Justice Playthrough #95: Cycle 28

On the one hand, it’s easier than I’d like to come up with a bunch of reasons why this is not the best possible version of this game.

On the other, the version of this game that actually exists is pretty fuckin’ dope and is the most satisfying action shooter I’ve yet encountered in this playthrough.

Page 11, Game 3: Cycle 28 by Pill Bug Interactive

It’s Groundhog Day! But in space, with laser cannons.

Your ship is alone, and facing steadily increasing waves of enemies who would like you to die now, please and thank you. Your in-game character is actually aware of this situation, and would like to figure out WTF is going on so they can escape their explosion-laden time loop.

This is the first fight, so apparently, ya girl has been doing this for a while before you even showed up

You have the Asteroids control panel, with your key moves being rotate, thrust, and shoot. The physics are Newtonian, but with a speed limit; you can only get yourself moving so fast. Also, your guns have non-trivial recoil, so you can use them as reverse thrusters. You have a lot of space to work with, more than can fit on one screen, but it’s not infinite.

Enemies start relatively small, but get bigger quickly. Before long, sniping at a couple of corvettes not much larger than you turns into exchanging torrents of gunfire with carriers and battleships and big freakin’ THINGS that are going to try and ram you into oblivion.

IT’S ON MOTHERFUCKERS

Your ship can take a beating, but your hit points are finite. When you notice you’re in trouble, try and get yourself out of the fight; your ship will regenerate as long as you’re not shooting your guns. Then once you’re no longer trailing smoke, get your ass back in there.

What Cycle 28 Gets Wrong:

  • The game is remarkably stingy about teaching itself, and you have to rely exclusively on trial and error. That thing about being able to regenerate when you’re not shooting? Had to figure that one out myself. Also, some things you can fly through, others will damage you should you collide. The enemy ships you CAN’T fly through all appear to have bright colors, but you can’t use that as your only visual indicator of danger, because they also leave bright glowy exhaust plumes behind them, and those appear to always be harmless. Honestly, there’s just a lot of visual clutter in general, including some background stars that it took me a hot minute to realize I could simply ignore.
  • There’s also a score multiplier that I’m pretty sure increments itself after you kill X number of enemies, but then resets itself back to x1 when you take a hit. In practice, the only real way to move that particular needle is to find a carrier and hose-down the fighters erupting from it. If you’re really keeping an eye on your score, you have to find one of them to fill your murder-tank back up before you go big game hunting, which was weird to me.
  • You steadily spawn drones/fighters, which are weirdly inconsequential. Hell, took me a while to figure out that you just automatically pop them out at regular intervals, and that they’re not generated in response to a button press. I liked having the little guys around, I suppose, but there was nothing I could do to control or influence them, so they were more an inconsequential background thing than something I could gear my fighting strategy towards. They seem to die pretty quickly once the fights get REALLY bonkers, and frankly that’s when I’m most in need of the help.
  • The viewable window is zoomed in much too tightly, and tends to keep focus BEHIND the direction of travel. When I’m turned around and spraying foes with endless torrents of laser blasts, this works! When I’m zooming along, it means I can’t really see what’s in front of me. That’s not cool. I wanted to see a LOT more of the battlespace than I actually could.
  • I honestly have no idea how to advance the story. I found a thing, but my only way of interacting with it — shooting it — seemed to do nothing. There was a “boss monster” that occasionally popped up, but by that point the battleground was such a shitstorm that I couldn’t really deal with it.

What Cycle 28 Gets Right:

  • Being FUKKIN AWESOME.

The frustrations I had with this game are real, and will likely keep my from coming back to it. But I played the absolute HELL out of this game, and would probably keep playing it some more if I weren’t so curious to see what else the Justice Bundle has to offer.

Zooming in, blasting away, and trying to evade fighter swarms as my ship repaired itself was just plain FUN. The “Oh shit!” moment of realizing another swarm of enemy ships had cut off my escape route made for some fantastic ducking and weaving as I tried to find a NEW path to safety.

Combat is kinetic and satisfying. I kept feeling like a nimble, deadly bad-ass, right up to the point where I asploded — and I had to force myself to NOT dive back in for Just One More Game when it was time to go to bed or write this review.

That’s how I know a game really has its hooks in me. When I’m talking myself into playing it Just One More Time in lieu of getting some sleep … well, fuck it, being tired sounds like Tomorrow Pete’s problem. LET’S GO WRECK SOME SHIT.

The soundtrack kills it too, a classy synth score that did a great job of steadily escalating the tension until it became appropriate for the spectacular life-or-death hellstorms I kept finding myself in.

I wanted this game to be more than it was; I wanted it to be a little more willing to teach itself to me, I wanted to be able to zoom-out my view of the battlefield particularly once things started getting really bananas, I wanted a better sense of how I could engage with the story it was trying to tell. But even without all that, I still had a blast playing it, and am very glad to have found it.

Definitely recommended.

Okay, what wacky time loop is THIS game going to lock me into?

