As far as we know, cyberpunk RPG Mechajammer has neither mechs or jam in it. It does, however, have goopy red lava pools in its dense, alien forest, and as you bust out of a military base lined with rows upon rows of chunky pixel brains floating in big, bubbling fluid jars, you stumble across the remains of a huge, metal Vykinaut.
Mechajammer's distinct, grungy art style makes it hard to tell exactly what the Vykinaut actually is, but my best guess would probably be a kind of tank with a big, black, fleshy head jutting out of it, accompanied by large meaty arms. It might be a mech, but not as we generally know it. Its head lolls to the side, exposing what appear to be sharp white teeth, and surrounding it are dozens upon dozens of bodies. Your pal and fellow escapee Barry urges you to move on and not wait around for whatever equally monstrous thing did this to the Vykinaut, but in this hands-on demo, this scene of carnage is the least of your worries.
For up ahead is another military base full of armed guards, and you can either go in guns blazing (and probably end up like the poor Vykinaut) or with stealthy sneaking, avoiding sight cones and hunkering down in vision-obscuring hedges to creep your way to victory. The aim is to find your friend Pelican who's waiting on the other side of the base with a helicopter so she can whisk you away to safety, but getting there is easier said than done. Mechajammer is hard, and I died more times than I care to admit figuring out how to turn its semi real-time, semi-turn-based tactical battle system to my advantage.
As Whalenought's co-founder Hannah Williams has said on previous occasions, there's a distinct 80s action film vibe mixed in with the dour dystopia here. In the preview build I played, your objective is quite literally to "get to the chopper", and you'll be ducking and diving through a hostile forest to do so. It's very Predator, only you're not being hunted by a large, dreadlocked alien with big teeth. No, the enemies of Mechajammer (dead Vykinaut aside) are much more human in this build, a mix of troopers and shuffling zombie mutants. There's the occasional rat, too, but nothing to suggest anything too otherworldly. Not yet, anyway. Besides, these gunmen are more than a match for my beleaguered cyberpunker, who's just been disconnected from... something (a mech? Some jam?) and thrust into a hurried escape plan by Barry and Pelican.
I was given a choice of three preset character builds when I started playing - Conrad, a male pistol expert; Mika, a stealthy knife thrower; and Adrie, a lady with a passion for wrenches, hammers and clubs. You can also create your own, or modify any of the three starter builds to your liking, including their age and gender, which can have an effect on your final stats, their name and profile art, as well as their 'virtues' and 'studies'.
Studies are effectively your skill set, and you can place small stones on categories such as "One-Handed Edge", "Slug Guns" or "Blocking" to enhance that skill, or pour them into attributes such as "Social", "Burglary", "Hacking", and "Repair". Virtues, meanwhile, are your innate traits and abilities - things like your pain threshold, how quiet you are when sneaking, how much muscle mass you have and how far you can see and discern shapes in the shadows. You have 5-6 dice to spend in each category, and I can only assume you'll be able to throw down more dice to invest in these skills as the game progresses. In my demo build, I didn't encounter any additional dice, nor did I seem to level up in any way that rewarded me with extra dice to spend on additional buffs.
I went with Mika, the sneaky dagger man, on my first run. I've always preferred stealthy approaches in immersive sims such as Deus Ex and Dishonored, and I was hoping I'd be equally adept at ghosting my way through Mechajammer's military base. It begins simply enough. A couple of shuffling mutants in a dark corridor here, one armed guard there. Easy peasy.
But once I passed the Vykinaut in my preview build, the second military base I had to clear became a real test of skill, which I ended up failing quite miserably on several occasions. The general flow of battle feels quite stilted compared to other RPGs, no doubt a result of your characters being tied to its hexagonal grid and turns playing out in such rapid, quickfire succession that they barely seem turn-based at all. It's a little jarring to start with, but it does give Mechajammer a unique kind of staccato rhythm I haven't seen anywhere else. I liked it, and I don't think this is what kept leading to my untimely downfall.
Part of it, I think, is that I'd often depleted my ammo stocks by the time I got there, having spent most of it dealing with the manageable clusters of enemies in the first part of the demo. Ammo - be it throwing knives, guns or clubs - appears to be quite scarce in Mechajammer, and when you run out, you're not left with many options. You can throw your gun, sure, or resort to fisticuffs, but when the foes in this area were all armed with laser guns and shooting at me from afar, I often simply ran out of turns before I was able to get close to anyone. Melee was not a good approach here.
Fortunately, you pick up an insta-healing medic chap on the way - a spidery head in a jar who repeatedly patches you up and dumps you back at the nearest checkpoint no matter how many times you fall in battle. Alas, any bits of kit you stash in your backpack don't receive the same treatment, which can end up making encounters even harder than they were the first time. I eventually snuck my way through, but still felt undone by undercooked UI elements. Sight cones were hard to discern and plan around - especially when enemies can zip across a room even on turns when you're not moving or pausing to assess a good plan of attack - and I never really knew how much sound I was making until it was too late. When I eventually reached Pelican's chopper, I thought maybe a proper gunman might make a better fist of this place.
So I loaded up the demo again and this time chose sharpshooter Conrad. I fared a little better on this run. For starters, I discovered an entire room full of bullet caches and chests I'd missed on my first try - but attempting to open these boxes and replenish my dwindling bullet reserves only alerted more guards to my location and more swift medic reboots. You can escape detection if you're quick, but my blundering partner Barry was simply waltzing around all over the shop, doing more harm than good.
Perhaps I need to spend more time with Mechajammer in order to properly suss out its secrets. The demo doesn't really tell you how to do much of anything during its 30-odd minute run-time, and I suspect a more thorough tutorial may well fix a lot of my current woes, particularly when it comes to managing and directing the rest of your party. There's definitely a lot to like here, and if its stealth can match the immersive highs of my favourite Deus Ex games, then Whalenought could really have something special. Mechajammer's noise meters, hacking, burglary and perception stats all point towards an engaging isometric, turn-based tactics take on the Deus Ex formula, but I've yet to see it manifest in the moment-to-moment gameplay. It's one to watch, for sure - stealthily, from the bushes, perhaps, while eating a pot of jam - and I'll be awaiting its full release (simply 'coming soon' on Steam at time of writing) with cautious anticipation.