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Gamebox 2.0: Games of December 2021

As 2021 comes to a close, we wrapped up the last bits of gaming for the year. We got to float around in the seas in Trash Sailors, silently took out enemies in Aiko’s Choice, survived a fast-food nightmare in Happy Humble Farms, bounced and toss robots around in Clockwork Aquario, hunted for resources in Mechajammer, and had some fun in the sun with friends in Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball League. Read our game reviews below.

Mechajammer (Chris) When escaped rebel soldiers are stranded in a mutated and savage off-world colony, they will do what they can to survive in Mechajammer. Developed by Whalenought Studios and published by Modern Wolf, Mechajammer is an isometric real-time, turn-based tactical CRPG, coated in cyberpunk flair. Taking place on the planet Calitana, the world and its inhabitants are ruled by a cold corporation and local factions. The small squad of rebels soldiers crash land on Calitana and must find a way to give off the planet before it’s too late.

At the start of the game, you are given a character sheet that must be filled out and adjusted to suit the player’s style. Perks, social interactions, and combat are tied to how physical, smart and charming the character is designed. The origins of your birth, age, and jobs you held all affect the character’s attributes, skill sets, and ailments. Young characters have fewer ailments but will lack the experience to build skills. Older characters will have more skills but gain more ailments. There is an option to select a template character sheet if you don’t want to stress over every detail.

Depending on how you balance the stats, you are giving a certain amount of dices that automatically roll to determine if skill checks pass or fail. These are used when performing actions like hacking, picking locks, and persuading people. Several traits can be picked to focus abilities for a brawler or a crack shot. All the weapons can be picked up and used, but if the weapons are bonus damage output is given for using ideal weapons with the character’s stats.

Mechajammer features a cool merger of the turn-based combat that plays out in real-time. When combat is initiated, the player can perform one action that takes a turn. But the enemies are using their turns while the player is performing theirs. So while a player is moving a step, the enemies will also be moving a step, reloading a weapon, or rearing up a melee attack at that same moment. Certain actions take less time than others, and some actions, like quick melee attacks, will interrupt enemies if landed in time.

Encounters with one to three enemies are fast. A quick gunshot and kick will serve just fine. But when you take on squads of enemies, tactics play an important role. Attacking and retreating will make sure you don’t get surrounded and open up chances to outflank enemies. But you won’t be fighting alone in this mutated wasteland. The player can recruit an assortment of wanders that will tag along in your adventure. They can be given equipment and have preferred weaponry that will make them more efficient. The party members can be broken into four squads that can more complex battles manageable. One squad can rush into the heart of battles to deal melee attacks while a squad that deals out long-range damage pick enemies off at a distance.

While there are a lot of fun ideas and great visuals that make this game appealing, it suffers from minor annoyances that some casual gamers will get find too much. Understanding the mechanics behind Mechajammer sometimes feels like a game of trial and error than an engaging experience. Mechajammer drops the player into an open-world game with relativity no hand-holding. There is a certain degree of freedom, but it becomes a test of patience to figure out clues. Stuff like locations, NPCs, key items are subtle and mentioned in passing. Some details are hard to track and easy to forget after a while. There is an in-game journal that the player writes down notes and a map view that can be pinned with notes, but it is somewhat faster to write things down in real life.

Whalenought Studios has been listening to player feedback and has been making patches to enhance the game. It would be a shame to simply dismiss the game on its early glitches and tabletop-inspired design. Mechajammer has an exciting world that is bought to life in the eye-catching sprite work, which captures the bitter realities of inhabiting Calitana. Battles feel great when enemies start attacks line up and require fast tactical thinking. Mechajammer works great for gamers with a background in tabletop gaming that enjoys some of the slower and repetitive ideas of RPGs. Mechajammer was released on December 2nd for PC.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun – Aiko’s Choice (Chris): Taking place during events of the original Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Aiko’s Choice is a side story title in the fan-favorite stealth RTS. Mimimi Games and Daedalic Entertainment return to the series with a stand-alone expansion with all the original silent assassins returning. Set in around the Edo period of Japan, a small group of warriors is on a mission to stop an invading warlord Kage-sama. The group consists of Hayato, a ninja, a samurai named Mugen, Takuma the marksmen, a thief named Yuki, and Aiko, a kunoichi. While the group is working towards their goal, they are interrupted by Aiko’s old mentor, Lady Chiyo. Faced with a surprising enemy, the group must overcome this new challenge.

