This is the ninety-ninth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. This particular entry is also an honorary member of the Keeping Score series, about games and their soundtracks. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

It’s time to get extreme with our next random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The random numbers have picked EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER, by Heather Flowers. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists

It was bound to happen eventually. Extreme Meatpunks Forever (I cannot bring myself to continue using all caps for its name, even though it earns them) is one of the better known games in the bundle, and one which I personally have been meaning to check out for a while, having read a lot of good things. From those, I learned that not only is it about gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists, but also those mechs are made out of meat.

Extreme Meatpunks Forever was originally a serial game, but the bundle includes the entire first season, subtitled Powered By Blood. Season 2, Bound By Ash, arrived in October 2020, and can be purchased here. Which I intend to do, because Extreme Meatpunks Forever is great.

It is primarily a visual novel, like Conversations With My Anxiety (one of my favorite picks from year one) or Detective Hank and the Golden Sneeze which have appeared before in this series. Unlike those games, Extreme Meatpunks Forever also has action sequences in which one of its four protagonists clambers into the ribcage of their mech, pushes their neck onto the nerve spike, and pilots said mech through top-down arenas to punch other meat mechs piloted by fascists.

Before I get to that, however, let’s cover a few details about the world in which the game is set. The narrator tells us at the start that it’s more or less like our world, but with a few differences. Those differences are pretty big. There’s the meat mechs, of course, which are so ubiquitous as to seem boring to most characters in the game. The first character we meet, Sam, pilots his old mech for his job on a farm, and had never gotten into a mech fight before the opening of the game. He and the others live in America, but it’s not our America. Much of it seems to be a desert wasteland. The characters’ hometown of Sundown is in the Hellzone Time Zone. Oh, and there are fascists literally everywhere. Referred to as “the fash” in the game, they’re all over. They’re friends with the police. They’re casually, callously awful, just like in real life. When they speak, it’s in internet troll speak, tossing racial slurs and horrible insults along with “lols” and “bros”. Mostly, however, they don’t speak. Extreme Meatpunks Forever isn’t interested in giving fascists a chance to speak. It’s interested in killing them.

As advertised, all of the protagonists in the game are gay, which means that their existence is illegal in the eyes of the fash. I was somewhat shocked by the matter of fact way things kick off in the story. An awkward meetup group in a church basement might seem innocuous to you, but not to the angry mob of fash outside. Just like that, our cast is on the run, forced to leave the town that many of them have lived in their whole lives. It’s not a shock or surprise to them, it’s just life. Bound to happen eventually. Better get moving, and kill any fash that get in their way.

By now, it should be clear that Extreme Meatpunks Forever does not care much for subtlety. It’s refreshingly direct in its tone, leaving no leeway to twist its messages. It’s also often crass, with plenty of curse-filled banter that’s unafraid to broach any subject. I was prepared for all of this from what I’d read about the game, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so funny. I genuinely laughed out loud at several points in the story. The writing is simply excellent, each character masterfully given their own voice just by how the text of their words is presented. Sam speaks in full sentences with proper punctuation, while Cass tends to utter short quips, all in lower case, that deftly communicate her tired and exasperated tone. Brad is excitable, his speech full of extra exclamation points and question marks as he blusters about mech maintenance, and I could almost hear Lianna’s loud and overly friendly shouts, accompanied with an unsolicited punch in the arm. A good portion of the game is spent clicking through conversations in the group, and players’ choices often boil down to which character they want to hear more about. When the group meets someone, does Cass pipe up first? Or does Lianna barrel in with all the diplomacy of an anvil? When they make camp for the night and pair off in conversation, which conversation do you want to hear?

This structure can be frustrating to players who like to see everything in a game, but I surprised myself by not minding too much in the end. I could have gone back through again to see other choices, of course, but I was usually able to guess what the segments I didn’t choose were about, and found myself fond of the choices I’d picked. I took the six episodes slowly too. Each is pretty short, and the entire story could be played through in just a few sittings if desired, but it felt right to take a break in between. It gave me time to think about things, to ponder what might be motivating different characters, and it gave each new in-game day its own fresh start. And it gave me time to really care about these characters. They’re ultimately a group of found friends, each with their own pasts, traumas, quirks, awkwardness. Sometimes people hit it off, sometimes they tiptoe around each other, sometimes they butt heads. All of it is genuine. And it’s the best example of gay and trans representation in a game that I can think of, without a trace of tokenism or pandering. The characters’ sexuality does not define them, but it is part of them and it affects their lives, in no small part because it invites persecution from everyone else. Which is why they get in their mechs and fight back.

The segments when pilots enter their mechs are especially interesting. The act of strapping on shoulder meat and pushing their necks onto the nerve spikes (always accompanied by physical pain) is unsettling and slightly disturbing. But it’s also transformative. As the nerve spike connects, the pilot’s body merges with that of their mech, effectively recreating their body on their own terms. Like everything in Extreme Meatpunks Forever, it’s not exactly subtle, referencing gender dysphoria or a general dissatisfaction with one’s body, as well as the fantasy of creating a new one. It’s not mere escapism though; even in their mechs the pilots still hurt, they’re still tired, they’re still hunted. But mechs are a way for the team to empower themselves, even if that power isn’t always enough. Each character takes on a new name while in their mech, whispering (or shouting) it as their neck hits the spike. For some, the name reflects their personality or philosphy: Lianna becomes CRASH QUEEN, Cass becomes ALL OR NOTHING. For others, the mech reflects what they hope to become themselves: Brad becomes ULTRA BRAD. For most action sequences, players can choose which pilot they want, and the mech startup sequence provides more insight into their thoughts at that moment. They also each have different abilities during combat.

