As Guns N’ Roses legendary late 80’s hard rock anthem invitingly blares out: ‘Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games.’ While the off-world colony you and your group of Earth Collective deserters unceremoniously crash-landed on doesn’t have much in the way of fun and games, they do have a jungle. While it may be full of bloodthirsty mutants and gangs of roaming scavengers, it is only slightly worse than the city streets which, uh, are also full of gangs, rioters, and the occasional killer pack of rats. Maybe deserting wasn’t the right choice after all, but anyways: Welcome to the lawless colony of Calitana. Your only goal is to do whatever it takes for you and your friends to survive and escape, no matter what it takes and no matter the wreckage left behind.
The first thing you notice from the start is how this game simply oozes atmosphere. Mechajammer is set in a dark and oppressive cyberpunk city full of nooks and crannies to explore and is surrounded by a hazard-filled jungle. And explore you shall. The pixel-work has a gritty style to it while still having smooth animations to give the world around you a nice, smooth flow while the bumping synthwave track uneasily thumps away in the background. It would easily fit in with the retrofuturistic 80’s movies that it takes its inspiration from. I know this from experience since my gaming sessions were often accompanied by Bladerunner running in the background. Don’t take my word for it: play the final scene with Deckard and Roy while Mechajammer’s start menu music is playing.
However; you can’t jump into the game without first creating a character. While a quick look at Mechajammer’s gameplay may trick you into thinking it is an action game, it is really a turn-based CRPG at its grimy, techno core and the character creation reflects this. There isn’t much in the way of cosmetics aside from choosing between a limited number of character portraits and coat colors (it’s the future: everybody wears long coats), but the other choices are extremely important and should be considered carefully since it is very hard to upgrade skills once you’ve started. The attributes rely on a system where dice are a stand-in for skill points. The fun begins with having a handful of dice to assign to two sets of skills. Virtues are a core set of skills that passively affect your characteristics and studies. A few examples of this are Learning and Perception. Learning directly affects studies that deal with chemistry, computers, and mechanics. It also helps you decipher the alien languages you will come across in Calitana. Some notes you will find laying around during the game will show up as a mix of letters and question marks; the higher your learning is the more question marks are replaced by letters. If your learning is high enough you can puzzle out what the notes say. It is usually silly stuff, like a reminder to stop leaving food around the workplace but sometimes you’ll strike gold and learn an important tidbit. Perception is a virtue that deals directly with your ability to see and attack, adding modifiers to your weapon aiming rolls.
Studies are your second and equally important library of skills that directly affect specific aspects of the gameplay. About two-thirds of these are dedicated to proficiency in a wide range of weaponry found in Mechajammer. These include fun things like laser spears, slug rifles, laser pistols, and swords. Nothing beats a classic, I guess. The rest are suited for the other mechanics, like burglary for things like lockpicking, hacking for the obvious, or the extremely important social but I’ll touch on that later. In keeping with the dice theme, leveling up grants you a few pips that you can assign to your studies. Once you have assigned six pips to a study, you gain a full die and whatever bonus that would grant to the relevant skill. Every so often a level up grants you a full die to one of your virtues. I think it is every ten levels but I’m not 100% sure since I only ever went to the character record screen to assign points after gaining a lot of levels.
The final aspect of your brand new character is their job history, starting with their type of birth kit. You have three choices and what it pretty much boils down to is what some of your late-life job choices can be, though one claims to help with a person’s skills and ease of learning. Starting with your first job choice, the game will continue to ask you what jobs you have worked during specific years of your life, with the age getting older the more jobs you choose. Some jobs offer you natural advantages but every job offers you bonus pips, but only if you select one flaw from the list to go along with it. One example is marshmallow: your job made you soft to the point you cannot wield two-handed weaponry. One of my favorite flaws has your character rolling a check every game hour to see if he falls over his own two damn feet. You don’t need to choose a flaw but then you cannot benefit from the job bonus. The better jobs have natural advantages that you gain without needing to accept a flaw, like a surgeon, but these are usually late-life jobs. The more jobs you take, the more benefits and flaws you can gain but there is another problem with that as well. The older you are, the fewer points you can sink into body-related virtues such as muscle mass and perception. It’s a clever tradeoff: with age comes wisdom but the body isn’t what it used to be.