Aiko’s Choice continues the same gameplay as the stealth-focused original title. Players control one of the main characters to move around an open level to sneak or take out targets. These characters all work best in quiet situations as big conflicts will draw too much attention and usually result in a failed mission. Every character works differently from others. Some are more nimble to reach great heights such as Hayato and Aiko. Some are good at traps like Yuki. And others can take out groups a little easier, like Takuma and Mugen. Aiko’s Choice levels are designed so you must find think of the right actions to get around the level. For example, Hayato can lure an unsuspecting guard into an isolated location while Yuki can wait for a silent attack. Mugen can break out of cover to sweep up the body and dispose of it before any enemies patrolling see it. Carefully coordinated plans like that make these titles very rewarding.

This game offers six new levels to explore and a deeper look at some of the original characters. Levels have multiple pathways and expansive areas that will take some time to move about. The events of this game unfold between the third act in the original Shadow Tactics, where the heroes have been caught off guard. Lady Chiyo has joined Kage-sama, who has sent an army of soldiers waiting for the heroes. Lady Chiyo connection to Aiko’s ninja training reveals more of Aiko’s past and her bond with Mugen.

Aiko’s Choice is a fantastic addition that delivers on all the aspects that gamers loved about the original. It might not be the best place for newcomers to start the series since the game starts at a higher difficulty curve than the original. Plus the quick story recap isn’t enough to get to know all the returning characters. It’s a defined must-get for fans that will keep you wanting more.  Aiko’s Choice was released on December 6 for PC.

Clockwork Aquario (Zach): Originally starting development in 1991, lost arcade game Clockwork Aquario is finally available on PS4 and Switch from ININ Games, Strictly Limited Games, and members of the legendary game studio Westone, who also created the Wonder Boy/Monster World series.  If you’re a Wonder Boy/Monster World fan, Clockwork Aquario has a similar look and feel with fun, anime-inspired characters and bright, colorful worlds to explore.  You pick from three different characters, Huck Londo, Elle Moon, or the robot Gush, and then set out to stop evil, mostly aquatic-themed baddies who are threatening the world.  You can jump on enemies to stun them and then do a second bounce to kill them but the real key and main gimmick of the game is to stun and then pick up the baddies, Super Mario World 2 style, and then throw them to take out other enemies.  It takes a bit to get used to, especially if you’re in the Mario mindset of jumping on enemies instantly kills them but you should be able to quickly adjust and start chucking enemies around and bouncing off them to reach hidden and bonus areas.  There is also a large, colorful boss to battle at the end of each level that feels a bit like something Dr. Wily would build in Mega Man if he was obsessed with sea life.  The game also has an excellent 90s arcade-style soundtrack from the legendary Shinichi Sakamoto, who also contributed to the soundtracks for most of the Wonder Boy/Monster World games.

The game is fast-paced, old-school arcade action but that also means if you are looking for things like upgrades or ways to build up your character, you won’t find it here.  This is straightforward, quarter-munching arcade gameplay where the main goals are to rack up a large score and beat the game.  If you enjoyed games like Top Hunter or Spinmaster on NeoGeo, Clockwork Aquario should be right up your alley.  The game has multiple difficulty levels but you have to play on the higher difficulties to be able to see the whole game.  The higher the difficulty, the fewer lives you have, so you may want to start on the lower difficulty to get a feel for the game before tackling the whole game proper.  You can play the game co-op and there’s a fun mechanic where you can grab your partner and use them as a weapon against enemies.  If you enjoy 90s style arcade platformers, Clockwork Aquario is a lost gem that is definitely worth checking out.

Trash Sailors (Zach): Out now on Steam from TinyBuild and developer fluckyMachine, Trash Sailors is a co-op survival sailing simulator where you must navigate an ocean full of garbage on your raft.  Your raft has a device that can recycle all the junk floating around and you need all that material to power your engine and repair damage.  The game is designed for co-op with up to four players, as there are designated roles that will help ensure your raft stays in one piece.  Someone has to fish out junk from the ocean, someone has to steer, someone should repair any damage that comes up and someone should bring the junk that gets fished onto your raft to the recycler to get material.  The fewer people you have, the harder the game gets and if you are playing by yourself, you get an AI companion that you can place in different areas to automate certain jobs but you will be running all over the raft trying to do most things yourself.