Page 15, Game 27: black mass by will jobst

“a game about seeking and finding in the woods of Salem”

So, gonna be either worshiping dark powers, or observing the horror of weaponized misogyny. I’m anticipating a “Play with the lights out” kinda experience either way.

Justice Playthrough #94: Brick Breaker Remix

Hey, this looks familiar.

Page 47, Game 19: Brick Breaker Remix by whilefun

Arkanoid-alike. You know the drill; ball goes up, ball hits a brick or two (hopefully), ball comes back down, get your paddle under it and bounce it back up there again. Occasionally, it’ll knock loose a power-up that you may catch. Knock out all the bricks, move on to the next level.

Getcha bounce on

I’ve played this game, plenty of times. Balance feels a bit wonky; the ball moves too slowly for my liking, and the paddle moves too fast (even on its slowest setting). But, what the heck, plenty of games take old ideas and spruce ’em up with new elements. So, what new ideas is Brick Breaker Remix bringing to the party?

Up next:

Page 11, Game 3: Cycle 28 by Pill Bug Interactive

“A fast-paced space shooter with screen-shaking explosions and a mystery at its heart.”

Aw, yeah. Shake my screen, baby.

Justice Playthrough #93: Scratch’s Sc0re: Hellish Descent

Okay, so this isn’t playable.

Page 54, Game 19: Scratch’s Sc0re: Hellish Descent by NinjaHELL! Productions

Ah, it’s a print-n-play! I used to do a little vlog on those. I’m down for it — if the game looks good enough.

Where are the instructions? Checking the main page … ah, it’s a print-n-play SUPPLEMENT. Okay. Surprised there isn’t an instructions page, but I’m guessing that’ll be obvious if I knew the rules to the base game. Do I have the base game as part of this bundle?

I can’t tell such things from going to the game’s page, I’d have to download it through the bundle … ah, there it is, on page 49. Right, download that guy, and … still no instructions.

Ahem.

All right, go to the game’s page … is that an instructions PDF? I think it might be. And … it’s 32 pages?!

Sorry, game, but you are making me work WAAAAY too hard to tell if I’m even curious enough to play you.

Next.

Page 47, Game 19: Brick Breaker Remix by whilefun

“A remix of the classic game you know and love”

Ooh. Yeah, let’s break some bricks, yo.

Justice Playthrough #92: By Your Side

It’s an indie project donated to charity, Pete. Deep breaths.

Page 31, Game 25: By Your Side by Takafumi

This is a game I could go absolutely HAM on, but that would be douchey. So, let’s keep this relatively simple and not dickish:

This is a relationship sim that is simultaneously dull and cluttered. There are a lot of ideas here, but most of them aren’t developed well enough to matter.

So, you’re a young woman, with the ability to see fairies.

‘Sup

You saved this particular fairly from dehydration. In thanks, she did a little fairy magic, such that whenever you take a picture of somebody, you’ll be able to see whether or not they’re your soulmate. For some reason, you think this is a curse, and swear off taking pictures of anybody ever. However, you do love taking pictures, with a camera from the future. Sometimes you can get technology from the future in this world — it just kind of happens.

All of this is incidental.

The actual visual-novel-style gameplay revolves around your relationship with your girlfriend (whose presence in your life might have something to do with fairy magic, or not), and this is where the game really exhausted my patience. In the morning, you can talk to your girlfriend, or you can do some gardening. The conversations exhaust themselves quickly, and become repetitive. Then, you go to work, taking photographs. Your boss will ask for a photograph of something, and you have to guess which section of the city you can find it in.

Sometimes he asks you to find a river

Then, you get home. You can talk — again, these become repetitive quickly.

At home, you can dress-up your girlfriend. You can also buy clothes for your girlfriend during the day, and you’ll be rewarded with clothes as a reward for the plot moving forward.

Also, the game keeps track of relationship stats:

Loveometer at 116 — that’s good, right?

The hearts go up every time you talk, even if it winds up being the same conversation you’ve already had and you just fast-forward through it. Energy stayed at 2 the entire game. I have no idea what that means.

Every once in a while, something different will happen. This will either fill in some history on your relationship, or it will be a slightly different conversation.

It’s all just … dull. None of the conversations are particularly interesting, the relationship isn’t terribly interesting. I had a bunch of jokes queued-up to really hammer that point home, but really, trying to avoid being a bag of dicks here. I stuck through it for 40 in-game days, and while the game dropped HINTS that something might happen, nothing actually did. I feel like an hour of gameplay was more than enough time to give it a chance to go somewhere.

Not recommended, obviously. Though I do wish the dev well; this game doesn’t work, but hopefully they learned some stuff they can take forward to the next project.

Maybe this next one will be more my speed:

Page 54, Game 19: Scratch’s Sc0re: Hellish Descent by NinjaHELL! Productions

“More Damned Cards for Old Scratch’s Favorite Game”

I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this. Let’s check it out.

Justice Playthrough #91: The Guilt and the Shadow

A darkly beautiful game of exploration and madness, I could recommend this game entirely on the basis of its look and its mood. Unfortunately, I kind of have to.