The mech fights remind me of sumo. Mechs can throw punches, but these don’t permanently damage the enemy. They can inflict status effects, temporarily immobilizing an opponent or preventing it from attacking for a short time, but the main reason to throw punches is to knock the other mech back. To take them out permanently, players must send them off of a cliff, which are conveniently nearby in every battle. Fights are therefore mostly about positioning, slowly lumbering into an advantageous position and pressing the attack until the fascist falls to its death. Punches are aimed with the mouse, but unfortunately the game doesn’t have a custom mouse cursor, so I often found it difficult to see where my tiny Windows cursor was during a fight. Most of the time, however, the fights weren’t too challenging, and I viewed them more as a chance to spend time with a particular pilot. This changed in the last few episodes, when the difficulty increased drastically and I had to repeat some battles several times. There’s an option to skip them, but I’m too stubborn, and I did eventually get through. These climactic battles are multi-stage affairs, however, and losing at any point means repeating the entire thing, which was frustrating. I would have preferred only having to redo the current stage.

Like the rest of the game, the mech fights are presented with a mishmash of simple art. Mechs are red blobs that are only very roughly humanoid in shape, trekking across a landscape dotted with plain, almost crude, rocks and cacti. Punches appear as swishes of color that reminded me of lines drawn in crayon. Some landscape features are shown with ASCII art, a trick that’s also used for backgrounds during non-combat scenes, colored in to make for surprisingly expressive vistas. These contrast with the character portraits, which are much more detailed (and conveniently color-coded), yet which somehow fit with the overall style. It’s an odd mix, and as others have said, it’s pretty punk (beware some mild plot spoilers in that article). I like it, but I can see how others may find it amateurish or simply ugly. If you are one of those people, I can only implore you to play anyway, because Extreme Meatpunks Forever is excellent. Its story is simply told so well, it’s so poignant and funny and engaging that I’m sure you’ll soon forget about the ugly bits, and you can even skip the fights if you don’t like looking at them. Also, the original music throughout the game is absolutely fantastic; more on that below. There are parts of the story that cover sensitive topics, or are simply tough to take, but these come with warnings from the narrator and the most triggering ones can be skipped. I didn’t skip them, and found myself even more impressed by how they’re handled, but I was glad that the warning is there and I’m sure many will happily take the chance to spend time on more positive things instead.

This one is an easy recommendation, although you may already have guessed that if you’ve been reading coverage of the game elsewhere. Embrace your inner punk and clobber some fascists in a meat mech. You’ll be glad you did. If you missed it in the bundle, EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOEVER: Powered By Blood is sold for a minimum price of $10. And don’t forget that season 2, Bound By Ash, is now available as well, for a minimum price of $15. That’s a lot of meatpunk!

The Score:

The original soundtrack for EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: Powered By Blood, composed and performed by Visager (AKA Josie Brechner) is so good that I went and bought it from Bandcamp after playing. The description says that it “contains TRANS FOLK PUNK DYSTOPIA WESTERN music with splashes of SLUDGE ROCK, GLITCH CORE, ANIME EMOTIONS, and HORROR MOODS”, and that’s pretty accurate. Its 14 tracks span 36 minutes, and run the gamut from calm pieces for quiet conversations to exciting battle themes to suitably dramatic music for climactic moments.

I was first drawn to the twangy acoustic guitar and banjo of pieces like “Hellzone Time” or “The Edge of Hope”, which are wonderfully evocative of the open desert, and will find a lasting home in my slowly expanding playlist of Western music. And those are great, but I found myself appreciating other pieces just as much. There’s some wonderfully creepy, echo-y electric guitar work on several tracks, like “Nerve Spike” and “Power Valid”, which is simply perfect for the darker or more desperate moments. I also did not realize while playing that each pilot gets their own version of the battle theme. These are a fascinating listen, sharing a common melody but with arrangements that suit each character’s personality. Farm boy Sam gets a bouncy country version with prominent banjo and mandolin. Brad gets a version reminiscent of a superhero film, with piano and strings soaring over a march-like beat. Lianna’s version is the closest to a pure punk track, with fuzzed out electric guitars belting out the familiar melody. For Cass, the tune is recreated as an electronica piece with synthesized melodies and a grim, determined air. Lovely work.

That’s not the only time there are variations on a theme, either. Two versions of “The End For Now” are included, one annotated as “(medium)” and the other as “(REAL BIG)”. This piece plays at the end of each chapter, and really stuck in my mind since it would always play as I sat and mulled over the events of the chapter. It’s also a nice synthesis of many of the musical styles on the soundtrack, opening with the familiar acoustic guitar and banjo before bringing in strings for the main melody and the electric guitar for some extra rhythm work. It’s a slow but powerful piece, and the REAL BIG version keeps the intensity up with a bigger string section that stays in the mix in the second half, where the “medium” version strips back to just the electric guitar and drums. Again, it’s not something I’d have discerned in game, but a highly effective way to make certain chapter endings a bit more epic. To cap everything off, there are two bonus tracks, an unused demo that acts like something of a theme song, and a second “meaty” version of “Nerve Spike” which is, as far as I can tell, identical to the original “Nerve Spike” except for the addition of faint squelching meat sounds. Just in case you want to get extra meaty.

Overall, it’s an excellent score and a welcome addition to my collection. If you take my advice and play Extreme Meatpunks Forever, and find yourself as enthused by the music as I was, head over to Bandcamp to check out the soundtrack, which I think is sold for a minimum price of $8 but I can’t actually see the price anymore because I own it now.

That’s 99 down, and only 1642 to go!