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.
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.
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.