Page 15, Game 28: The Guilt and the Shadow by oophok

You are a deeply troubled man. Something terrible and tragic has befallen you; based on the fact that you have some prescribed meds, you might even have some mental illness thrown in just for good measure. You are trapped in the labyrinth of your own mind, desperately trying to process what has happened. This takes the form of exploring a series of platforms and solving the puzzles within.

The game looks and sounds fantastic. Your avatar is a perfectly-animated 3D model, while the rest of the backgrounds are a consistent crude-but-creepy style, everything in black and white.

Pretty sure I’m being watched. Possibly by myself.

You’ll explore, you’ll interact. You’ll find things that will help you move forward.

THE CHICKEN FLUTE OF DESTINY

What may be harder to figure out is … why.

Each stage represents … something. Something related to whatever trauma it is you’re struggling to process. There are words, there are images. There was a boat. There was a woman, there was a child. Perhaps it was your fault. Between stages, there will be an interstitial in the “real world,” as represented by your depressing-ass room. You’ll get some more information, but it’s not as helpful as one might hope.

What happened? What does it all mean?

I played the game to completion, and I honestly couldn’t tell you with any degree of confidence.

Whatever this is, it is not the teddybears’ picnic

That confusion, unfortunately, extends to the gameplay itself. Why am I pushing this slab around? Well, because it’s pushable, and presumably, where I push it is where it needs to be.

I can’t get to that ladder, because there are eyes and chains and shit blocking it. How do I get rid of that blockade? No idea … oh, look, I picked up a thing, now the blockade is gone. Sweet. That’s definitely progress.

This gets better as the game progresses, mostly. There’s still a fair amount of do-it-cuz-I-can up until the end, but actual logic puzzles start showing up, forcing me to, like, think and shit. That magic chicken flute I picked up can play songs, as long as I’m in front of mechanized chicken statues.

Ba-bawk-bawk-bawk, motherfuckers

If you play a song the statue doesn’t care about, it will ignore you. If you play a song it responds to, it will respond with a TERRIFYING YOWL SUITABLE FOR LETTING THE CITIZENS OF TOKYO KNOW THEY SHOULD SEEK SHELTER BECAUSE GODZILLA APPROACHES and also change the state of the game in some way.

Unfortunately, the underlying story remained deliberately obtuse until the very end. I appreciate that it wants me to engage with the symbolism and such, but … look, I’m kind of a basic bitch. At some point, I need some shit spelled out for me. What the hell HAPPENED? Was the woman my wife, my mother? Was the kid my son?

I just don’t know. I even got all the way to the very end (where I’m pretty sure my reward was the sweet release of death), and I still don’t know.

It’s safe to say this game offered me more in the journey than it did the destination, but I gotta say, it was a pretty solid journey. The story’s impenetrable, the gameplay is fine but nothing special, but good god DAMN does this game set a mood. The opening credits recommend you play with headphones on and in a darkened room, and … yeah, I actually kinda regret that I didn’t wait until the sun was down to play it.

It’s creepy, it’s eerie, it’s darkly beautiful. I don’t know that I’d call it a horror game, but it ain’t fuckin’ Mario, either. I’d have liked it better if I understood more of WTF was happening and why, but I was ultimately glad to have played it all the way through to the end. If you feel like playing something suitable for a dark room, I can definitely recommend it.

Perhaps this one will be a bit more accessible:

Page 31, Game 25: By Your Side by Takafumi

“Live a daily life of love!”

I’m already concerned there may be some translation issues. What the hell, let’s find out!

Justice Playthrough #90: Headliner: NoviNews

Give it credit, this game executes its underlying concept about as perfectly as you could hope for. I just wish that underlying concept weren’t so thoroughly defined by such bone-deep cynicism.

Also, there’s a subplot that’s aged … badly. Very, very, very badly.

Page 10, Game 7: Headliner: NoviNews by Unbound Creations

You’re the latest employee for NoviNews, the most important news organization in the country of Novistan. You’re in charge of selecting which articles get run; kind of intense for an entry-level position, but what the hell, gotta start somewhere.

Meet Jack Lumberman, who will determine what the nation thinks

After a hard day of saying “Yes” or “No” to the articles that come across your desk, it’s time to walk home. You’ll chat with folks — co-workers, shopkeepers, random citizens, your brother. You’ll see how the news you chose to promote is affecting the world around you. And your choices will affect it — dramatically.

The game looks fantastic. Core gameplay is a very slick visual novel, but the connecting interstitials are a playfully animated side-scroller that give a wonderful sense of context and place to the world. The conversations you can have feel meaningful and satisfying; it really feels like you’re choosing to develop and nurture relationships with other people. There’s a lot here to like.

But there’s just as much to take issue with.

This is a game with a thesis, and that thesis is that the media influences reality. It’s a highly defensible thesis, and one well worth exploring. But the way the game chooses to explore it is not that the media is TEMPTED to bias; it’s that the media HAS NO CHOICE but to be biased.

