“Maybe it’s just me,” I thought, warding off the pangs of disappointment at the end of my introductory session with Mechajammer. It wasn’t an unreasonable hypothesis. I’d enjoyed Whalenought’s previous isometric RPG, Serpent in the Staglands, but I remembered the bugs, the fiddly combat, the all-pervasive cantankerousness of a game so adamantly old-school they might as well have slapped a MicroProse sticker on the box and called it ‘Darklands 2’. “Maybe I’ve grown soft in the meantime. Maybe I’m playing it wrong?”
But there was more to it: a niggling sensation that all of that game’s vices had been turned up to eleven in Mechajammer, while its rough-hewn charm had vanished, sucked through a crack in the pavement and carried by the sewers that riddle the bleak city of Calitana.
First impressions were positive. The studio’s adept at delivering engrossing fish-out-of-water narratives, and Mechajammer’s premise is no different: in the distant future, the unemployed and insubordinate are forcibly enlisted to fight Earth’s endless wars against its colonies. That was the plan for your makeshift squad until fate intervened, and the vessel transporting them crash-landed into the outskirts of a crumbling city run by crime syndicates. Now you have to help the castaways survive the marauding gangs and rabid wildlife as they organise their escape from Calitana.
An arresting opening is promptly followed by a satisfyingly complex character creation system whose range of upgradeable skills hints at depth and open-endedness. Preliminaries done, you step out into the gorgeously dreary urban sprawl, a futuristic hellscape of sickly lamplight greens, rotting-plank browns, and the blazing remnants from the latest outbreak of random street violence. Kevin Balke’s John Carpenter-like synths add to the overall atmosphere. This was a world I couldn’t wait to dive into.
Only my first playthrough was cut short by a series of persistent bugs in the game’s saving system that, along with a downright antagonistic interface, left me uncertain as to where I was, what I was supposed to be doing, and whether I’d lost something essential along the way. Ditto my second attempt, after recognising that my stealth-oriented character couldn’t hope to survive the hazards of Calitana. So much for open-endedness.
For my third effort, I went with a combat-focused build and things were progressing smoothly – for a while. The previously scattered squad had reunited and set up a base of operations. I had dispatched some high-ranked lowlifes and was establishing a network of contacts. I was getting a feel for the city and even discovered a black market where I could purchase survival essentials. Things were looking up. Then, suddenly but not at all surprisingly given Mechajammer’s rickety state, I lost track of the main quest. I’d been following the game’s cryptic hints as closely as I could, but found myself lacking the items necessary to progress, or even a clue on how to procure them. I didn’t know where to turn to next (certainly not YouTube where, a month after its release, not a single full-playthrough video has been uploaded).
So I tried exploring. But Calitana is a tedious labyrinth crowded by countless clones of the same handful of generic NPCs, a place where nothing of note ever happens unless you count looting unguarded crates or picking fights with families of rodents, an environment so utterly devoid of even the most rudimentary snippets of narrative that it registers almost like a parody of a modern open-world game.
I tried ogling the sights and immersing myself in the mood. But soon every building started looking the same, and the haunting main tune would grate after its umpteenth repetition. Attempts at conversation with the local residents produced the same set of mistrustful responses. This felt not like a fully fleshed futuristic dystopia but more like a glitch in the matrix, the same assets (visual, linguistic, aural) used over and over again, ad nauseam.
I tried role-playing. But the promise of complexity was consistently betrayed by a set of abilities that the game would trivialise so regularly as to render your choices moot. Why spend points on Burglary when you can just bash your way in? Why invest on Hacking when you’re either straight-up given the codes to operate a terminal or blocked from accessing it, whatever your level of ability? The absurdity was exacerbated by the game’s insistence on recognising only maxed-out scores: for my first build, I had spent one-third of my available points on the relevant social skill, yet I never once passed a basic communications check to pump the locals for rumours.
I tried simply persisting. If I scoured the length and breadth of the city wasn’t I bound to stumble on that elusive quest thread? But a ludicrously zoomed-out map that refuses to pinpoint your exact location sabotages any attempts to search Calitana’s mind-numbing maze. After an eternity of aimless wandering, revelation struck unexpectedly: in a corner of a buggy inventory I unearthed the code wheel I needed to progress, buried under a combat knife and some laser-gun charges which overlapped on the same slot.
Sadly, my relief was short-lived. As I removed the surrounding clutter, it became obvious that the item wouldn’t respond to the cursor, even after multiple reloads. A bug had diverted me from the main quest by sending me on a wild chase for an object already in my possession, then, once resolved, another bug completely blocked any possibility of progress.
Opacity in games can be a magical thing but, more so than any other style of design, the refusal to elucidate and handhold absolutely demands that the underlying systems function properly. After my third attempt at a playthrough ingloriously imploded like the two previous ones, I decided I’d had enough. As for that early disappointment, the confusion and frustration that followed it during 20-odd hours of mostly pointless wandering made it perfectly clear: no, it wasn’t just me. It was definitely Mechajammer.
For all its flaws, Mechajammer is obviously a labour of love from a smaller studio that overextended itself. Patches have been incoming thick and fast. While some of its issues are too deep-seated for a quick fix, the overall experience is certain to see major improvements in the near future.
Despite the obvious talent that went into making it, Mechajammer is a rickety disappointment.
Genre: Open-world RPG | Format: PC (tested) / Mac | Developer: Whalenought Studios | Publisher: Modern Wolf | Price: £19.99 | Release: Out now | Social: @mechajammer