The game has an excellent, hand-drawn art style that gives the game a unique personality and style and it feels at times like your sailing through a storybook.  You make your way through fixed levels where you have to make it to the end in one piece and after each level, you get the chance to buy cosmetic and functional upgrades, like guns or upgrades for your engine and/or recycler.  You won’t need weapons right away but enemies like sharks and alligators start to show up and can damage your raft if you don’t fight them off.  There are also flooded buildings and other obstacles that you have to avoid because, if you collide with them, your raft will suffer damage and if pieces get too damaged, they will break off completely.  If you’re a fan of games like Don’t Starve and you have a group of friends to join you on the adventure, Trash Sailors is a uniquely themed and fun survival game that will have you all scrambling to grab the trash and keep your raft afloat.

Happy’s Humble Burger Farm (Zach): Speaking of TinyBuild, they also recently published Happy’s Humble Burger Farm from developer Scythe Dev Team which combines the horror of Five Nights at Freddy’s with something like Diner Dash or other restaurant sims.  You have a job working at fast-food burger joint Happy’s Humble Burger Farm and you head there each day for your shift and try to complete as many orders as possible for the hungry customers.  The game eases you into the full gamut of food available at Happy’s, starting you out at just the grill or just the fryer for your first few shifts before things open up and you have to keep track of where everything is and how it works to complete orders.  The game has a fantastic mechanic where customers don’t start showing up until you flip on the “Open” sign, so you can plan and get supplies ready before orders start piling in.  There are also bonus objectives from your manager, like cleaning up rat traps or picking up garbage, that you can complete for bonus cash as well.  Right from the start, things feel off and as the game progresses, the horror elements get more and more pronounced with Happy and the other fast-food mascots coming to life and chasing you down or demanding “rotten” versions of the food you prepare and there’s a metastory with stuff like fake realities and mind control chips going on as well.

The game has an intentionally lower-res aesthetic and option VHS grain, both of which add to the creepy ambiance of the game.  Even the regular customer avatars are creepy and off-putting.  Both sides of the game work well, with the restaurant management side of things being extremely well-implemented and fun and the creepy horror elements blending in well and sometimes catching you off guard if you are too absorbed in trying to complete customer orders.  You also have to make sure you keep your health and energy up by eating and drinking and you can use the money you earn at Happy’s to buy food from vending machines or buy Happy merch like action figures.  There’s also talk radio you can listen to while on your shift that fleshes out the story and a soundtrack of creepy music to increase the tension and horror.  If you enjoy FNAF, you’ll probably really enjoy Happy’s Humble Burger Farm as well and I know, for me, I enjoy the restaurant/order completion loop more than the stationary camera gameplay of FNAF.  Happy’s Humble Burger Farm is out now on Steam, Xbox, and PS4 and will be on Switch early next year.

Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball League (Zach): Chris checked out this game in an earlier form back in August but I was finally able to hit the court with the full release of Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball League.  Coming from the same minds that brought you unique experiences like Soda Drinker Pro, like Will Brierly and Snowrunner Games, Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball is like part visual novel, part simple volleyball game.  You play as sweet old man Len, who sees a flyer for a Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball league and decides to give it a shot.  As he meets and plays against the other members of the league, he reflects on his life and grows to enjoy his new sport and his new friends.  On the way to each game around Massachusetts, you’ll learn more about Len and choose dialogue that will reveal different aspects of his memories, like certain things he did in the town he’s driving to or what he hopes to do in the next game.  It’s an incredibly wholesome and wonderful experience and Len is a lovable avatar right from the beginning.

The one main downfall of the game is the actual volleyball.  The game plays on a 3d court but your characters are 2D sprites and it’s difficult to get into position and be able to return your opponent’s hits.  You can try to track the shadow of the ball but it’s hard to tell if you are on the right plane to be able to hit the ball.  There are no advanced techniques like diving or spiking, you simply hit one button to return the ball if you are in position.  If you are serving, there’s a meter that builds, and the higher it is when you hit the button, the harder your spike.  The first nude retired man to get 25 points wins the match.  After five points, you’ll usually engage in some conversation with your opponent that can be funny or surprisingly deep, and, luckily, it doesn’t seem to matter if you win or lose.  If you had to win each match to progress, the game would be a disaster but luckily Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball League is more concerned with the journey and fleshing out Len on this new chapter of his life.  If you’re looking for a very unique narrative experience and don’t mind some finicky and somewhat difficult volleyball controls, Retired Men’s Nude Beach Volleyball League is out now on Steam.

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