Meat Puppet

In writing about Postal Plus, I casually mentioned that nobody remembered Meat Puppet. Even on release, the only thing I remember about it was the advertisement of the gold-clad leading lady grabbing equal parts of a gun and her own chest. Very sour contemporary reviews cast it off as a sub-par Crusader clone, despite MobyGames’ trivia asserting it was in development first. What few YouTube videos there are only show the first 20 minutes of the game. Searches are likely to turn up the band instead. It really did seem like my throwaway jab was true, and now, I was curious to see if this would be another hidden gem.

“Party girl” clearly means something different in the future.

You’re cast as goth pinup Lotos Abstraction, a self-proclaimed “party girl” who answered an ad and found herself kidnapped and memory wiped. Now bound to do the bidding of “The Martinet,” she’s tasked with assassinating five heads of industry in future Los Angeles before a bomb in her colon detonates. She’ll work alongside her controller, a tech-savvy prisoner in a bondage suit named Dumaine, as they carry out The Martinet’s will while trying to uncover their lost memories, the truth about their mysterious master, and find a way to escape.

It sounds interesting, and if nothing else, there’s a lot of world-building here. You start in a hub area, and the corporations’ vast headquarters are referred to as Embassies. Each of them specializes in a different technology or powerful aspect of future society. The Eugenics Clinic cranks out mutant children for battle. Distopia has exclusive contracts to manufacture armaments. Introspect seeks to connect the idle brains of sleeping humans into a massive processing network. It’s oppressive cyberpunk done well, with striking art styles for all areas varying from the future gothic of the Lions of Industry, to the pitted concrete of Distopia’s indoor rocket testing ranges.

As a heroine, Lotos is very much a product of the mid-90s. She’s clearly budget Æon Flux, though the ability to backflip away from enemies or nimbly somersault over land mines or fire jets, is cooler than most heroes of the genre. She’s absolutely overflowing with big ’90s F.U. energy, from throwing out snarky responses in every cutscene she’s in, to sighing loudly and mumbling “great” when shot. Hit a wall you can’t move past and she’ll throw her hands up in a shrug. Let her sit idle and she’ll put hands on hips and tap an impatient foot. If you were a teen in the 90s, you might even empathize with how hard she must be rolling her eyes all. the. time. If you weren’t, you’re probably going to find her attitude as insufferable as our parents did.

Lotos fights a boss inside a weaponized iron lung. Weird shit.

It’s got heart. Designer David Sears clearly watched a lot of Liquid Television, but the game wears its style well and mostly avoids being a lazy ripoff. The plot consistently comes up with enough weird shit to keep you interested – one of the assassination targets is a giant brain floating in a vat, that you must then push through the rest of the level and down some stairs into a massive grinder (while it complains the entire trip). An aged CEO constantly defecates while monologuing before a fight. There’s bondage references and a tongue-gun. If nothing else, I was kept wondering where all this was going. And the graphics generally look sharp and attractive, sporting the same isometric look that Ultima VIII, Fallout, and Crusader all wore well. Not a shabby start by any means, but that’s about where the good news ends. The execution grinds the whole show right into the dirt.

For starters, it bills itself as a hyper-violent action shooter, but it never actually feels that way. Everyone, including Lotos, just kind of plods along. AI cautiously saunters closer to you and flees erratically when you shoot, but never show any kind of cooperation or plan. There are around eight different enemy types, and none of them react differently in appreciable ways. Even when they’re aware of you, they usually crack off a couple shots before wandering around a bit elsewhere. There’s actually not much gore on display, and what is looks like raspberry jam. My best guess is they wanted the edginess of shooting armed preschoolers with the safety of showing that, see, they’re just mutants!

Weapons don’t feel great to shoot. Lotos’ hand cannon shoots six different ammo types. Of all of them, only the machine gun, flamethrower, and rockets are worth your time. The tranquilizer darts feel like the machine gun with extra steps, and while the nerve gas initially seems good at crowd control, it requires you to go through multiple cycles of knocking enemies down and shooting them again when they get back up. Another weapon could have just dropped them from the beginning. Combined with its range and ability to destroy wall turrets, the machine gun becomes the most versatile option – unfortunately, its ammo pickups aren’t abundant enough to keep up with demand.