At one point, a random passer-by in the street accused us of running nothing but thinly disguised opinion pieces, and … yeah. Often as not, that was literally all that came across my desk. In Headliner, you can be Fox News, or you can be Daily Kos. Stuff that seems like actual researched NEWS was few and far between.

So when our nation’s decidedly fascistic leader started talking smack about those filthy filthy furriners, my choice was to either run his comments with our implicit approval, or … not run them. I was never presented with the option of running his commentary as news (because if the leader is saying that shit, it IS legitimately news) but also fact-checking his obvious xenophobia. Is there any EVIDENCE that the furriners are up to the nefarious shit he says they are? Seems like a relevant thing to report on one way or the other, dontcha think?

So, yeah, under my bottom-up stewardship, NoviNews WAS decidedly anti-government. It was either that or be a willing propaganda arm. Even attempting balance was not presented as an option. Fox News or Daily Kos. No in-between.

This had consequences, as one would hope for a game. At one point, my brother was thrown in jail for talking smack about the government during his open mic set. My reporter friend wrote that up as a story, of course, which further battered our relationship with an overreaching government.

Later, my boss at the news agency was led away in cuffs for spreading sedition. I was unable to bail my brother out of jail, and he simply … disappeared. One would think that this would lead to me having the options of putting both deeply disturbing developments in the news. One would be wrong.

There’s also the game’s take on healthcare, which I found quite grating.

MEGANOPE

The game wants to present all choices as having consequences, good and bad, and the health care issue is no different. In this instance, the co-worker you can choose to pursue a romance option with has a worsening pre-existing condition, one that could prove debilitating or even fatal if left untreated. Treating it will require medication that isn’t cheap. So naturally, pursuing the nationalized healthcare option will … cause her to get sick and (possibly — it’s implied but not stated) die.

WTF?!

The way this plays out reads like pure “SOSHULIZED MEDCINE!!!!!” scaremongering. I did not care for it, at all.

The biggest issue was that she was unable to get the care she needed, because opening the system to all caused it to be overwhelmed … thanks to the ongoing pandemic.

Remember how I said there was a subplot that aged badly?

Yup, this is a thing

There’s a pandemic raging through Novistan. Opening healthcare to all causes the system to be overwhelmed by people who would like to stop falling ill and not be barfing in the streets. This is presented as a failing of socialized healthcare.

As I’m writing this, it is late in July, 2020. I live in the United States. It has been over four months since I spent any time socializing face-to-face with someone who is not either my wife or her boyfriend. The economy is in dreadful shape. My homeland has responded to this crisis in the most inept, half-assed way possible. While other countries across the world are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy, my own country is currently locked in a debate about how many dead children and teachers we’re prepared to accept if the schools reopen.

This is a direct consequence of how intensely this pandemic has been politicized here. Pretending that it’s all a hoax, that it’s no big deal, that no precautions are necessary has become a point of motherfucking PRIDE for a disquieting percentage of the population. They’re not a majority, but they’re enough to keep the fire burning, to keep us isolated in our own fucking houses indefinitely. It’s an impossibly childish reaction — one that has been actively encouraged by right-wing politicians and their enablers in the right-wing media.

This game was released in 2018. The developers had no way of knowing that, two years later, their audience would be painfully, intimately familiar with how a country might respond to a lethal pandemic. They had no way of knowing how badly their take on it would miss the mark.

The pandemic is a remarkable non-entity on the news desk. There’s occasional shit about the Great Leader blaming it on the foreigners, but there’s no fucking INFORMATION to distribute. No expert pieces from the doctors trying to keep everybody alive, no information on how to effectively protect yourself or your family.

There are, however, plenty of Ominous Hints that it is all a big government conspiracy. That it was engineered and released by the government as a mechanism for controlling the people.

This is the attitude I keep seeing in real life on Facebook. This is the attitude that is crippling my country. This is the attitude that is going to further wreck the economy and devastate any business without the cash reserves to ride out the storm.

This attitude — that it’s all a big orchestrated conspiracy — is literally killing people.

The devs wrote this game in 2018. They had no way of knowing what the world would be like a mere two years later.

Nevertheless. If anybody who worked on this aspect of the game’s story somehow finds their way to this blog, from the bottom of my heart:

Go fuck yourselves.

And fuck your implication that pandemic victims flooding the health care system somehow represents a failure of making that care available to them. I would have liked to run an article about how fewer people are puking to death on the streets. I would liked to have used my power to put pressure on the government to allocate more resources to the healthcare system in general and fighting the pandemic in particular.

I would like to have treated the in-game pandemic as something other than either a background nuisance that will surely go away if I just ignore it hard enough, or as fodder for conspiracy theories that I’d only promote if I were explicitly trying to hurt the government.

Frankly, that’s what most of your choices feel like: choose an agenda, then select the stories that advance it. Are they TRUE? Eh, it’s not like you have any way of knowing, bloody little actual information crosses your desk. I have no doubt that attitude drives a lot of real-life news coverage, but the game’s failure to provide any other option feels so deeply cynical that it further soured my opinion of it.

