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Mechajammer review: a broken, brown disaster

Browning my sorrows

If I had to describe Mechajammer in a word, that word would be "brown". A second would be the sounds Joe Pesci makes in Home Alone.

When the first few dilemmas you face in an RPG aren't ethical or character ones, but about whether it would be more tedious to continue with this character or to play through the introduction again, you know there's a problem. By my third restart I'd abandoned all interest in playing any character I wanted, and started trying to estimate whatever would get this over with sooner. Mechajammer is a disaster. And not only because of the bugs.

In theory, and its trailers, and even in an earlier demo, Mechajammer is a stylish, complex, intriguingly messy cyberpunk RPG with a chaotic retro look.

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In practice, the first thing you do is blunder around a brown area punching rats. This is a game with a rat problem. Almost any time you find an unopened door, the answer to "what's in here?" will be "nothing" or "rats". As someone whose first day at a job once included killing a rat with a pipe, I am begging any game developers reading to trust me on this: fighting rats is not difficult, interesting, or remotely rewarding. Please, please, please stop making us fight fucking rats.

Whalenought Studios have, to their credit, improved on Serpent In The Staglands, their game in which you can be beaten to death by a fox. The rats in Mechajammer are no threat at all and die at the slightest touch. Which raises the question of why they're here. Not only are they prone to jumping you the instant you enter a room, they'll sometimes detect you through a wall and run out of a building (locking the door behind them) to chase you down the street. I've had one leap out of a locker to attack me, which also somehow made it impossible to move away from the locker, forcing yet another glitchy reload, thus more rats. Mechajammer has a glitch problem, particularly around loading the game, conversations, and opening your inventory.

A keypad on a computer-locked door in Mechajammer, with an option to try and hack it open

The second thing you'll do is circle this brown area over and over until by sheer chance you happen to stand in the empty corner of the brown room where the computer is, and some text pops up to tell you the login you need to clear the path ahead. You could try hacking the computer, but it probably won't work. In this new area you'll blunder around some brown alleys, through crowds of homeless people in brown clothes. Another computer in one of the brown rooms will want a password, so you'll wander round some more, sometimes being attacked by some angry gangsters. And here's where you learn how fiddly and buggy the combat is, because there's no way to avoid it.

Much like Fates Of Ort, a better game, Mechajammer's combat mode only moves when you do. Exploration is real-time but when a hostile sees you, time pauses and only moves when you take action. My excitement at the many weapon skills was gone by the third restart.

If you use guns you will do little damage, miss most shots, and find several bullets. If you use one of the half a dozen melee options like flails or polearms, your starting weapon will soon break and it'll be hours before you find another, or a repair kit - which I'm not sure actually exist. If you use throwing weapons, a sorely under-represented option in most games, you'll soon realise two things: that your character doesn't automatically lead her shots, and that you'll have to painstakingly pick up every tiny knife again one by one. Also you'll frequently throw other weapons by accident, forgetting what attack mode you were in. Whatever you use, your character will often refuse to move, or take a swing at the air as you try to click on the sesame seed-sized outline of a target.

A view of the inventory in Mechajammer, which is sort of 3D and presented at an angle to the screen

Pixel hunting is half the game, to the extent that I offered a bounty to any colleague who could find the gun I was looking for in one brown screenshot. There's a slight shimmering effect that at least keeps Mechajammer from 90s adventure game levels, but the tiny, brown graphics make most items impossible to recognise. The heaps of items are mostly redundant or useless, and at the time of writing it's impossible to sell any item to anyone. Not that I've found any shops that had more to sell than the same cigarettes I was dumping in the street, or a rope with a placeholder icon. Truly, dear customer, my new business is your one-stop shop for some cigarettes and a rope.

The pixel hunting is made worse when you have lackeys, as they'll get in the way. I've found no clear limit to how many lackeys you can recruit, a feature that sounds exciting enough that mentioning it feels like misrepresentation. Almost any non-hostile NPC can be "charmed" without cost or risk, whereupon they will immediately become your loyal mindslave, willing to play high-stakes Bludgeon with anything in your path. In the run I stuck with, I put several points (actually dice. Whenever a skill is used, deeces are rolled, and instead of directly increasing skills, you add another cube to the pool) into "social" purely so I could use the charm option on the hordes of homeless people wandering around, and send them to die for me so I wouldn't have to kite a dozen gangsters one at a time. You can even give them weapons, and in another cool-sounding feature, lackeys will attempt to heal you when you die..