You can set most enemies on fire, but generally it’s just shoot until they fall.

There’s also no aim assistance like you would later see with Crusader or Postal. This really slows down the pace of combat. Firing basically takes a snapshot of where the cursor is pointed and puts bullets there – if your target wanders away or your aim isn’t pixel perfect, no damage is sustained. If you’re blocked by angles the isometric view doesn’t make clear, no damage is sustained. The engine doesn’t seem able to support automatic fire, so the machine gun needs frantic clicks to keep up damage while the flamethrower can cancel itself out if you click too fast. You can adapt to all this with time, but the fact that weapons don’t behave intuitively – plus the fact that no enemies drop ammo, health, or anything to make them worth fighting – made combat something I often ran past than tried to deal with.

No isometric action game – with the possible exception of Diablo I & II – is particularly intuitive to control. The 3/4 angle looks great, but requires some brain filtering to translate expectations into accurate movement. Meat Puppet, unfortunately, doesn’t handle this well. The default scheme has Lotos turning to follow the mouse cursor and heading toward it when the right mouse button is held. Left shoots at whatever the cursor is hovering over. It’s the snappiest control scheme and arguably the best for navigation, at the cost of being very loose.

See, levels here are far more vertical than in similar isometric shooters, with screens often having multiple levels of different platforms. It’s difficult to navigate, so there are a number of tweaks to mouse mode to “help” you. When Lotos hits a wall, she will run along the it as long as right mouse is held, regardless of where the cursor is. If you’re not paying attention, she’ll haul off in the entirely opposite direction. A similar effect happens on stairs, where holding right mouse bounds you up, up, and then immediately off the ledge at the top. You didn’t let go of the mouse soon enough, so now to circle back and try again. There’s a level of precision required here that the mouse mode just can’t deliver, and while it’s the easiest mode to get around with, you’ll still find yourself struggling to corral Lotos far too often.

Plenty of platforms for Lotos to fling herself off of, or refuse to climb.

It seems clear that developer Kronos knew they never got the controls right, but they just ran out of time. I assume this is why the “advanced” controls exist, with a hotkey to switch between the two at any time. In advanced mode, instead of tracking the mouse cursor, Lotos now rotates in place with the Left and Right arrow keys. She only moves with the Up arrow key. You still shoot wherever the cursor is located, but you now have tighter control when climbing stairs or navigating the thoroughly horrible jumping pad room.

The problem is that this mode is fiddly as all hell, combining the worst of Resident Evil tank controls with a view and gameplay pace totally unsuited for it. I tried to adjust to using this as the main control scheme, but despite its imprecision, mouse mode is so much faster. Being able to switch between the two on the fly makes the game playable, when it flatly wouldn’t be if you were stuck with one or the other. There are modifier keys to allow Lotos to roll left and right, or flip forward or back, but lining these up is just as awkward as it is in Crusader. The fantasy of tumbling out behind some boxes with gun ready doesn’t match up with the frustrations of getting the angle right and aiming quickly.

One extra note – the in-game controls won’t tell you how to jump, which is needed from the first screen. Double-clicking right mouse in mouse control mode will hop up on ledges as tall as Lotos’ head. If you can’t make the jump, or aren’t close enough to the edge, Lotos will shrug her shoulders and huff about it. This also extends to ledges you can jump on, but just don’t have the cursor on the right spot, or Lotos’ rotation lining up correctly. It’s hard to get into the game when it’s often a chore to simply move around its levels, and even more so when there are better, similar games out there.

Many screens have decorations that can be destroyed, but these really just drag the framerate down.

A lot has been made of the game’s forced time limit. The Martinet uses Lotos’ colon bomb as leverage to get her heading to the next assassination. The plot directly involves spending time away from that to benefit yourself, such as seeking out an armor upgrade, or looking for answers in the House of Plasm. I fully expected to be at least rushed balancing these chores, especially given that contemporary reviews make the time limit sound unplayable, and the first thing that every crack out there does is to remove the time limit.

