Indie Wonderland: Freaky Awesome

A few hours in

And you didn’t think I could do it.

Steam tells me that between that last play session and now, 3 hours of Freaky Awesome have passed. That’s strange, because I could have sworn it was longer. Which in and by itself might sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s not intended as such… or at least, not just intended as such. Listen, all I’m saying is, I thought I played more Freaky Awesome than I apparently did. Whether that means I lost track of time or that the game makes time drag on is left as an exercise for the reader, except I’m also going to explain what I mean in the next thousand words or so.

A caveat before we start, though. I read some (fair) criticism a while back that asserts that games writing (in general) describes games too much by referring to other, more established games, instead of by developing a more comprehensive and accessible vocabulary. This game is like Legend of Zelda, that game is like Halo, that sort of stuff. It’s correct, we all do it, and it’s also correct in the sense that it’s not a good habit for accessibility purposes. It’s an area in which games writing can stand to grow.

I’m going to spend a significant portion of this review comparing Freaky Awesome to The Binding Of Isaac. I do this with the full understanding that it’s a bad habit, but also it works, in a particular sense. Freaky Awesome is so obviously inspired by games in this mold, and by The Binding Of Isaac specifically, that I feel not making use of the comparison would almost hinder my ability to describe it well. It wouldn’t, there’s ways around this, but then again that would probably also inflate my review word length even more. So here we are.

It’s especially convenient here because, if you know the general layout and operation of The Binding Of Isaac, you know about 75% of everything there is to know about Freaky Awesome. Really saves me a lot of work rethreading ground that I hope is familiar to most. Things like: A level structure that goes through two levels of the same tileset. Procedurally-generated levels made up of interconnected boxes, forming a labyrinth with a boss at the end. Coins, keys, bombs of various structure. Chests with goodies. Special doors that require keys, or cash, or blood. Frantic action battles. Disgusting monsters that get more and more dangerous as you go down the level structure.

Levels with a viscerally horrifying organic tileset, you know the drill.

Instead, I want to focus this review on one big thing that Freaky Awesome does that works better than The Binding Of Isaac, and then several smaller things that work worse. How the balance for that shakes out with regard to your liking it or not is up to you to decide — but then, what else is new?

My favourite Freaky Awesome design change over its predecessors is this:

Woo, horrible monsters!

Or rather, this:

Woo, horrible monsters in a different context!

(You might be noticing the different colours, by the way: That’s not the thing I’m talking about, but I do appreciate that Freaky Awesome‘s totally cosmetic ‘character select’ — which only gives you different palettes of Cool Dude — transfers over to the mutations as well.)

The Binding Of Isaac has an interesting approach to character selection weight and ‘randomness’. You can unlock and choose from a dozen or so characters over the course of the game, but apart from two or so major exceptions, all characters can eventually become anything. Different levels of strength and speed can get equalized, and your capabilities are instead mostly determined by the random items you pick up.

Freaky Awesome has a significantly different approach. You select three of your unlocked mutation forms at the start of each run — the different monsters you can turn into, like the ‘chicken’, the ‘wasp’, and the ‘grub’, which by virtue of elimination has to be that weird head-shot thing. Those will be your forms for the run. You morph into one of them at the start, as shown earlier, and every time you fill up your green ‘goo’ bar, you mutate into one of the two forms you’re currently not. I thought there was some randomness involved in this, but there’s not: You always know exactly which two forms you’re getting next.

That system in and by itself is already something I like. Putting this amount of power selection and customization in player hands at the outset of the game makes it much easier — i.e., makes it possible at all — to tailor the experience you want to aim for. And as you collect more DNA over repeated plays and unlock more areas of the ‘skill’ tree, this goes even further: You can only bring a small handful of your unlocked skills into battle. So maybe you want to combo high-risk high-reward skills with ranged combat forms that allow you to avoid damage? Or pick defensive skills and throw melee forms into the fray?

My patented ‘hope that this skill procs on literally every hit and beat the game effortlessly that way’ strategy has yet to pan out.

It’s a cute idea, but — on paper — prone to getting repetitive. What if you like one form the best? Say you’re strictly a wasp form main. Changing forms is mediated by picking up goo, so then you just don’t do that, and play the same thing forever?

An idea like that might fly in The Binding Of Isaac, where combat is (often) relatively accurate and easy to read. But in Freaky Awesome, combat is a hectic mess. The pixel art is much more difficult to scan, the game can feel a little sluggish, and there’s often just a lot going on on any screen. There’s tons of enemies, and explosions, and traps, and hey more enemies just fell from the ceiling, and what do you mean that one thing also explodes…

You’re going to take damage, is what I’m saying. And you don’t have that much health to begin with, so you’re going to want to heal up. But true health pickups are rare, and you can’t rely on stores to carry everything you need, or even exist on every floor. Which means that the only reliable, constantly-available source of healing around is going to be…

Ugh, okay, FINE.

In case you read the earlier gameplay paragraph as criticism, let me make clear here that I think it’s a good thing Freaky Awesome‘s combat is difficult and sloppy. The hectic nature of it means you take damage, which means you’ll want to heal, which is going to make you mutate… more often than not at totally unexpected moments, since you’ll have better things to do than pay attention to the goo bar. And just like that, you’ve got three seconds to adjust to a completely different set of attacks. Quickly, before you take more damage… I like this so much because it’s a rare example of a kind of ludonarrative harmony: Mutation in this game should be weird and difficult and unpredictable, and the gameplay systems support that actually being the case.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: In easily most cases, you’ll mutate from picking up leftover goo after the battle. But sudden unexpected mutation onset in the middle of battles does happen, and when it does, it’s neat and terrible all at once.

Wasn’t a thunderfish when I started this room.

