Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
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Spiders certainly don’t lack vision, their previous titles Mars: War Logs and Bound by Flame attempting to replicate the likes of The Witcher, Mass Effect and Dragon Age on a fraction of the budget. They didn’t succeed in their mission, but there were glimmers of something much better to be found within them. This latest attempt still isn’t a great RPG by any standard, but it is a valuable step forward for Spiders and an enjoyable game in its own right, albeit with one a lot of things holding it back. If Mars: War Logs and Bound by Flame were the seeds of something better, then this is the seedling. They’re getting there.
You step into the combat boots of one Zachariah Mancer (Zach to his friends), an apprentice Technomancer in the city of Ophir, which in turn is part of giant corporation Abundance. Technomancer are a specialist branch of the military, a group of people who have the unique ability to generate electricity and thus use it in an offensive and defensive capacity. Taking place in the same fictional universe as Mars: War Logs, The Technomancer once again finds us on a Mars which has long since lost contact with Earth, and is now controlled almost complete by corporations who hold a near religious sway over the population. Mutants are treated like dirt, poverty is rampant and life as a whole isn’t exactly brilliant for most people. As Zach you’ll soon find things getting out of hand as somebody discredits all your hard work and gets you tossed out of the Technomancers, setting in motion the story of revenge and rebellion that will take place over the 15-20 hours it takes to wrap up the main narrative and the majority of side-quests.
You won’t be alone during these escapades, however, as a group of companions join you. There’s the feisty and swear-y Amelia Reacher who pilots a rover; the rather demented Dr. Scot Seeker who probably should never be allowed near a syringe or other pointy implement; hulking mutant Phobos who seeks to aid his brothers and sisters; Aiesha, who is just sort of there throughout the game, and Andrew, a one-armed bloke with links to the Technomancers and Zach’s past. They aren’t the most well written or fleshed out group of allies, especially when you compare them to the Normandy crew from the Mass Effect series or even the odd-balls in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and yet I still find them amiable and pleasant enough to be around. As you gain their trust you’ll also get to go on quests with them, such as helping Amelia find out what happened to her father, or aiding Andrew in regaining a part of his life he believed lost to him.
In fact, The Technomancer is full of great narrative ideas. There’s a cool secret you discover early on that helps drive a chunk of the storyline, and the world itself is a solid foundation for a stunning adventure. Most of the companion’s quests are very interesting, and the main narrative itself has some good moments. It is also, however, a case of great storyline ideas, and weak execution. There are numerous examples littered throughout the game of weak resolutions; the death of a character gets almost zero reaction from you or your allies, despite that character’s importance; dealing in a very abrupt manner with not one but two long-term enemies, both of which are incredibly anti-climatic, which is perhaps fitting given that you barely ever interact with them during the story; a declaration of love that feels incredibly awkward topping off an already botched build up. It’s infuriating, because every time you become engaged in a character or a plot the writers drop the ball when it comes to delivering meaningful moments or tying up the story. They come up with great ideas, but iffy writing, weird reactions and a lack of resolution leave them all feeling weak.
As for your companions, there’s a notable lack of interaction between them. There’s the occasional piece of mid-mission banter, but never enough to paint them as friends, comrades or even enemies working together. The highlight of the group dynamic should have come during the rover scenes where they are all travelling together from area to area, but while they do share thoughts about current situations that help develop their individual personalities it’s like they’re all talking to the player and not each other. They launch into isolated speeches, only occasionally acting like there’s anybody else in the rover with them. I like them all as people, I just found myself wishing for more scenes where they could stop and chat with each other, or share banter.
As for Zach himself, you’re given some relatively limited customization options at the beginning of the game to tweak his appearance. However, you can never truly make him your own. He’s a fully voiced character and dialogue choices don’t offer much room to craft his personality, other than occasionally driving him toward one end of the moral spectrum or the other. This firmly places Zach into the same area as Geralt, a fully formed character whose personality can only be nudged here and there. Unlike the grizzled and intriguing Geralt, however, Zach isn’t a very interesting lead character. His sense of duty is admirable, but as a person it’s unclear as to what defines and drives him. He seeks to contact Earth and thus hopefully help Mars as a whole, yet as a human being he lacks personality. It’s like he has a single defining trait, and nothing else of substance, and that makes it feel like Spiders didn’t truly commit to making a fleshed out character of their own nor to giving the player a mouldable avatar, instead opting for a middle-ground that doesn’t fully work.
But one are where Spiders do nail it is in the repercussions of your actions. While there are many ways to handle the various situations that crop up, the results of your choices feel heavy enough to make the adventure much more engaging, and to provide a reason to go back and play through it all again to see how things change.
There’s no vast open world waiting to be explored here, rather the game has three main hub areas and a handful of smaller locations. These areas reveal that Spiders has a good eye for visually constructing their version of the red planet. The Technomancer may not be a technically impressive game in terms of textures, animation or anything else, but places like the merchant city of Noctis still manage to catch the eye. Sadly the amount of backtracking that missions insist on prove detrimental, as the time spent in hubs and smaller locations reveal their weaknesses, highlighting how all the NPCs are static and how hollow everything actually is. Even some basic paths for the A.I to follow could have helped. As for the smaller locales they are far less interesting and their small, linear designs don’t lend themselves to repeat visits. Nor do any of the game’s environments provide any space for even a little bit of exploration, sadly. Given the small budget that Spiders were working with, though, these limitations are perfectly understandable. Just be aware going in that this isn’t a sprawling RPG with an engaging world to explore and multitudes of quests to discover.
