An ambitious title, sadly released in an unfinished state. Too buggy and inaccessible to be completed, let alone recommended until some major changes are rolled out.
Genre: RPG, Immersive sim
Developer: Whalenought Studios
Publisher: Modern Wolf
Release date: 2 December, 2021
Dream on, Copper Dreamer
Five and a half years after their successful Kickstarter campaign, Whalenought have released Mechajammer unto the world to fend for itself – for as we are about to learn, handholding is not the name of the game here.
I don’t want to come off as mean-spirited or dismissive, as Mechajammer seems like quite an ambitious undertaking for just a two-person studio, and while working on something for over five years is admirable in its own right, it’s more than clear that the game simply wasn’t ready.
Scroll to the bottom of Mechajammer’s Steam page, and you’ll be met with numerous negative reviews, mostly complaining about game-breaking bugs. Spend enough time with the game however, and you’ll realize that bugs aren’t the only thing that went wrong. Underneath the grimy, bug-ridden surface is a game that’s not fully thought out. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any positives, or that there isn’t potential for something great, but without major changes, it won’t be worth the time of many players, except those who are most dedicated.
Mechajammer bills itself as a “cyberpunk horror CRPG”, but a CRPG it is not. Treat it as such, and you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. “Immersive sim” would be much more fitting, even if Mechajammer has plenty of RPG elements to it, such as character creation, dice rolls, and turn-based combat.
Character creation is the most interesting part of the game. First and foremost, aside from the avatar and name, you get to choose the age of your character and the various occupations you’ve held throughout your life. Older characters will have higher stats than younger ones due to their experience, but will also suffer more negatives for having spent more time in Mechajammer’s unforgiving universe. There’s some planning to it as well, as certain occupations earlier in your life can open up new ones later on. If you’ve been a nurse before the age of 20, you can opt to have been a lab assistant from ages 20 to 26. You also pick the negatives each background comes with. Among other options, characters with a military background can choose to suffer from PTSD or nerve damage, while doctors can pick to compulsively follow their healer’s oath, making them give a medkit to anyone who might ask. None of these choices will bar you from using certain equipment while playing, but they will affect your Virtues and Studies, stats that determine how effective your character is at using said equipment, and performing different tasks. The number to the left of a skill represents its Pips, a flat amount added to every role you make for it, which is a d6 by default. However, you also have extra dice to allocate to any Virtues or Studies you’d want your character to be better at, thus potentially gaining a higher number any time you roll.
Afterwards, you get to experience a short cutscene and are thrust into the story and the world of the game, where Earth and the numerous other planets humans have colonized are engaged in perpetual war, as Earth’s governance begins to slip and control of said planets is lost to profit-driven syndicates. You play as part of a group of drafted soldiers who, following a skirmish, decide to escape their military life, but crash land in the city of Calitana and must figure out a way to escape. During the crash, one of your comrades goes missing, so your first goal, and the introductory quest of the game, will be to find him.
Aside from its visuals and music, Mechajammer might have one one of the worst introductions of any game I’ve played.
The first thirty or so minutes let you get familiarized with the awkward controls, and if anything, let you absorb the amazing visuals. The look of Calitana has a great sense of consistency to it and just perfectly presents a cyberpunk dystopia. It has this dirty, grungy, metallic, post-punk feel to it, almost as if it were a visual representation of a Joy Division song. And just look at those character portraits, so full of style and personality, even without voice acting. There’s this neat detail where the text of what different characters are saying is written in different fonts, further helping you imagine what they might sound like. Mechajammer’s soundtrack takes a different approach, instead offering a synth-driven mix filled with punchy drum beats that drive up the tension. The menu theme, which leaves quite a strong first impression when you start up the game, sounds like a mix of The Terminator and Deus-Ex themes. No one should deny that Mechajammer has an excellently composed soundtrack. The sound design however, leaves a lot to be desired. While combat sounds great, most other sounds are quite underwhelming. I’ve found the game to be oddly quiet, almost as if sounds were missing. For example, rain sounds like a couple of drops on a car roof. Breaking down a door with a wrench sounds like hitting two planks against each other. It makes the atmosphere paper-thin in a game where it should be as thick as a fume cloud above an overpopulated metropolis.
You move around by left-clicking on the ground, with no option to drag the mouse or use WASD. It’s quite awkward and made worse by the fact that right-click is what you use to attack, so it might not be uncommon that you hit another character or surface by accident. There’s no option to rebind keys, but it is something the developers have confirmed to be working on, among other things. You won’t have a quest log to keep track of your current goals or information you gather, but there is a notepad you can freely write in – a design decision I quite like, but with how little information Mechajammer gives you, it just adds fuel to the fire.
