned for a short period of time before a new white governor takes over and starts the whole cycle again – a stark contrast indeed to the heroic capture and hold of fortresses in Black Flag. It feels like an entirely hopeless situation. Which of course, it was.
But hope shines in this stark setting through the character of Adéwalé, who is the first in a long time in this series to cause me to care about the narrative. Though his inexplicable conversion to the Creed seems rather perplexing, his driving desire to see a revolutionary uprising of enslaved innocents was infectious, and pushed me to complete side-missions frequently in order to rescue others. This was enhanced by the brutal aesthetics of Adéwalé’s primary weapon, the machete, and the satisfying effects of the Blunderbuss – a short-ranged musket that decimates multiple enemies with one blast. Time and time again I found myself jumping into battle, not just to enjoy ripping cruel adversaries to shreds but to free a family, stop a beating, or liberate a runner.
Unfortunately, the in-game rewards for rescuing slaves were pretty superficial. They mostly consisted of unlocking bigger pouches for ammunition for the same two weapons. You’re also promised that recruiting Maroons will help to build a loyal warrior force, but rather than climaxing into an epic battle for control of the island, they merely manifested in small groups of fighters you could call to help you overwhelm guards while completing repetitive missions.
This system is ultimately reflective of one of the biggest failings of Freedom Cry. It feels limiting and underdeveloped. Black Flag breathed life back into the series by allowing expansive open-world exploration, whereas this game falls back into the trap of monotonous eavesdropping and tailing missions which are confined to a tiny map with about four islands to explore – if you make the effort to leave the main story-line. Now, as DLC, this could be justifiable, until you realise that the narrative is seriously under-developed, too. Adéwalé just doesn’t seem to have had the same attention paid to him as previous heroes of the franchise. According to the small insight the game allows, Adéwalé temporarily disregards his duty to the Assassin’s brotherhood to free slaves, compelled only as a fellow black brother and the hint that he was a past slave.
Now, don’t get me wrong – these are very good reasons to help your fellow man, but they were reasons unsupported by any kind of background. The release trailer for the game depicts a fascinating glimpse of his life before his adventures as Pirate and Assassin, yet this is literally omitted from Freedom Cry (which is particularly interesting to note when you remember that nearly all of Assassin’s Creed’s protagonists have distinctive back-stories which define their purpose and motivations). As a result, I was left desperately wanting to know more about this man and his desires. This is only exacerbated by an awful first for the series – there were no interspersed episodes in the modern day. No waking up from the Animus. No tantalising hints at the oncoming destruction of an ancient civilisation.
Though for many this may be a welcome break, the framed narrative has always been what I loved about Assassin’s Creed. It gives the story a bigger context – it makes the stakes so much higher. For poor Adéwalé, there is nothing to place him in this wider narrative, nothing to give him ultimate significance in the endless battle between Assassins and Templars. I’m not saying I was expecting a dramatic game-changer – I’m still annoyed about booting up ACIII to find one of the main characters had died in Revelations – it would just be nice to see some character development. Something that moves the franchise’s narrative forward (like, who is this mysterious dude/dudette who is currently working at Abstergo Entertainment?)
However, in the short space of time I was able to step into Adéwalé’s boots and sail the high seas (about six hours, if you’re wondering), and in spite of the shallow content and mundane missions, Freedom Cry achieved an emotional maturity unlike anything I’ve seen in a game for some time. A truly horrifying era in black history was handled with incredible sensitivity, and there were some scenes that will stay with me for a long time – one mission climaxed with Adéwalé trapped in a sinking ship, trying desperately to free wailing men and women from chains, burning wood and rising water, before frantically having to escape himself. The heart-rending impact of moments like these were also aided by an impressive soundtrack, with new orchestral set-pieces that develop the original themes of Black Flag, in addition to haunting Haitian folk songs that ring across key points in the narrative.
So though it doesn’t feel like it’s had the same devotion as other stand-alone spin-offs, such as the sequels to Assassin’s Creed II, Freedom Cry is certainly worth playing for an alternative perspective to Kenway’s booty-grabbing adventures. Just be wary that it may leave you wishing for more.