Freaking Meatbags

The word “meatbag” has become forever associated with deadpan black comedy for many gamers, thanks to HK-47 of Knights of the Old Republic fame. While Freaking Meatbags isn’t quite in the same comedic league as everyone’s favourite condescending assassin droid, the game itself is still a bit of a pleasant surprise. Tower defence is one of the most overdone genres in the indie scene right now, but Freaking Meatbags breathes more life into it than most developers would know what to do with. The game injects some mechanics of Pikmin into the tower defence framework, creating a zoomed-in, small-scale style of gameplay where the player character and their handful of followers are the most important cogs in the user’s strategic machine.

The term “tower defence” is never actually used in any of the game’s official descriptions, and it’s easy to see why. While the ultimate goal of each level is to defend your home base using a variety of offensive towers, none of that is what makes the game interesting. The real stars of the show are the titular meatbags (i.e. humans). As Chip, a utility bot from an all-robot society, players must direct groups of humans to gather resources, man defensive positions, and splice segments of their DNA together to create specialized castes. That last one is the game’s real source of depth. As alien species are periodically introduced, it becomes necessary to weave their vital abilities into the genetic fabric of Chip’s followers. Certain towers are also better served by different offensive traits, making sure there is no one ultimate DNA configuration.

Freaking Meatbags also packs way more variety than is expected of its genre. There’s the usual assortment of enemies (fast but weak, armoured but slow) and structures (towers, walls, and damaging floor panels), but there are also original creations, like towers that spread the abilities of their resident humans to multiple adjacent towers, and a handful of unorthodox boss encounters. Chip can also be outfitted with a number of upgradeable combat drones, adding the feel of a twin-stick shooter to the experience and opening up a new avenue of exploration and defence for the gameplay. Sometimes the game eschews the “tower” part of tower defence entirely. The singular highlight of the game is a level where the only available defences are humans bred to detonate on contact with enemies, forcing players to repel attackers with waves of explosive meatbags.

As wonderful as it is to see a game with so much ambition and depth, the intricacy of Freaking Meatbags was clearly too much for the scope of indie development. The challenge level, in particular, is extremely inconsistent during the initial few hours, and then simply flatlines in the game’s second half. There are a few overpowered abilities (splash damage for humans, large groups of drones, and a tower that refuses all enemy access as long as any other path still exists), but most of the blame can be placed on the currency that buys new structures and abilities. Not only does it carry over between levels, but it’s awarded as bonuses for completing levels on harder difficulties and without taking damage. This means that the better you do on the early levels, the easier the game gets. In other words, the opposite of how difficulty curves are supposed to work.

“Generally good but kind of sloppy” is the simplest summary of Freaking Meatbags’ quality, like a talented musician that just hasn’t practiced enough. The movement controls are simple and intuitive, with some optional RTS-style complexities thrown in for advanced players, but selecting individual humans is a chore thanks to their small size and annoying tendency to overlap. The game’s aesthetics call to mind the likes of FTL or Risk of Rain. The soundtrack is magnificent and perfect for the game’s lighthearted sci-fi setting, and the humans’ single-word dialogue is so unintrusive that it avoids ever becoming annoying. Furthermore, the pixel art style is clean, punchy, and informative for gameplay purposes, although the potentially-useful slow motion button ruins the interface with dizzying distortion when activated.

The game’s comedic element feels like it should be hilarious, but something was lost in the delivery. It’s mostly broad, situational humour rather than specific punchlines – the fact that humans are inexplicably speech-capable wild animals wearing Earth fashions and lounging around on alien planets is the joke, for example. There are more traditional comedic flavour texts assigned to each human, but the need to pause the game to read them doesn’t gel with the relatively fast-paced gameplay. The translation doesn’t help matters. It’s not so bad that it can’t be understood, but it’s got plenty of “This guy are sick” moments. It’s a real shame, because the matter-of-fact tone of the writing as it describes all manner of nonsense is actually really funny.

Astonishingly, there’s also a story to Freaking Meatbags. It begins with Chip arriving 0.03 seconds late for his robot job, leading his robot employer to assign him to an especially dangerous solar system. While there, Chip runs afoul of the enormous trans-dimensional squid that’s causing all of the system’s problems. The story is obviously just as much of a non sequitur as the rest of the game’s writing, so judging it as a narrative is probably pointless (although if I had to, I’d point out that Chip’s job doesn’t seem to actually entail doing anything other than going where he’s ordered until the squid shows up). It is moderately funny, however, so its inclusion is still justified.

Freaking Meatbags had the potential to be a classic, but its gameplay oversights and diluted humour reduce it to more of a novelty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ll take unpolished novelty over refined reiteration any day – but it’s not really enough to warrant a wholehearted recommendation. Whether or not you’ll enjoy the game is entirely dependent on how much you enjoy oddball humor and being surprised. In short, if the title Freaking Meatbags piqued your curiosity, trust that instinct and dig in.