Indiewatch – Treachery in Beatdown City overtly tackles racism… physically

I’m going to start this Indiewatch with a bit of a personal story. Earlier this year a small indie title came out called Treachery in Beatdown City which essentially mashed up a classic beat-em-up with a turn based RPG… and I didn’t think of it twice. I didn’t look into it much. It was a busy time. Animal Crossing was blowing up and Final Fantasy 7 Remake had just released and the pandemic had just hit and we were all adjusting to the new normal. What small coverage it was getting only talked about its gameplay and barely mentioned its story, with only a few people saying that it made them feel uncomfortable.

In my brain, all of this added together to tell me that this game probably wasn’t worth covering.

I was wrong.

Treachery in Beatdown City is about racism. It takes on racism with a humorous tone, but it is very direct about its issues, issues that were muted in coverage when the game first released.

It’s clear that this game is influenced by titles like Double Dragon and Final Fight. In those games, you always end up playing some sort of badass vigilante that takes on street gangs, usually filled with people of color. Treachery in Beatdown City flips the script. You are still badass vigilantes, but the enemies you face are corrupt cops who racially profile you, or entitled white people who are terrified of your mere presence. Big bosses wear suits and ties and have horrible blonde haircuts, while also hitting you with mean backbreakers.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all done in an over-the-top style very reminiscent of beat-em-ups back in the day. All the villains are loud and cartoonishly evil, at least in how on the nose their actions are. The character art specifically draws villains in grotesque distorted style while the heroes are jacked heroes of justice. Also, the plot is about how a mysterious ninja squad kidnapped president Blake Orama. I mean, this is that good NES absurdism at work.

But the absurdity doesn’t do much to soften the blow of the underlying message, and that’s a good thing. The game out and out says that these racial microagressions that the main characters go through are just normal life in Beatdown City. The hordes of dirty cops that want to beat you to death for no good reason? That’s just Tuesday. Developer Shawn Alexander Allen said in an interview with the L.A. Times that he based many of the interactions in Beatdown City on real experiences he had growing up as a Black kid in New York.

Now, there are reasons beyond the anti-racist plot to check out Treachery in Beatdown City. It does do something interesting with its gameplay. While you walk around the map like any other beat-em-up, you choose your commands like you would in an RPG. Stringing together longer combos get you more FP, which allows you to use cooler moves, however, it also exhausts you of your resources leaving you unable to block. It’s a rather deep game, but I would have liked to see a few more abilities to fool around with.

More than that, I want to use this as an example of how the voices of black indie developers can get unwittingly stamped out by people like me without even knowing it.

Every month I get tens to hundreds of indie game review requests coming across my desk, and I don’t have the time nor does Gamecrate have the space or budget to cover them all, and that’s not on Gamecrate. The same is true for IGN or any other big outlet. Tons of indie games come out each month and you have to pick and choose which ones you cover.

Treachery’s gameplay systems looked cool, but not “cool enough” in the extremely heavy blockbuster time period that it came out in, at least not to me. I asked myself “what is Beatdown City doing that other indies aren’t.” The answer to that is directly tackling racism, and yet I just didn’t see that anywhere, in anyone’s coverage, or even the game’s info page on Steam. It focuses on the absurdity, the ninja terrorists, the humor, and the battle system.

Nowhere did it make clear this game’s anti-racist message, and I suspect for good reason. It would probably be a target of a review bomb if it were that obvious. Heck, the user reviews didn’t even make that clear. Yet, in my opinion, the overt way it tackles these issues is exactly the reason to play it. Somehow, we all just decided to “not get political” about Beatdown City’s release… and that did it and its creator a pretty big injustice.

Now look, I’m getting pretty high and mighty about what is, ostensibly, a goofy RPG/beat-em-up, but sometimes profound messages are found in unexpected places. In this case, the profound message came in the form of an unredeemed review code and a sprite-art flying piledriver. Treachery in Beatdown City is a game that is fun, funny, and important. If you have $20 burning a hole in your pocket, you should check it out.