Every year, the mid-year gaming lull kicks in. July to mid-September is when the spotlight is often turned on small teams of independent developers, providing some of the year’s biggest hidden gems and surprises. But it’s true that not every game can maintain our interest.
The Technomancer is one such video game, which aims high but misses the mark. On paper, it has all the ingredients of an above-average gaming experience. This sci-fi role-playing game from Spiders, is a direct sequel to Mars: War Logs (2013), and is again set on the Red Planet during a time of great uncertainty over precious resources and political influence. I like to think of the Technomancers as Jedi – they are few in number but are feared and hold tremendous powers through their manipulation of electricity. They can also wield an impressive electrical staff which looks as though it was stolen from Darth Maul’s secret collection.
But in reality, The Technomancer is far from a complete hit. The mountains of required tweaks eventually stack up, making the final product of this game a far cry from what it should’ve been. The effects of its Karma system, which extended to killing humans or incapacitating them, were non-existent; I lost karma points for killing humans but gained nothing for choosing the path of a pacifist. If this was meant to act as a Paragon/Renegade morality system, there had to be greater benefits and greater consequences for your actions.
One thing Spiders got right was the political motivations at play. I had no problem with every human’s last name correlating to their occupation – for instance, traders’ surnames are ‘Goodsman’, scientists’ last names are ‘Seeker’. If enlisted into the Army, your title is a selected class of soldier; the game’s protagonist – a Technomancer – is Zachariah Mancer. This perfectly matched up with a power-hungry political backdrop and an alarmingly nervous police force called the ASC, highlighting the government’s paranoia about keeping everybody in check.
There is nothing wrong with this premise – in fact, it’s quite compelling. The Red Planet is a location not often used in fictional sci-fi and opting for a tale long after its colonisation adds real spice to the plot. It’s a myriad of things on (and underneath) the surface of the game, though, which begins to erode whatever positive momentum The Technomancer gathers.
Here, Spiders use their patented Silk Engine to paint a picture of Mars’ cities, isolated landmarks and vast stretches of land. This isn’t the immediate issue, but it was startling how often I felt as though I was playing a slightly upscaled version of Mass Effect 1; it isn’t graphically on par with today’s consoles. Aside from a few skirmishes dotted throughout large expanses of potential, sections of Mars’ outback are lifeless and unfulfilling.
Despite a sprawling in-game map, there’s only about eight point of interest in The Technomancer, where distant markers like canyons and abandoned camps lack that sense of exploration. The overbearing brown colour palettes and dark pathways are all extremely linear – running into invisible walls and glitching through cliff faces drew me out of the game. One grievance in particular was a lack of movement directly after certain actions; it takes Zachariah a few seconds after climbing or jumping from a certain height to get moving again – an annoyance that wears out its welcome quickly.
It’s crystal clear that most of Spiders’ attention has been directed at the three main colonised cities of Mars – Noctis, Mutant Valley and Ophir. I spent an absurd amount of time in Ophir completing missions of varying difficulty, which quickly became a place I wanted to leave as soon as I arrived. Ophir, a three-tiered city comprised of the Underworks (tunnels), Slums (red light district) and The Exchange (economic centre), is the main hub of the entire game. Without fail, there’s always an escort or fetch quest needing completion in Ophir – which isn’t a big deal – but results in a lot of busy work rushing back and forth between its three areas. It’s a real shame I developed such disdain for this particular place despite the powerful series of government propaganda posters and paintings covering the streets.
However, The Slums and The Exchange always felt empty. The Exchange was mostly populated by the ASC and other soldiers in the Ophir Army, while streets were dotted with only a few civilians at a time. I often saw AI characters wandering back and forth in predictable paths, providing conversational gestures to nobody in particular. The subtle soundtrack oozed Mass Effect and there was a severe lack of ambience the deeper into Ophir I ventured; this world lacks immersion immersion and isn’t an effective or compelling world as a result.
The Technomancer is labelled as an RPG, yet it utilises its role-playing mechanics with an ounce of their expected effectiveness. Through bland voice-acting, I felt no emotional connection to Zachariah Mancer for the entirety of the game. He is as monotonous and middle-of-the-road as you could get. I applaud whoever was responsible for the voice of the antagonist, though, who has a dark, booming, creepy voice and it just screams ‘guilty’ from the outset; it’s cliched, but it works.
But, I didn’t even feel as though this was my own version Zach Mancer. All dialogue options came from a drop-down menu with very few social deviations or rebuttals among my companions. Juggling the personal opinions of certain allies in your team always provides an interesting dynamic when choosing your squad. But I felt none of that here.
