This post is part of Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
About five months ago, I wrote about the first season of episodic game Extreme Meatpunks Forever (which should be in all caps, but I’m too lazy to do that), subtitled Powered By Blood, as part of the Scratching That Itch series. Spoiler alert: it’s fantastic. I wanted to play the second season, Bound By Ash, while the first was still relatively fresh in my mind, so I grabbed it from itch.io and fired it up. Like the first season, Bound By Ash comes in six episodes, picking up where our misfit band of fascist-killing “gay disaster” meat mech pilots left off. And it’s even better than the first season.
If you’re unfamiliar with Extreme Meatpunks Forever, you really should read my first post about it. That contains a much better explanation of what it is. To give a very brief recap, it’s mostly a visual novel about a group of four gay people living in an alternate America where people pilot mechs made of meat, and there are fascists (“fash”) all over the place. That’s why our protagonists are on the run, and why there are also action sequences in which players control one of their meat mechs as it fights off fash or other enemies. There’s a lot going on, but it’s wonderfully written, with as many laugh-out-loud funny moments as there are poignant ones, and I really cannot recommend it enough.
Bound By Ash has more changes than I was expecting. The portraits of the main cast have all been redone in a different art style, which was jarring at first. I’d formed images in my mind of how the characters looked and sounded, and their new appearances didn’t always align with that. In fact, the new portraits made me realize I’d inadvertently misgendered one of the protagonists in the first season. I suspect that creator Heather Flowers simply wanted to try something different with the art this time around, but part of me wonders if the change is also meant to reflect a shift in how the characters view themselves after the events of the first season.
The new art in the combat sections is even more striking. Before, arenas were simple 2D affairs, full of crudely drawn scenery and occasionally even ASCII art, where the red blobs that are mechs batter each other with punches represented by mere swishes of color. This approach ended up reinforcing the punk feel of the game, a very DIY mindset where the idea of the creation is far more important than maintaining a consistent style. If it looks roughly like the thing it’s supposed to be, that’s plenty good enough. The new combat sections in Bound By Ash manage to look far fancier without sacrificing any of that punk feel. Combat zones are now rendered in 3D, with walls and cliffs rising up towards the overhead camera, but they are made with only the minimum number of polygons and crude, low resolution textures. Mechs are 2D sprites, still simple but a bit crisper than before, and each character’s mech is now visually distinct: one has big burly arms, another is lithe and angular, another sprouts a bunch of tentacles.
The fighting itself looks way cooler now, too. After a hefty windup, mechs visibly swing their fists, accompanied by a multicolored swipe. Punches connect with an explosion of glitchy effects that made me feel the power of each strike. Feedback is way better, making battles more enjoyable than before, and the encounter design is improved too. In season one I often felt I was flailing around during battle, but here I was able to be more strategic and dispatch enemies (by knocking them into water this time, instead of off of cliffs like before) with premeditated strikes. There’s even a custom mouse cursor now! Sadly, it’s pretty tiny, so I still found myself punching in the wrong direction often. That’s my sole remaining frustration with the combat sequences. This is a game that deserves a big, chunky crosshair during mech fights.
The mech sequences are also better integrated with the story this time around. In the first season, players were given a choice of which character would take point each day, selecting either the mech they like the best or the character they want to spend a bit more time with. But the daily structure started to feel a bit artificial. In Bound By Ash, there are still some times when players can choose their fighter (complete with a cool new character selection screen), but often characters will pipe up and take point of their own accord. This means that the action sequences are another opportunity for serious character development, without worrying that players would miss it by selecting a different fighter. The writing is just as good if not better, in no small part because the battles no longer feel like interruptions, but critical parts of the evolving story. The first season played with the idea that characters’ mechs were ways to express their identity, meat machines with which they share a close bond. That is elaborated on here to great effect, and new battle mechanics are introduced to reflect the emotional growth that various characters are going through.
Battles are no longer the only kind of interactive segments either. Bound By Ash has some nice playful moments experimenting with different types of playable sequences. In one episode, the group is able to freely wander around a town from a top-down viewpoint, chatting with locals and investigating various points of interest. Another episode contains a hilarious sequence that I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s associated with the screenshot at the top of this post. These moments are a nice complement to the familiar visual novel segments, which function largely as they did before, but are still funny, poignant, and just generally wonderful.
I guess my main takeaway from Bound By Ash is that it’s simply more confident. The writing is more confident, not afraid to wrest control away from players when it needs to focus on certain people. The battle sequences are more confident, with fancier presentation and better feeling controls. And even the characters feel a bit more confident, as they each find ways to move on and grow after the events of the first season. Another easy recommendation. You’ll want to start with Powered By Blood, of course, but know that Bound By Ash is even better. The third and final season, Brightfall, will be coming at some point, and I can’t wait.
Like the first season, Bound By Ash has an amazing soundtrack, and I went and bought it on Bandcamp after playing. While the first season’s soundtrack is credited to Josie Brechner’s alias Visager, this one is released under their own name, and features 13 tracks spanning about 36 minutes, almost exactly the same length as the season 1 soundtrack. I think that some of the music from season 1 returns while playing season 2, but it’s not repeated on the soundtrack; instead, this release focuses on new compositions. Some of these are variations on a theme, like the opening track “Beyond Hope” which is a stripped back solo acoustic guitar rendition of “The Edge of Hope” from the first season, or “Mountain Time” which adapts the familiar melody of “Hellzone Time” from the first season into a new arrangement with wonderful fiddle work from guest Sarah Hubbard. There are more familiar melodies throughout, but I can’t discuss all of them for fear of thematic spoilers. This is a score with motifs that reflect and reinforce story events.
I will say that there are more guests this time around, making for even more varied compositions than the first season. Sarah Hubbard returns for more fiddle on “Devil’s Teeth”, and Michaela Nachtigall graces “INFRA BRAD” with some lovely violin. M Gewehr plays bass on a couple of tracks. But perhaps the most notable guest appearance is from Priscilla Snow, who sings on “On Our Way”. This song accompanies a key moment in the story, which will make it the most memorable piece of music for many players, and it’s placed last on the soundtrack to preserve its emotional impact. I was going to say that it’s the first piece of music in the series to feature vocals, but there’s actually another one included too, although no one is credited for it so I’m forced to wonder if it’s sung by Josie Brechner themself.
The music, like the game, just feels more confident this time around. There are so many styles here: a sort of low-fi electro-funk downtempo track that plays in the blood station, a big band country number (with extra string section), noisy chopped synths on top of a driving beat on “CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER”, a slow-building creepy ambient track for when things need to sound unsettling, some huge revberb-heavy echoing electric guitar to accompany an emotional moment, even some sweeping synth arpeggios in the triumphant “ULTRALIGHT SCAVENGER”. Some of these offer entirely new melodies and themes while other reinvent familiar ones, but they all sound fresh and interesting. Excellent work from Brechner here. And yes, there are a few new tracks for my Western playlist here, which is always a plus.
If you play Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound By Ash and enjoy it as much as I did, you may find yourself wanting the music too. Head over to Bandcamp, where it’s sold for a minimum price of $8. And here’s hoping for an even better soundtrack when the final season, Brightfall, arrives.