I was not TEMPTED to become a partisan player — I was FORCED to. There’s a difference.

The great failure of this game is that, by trying to back you into a series of corners where you HAVE to take a side, it denies you the opportunity to feel like you’re guiding an actual legitimate news outlet. Instead, it feels like being a lazy news junkie with a popular Twitter feed. You may retweet or ignore whatever you see other people post. Going out and getting more information, BETTER information, simply isn’t an option. Retweet or ignore. That’s all you have. That’s the game.

I did have an adorable doggo, though. At one point, when a bunch of hijacked drones crashed into buildings on my block and set them on fire, I dashed into my apartment to make sure my beloved Newshound got out of there all right. The game, however, decided that having buildings adjacent to mine on-fire was not a threat worth worrying about, so I just gave him his nightly ear scritchies and went to sleep.

Who’s a good buddy for the ongoing collapse of civilization? You are! You are!

Also, there were literal fat stacks of cash scattered around my apartment, which accumulated as the game went on. There was no way to spend them — but there were several things I would liked very much to have spent them on. I have no idea what satirical point the game was trying to make with this, but whatever it was, it missed.

Stacking those Franklins, but purely for decorative purposes

Clearly, this game pissed me off. There’s something deeply ironic about a game that, in trying to explore how the media has an agenda, winds up promoting unstated agendas of its own. But, shit, there’s a lot to like here. It looks great. Its plot elements were extremely hit or miss, but some of them did hit.

Am I ultimately glad that my script put this one on my plate? I … guess I am, kinda. It did offer up some stuff to think about, even if more of that was “Holy SHIT did the game fuck this up!” than the developers probably intended.

Recommended. Tentatively. With a whole lot of reservations. But recommended nevertheless.

What agenda will this next game promote?

Page 15, Game 28: The Guilt and the Shadow by oophok

“A short story exploration puzzle platformer inspired by the old point and click games.”

Lots of elements than could work. But please, no slideyboy picture puzzles.

Justice Playthrough #89: Grime & Gaslight

Let’s play hide & seek!

Page 33, Game 21: Grime & Gaslight by Nekros Arts

Bless the crosses before the monster murders you.

That’s it.

There’s a needlessly convoluted backstory; those wacky Satanists have taken over a town and summoned a nice murderous demon, I guess for the lulz. You’re a priest and you’re here to….

I’m not sure, actually. For all the words in the backstory, it’s remarkably short on motivation. “Bless all 12 holy crosses scattered throughout the town, and the demon will be sent back to hell.” Boom. Motivation. Fixed it. Just pretend it’s that.

The game takes a bit of getting used to. The engine it’s based on is clearly meant for an FPS, but it isn’t one. This is survival horror; there’s a monster running around out there, and if he gets you, game over.

Ah, this fucker

You have four vials of holy water that you’re going to be using to bless those crosses. You can throw one of them at the demon, but that’s stupid. Both the “bless” and “chuck” actions involve holding down the mouse button, and if you see this fucker bearing down on you, you do NOT have time for that cycle to complete. The game suggests that splashing it with holy water only stuns it for a moment anyway. And besides, if you throw a vial, now you’re down to three vials! Screw that!

There are only three things in the environment that matter: the monster, the crosses you need to activate, and the fonts of holy water you use to refill your vials. Everything else is just an obstacle, and cannot be interacted with.

The game tells you to pay careful attention to the sounds you hear, presumably because they’re important. Most of them are not. Grime & Gaslight is here to deliver jump scares, and surprise noises are one of its go-to tricks. I saw this coffin:

Ominous

Moments later, I heard a loud creaking noise from behind me. Oh, no! Something nasty was coming out of the coffin to come after me! Right?

I turned around.

Nope

Coffin was unchanged. Coffin is just decoration. It’s all just decoration, really.

Now, the running noises? The growling noises? Those are the noises you care about. Those are your cue to run for it.

Once you accept how dirt simple this game really is, it’s fine. Run around, find the crosses, bless the crosses, do it before the monster kills you.

It feels like there ought to be a stealth element here, but nah. Just leg it. That’s really your only trick.

This has the feel of a decent B-movie. It’s ultra low-budget, clearly, and raw as fuck in a lot of ways, but if you can get on it’s wavelength, there’s something to enjoy here.

It’s not for me; I prefer a little more meat on the bones than this, and got bored of the game fairly quickly. But I could see someone having fun approaching this as a puzzle to be solved. If getting chased around by a monster sounds like fun, give it a look.

What game will I run into the arms of next? C’mon, Random Number Generator. It’s been a while since you gave me one I really enjoyed. Hook a reviewer up here.

Page 10, Game 7: Headliner: NoviNews by Unbound Creations

“Award-winning adventure where you control the news and its impact on society, your friends and career.”

Hey, I’ve heard the media is this all-powerful entity that can warp the very fabric of reality with its whims. I could handle getting me some of that.