A secondary reason to pick up goo continually is that I think it plays into the whole end-of-level upgrade system. I think? I honestly don’t know. Right now I lean towards the idea that you get points for everything you do, and those determine your upgrades — but the upgrade visual itself using the green goo isn’t helping. At any rate, the upgrade system itself is fine on paper: Each form has four set upgrades, and at the end of every level you might get to pick one or more of them. They’re usually distributed like: One or two upgrades that improve your left-mouse attack, two or one that improve your right-mouse attack, and one more that’s just interesting. For instance, the grub form has one upgrade to extend neck length (left mouse), two upgrades that improve the egg worms (right mouse), and one upgrade that make it more resistant to projectiles, playing off the idea that the grub is big and slow and bad at dodging. You get where this is going.

Unfortunately, the upgrade system is also the part of the review where we get into Freaky Awesome‘s lesser bits. It works fine on paper, but in practice it just… isn’t that interesting. Because every form always has the same upgrades, you’ll be able to work out which upgrades you like the first time you get through a level. And from there on out, it’s basically just a linear upgrade path. There’s little or no strategizing involved: Most upgrades just make you better, so you pick the ones that improve the attack you like best.

Slightly more damning is the fact that what Freaky Awesome gains on The Binding Of Isaac in initial player customization and cool chaos, it loses away in uninteresting items and later development. The Binding Of Isaac has a tremendous range of items with wide-ranging effects, to the effect that it pretty much helped spawn the ‘wiki-game’ moniker. Finding an item in The Binding Of Isaac is almost always cause for an emotional reaction. In contrast, Freaky Awesome feels that it can’t add that same width of range, in no small part because the changing forms so strongly determine movement and attack — which changes moment-to-moment. So instead, there are three types of items in Freaky Awesome: Health pickups, which are essentially hearts by any other name; consumable items like grenades, bombs, and mutation canisters; and ‘floating buddies’, like wasps, buzzsaws, and tasers, that in theory do things like attack your enemies.

In theory.

In practice, I found that while The Binding Of Isaac gets more intense and chaotic and weird as you go down levels, Freaky Awesome gets less interesting. Or rather, it doesn’t change at all: It stays at exactly the same level of weird that it started on. The environments get different and more difficult, and the enemies get harder to fight and more numerous, but you as a player… just keep doing what you’re doing. The tricks you pulled on level 1 are still the tricks you pull on level 10, give or take a few upgrades that don’t do much more than change the numbers involved. Woo, my stinger does more damage per shot now. Woo.

I couldn’t shake the sensation that my enjoyment started dropping off as I got farther. Combat gets boring and grind-y as enemies become more numerous and harder to kill, which in turn makes the exploration of increasingly large levels a chore, while your own ability to engage with the world doesn’t change meaningfully. I would usually get all the ‘fun’ form upgrades by level 6 or so, at which point the rest of the game started feeling like an exercise in endurance. And while the skill system does add some flair, it requires a fair amount of grinding to get to a point where you have fun skills — or where you’re allowed to even bring more than one of them into the field.

The bosses lose some flair too. Remember how, to pull in a different comparison, Crypt of the Necrodancer always uses the same five boss fights, but in a randomized order? Yeah. Now imagine those bosses are about a third as engaging.

Wasp-beast! We meet again, just on a different floor this time.

Oh, and the game has one play soundtrack. I think. I’m probably misremembering, but in my mind there’s exactly one song that plays throughout your entire play sessions, regardless of level. And it’s just up-tempo and harsh enough that I always felt like it was too loud for comfort, no matter how much I turned the volume down.

In retrospect, using elevators as loading screens was ominously well-chosen.

The preceding is all pretty negative-sounding, so let me swing things back around a little by saying that Freaky Awesome isn’t not fun to play. Especially in early levels, moment-to-moment combat can be neat and engaging. The visuals are pretty cool, all themed around the idea of ‘weird genetics factory’ and ‘horrible mutant monsters’ in a way that evokes without orienting towards needless shock or body horror. I really like the consistency of some game mechanics: There’s clear visual overlap between doors and chests and obstacles that are solved with gold, or with keys, or by taking damage, leading to a game language that’s easy enough to parse. That you can unlock new forms will never not be a major draw for me, and I really really like that that unlocking process can take place over time: New forms are stored in vaults, which you pay for with money, keys, and blood — but not necessarily all at once.

I made some down payments on this vault, but I don’t have the resources to open it right now. But if I find it again in a later game, it’ll be in this state — not the state it was in when I found it first.

Freaky Awesome has all that good stuff. It just also has repetition, a gradually slowing-down pace, and boring unsatisfying items. If it’d leaned into its own chaos a little bit more, I might have been a lot more positive about it. As it stands, though…

Note to future game designers: ‘Bees’ are, in and by themselves, not intrinsically interesting. *Do* something with the bees.

Final thoughts

I don’t think I’ll ever get to one pithy summary of Freaky Awesome. On the one hand, I remember slowly getting bored in several playthroughs, hitting that ‘sweet’ spot between not being intrinsically interested enough to keep playing on its own right, and just not having enough mental capacity to really enjoy a podcast. On the other hand… I do want to see what else it has in store. Find new forms, mess with those. Get more upgrades. Maybe reach the final level? It’s complicated.

If you think ten bucks is a fair price for a game with neat ideas, questionable execution, then Freaky Awesome might be good for you. And even though I said I wouldn’t touch that part of it, there’s no denying that it seems interesting as a couch coop game as well — mutating with four players at once. Maybe give it a shot if that’s your thing? There’s a 4-pack deal on the game website.

For everyone else — for once, just for once, I won’t judge if you wishlist this instead. You know what for. Don’t make me say it out loud.

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Jarenth exclusively pays full price for his games — unless he pays no price at all. It’s a 50/50 thing. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam, if you’d like. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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