To Wallow In Carnage Or To Simply Give Up?

HIGH A captivating opening movie exquisitely sets the mood.

LOW Every part of combat.

WTF Why does this town even have guards if they’re not going to kill the wolves that are chasing me around?

I was a decent Mortal Kombat 2 player in the arcades. I could hold my own as long as I used Baraka, and I had no trouble beating the game on a single credit. Then the arcade updated the cabinet’s code — new finishing moves were added, and supposedly the AI had been altered to be smarter and more challenging. The extra challenge was a disappointment, though — it decided that the optimal way to win fights was to constantly walk towards the player, blocking any attacks and throwing the moment they were in range to do so. No jumping, no special moves, and every character exactly the same — just walking forward and throwing.

Eventually we learned the tricks to defeat this strategy and the next update reset the enemies back to their previous state, but seeing that in MK2 taught me something about game design. Smart AI isn’t necessarily interesting AI, and challenging foes aren’t always satisfying to fight.

M.E.A.T. is an RPG set on the Canadian frontier in the 19th century. Players control Culligan, a rich widower who owns the local mine and has to investigate a series of increasingly-strange happenings delaying production. This includes understandably hostile natives, vicious animals and supernatural threats. The game features a ton of real-time combat, and it’s all terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it forced me to give up entirely after a dozen hours.

Where to begin? Equipping items is a chore, with the player forced to unequip items to add them to the utility bar. This is an absolute necessity since the game doesn’t pause when the inventory is up, so attempting to swap weapons during combat is a shortcut to death. Sometimes the weapon swapping doesn’t work, however, with items suddenly disappearing from the bar for no reason. Players also need to equip ammo for ranged weapons and it doesn’t automatically swap when they change weapons, so going from a pistol to a shotgun is pointless since I won’t be able to fire the shotgun because my pouch is still full of pistol rounds. It’s slow, awkward, and remarkably difficult.

The combat is sadistic. Anything but the lowest-level trash enemies were capable of killing me in just two or three hits, and eventually the prospect of constant death and reloading — one of M.E.A.T.‘s good points is that it allows for anytime saving outside of combat — wore me down to the point that I set the combat to ‘easy’. Suddenly it took enemies 5 hits to kill me instead of 2-3.

I looked for ways to advance, but was stymied at every turn. Low-level enemies rarely drop anything that can be sold for profit, and despite the fact that my character is canonically the richest man in town, I had no money to buy better weapons and armor. The only option was to spend hours grinding enemies until I was a high enough level to tank the damage and kill more difficult foes who actually dropped some useful items.

This grinding was made more frustrating by the AI quirks similar to those that I alluded to with MKII — foes will always make the smartest possible move in combat. Melee enemies will strike wildly until they’re at 10% health, then they’ll always flee and force the player to chase them — not an easy task, since M.E.A.T. uses grid-based movement, and players must be standing still to strike. It’s easy for enemies to move out of the player’s one-tile range and make a quick getaway. Unless players get lucky and the monster runs into a corner, most melee foes must be finished off with a ranged weapon, wasting a precious round of ammo on a critically-injured foe. Eventually I learned attack spells that do surprisingly little damage, but at least it was enough to save a bullet.

Ranged enemies are even worse, as they all take a single shot from the absolute maximum attack range, then back away before the player can return fire. Move towards them and they flee until they’re back at maximum range and the process starts over. The only technique that worked was equipping a gun, standing still, and waiting for them to get into range. Generally I would get one hit in for every two I took. Unsurprisingly, these gunslinging foes don’t have any weapons that can be looted on their death, although if I was extremely lucky, there was a chance I might get back half the ammo it took to kill them!

The final straw came when I was given an assignment to kill three bandits hiding in a cave next to a fort that criminals were using as a hideout. This meant that killing three target enemies required also killing a dozen more powerful foes first. I spent two hours grinding levels and collecting healing items before taking on the gang, and after killing two of the targets I couldn’t find the set of stairs leading to the third. As I went back to search for it, I discovered that every enemy I had struggled to kill on my way to the goal area had respawned the moment I left the screen. Stuck there, unable to go forward or backwards, I had to give up entirely.

While I’ve been extremely critical of M.E.A.T.‘s combat system, it’s possible that this torturously-bad fighting is intentional. The opening movie is a long pan across scenes of carnage where demons and beasts brutalize people, and everything about the game’s aesthetic reinforces the idea that this is a vicious, fallen world. In fact, the first quest in the game has the main character bribing a sheriff to release his prisoners to work as slaves in the player’s mine, and it only gets more bleak from there.

So, is M.E.A.T. a terrible game, or is it exactly the game the developers want it be? Is its frustrating gameplay a way of telling the player that they don’t belong on the frontier, and that everything wants to kill them because the white man’s presence in the West is anathema? If that was the developers’ intention, I applaud the bold decision to deliver a repellent experience in order to make a historical point. However, even if this is all by design, it doesn’t make the game any more playable, nor can I find any reason to recommend this agonizing gameplay.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Tripping Bears. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed.

Parents: This game was not rated by the ESRB, but it features Violence, Strong Language, and Use of Alcohol. It’s a gory horror game about brutality in the American west. Children absolutely should not be playing this. Consider it a strong T or light M, rating-wise.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. All vital information is given through text. Fonts cannot be resized. Fun fact – the game literally had NO SOUND until six weeks after its release!

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable. The game is controlled with a mouse and keyboard. Players can move with directional keys or mouse clicks. All attacking and inventory management is done with mouse clicks and keyboard hotkeys.

Daniel Weissenberger
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