In reality? It… just was never an issue. The game starts with a 20 minute time limit to find the first boss (never displayed, but sporadically announced by a computer voice). You can do it in 10 with no idea where to go beyond what the first mission screen tells you. From there, the manual directly states that you’ll have “hours” between assassinations, and I think they literally mean it. I started becoming convinced I’d messed the game up somewhere and this was no longer a true representation of how it played. Suddenly, there it was – after spending hours mapping the sewer levels – an announcement of 30 real-time minutes to off the next guy I was already heading for. The clock had indeed been running the whole time, it was just absurdly generous. If you’re willing to scout/map ahead and then reload a save, I bet you’ll never hear the countdown announcement and the safety of Lotos’ pooper will be ironclad.

After nuking the first boss, you’ll be introduced to a prototype “trained metal” suit. This gives Lotos the golden sheen seen in the promo art, and drains energy steadily while letting you absorb more hits. If you ever run out of energy, Lotos goes back to her default black suit. To regain that energy, you’re asked to blow open power boxes and walk into the sparks. Quoting Dumaine, it’s “good for the suit, but bad for you.” This creates a strange system where you have to sacrifice health for armor, while trusting that you’ll be able to find health pickups further ahead. I often didn’t, making this extra resource management feel like an unnecessary pain. That armor is too useful to ignore, though, especially when upgraded.

Many of the Embassies look impressive.

I certainly didn’t expect it, but you’re going to need to use a map to get around. These levels are massive, and many areas require you to scour around for terminals, switches, or things to blow up to proceed. A basic map is included in the box, as well as short maps on terminals within the Embassies. In modern times, it’s easy enough to snap a cell phone photo and follow along that way, but you’ll still have to build your own (fairly elaborate) map of the sewers to beat the game. If you know what you’re getting into, it’s not a horrible challenge. If you’re just expecting to blast some futuristic goons, you’re going to be disappointed to find that action really takes a backseat here.

There’s a pretty great CD soundtrack, giving equal parts thumping techno and background ambiance as you explore the city. It’s almost entirely cancelled out by enemies that have the same issue that made Postal almost unbearable. For whatever reason, enemies repeat their handful of lines almost nonstop and layered over each other. Guards announce “Subdue the intruder!” Eugenics nurses gripe “We need a union!” Mutants in the sewer regurgitate a hellish cacophony of wheezes and mutterings. It’s definitely not a compatibility issue with modern systems (as I tested on real 90s hardware), it just seems like everyone at Kronos and Playmates heard this endless bleating and decided “Yep! Sounds great!”

The ending seems rushed and unfinished as well. After a pretty impotent showdown with The Martinet, you and Dumaine decide to continue working together in a series of communication screens lazily laid over the last frame of the final battle. No CG cutscene, no voice work. I suppose it’s setting up a sequel that would answer more questions about the “Dark Cyphers” that end up being this game’s big mystery, but very little seems to get resolved here. No lost memories are recovered, nothing is learned about Dumaine. I can’t even confidently tell you why The Martinet wanted those leaders killed, except maybe because they discovered the Cyphers, and I only have a vague grasp of what those are supposed to be anyway.

High-rez 800×600 mode will likely need real hardware.

You can allegedly run Meat Puppet on Windows 10, but any configuration I tried left parts of the screen black. DXWnd worked well enough, but wasn’t playing the CD sound. A PCem solution gave CD music and enough compatibility to finish the whole game, but ran at a slower framerate and was too choppy for 800×600.

Of course, the whole game runs best on native Win98 hardware, but you’re going to need an authentic disc to get past its copy protection. No official patch was ever released, but fan patches just “happen” to crack out CD checks and, as said, remove the time limit. They seem to do this by using a debug or developer mode – I changed advanced movement from the arrow keys to WASD, and the D key would generate a useless door wherever the cursor was. Room exits would also randomly not trigger, forcing me to reload a save. Use these cracks at your own peril.

Ultimately, there’s a reason there’s nothing on GameFAQs and no one’s put up a playthrough on YouTube. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like Meat Puppet after about 30 minutes, but for some reason (stubborn? hopeful?) I stuck with it for a whole month until the end. Boy, that was a waste of good time. Levels are often pretty, but steering Lotos around them is far more difficult than it should be. Enemies are plentiful, but combat and weapons are both awkward and unsatisfying. There’s a decent foundation for a story, but the actual plot ends abruptly and its dark humor often misses the mark.