Mechajammer is a hardcore CRPG experience that doesn’t offer any hand-holding after the first thirty minutes or so, once you complete the tutorial and intro mission to lower the bridges around the area and gain access to the city proper. Instead, it follows a non-linear format and relies heavily on player agency to take care of business. There are no benefits of modern gaming here like a handy journal to catalog your journey and objectives so far or a quest tracker to show you where to go. Hell, even fast travel is something that needs to be earned by using a cipher to crack the signal code at each and every point, and shame on you if you forget or lose the codes because you’re going to have a lot of walking to do. If you forget an important piece of mission info, then you’re out of luck. This is a title where you need to stay on your toes and search out pertinent information and decide which leads to follow to make your grand escape off the colony. The developers were kind enough to include a notebook that you can pop open and take notes in as you play and it is easily one of your most essential tools. This may not sound appealing to the general audience but to a certain type of demographic this freedom of gameplay and focus on player agency is a rare slice of heaven: a breath of fresh air in a world focused on watering down mechanics to reach a wider player base. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a developer wanting as many people as possible to play their games but something is lost in the transition, like stripping down a Rated R film to reach a PG audience.
Between the jungle and the sprawling city full of narrow laneways and underground passages, you are going to be doing a hell of a lot of wandering around during the course of your playthrough. The city is a living, breathing beast that is crawling with rioters, vagabonds, and a whole bunch of factions vying for control of their own little slice of hell. Oh, and heavily-armed police if you REALLY step out of line. Due to the vague nature of the objectives and a barebones map, you are going to end up scouring every inch of this hive of scum and villainy until you puzzle out what needs to be accomplished. I love how alive the city can feel while you’re exploring. If you aren’t strolling down alleys fighting off killer rats and scavengers, you’re mingling with the legions of vagabonds littering the streets while trying to avoid getting smashed by vehicles or rioters. It’s always eventful. There are no story-intrinsic party members in the traditional RPG sense but you can recruit people off the streets as long as your social skill is high enough and they aren’t hostile. While my first character was a one-man killing machine focused on combat skills, my second dabbled more in the social skills. I must say it was very satisfying to recruit a gang of disposable henchmen to send at my enemies like waves of lemmings. That’s what I love about Mechajammer: gameplay tailored to your custom character. The bonus to having a high social skill means you also have a better chance at gathering gossip from people to learn about the situation in the area, possibly gleaning some actionable intel.
Even though Mechajammer is classified as a turn-based RPG, you could be forgiven for not knowing that by watching the trailer. Doing away with the standard tradition of one person acting at a time and seamless battle transitions gives the combat a nice slick flow. The combat pauses while you select the action of your character but once you commit to a choice all participants move and carry out their actions at the same time. The game pauses when you’re ready to act again, which depends on the recovery time of your previous action. It speeds up the action to the point where you could slice through a whole group of enemies in seconds if your weapons and skills are up to snuff. Simply point, click, and murder. Just about everything is determined by Dungeons and Dragons-style dice rolls. Whether you are trying to avoid bullets, hack a terminal, or bash a head in with a wrench, the roll of the die always adds an element of chance. If you would rather avoid combat whenever possible, stealth is an option. In the jungle, you can stick to tall grass and crouch to remain unseen, while in the city you can lurk in the shadows. As a bonus, you can use the stealth button to crouch down behind objects for cover during gunfights. Another cool feature is using your mouse pointer to select a specific body part to attack. Blows to the head can reduce a target’s overall stats but is harder to hit, for example. You can sustain crippling injuries too, which can debuff you seriously and require one medkit per injury to heal. Medkits aren’t exactly plentiful and if you’re unlucky you can sustain multiple injuries in a single encounter. You can find people in the city to heal you for a price but if you can drag yourself back to base, your friend Medic (who happens to be a psionic head in a jar) can heal you for free. Overall, I found the combat in Mechajammer to be fun and refreshing.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however. I frequently ran into navigation problems, particularly while trying to jump objects or walk through smaller environments such as narrow lanes. The pointer wouldn’t register my clicks so my character would remain stationary as if I were trying to walk through something inaccessible even though it is a simple passage. Jumping can be used to hop in through windows and over small objects and gaps but is very finicky. The distance needs to be quite specific, else I find myself colliding with the environment repeatedly. It’s frustrating but nowhere near as frustrating as important mission items not popping up in your inventory. At one point in the game, a character is supposed to give you important notes and a cipher. I received the cipher but the notes wouldn’t spawn in my inventory. I wandered for an hour or so until I got bored and quit the game, only to see the missing notes show up in my inventory when I played later that day. When playing a game with no quest logs or trackers whatsoever, glitches that don’t properly spawn integral mission pieces are a huge red flag. I haven’t noticed this problem recurring since a recent update so it could have been patched out.
Irksome glitches aside, Mechajammer is a fantastic albeit unforgiving CRPG that can seem archaic to some and the lack of certain modern mechanics may be off-putting, but I feel like the kind of gamer that would enjoy a game like Mechajammer would really enjoy it. In that respect, Mechajammer is much like the videogame equivalent of a cult-classic movie. The best piece of advice I could give is to play Mechajammer but be aware of what you’re getting into because while I think it is a unique and satisfying experience, it isn’t for everybody.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 8/10
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