Justice Playthrough #88: EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER

When strapping into a battlemech made out of spare meat and using it to punch the shit out of fascists has become tedious, something has gone horribly wrong.

Page 1, Game 19: EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER by Heather Flowers

EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER is a visual novel set in a world where something is very … wrong … and where Cronenbergian body-horror biotech has become so commonplace that folks think nothing of it when a farmer rolls into town strapped into a robot made of meat. For real, it’s like the dude’s just driving in on his tractor. Equally common are fascists, which infest both the town our heroes live in and the surrounding countryside.

In it, you’ll follow and direct the adventures of four marginalized people who also happen to be meat-mecha pilots as they try to find a safe place.

Every individual element of this game makes me want to love it. Every individual element of this game fails to land.

Let’s start with the biggest and most deal-breaking problem: mech combat. While all the interstitial stuff is presented as a visual novel (and follows that format so rigorously that the dev must be using some kind of canned tool), the game part of the game puts you into the fragrant, blood-stained seat of of a literal meat battlemech. Once there, you will do battle with fascists — it’s ALWAYS fascists — and punch them a lot.

Specifically, you will punch them off a cliff. There’s always a cliff, too. Good thing, because that’s the only way you can actually take somebody out of the fight.

Good mech combat should make you feel like a bad-ass. This made me bored and annoyed. You punch a dude, you knock him back. He punches you, you get knocked back. Punch him enough times and you get a status effect that stuns him a bit, so you’ll need to run back up to him — did I mention successful punches knock YOU back as well? — and try to nail him enough times to get him to that precious, precious cliff edge.

Every once in a while, a punch will land with such devastating force that it basically knocks one or both of you clear across the screen. I have absolutely no idea what triggers turbo-yeet mode; is it a timing thing? Random-number-generated critical? Whatever. It can end a fight in an instant.

Let the enshovening begin

Your four different pilots have different special powers. Since movement and positioning are THE critical concerns, that means you have two characters with movement-based special powers who are worth selecting and two others you can choose if the game forces you. Always, always, ALWAYS make sure to keep your opponents between you and one of the cliff edges, because if somebody suddenly gets launched, you want it to take you one step closer to ending this goddamn fight and not force you to start the fights all over again.

Ah, yes. As the game progresses, each action sequence consists of not one fight, but several strung together. Lose one and you’ll have to go back to to beginning, an unforgivable design decision that had me loudly cursing at my monitor several times.

These fights are NOT FUN. They’re tedious and unwelcome. Maneuver yourself so that when you punch the guy, it’ll push him towards the cliff. Punch the guy. Move back up to him. Punch him some more. Move back up. Punch some more.

Ever seen an American football game that’s degenerated into a “field position battle?” That’s what the announcers call it when the game has gotten so boring that they’d seriously rather just go home than keep watching. Home team gets a first down, and has to punt. Away team fails to get a first down, and has to punt. Home team gets another first down, and has to punt. Away team again fails to get a first down, and has to punt. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Home team will eventually kick a field goal, viewers at home will go do something else.

EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER somehow captures that back-and-forth-but-I’m-technically-making-more-progress-and-will-eventually-score tedium. WITH GIANT ROBOTS MADE OF MEAT. BEATING UP FASCISTS.

How can a concept that exciting lead to gameplay this dull?

There’s a “Skip battle” option when you die again. I did not press it. I won the game fueled by spite.

I think I might have started skipping the fights if the fiction had been more compelling, but the visual novel element of the game isn’t that good either. At least it’s concise; unlike some other bits of interactive fiction I’ve encountered, the author does not permit the prose to become hopelessly bogged in minutiae, so I can at least give them props for discipline. And I actually REALLY liked the ASCII-art backgrounds; I presume the dev’s budget didn’t allow for them to commission backgrounds that were of the same quality level as the character avatars, so rather than use canned assets that would be questionably appropriate, they simply cranked the dial all the way in the opposite direction. I was into it.

Raise a glass to clever minimalism

But the worldbuilding is sloppy as hell. There’s no sun, but that characters refer to day/night cycles and some of the interstitial images are clearly showing light and dark skies. Does this Mean Something, or is the author just sloppy? Turns out it DOES Mean Something, but I’m still not sure what. The discrepancy doesn’t even get acknowledged until Chapter 5 (out of 6). There’s no sense of place, of context. Okay, we’re driving meatmonsters, there’s no sun, and fascists are everywhere. Also, televised sportsball is a thing, and so are bars and small towns and churches. So, it’s just like our world, except for when the game needs it not to be?

The main characters you follow are a mixed bag. (Which one are you? None of ’em. You’re a kind of godlike entity directing the story. At any given moment, you could be deciding which choice any of the characters will make, and which character you’d like to follow. It’s a valid design choice, but it comes at the expense of immersion; I would sincerely have preferred to step into a single character’s shoes.) The casting here is hyper-consciously woke, to a degree that I actually found intrusive. I don’t feel like “LGBTQ” is supposed to be treated as a checklist.

