EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: Bound by Ash

Where we last left our heroes… they failed. But failure is not going to stop them. In spite of horrible loss of life, in spite of the rise of fascism, people always march on for the hopes of creating a better future.

Bound by Ash is the second season to Heather Flowers’ EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER. The series is a mix of visual novel and top-down action segments where you knock people off of cliffs in mechs made of meat. As Bound by Ash obviously picks up from the previous season, there will be spoilers that I’m not going to bother ROT13-ing, so keep that in mind going in.

Lianna, Cass, Sam and Brad live in a world without a sun, where most forms of technology is meat based. So, it was rather shocking when a fascist summoned the sun to raze a city to the ground. Demoralized but clinging to vague hopes, the gang sets out to travel through the Rozarx mountains in hopes of figuring out what to do about the sun and how to prevent a similar tragedy from happening.

While the game has an ensemble cast, Brad feels like the closest thing to a main character for Bound by Ash. Building off of frustrations from the previous season, Brad suffers from an inferiority complex that leads to him forcing himself to work and fight past his limits. The romantic tension between him and Sam is also soured when Jason, San’s friend that ditched him in the first episode, shows up to rain on what little happiness he has left. On a happier note, he also gets to rock out with a punk band.

Though, Brad isn’t the only person pushing himself past his limit. Cass shows signs of breaking down, due to the strains of acting as the group’s de-facto leader and the trauma of their failure. However, they manage to cope with it in a simple way: simply confiding in others.

A general message in EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER is finding solidarity with others. While the characters are troubled wrecks, they cope by being honest with each other and strengthening their bonds. This even manifests in the combat segments, where characters that form a sincere bond can save each other from a game over. Giant flesh mechs may win the physical fights, but good friends and good talks are what helps weather emotional strife.

As before, the game wears its leftist politics on its sleeves wholeheartedly. A thing that this season does is try to examine the concept of violence against fascists, which is a topic you frequently hear in the real world whenever somebody gets a milkshake thrown at them. Part of Sam’s conflict is trying to come to terms with the fact that he has to kill people – this is partly because a parasitic demon attached to his mech keeps guilt tripping him about it. As somebody that started the series out as a farmer, he’s unaccustomed to killing, but has to come to an understanding that an “us vs them” mentality is justified when the far-right wants to kill him and others like him regardless of his position.

When fighting isn’t an option but violence is an inevitability, Sam tends to throw himself out to take all the punishment. It’s only by luck and the support of others that he’s still kicking. Again, solidarity is important, because you don’t have to walk alone in dealing with these problems.

While there’s a lot of seriousness in Season 2, there’s still a lot of room for goofs and relaxation. Everyone still talks like a Twitter leftist shitposter and loves to talk about random bullshit when things aren’t serious. Lianna, the most outwardly violent of the cast, has comparatively mundane problems like trying to flirt with a woman she met at an eldritch gas station and awkwardly pretending to be straight and getting one of the obviously gay guys to be her husband. Her coming back to her hometown may be played seriously due to her past emotional baggage, but she ultimately tries to live a slice-of-life existence while there. While I wish that she did more in this season (and wish that her crush was more of a character), I still liked her place in this story.

But, well, peaceful days are over, so now’s the time to check out the fights.

The game’s combat is much punchier than its first season, which can be attributed to the involvement of Colin Horgan, the creator of Lucah: Born of a Dream. The camera now zooms in and out to frame combatants, little animation and art flourishes lend a better sense of impact, etc. Some of it feels like it was directly lifted from Lucah, but hey, if you got perfectly good assets lying around, you gotta use it.

To better tie into how the meat mechs are one with their pilots, all the main character mechs have separate designs and whole new animations beyond the first game’s same walking mech animation that was shared across… pretty much everything. While the core combat isn’t too different from the first season, Horgan’s added expertise shows how important game feel is to a game’s action, because I was more into this game’s combat than I was with the original.

Of course, if you’re just into the visual novel aspect of EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER, they could always be skipped, which is a good thing to have.

Besides the individualized meat mech designs, the combat portions further ties into the story based on how it progresses. As these hunks of flesh act as an outer body to their pilots, they also change alongside them when the pilot comes to a better understanding of themself and their trauma. Some mechs gain a new ability, alongside a new name reflecting how the pilot sees themself. It feels like a trans metaphor, where coming out also lets you launch cool counterpunches.

In the art department, it’s still a punkish mish-mash of styles – it’s just now that there’s a lot more variety. The main character portraits have a new art style that gives the characters a grungier look more befitting of who they are, as opposed to the first game’s cleaner art style. While the backgrounds during the visual novel segments is still a work of ASCII art, the top-down segments where you walk around Devil’s Teeth is simple pixel art while the environments in combat now utilize modeled arenas, lending a sense of depth alongside the rest of combat’s new artistic flourishes. The splash screen at the start of chapters and some of the cutscene art are also drawn by different collaborating artists, showcasing the cast of EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER and their world in wildly differing styles from one moment to the next.

As Heather Flowers previously wrote, “It’s not about fancy production values, it’s about the strength of your conviction and how well it shines through. If your game can exude raw fury then there’s nothing else in the world like it.” This is still an excellent attitude, but I also feel that the sheer differences between art styles serves to highlight how while Flowers’ is the head developer, EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER is a collaborative work at its core in line with its themes.

As before, the soundtrack is primarily by Josie Brechner. While there’s a lot of reused songs, there’s some new tunes like a jaunty bluegrass song for the town of Devil’s Teeth and some ominous horror music for the forest area, along with the more punkish songs. The strongest song on the soundtrack is the one featuring Priscilla Snow, which plays during a nice interlude at Lianna’s house that you can choose the lyrics for. It’s a sweet laid-back song that reminds you that no matter what, there’s something nice to fight for.

Bound by Ash feels like a strong follow-up, and the improved combat segments really help make it more of a complete package. If you haven’t checked this series out already, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so.

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