The protagonist in Mechajammer has persuaded someone to join their group, an already large crowd of people in a dark street

Unfortunately this means that when you die with a crowd you'll have to sit and wait for them all to fail in turn before you can reload. It's very slightly faster to alt+f4 it. But the main downside is that their sprites blocking your mouse from those pixel hunts. You'll have to recruit them all one by one, waiting for the little animation each time, and there's no way to tell them apart without talking to them, which depends on them staying still. It also makes a lot of conversations redundant, as you can simply mindslave almost anyone instead of dealing with their opinions.

Although, that's not a huge loss given that the dialogue system is... barely a system at all. Most people have nothing to say, the few exceptions ambushing you to spout meaningless nothing and run off before you can respond, only occasionally prompting you to reply with "ok" or "bye", or opening your inventory. This invites them to say they have no use for any of your items, or to somehow glitch into an unrecoverable quantum state where everyone you talk to has all your money and won't give it back. One guard called me "scum" and then immediately became my loyal mindslave when I clicked on "charm". An "evangelist" yelled at me to repent and asked me to join him. when I did, nothing happened. When I did a second time, time skipped ahead 12 hours, changing nothing. When I clicked "charm" on him he, too, immediately became my mindslave. A guard in another area warned me to leave, which I agreed to do, and while I walked away my homeless mindslaves attacked him. The area he was guarding contained nothing.

I'm on the run from Earth with two people and a robot, none of whom matter or do anything. We're stuck on Planet Brown and to escape we have to punch every rat in the universe.

"Tell me more" type dialogue options will sometimes quit the conversation instead, forcing yet another reload when it cuts you off from plot critical information or brown items. Not that there's any plot to speak of so far. I'm on the run from Earth with two people and a robot, none of whom matter or do anything. We're stuck on Planet Brown and to escape we have to punch every rat in the universe. Your character knows nothing and cares about nothing, and the only effect of the colourful-sounding, faintly Darklands-ish jobs, age, and perk/flaw system I've discerned is that if at any point you pick the "PTSD" flaw, your soldier will become catatonic for ten minutes if he fires his own weapon. Even without this, you'll die often. The health regeneration and tendency of most enemies go down quickly are the welcome mercies keeping it from a total wash, but you are still woefully outnumbered and will die without constantly feeding more homeless people to the enemy. Stealth is just the same thing but slower.

The "Ooh!" moment that happens when brown vehicles first appear gives way to the knowledge that they brake for everyone but you, including on the narrow, very long, brown bridges that become a strange hybrid of Frogger and Syndicate as you attempt to dodge between cars with 15 swarming mindslaves in tow. When the riots appear, you'll again think the game's finally out of its awful Temple Of Trials period, but no. This is not the lively faction war someone hinted at. It's just some animations that kill you if you walk into them. At one point I got across a long bridge but was trapped between a deadly riot and a deadly car, which is when I found out that you can even be run over when you're trying to save the game, since not even opening the menu will pause, which is doubly odd when being spotted by a rat does.

A close quarters fight in Mechajammer, in a dark street

The bridges bring me on to navigation, which is a total pain in the arse. The main view is isometric and the map doesn't mark most landmarks or your position, making the brown streets confusing to get around as it's also upside down. Retro is one thing, but a map so archaic it predates the concept of North is new to me. Movement is worse, as its interpretation of line of sight bars even attempting to move somewhere you can't see, such as, for example, through a door. You have to push the door open, then awkwardly shuffle through it, then inside the brown room, then either fight some rats or realise it's empty, then do it all again to get out. That's if it doesn't get stuck and force you to hokey cokey in and out of the doorway a few times. Walking around corners indoors is like programming a roomba in real-time while your housemate formats it every few seconds, and the one good thing I can say about the doors is that they're not brown. It’s just endless shuffling and clicking and trudging back and forth on an ugly, empty map with annoying, often unresponsive controls and no reason to care about anything.

I could go on with describing Mechajammer's flaws and failures for far, far longer than I could stand playing it any more. The sheer relief at exorcising my complaints are the closest I've come to enjoying it since my brief excitement at the promise of its character creation screen. Between its awful, threadbare design and a shocking number of bugs and major glitches, this has been an absolutely miserable experience and not even close to fit for release.

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