After the release of last year’s Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Ubisoft did something a little different for the game’s post-release DLC, offering up a new campaign and swapping out Edward Kenway for former-slave-turned-pirate, Adéwalé.
Freedom Cry deals with slavery in both a thematic and mechanical way, but while developer Ubisoft Montreal could so easily have fallen into the trap of making Freedom Cry feel exploitative and insensitive, instead it’s been sensitively handled and ends up being one of the better post-release DLC campaigns the publisher has released in quite some time – and not just for Assassin’s Creed, but for any of their games. But by marrying its theme with the traditional gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed series, it also manages to create a disconnect between the narrative and the on-screen action which feels jarring.
What makes Freedom Cry so memorable is the main character himself. Adéwalé is a more principled man than his former captain Edward Kenway; rather than fighting for booze, gold, women and everything inbetween, Adéwalé fights for the liberation of his people. As a former slave, his motivations are clear – rescue from bondage the men and women who suffer as he once did, so that they can be given a choice, a chance, at freedom.
But his methods, especially the way he wields his weaponry, may betray that genuine sense of goodness. For an Assassin, Adéwalé makes a footprint roughly the size of a Yeti, leaving many dead in his wake. Despite his chosen profession, and his goals of helping the Maroons rebel against their harsh overlords, Adéwalé‘s sojourn through the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince – or at least my unwieldy controlling of him – was marked by destruction, of both slave and master.
After liberating the Maroon resistance group from an influx of enemies, the leader of the group gifts Adéwalé with a stolen blunderbuss, perhaps the least subtle of ranged weaponry. While Assassin’s Creed 4: Freedom Cry is mostly a close quarters affair, the basic structure boils down to a series of rescue missions, and Adéwalé, with blunderbuss and machete in hand, is at the forefront of this.
Unlike Edward, who is motivated and propelled only by gold and conquest, Adéwalé unlocks better weaponry and skills via the liberation of slaves. He can rescue these slaves from a variety of situations, increasing his standing and access to the Maroon community. But the scenario that gives Adéwalé the greatest gains – at least as far as ones that are scattered throughout Port-au-Prince – is the slave auction.
For anyone remotely familiar with the unseemly and regrettable history of the Transatlantic slave trade, you likely know what’s going on here. Roughly half a dozen virile men are on sale, with several overseers badgering out prices to the growing crowd. Almost without incident, Adéwalé takes the stage, blocking the view of the slaves from the crowd, directly confronting the overseers. They offer Adéwalé 500 gold pieces for the lot of them, a paltry sum compared to the vast riches surrounding Port-au-Prince. But Adéwalé – or at least my version of him – would never buy the freedom of a group of slaves. He would earn it. Through bloodshed.
Reaching for his blunderbuss, Adéwalé eyes the overseers as they approach him suspiciously, weapons drawn. Without a word Adéwalé lets off a blast from his blunderbuss, a deafening cry that ends lives. But not for the lives he intended. Sloppily, the blunderbuss’ scatter shot, that could hit the broadside of a barn even when aiming away from it, manages to rip through overseer and slave alike. All die – both tyranny and freedom cut short by the least appropriate weapon for human liberation. Adéwalé says nothing, moving on the next scenario to liberate some slaves – but I, divorced from the character, stop to think.
Were those casualties appropriate? Adéwalé, the principled man is completely divorced from the video game avatar. More so than a Grand Theft Auto character going on a rampage, Adéwalé is not the type of man who would violate his stance. In fact, his actions actively undermine the narrative of liberation. Should he be wielding blunderbuss, machete and firecracker, if his methods are so deadly that they can easily end the lives of slave and master alike?
Of course, Adéwalé has no answers, no thoughts on the matter. He is only a projection of the struggle for freedom, the struggle against tyranny. When Adéwalé later raids slave plantations, his bluntness in attack can lead to over half the plantation workers being massacred. Of course, this is realistic in a sense. Slave NPC’s, like any other, can be killed. But for the death to come at the hand of Adéwalé, or as a consequence of his actions, it all seems a bit wrong.
A principled man can take a strong stance against the murder of his brethren. But if through his own misgivings, his own approach, he allows for death to take place where it would not have otherwise – is he really as principled as he believes?
Assassin’s Creed 4: Freedom Cry, is, of course, not really interested in answering such a complex conundrum; instead, the narrative and action actively undermine one another. Yet it allows for Adéwalé to act on his own accord, even if he inadvertently murders some of his brethren by mistake. I’m not sure what that means, or if it even means anything. But Adéwalé’s – and by extension my sense of wanton entitlement – did make me think: Was it just an honest mistake? Or in the case of liberation – do the ends justify the means? It’s a question that defines, purposefully or not, the entirety of Freedom Cry.