There is a tutorial, but even it is sort of broken. Let’s say there’s a bit where you’re supposed to take out a group of enemies with a gun in the tutorial; should you die attempting it, your ammo wont respawn, which can turn the whole thing into a slog. Furthermore, if you start the tutorial from within the game by talking to a specific character, instead of the main menu, you’ll be thrown back to the main menu after completing it. On launch, this meant that, unless you saved after character creation, you’d have to go through it again, but thankfully the developers have since patched the game to include a save after the intro; a patch which also deleted my saved games. While the tutorial is ultimately designed with rolls that you’re supposed to pass, rolling for anything in the actual game feels awful. Try lockpicking a door or hacking a terminal and you’ll only know whether you’ve failed or succeeded, not how close or far off you were from the mark. Not to mention, these rolls can be attempted an infinite number of times. You can just sit there, rolling again and again, thinking: “Maybe this time it’ll work!” These non-combat skills have a rather limited usage, as each can be used for pretty much just one thing. Hacking is just used for hacking. Burglary is just used for lockpicking. Quietness is just used for sneaking, and so on. You can’t talk your way through a quest, you can’t pickpocket an important item you might need from an enemy, you can’t find an alternate route to succeed. It’s just combat, combat, combat. If you’ve created a character that’s more oriented towards other skills, thinking you’ll find your own way to solve the problem at hand… Well, you’re wrong.
Combat has it even worse, as even here the game keeps schtum. There’s no hit percentages, no combat log. Calling it turn-based is awfully misleading too, as it’s in same sense that Superhot is. While you move, your enemies move, which doesn’t really contribute to any sort of tactics in Mechajammer, aside from sometimes dodging an incoming attack. Which attack has the best chance to hit? What can I do before my enemy closes in? I can’t pause mid action, so if I try to shoot someone and they catch up to bash my head in, I can’t change course. That’d be cool and justify such a system, but the game doesn’t allow for it. What exactly constitutes a turn? The game never tells you. Furthermore, you can target different parts of your enemies’ bodies, with different outcomes depending on where you hit. But, again, there’s no information on how effective which attack will be. It’s all guess work. It doesn’t even let you know what you just picked up, except for some very specific items. You’ll constantly be checking your inventory to see what it was.
To make matters slightly easier, but equally frustrating, there’s Mechajammer’s party system. Using your Social skill, you can charm almost any non-hostile NPC in the game into following you. You can then ask them what they’re good at, and equip them with weapons accordingly. The degree of control you have over them in combat is sadly minimal. You can separate them into different groups, order them to behave in a more ranged or melee fashion, or keep them close to you, but regardless of what you choose they’ll have a mind of their own, which most often results in them getting foolishly killed without there being much room for strategizing. Amassing as many of them as possible is the obvious meta strat, and the only one that can’t fail on you.
Overall, it took around 6 hours to start feeling comfortable with how Mechajammer works, and even then the bugs kept me on my toes. I once reloaded a save and a character I was on my way to rescue spawned in front of me, without the game reacting to it. Another time, I died and respawned, and the world was filled with countless NPCs that weren’t there before. I accidentally quick-saved during a conversation and the game hard-locked, forcing me to go through character creation again. My inventory was full when I was supposed to receive a quest item, so I never got it. I’ve had an important enemy de-spawn after loading a save that was made mid-combat, leading to a hard lock and being forced to start a new game. You can find similar horror stories in the reviews on the Steam page, where players had to start new games due to permanently getting their characters knocked out or sent into PTSD episodes that wouldn’t end until the character got killed. Strangely, the Save/Load menu leads you to the Load section first, which in terms of UI looks identical to the Save one. It’s quite possible that you’ll accidentally load your game when trying to overwrite a previous one, resulting in lost progress. It’s also burdened with performance issues that make the game take ridiculously long to boot up, and suffer massive frame drops in certain areas, even on the lowest settings.
The game finally broke me when, after beating a quest and being transported back to the main base, all of the enemies I had previously killed respawned. Contextually within the story, this made no sense, and with the game giving me basically no info, I don’t know if it’s a bug or not. I shrugged it off one last time and tried going in a different direction, where I got gunned down by a squad of police officers with no prior warning and opportunity to react. I won’t deny that there isn’t appeal in traversing a dangerous world with a chance of getting killed being present at all times, but when you prioritize player agency to the point where the player is encouraged to use it on playing a different game, you’ve sort of crossed the line.
Despite Whalenought having already announced numerous fixes coming to not only bugs, but some of the game’s more punishing design decisions as well, I’d still advise against playing it, at least for now. With patches having a tendency to delete your previous saves, and Mechajammer being a 20-30 hour long adventure that’ll definitely take some fidgeting with to properly figure out, I just can’t bring myself to keep playing it past the ten hours I already have been, not until its problems are fixed. Neither should you, unless you have plenty of time and nerves to spare.