That could have been due to everyone’s stone-cold facial expressions. In The Technomancer, everybody’s had drastic doses of botox or out-of-this-world plastic surgery. These blank expressions and moisturised faces take the emotional impact away from high-tension conversational cutscenes.
Thankfully, the combat management side of things is far more engaging. There are four skill trees in the game relative to your preferred combat style – Warrior (electrified staff), Technomancer (spells), Guardian (melee weapon and shield), and Rogue (knife and pistol). Players have the freedom to switch Stances on-the-fly both in and out of combat. This is one of the most impressive facets to The Technomancer and virtually encapsulates the game’s entire level of experimentation. Quickly switching from the strength of a Warrior to the defensive lockdown of a Guardian was a real thrill during heated exchanges but, when getting down to the nitty-gritty, this combat becomes even more hazardous.
One nail in The Technomancer’s coffin was the overpowered use of enemy firearms. It’s fair game when you’re swarmed by five or six melee goons, but if two of these guys are using guns, a fight becomes exponentially more difficult. Enemy assault rifles and pistols deal farcical amounts of damage and their initial pathetic attempt at a counter-attack – a simple back-step and kick – does more damage than getting whacked in the face by an electrified staff; it’s ludicrous.
It’s these types of situations where the combat mechanics needed to be overhauled. There isn’t an option to deflect incoming fire or parry close-quarter strikes with my makeshift lightsaber. Not only that, but The Technomancer gives a very limited window for anticipating incoming attacks both up close and at range, due to the AI possessing a very short telegraph window for their attacks; there’s no notification system (à la Sleeping Dogs or Batman Arkham series) that gives you time to prepare for another barrage of heavy swings and annoying rogue bullets.
Unfortunately, The Technomancer’s uninspired combat went even deeper into its upgrade and crafting system. Throughout the game, items and their associated upgrades are given certain buffs and defence values. They are based off of things like damage output, critical hit chance, and physical damage resistance. But of course, one of the great role-playing rewards is getting your hands on high-end gear for your character – but The Technomancer also lacked that satisfaction that comes from getting these sought-after items. After crafting over 100 upgrades during a 35-hour playthrough, my Warrior/Technomancer-hybrid wore a high-level Grand Master Breastplate with a poultry 19 per cent physical damage resistance; it felt as though my ‘benefits’ weren’t really benefits at all.
Using crafted weaponry and gathering ingredients is also a problematic and long-winded process. In order to acquire Serum from fallen foes, the game’s main currency, I had to go through a short, but unnecessary action of bending down to gather dropped loot. The same action would then be repeated for unlocking chests and rummaging through troublesome lockers. Using The Witcher 3 as a prime example, Geralt can merely interact with an object and a menu of items appears – simple, but genius. It might not be as authentic as physically opening a closet, chest, or skinning a wolf, but it saves time when the player does the action hundreds of times over.
These actions also rear their ugly heads in combat, where using exploding traps and even Technomancer spells requires critical thinking and timing. Some spells, such as Tornado, have a build-up before launching a series of powerful electrical orbs towards a group of baddies. These animation periods are longer than most, resulting in numerous interruptions before I could get a substantial distance away from targets to cast spells. I was always extremely vulnerable inside this short window where – of course – my physical damage resistance wasn’t doing me any favours. Despite the fact these were high-level spells, the casting time felt unbalanced on more than a few occasions.
Through a series of events, The Technomancers briefly become the most feared class of people on Mars. That’s what I wanted from this game. I wanted to feel feared by the corporations and powerful against adversity but, after dying from something as stupid as a counter-kick while holding a lightsaber of death, I felt neither. The skill trees might be deep and detailed but the benefit to each successive level is so minuscule – with one per cent chances here and five per cent increases there – that it doesn’t add up when approaching the end game.
Despite a promising start, The Technomancer goes downhill – rapidly – after about 15 hours of play. It’s hard to see this game as a success story, where issues from Spiders’ last forgettable title, Bound by Flame (2014), haven’t been addressed. Dull voice-acting, below-par graphics and clunky combat scenarios were on the menu back then and they remain on the menu today.
It’s all a rather sorry state of affairs because, in all honesty, The Technomancer’s opening hours made for a really promising title. The characters were there, the setting was in place and the plot was tight and engaging. Unfortunately, The Technomancer could’ve been something quite special, but has turned out to be quite the opposite. A regrettable, missed opportunity.
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