Speaking of quests most of them are what you’d expect from an RPG; go here, beat a thing up and maybe bring a shiny object back! Or just run to B, then to C, then return to A. Outside of the main storyline side-quests tend to be fairly small in scale, and none of them stick in my mind as being very memorable. That isn’t to say they aren’t enjoyable, however. I was generally willing to run around, performing mindless tasks for random people. When it comes to claiming your reward for doing quests, though, things are a bit rougher. Both to the game’s credit and to its detriment loot is kept very basic. Finding a new, better staff just means it might be made out of a high quality metal that otherwise looks like a plain old staff, while a new, more powerful mace looks about as interesting as any other mace. On the one hand this serves to ground The Technomancer’s world, making it a more believable place. As the population eeks out a living, weapons and armor have a rough and ready quality. There’s nothing pretty about them. There’s nothing interesting about them. You won’t find an awesome staff that has cool engravings and special abilities, nor new armor that boasts a stunning design. Everything is utilitarian, and boring. And that’s the other side of the coin; boring. It’s hard to get excited about new pieces of gear in The Technomancer. No matter how long you play for or how hard you look you’ll never run across something truly unique or awesome. Even the few rare, purple items lack any flair. It’s difficult to be enthused by standard mace.
Crafting is a bit better, letting you bolster your chest armor with spaulders and back pieces, or adding new grips and tips to a staff. The stat boosts you get are hugely noticable in the middle of a fight, but it’s nice to upgrade your gear with tacked on bits and pieces, emphasizing that feeling of everything in The Technomancer’s world having been put together after a late night shopping trip at the nearest DIY store.
The Technomancer is an action-RPG first and foremost, so there’s a considerable amount of fighting to be done. As a technomancer you’ve got access to a small and relatively tame selection of electricity based powers, including zapping people, unleashing a small electrical storm and wrapping your weapon in a constant blaze of electrical death, which also happens to be a superb party trick a rave. On the more traditional side of combat, also known as smacking people in the face, there are three combat styles that you can switch between on the fly; a staff that’s good for dealing damage to multiple foes, along with a kick that knocks an enemy off balance; a knife and pistol combo for some quicker offensive work; and finally a mace and shield for those that prefer a heavier defense. Combat is a simple case of dodging incoming attacks, a tricky task sometimes since there can be numerous foes and a lot of them like to spam guns from a distance, so bullets coming from offscreen with no indicators is perfectly normal. The combat system does include a pet peeve of mine; staggering based on chance. What this means is you can whale on an enemy only for them to ignore it and smack you in the face regardless. It makes you feel powerless. Thankfully the dodge is snappy and responsive, so you can leap out of the way and deliver a counter attack. It’s a simple but effective enough combat system that doesn’t impress or disappoint. It’s simply…okay. But then that’s the running theme of The Technomancer, it’s completely middle of the road.
The bad news is that the two allies you can drag along with you aren’t very useful in a fight. Far too often I would glance around to find my friends gently prodding the enemy, pausing for a good few seconds between attacks or standing there gormlessly while getting pummeled. I’d nip over and deliver a kick that sent the foe reeling back in order to give my allies a gap to launch an attack, and they’d fail to take advantage of it. Furthermore it didn’t take much to defeat them, either, so coupled with their low damage output having them around sometimes felt pointless. The only good they did was diverting some of the enemy focus from me.
Your Technomancer skills and your combat abilities can all be upgraded through a pretty standard set of four trees that will grant access to some new abilities, like a whirlwind style attack for the staff or a surge of extra power. There’s the usual assortment of stat boosts, too, so you can get some extra Fluid charges (those being what limit the use of technomancy) or a better chance of ignoring disruptive attacks and so on and so on. If you’ve ever played an RPG you’ll know what to expect. There are no surprises. On top of that you can bump up base stats like strength, constitution, agility and your power in technomancy, plus there’s also options for upgrading lockpicking, charisma, science, crafting and even stealth, although sneaking around doesn’t often feel very worthwhile as in most areas you’ll be forced into fighting anyway.
There’s an intriguing system in place whereby you can earn Serum, the game’s currency, by draining enemies, which kills them. You’re free to drain creatures you slay, but sticking a needle into a human and taking the Serum from them counts against your Karma rating and may be frowned upon by your allies. It’s a great idea, yet not one that the developers seem very keen on emphasising. Doing side-missions and draining animals grants more than enough Serum to spend in the limited shops on the equally limited selection of loot available, thus there’s very little reason to murder humans unless you just want to be a complete dick. Which, y’know, is a perfectly valid reason, but still. With a higher Serum gain from draining and a generally tighter economy Spiders could have presented a fun moral challenge to the player.
It’s much the same for karma and reputation, both of which feel like systems that get ignored. Ostensibly the idea with reputation is that as you deal with people and factions they’ll become more trusting of you. It’s a perfectly fine idea, or at least it would be if it seemed to have any real impact. During my playthrough as a mostly decent guy I never once had to actually pay attention to my reputation with any of the factions. By simply ambling around and doing quests they all seemed to be perfectly happy with me
The Technomancer doesn’t break the mould. Spiders have opted to play it very safe, and frankly that’s a wise decision because if Mars: War Logs proved anything it was that the developers had potential, but that they needed to focus on improving their core skills rather than on trying to bring anything fancy to the table. And happily The Technomancer is a step in the right direction. Sure, the writing does still leave a lot to be desired as great storyline ideas lack satisfying payoffs or flounder due to horrible execution, but this is a slicker, more engaging experience from start to finish. For all the narrative flaws Spider have built an interesting world and I’m glad they chose to consider expanding, and I find myself hoping they’ll keep going with it, too. Perhaps the biggest thing they need to learn is simply to give their games more room to breath so that characters can be properly fleshed out and narrative threats given the resolution needed. In other words if you’re after a big, new RPG with an epic storyline then this isn’t for you, but if you’re a fan of the genre then this might just tide you over. It doesn’t do anything well, but it doesn’t do anything bad, either. High praise, eh?
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