It actually hit the level of self-parody after the Final Boss Battle, when the triumphant character announced “Betcha didn’t think you’d get beat by someone who’s [marginalized_identity_1], [marginalized_identity_2], and JEWISH!” Really? Are we actually firing-up the Oppression Olympics at the last minute and seeing how high we can score? Take THAT, fascism!

And I’m seriously wondering — would ANY of my characters have made that announcement? They could have. Being Jewish didn’t seem to matter for the character in question up until that point. You could have followed the exact same pattern for any of them, just need to swap out some adjectives:

  • “Black, gay, and JEWISH!”
  • “Transgender, bisexual, and JEWISH!”
  • “Disabled, lesbian, and JEWISH!”
  • “Asexual, agender, and JEWISH!”

Maybe they are all canonically Jewish. You’d think it would have come up. Oy vey.

I did at least like most of the characters, except for one: the disabled lesbian girl’s identity is best summarized as “Jerkass.” It did not take me long to get fed up with her bullshit. This hit its apex when the transgendered character confronted her over interacting with him in a way that was invalidating to his gender presentation. Disabled Jerkass got so shitty with him that it ACTUALLY ENDED IN A FIGHT.

Look, I’m a cis het white dude pushing fifty. I am not the most woke motherfucker out there; on a good day, I’m like 70th Percentile Woke, tops. I do my best, but Get Out was seriously making fun of white people like me (though with a bit more wealth and murder). But even I know that if your response to getting called-out by a trans dude for invalidating their identity is PHYSICAL FUCKING VIOLENCE AGAINST SAID TRANS DUDE, you SUCK and I don’t want you hanging around me or anyone I care about.

The framing fiction indicated that the loser of the tedious meatmech shoving match which ensued would have to leave the group. I, naturally, chose the trans dude. This was a mistake; I should have chosen Disabled Jerkass and then done nothing and let the guy whomp me. Would have ended the fight sooner. But, I DID manage to win, and the game completely punked out; Disabled Jerkass got to stay with the group anyway. (Though she DID respect him more for beating the shit out of her, thus proving you do not actually have to identify as male to wallow in toxic masculinity. Equality. Yaaay.)

Look, this game, like all these games, was effectively donated to a worthy cause. That’s the only reason it wound up in front of me. For that reason, I’ve been trying to go easy on the games that didn’t work for me or even that I consider to be objectively bad.

But every now and then, a game crosses that “bad” threshold and enters “Actively Pisses Me Off.” The gulf between what this game could be and what it actually is grew so vast that it actually entered that territory.

I like battlemechs, I like seeing representatives of traditionally underrepresented communities being given a chance to star, I like the kind of bugfuck creativity that leads one to say “What if Gundam, but made of steak?” But the action sections of the game actively annoyed me, and the fiction varied between “Passable” and “HELL NO.” This game simply does not work, and I cannot recommend it. The game’s page indicates that there’s a part 2 forthcoming; I won’t be playing it.

Bah. That was a downer. Let’s see if this guy can raise my spirits:

Page 33, Game 21: Grime & Gaslight by Nekros Arts

“Victorian Era Horror Game”

Terror and cataclysmically repressed emotions? Sounds like a solid combo. I’m in.

Justice Playthrough #87: Desktop Meadow

Aw. It just wants you to relax while you do computer stuff. Which is unlikely to be relaxing, if we’re being perfectly honest here.

Page 25, Game 21: Desktop Meadow by samperson

This is a piece of software meant to be run in the background. Sort of like Desktop Goose, only instead of annoying you, it wants you to be chill.

It achieves chill by letting flowers grow across the tops of your windows, and summoning the occasional birds and butterflies to land there.

See? Pretty flowers.

It also wants you to send messages, like the one above. Who will receive the message? Oh, you know, somebody or another. What does it matter? Just send some kindness out into the world.

Or, you know whatever

On my personal list of “Things I find chill and relaxing,” “Receiving letters from Internet randos” isn’t terribly high on that list.

Ah, good to know

Luckily, the developer isn’t a complete lunatic, and apparently moderates the system. That’s a smart move. Hope his passive-aggression filters are up to the task.

Also, may you live in interesting times

When letters arrive, they’ll just hang out in the mailbox that now lives on your desktop, nice and unobtrusive.

Hey, there’s a corner of my desktop that ISN’T littered with icons! Who knew?

And I did get a nice letter from somebody.

Aw, thanks, Sakura. BTW, why are your font and stationery way cooler than mine?

This is … fine. Not really my bag. But, hey, if you’d like to have some weeds growing atop your windows and get the occasional friendly anonymous message from a stranger, it’s hardly the worst thing you could do to your computer. Seems to take a heavier toll on the graphics processor than I expected, but not dreadful. I saw in the dev comments that people were having trouble uninstalling it, but if you just find the appropriate icon in the task bar, shutting it down seems easy enough.

Honestly? I preferred Desktop Goose. I kinda liked the mean little fucker chasing my mouse and dragging in self-aggrandizing memes. I guess some people like disruptive geese, other people like weeds and friendliness. Plenty of room for both types of people.