 

The Good

Art and design is often striking. Universe is dystopian cyberpunk done well. Semi-open world is expansive and has enough clues to let you get around if you don’t have the included paper map.

 

The Bad

Controlling Lotos is often a chore, especially when combined with the many layers of vertical platforms on one screen. AI doesn’t put up much of a fight, while weapons are difficult to aim and pack little punch. Story isn’t worth the journey.

 

I don’t want to kill anyone else, Dumaine.  These assassinations annoy the shit out of me.” — Lotos

 

Our Score
Click to rate this game!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]

7 thoughts on “Meat Puppet

  1. I can confirm that I’m among those who had never heard of this game before. Not that this automatically follows (the arrogance!) but I wonder if it perhaps never got a release in the UK?

    I do remember Bedlam and Gender Wars, both isometric blast ’em ups of the same era. Although the latter had a more of a squad-based element (and some terrible/dubious humour).

    Thoughts upon reading this review:

    1) Great work!
    2) Have JGR ever reviewed Crusader? (no)
    3) Did I find Crusader too fiddly and annoying? (not sure)
    4) Where are my Crusader discs? (in some box somewhere)
    5) Perhaps I should get these on GOG and find out? (oh for god’s sake…)

  2. Hi J,
    You’ve found a very peculiar game!
    However, apparently, we are facing yet another wasted potential.
    Too bad, because I’m a fan of Aeon Flux too (from the original Peter Chung series, not a soap opera with Charlize Theron), and I wish this game had been done better, given the bizarre, bit still interesting premises. And the lack of detailed in-game maps (just thinking of overlays in Diablo and Restricted Area) is a big shortcoming, especially nowadays, given how we are used to them.
    I can understand the difficulty with navigation and the gunfights. I recently finished Crusader: No Remorse (another coinsidence), the game I left in oblivion for a long time, just because its controls can cause cramps to the fingers. Luckily, that game didn’t have trouble with aiming and hit register. So once I get used to the right keys, I had a lot of fun with that.
    Double shame, too, the fact that there aren’t many games based on the original Aeon Flux character and Chung’s stories. I found only mention on the tie-in game to the movie (for PS2/Xbox), plus a game based on the source material and created by an amateur: https://www.moddb.com/games/aeon-flux-episodes. I’m playing the latter these days: it’s not bad, but it’s still in beta, after more than eleven years.
    While we’re at it, I hope you’ll find interest and opportunity to review Crusader (you or Rik, whom I greet), which is present on GOG, and that Aeon game based on the movie (there’s still the Extras! column on JGR ;)).
    All the best.

  3. Hi Oleg!

    Interesting to hear you enjoyed Crusader: No Remorse. I was surprised it hadn’t been reviewed on JGR so was really wondering aloud in my comment above if J had played it and what he thought of it!

    Looking again, it does sound as if I’m not doing that and instead am readying myself to dive into it sometime soon, but I’m not sure if that’s likely. A bit fiddly and annoying was indeed my recollection but I wasn’t a very patient gamer in the old days.

    Having now unpacked all of my gaming boxes, it appears that I kept my CD copy of the sequel (No Regret) but there’s no trace of the first game, which I must have sold or given away at some point. A bizarre decision that I can neither remember nor explain.

    Hope you’re well!

  4. Hi Rik!
    Nice to hear from you!
    Whatever you want to do with Crusader, I suggest you play No Remorse first and then try your hand at the sequel, because the first has a story told through short FMV clips, while in No Regret those were not included (perhaps, due to tight budget). So half the fun and sense of accomplishment goes away.
    Some players have called No Regret a mission pack, rather than a sequel, just for that reason.
    I, on the other hand, have yet to play it, so I can’t tell you anything for now.
    Stay safe and all the best!

  5. Sorry, I just checked again the comments about No Regret, so I must correct the FMV ordeal: there’s still some story narrated through clips, so there’s no loss in that sense.
    It seems that what some people can not accept is the reworking in the gameplay and a story, apparently, little inspired.
    Anyway, I can guarantee that the first one is fun.
    All the best.

  6. I am absolutely enamored with the IDEA of this game. The setting, visuals and plot are phenomenal, but are let down by the clunky gameplay. What I wouldn’t give to read the original design document for this…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.