Most people will tell you writing reviews isn’t hard work at all; that it’s a cushy job. Just play the game, write down what you think and there you go, done. Sometimes, though, things aren’t as simple. Sometimes one really has to sit back and try – try hard – to be as objective as possible towards a game, despite its issues. That’s the case with the latest release from the husband-and-wife studio Whalenought, modeled after their previous and quite interesting CRPG throwback Serpent in the Staglands. So, what’s the problem with Mechajammer?
A CYBERPUNK PIXELATED EXPERIENCE
Before I began working on this review, Mechajammer – released last December – was already patched to version 1.1. The update fixed many issues like crashes and quicksaving problems, and added side missions. Quicksaving does work now. However, the engine really looks to be struggling with that, taking way too much time to save the player’s progress. In addition, some balancing issues with combat and character creation still aren’t addressed. Though fixing these, I’m afraid, would require rethinking the gameplay from scratch.
Mechajammer is a turn-based tactical RPG experience. First, the player fills in the many details related to their character, going as far as choosing what their past was. Such freedom comes with drawbacks, however. It’s too easy, especially for an inexperienced player, to make a nigh-unplayable character. Think of a soldier with butterfingers who just keeps trying to run away, every battle – each turn. Sure, it’s also possible to not pick any drawbacks at all. However, in the end, the entire system makes it look like Whalenought didn’t at all anticipate the weight of the player’s choices.
It’s possible to create a character who uses laser pistols, or slug pistols, or knives, or swords – or who’s just good at melee. Unfortunately, most of these choices – except the sword and the general melee – will result in a bad experience. As for the characters who can’t even fight, well, good luck with those. Throughout the several hours I’ve played, I found neither a decent handgun, nor enough bullets to survive even a few fights. It does feel like all that freedom during the character creation ends with the character creation. Any choices non-compliant with the world of Mechajammer will result in instant termination.
I haven’t yet talked about the story and well, that’s mainly because there isn’t much to talk about. The player’s spaceship crash-lands on the planet, and then the various missions start. The first one is opening the bridges in order to access more of the city. That – of course – requires killing someone. That’s basically it for a huge chunk of gameplay: go around doing various tasks in the city; then go back to the crew for healing and new missions.
There aren’t even any actual interactive NPCs, as far as I can tell, except those essential to the plot. Conversations between characters proceed in a stylish comic book-like tree. These, however, are short and to the point, with our main character usually unable to ask about more than a single subject.
The game uses an isometric perspective. As such, movement is done by clicking around with the left mouse button, while interaction – with the right one. Surviving alone is impossible, so finding a team of vagrants – later mercenaries – to fight at our side is essential. They will, unfortunately, be little more than cannon fodder, without names or personality.
The most interaction with them will be giving them weapons, so that they’ll become slightly less useless. Instead of turns, the game pauses the time for us to assign moves to individual characters. This does allow for some basic planning when fights are against one or two bad guys. That system, however, ends up being a complete mess when there’s too much going on.
As I’ve mentioned, any attempts at using anything other than swords, or melee weapons in general, will result in simply not having enough bullets to fight with. There aren’t any shops selling weapons or ammo – or at least I didn’t manage to find any in the first zones. Mechajammer almost feels like Shadowrun for masochists. It’s for those who enjoy that grimy, futuristic atmosphere – and would also like to plan each fight in painstaking detail.
The problem is that this game doesn’t allow us to survive while playing anything other than a single specific kind of character. Still, it doesn’t look too bad with its pixelated almost PS1 graphics, even if making sense of what exactly some objects represent can be a pain. In addition, it also features quite a superb soundtrack.
BECAUSE I AM UNLOVEABLE
Keeping track of missions and objectives is easier said than done: Mechajammer only records documents and their locations. Those who want to follow the missions’ progress must write it down themselves. The game even includes a special notebook application for that task. While it does make for a nostalgic throwback to the classic RPGs of old (Whalenought used the same system in Serpent in the Staglands), it’s a design choice that doesn’t seem to benefit anyone – or even make sense given the context. I mean, if I can choose one thing to keep track of, why would it be the documents?
The entire time I’ve been playing Mechajammer I felt as if there was something I was missing. I kept imagining there was so much more to discover and explore just beyond my view! Try as I might, though – I could never reach anything of interest. Of course, it didn’t help that most attempts at exploring the city beyond my mission’s areas resulted in being swarmed by enemies in a matter of seconds. Still, with its brutal difficulty and quite stylish look – plus the freedom to explore – Mechajammer could manage to find its niche. Any fans, however, would have to forgive many of its shortcomings and adapt to its very peculiar flavor.