But. Is there enough room for the sort of people who are into:

Page 1, Game 19: EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER by Heather Flowers

“Gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists”

O_o

Right. This is either going to go on the “Awesome” list or the “Totally pissed me off” list. I see absolutely no room for middle ground here.

Justice Playthrough #86: The Away Team

An ambitious-as-hell voyage through the stars, one that’s almost more interactive fiction than game. I’m not sure it necessarily achieves everything it’s setting out to do, but I respect the hell out of what it’s attempting.

Page 7, Game 29: The Away Team by Underflow Studios

So, first thing’s first: if you’re playing this on Windows, you’re gonna need to download and install OpenAL. Without it, the game will simply fail to run. Naughty naughty, Underflow Studios, shipping an incomplete piece of software. I’m wagging my finger at you.

Earth is dying, and you’re one of the last ships out. Literally; you’re the ship. More precisely, you’re the ship’s AI. You are shepherding six humans … somewhere. To their new home. If you can find one.

Six lost souls

You’ll travel, you’ll explore, you’ll read. You’ll read a lot. This game is all about the scripted encounters, emphasis on SCRIPT. But I didn’t mind so much. The prose and the storyline aren’t scintillating, but they’re executed well enough to be compelling and to draw me in. I’m not convinced scripted bits needed to be this VERBOSE, necessarily, but it worked well enough that I didn’t mind. Given that “Fiction writer uses 50 words where 5 would have done” is one of my big pet peeves, that honestly means it worked pretty damn well.

I found the story rewarded me for engaging it on its own terms. Does doing that thing sounds stupid? Then I’ll not do the stupid thing. Is there not a threat I can see? Then I’m not going to tell my crew to run their asses back to the shuttle when walking is a perfectly viable option.

The most impressive thing about the (reams of) prose was how it was liberally flavored with extras that directly tied into the traits assigned to my characters. The Politician Guy was depicted as charming, but reckless; and true to form, he did something stupid with something dangerous and died horribly as a result.

GOD DAMMIT KEALAN

Open Mic Comedian Lady volunteered to do dangerous shit every time she said “That’s what SHE said!” I’m confident that’s what she meant.

There are often choices to be made in the prose. They seemed meaningful.

I was particularly fond of how some of the “puzzles” were handled by the choice that boiled down to “Just solve it with your galaxy-sized brain, you’re an AI for fuck’s sake.” This was often the only choice available. I’m normally grumpy when a game doesn’t let me take choices, but honestly, this non-choice pulled me more into the character I was supposed to be playing. Goddamn RIGHT I figured this one out, meatbags. Who’s your artificial daddy.

Where the game stumbles is in the GAME parts of the game. When you assemble your titular away team, you can assign a leader, a medic, and a mechanic, and the game will track how often an individual has taken that role. The character backgrounds seem to be indicating pretty clearly that some people are better suited for the roles than others, but … did it matter? It did not appear to matter. If it did, the game handled it invisibly behind the scenes and offered-up “Here’s a choice you can make if your chief engineer isn’t an incompetent douchebag” as one of my choices. Okay, fine, but I’d rather KNOW that my choice was significant than have to guess.

You’re managing food and fuel as resources, and the game’s balance feels hopelessly wonky here. Resources are TIGHT, and very difficult to come by. I visited three planets where I wound up grabbing one food apiece from each, and … comedafuckon. You’re kinda wasting my time here, game.

If you DO play it, I highly recommend you click both “Cheat” options — have each system just show you where the planets of note are, and don’t consume food unless the ship is actually in motion. For a game that’s ostensibly about exploration, your resources burn so quickly and are so tough to come by that it doesn’t seem like it actually wants you to do much exploring.

Hey, I found a food!

What’s more, I kinda didn’t understand where I was going when I hit the jump drive. Some places gave me clues about which planets to try next, but some … didn’t. In some, I wound up having to hustle my six pet blood blisters the fuck out of there when things were clearly going sideways. I figured this would have repercussions, but nope, I just hopped into hyperspace, and found another thing.

I played the game to an ending. A decent ending; they found a home, of sorts. I’m not sure the ending completely made SENSE, it certainly wasn’t the direction I was expecting things to go, but what the hell, it beat starving to death in the deep and uncaring void.

There’s clearly a ton to explore in this game, and … I’m not completely certain I want to. I don’t know that the game parts of the game are fun enough to bring me back. If the writing were tighter or the gameplay more rewarding, maybe I’d poke around some more and see what else is out there.

As it is, though, it wasn’t bad. I certainly have no regrets playing it. If shepherding six lost souls to some unknown home among the stars sounds like a good time to you, I can definitely recommend taking a look. Maybe it’ll grab you more than it grabbed me.

The big question is, of course, will this game grab me:

Page 25, Game 21: Desktop Meadow by samperson

“Your computer is a beautiful garden”

Nah, my computer is more of a junkyard with piles of random forgotten crap and occasionally dirty magazines. But that does sound pretty zen. Let’s see what it’s like.