Set twenty years after the colonisation of Mars, The Technomancer is French developer Spiders’ follow-up to the mediocre Mars: War Logs. It charts the journey of Zachariah Mancer, a cadet on the verge of graduation within one of the larger colonies on the planet. The thrust of the story concerns the control of water on the planet as Mars’ orbit has brought it closer to the sun, causing mutations and death amongst civilians unlucky enough to be caught in the rays. Naturally, evil corporations are now in charge of the water supply, and there is a war being fought between these rulers and the downtrodden. Your role in this is unclear at first, but after a few hours you’ll start to get the idea of what is actually happening and where the technomancers fit in. Are they the iron boot of the police force, or will they end up siding with the oppressed classes?
The first thing you’ll notice is the visual element which invokes Mass Effect, albeit murkier and with a cyberpunk twist. Given the small size of Spiders they have done a surprisingly good job of creating a world that is both futuristic and grungy. There are still quirks, such as dead enemies floating in the middle of objects, and character expressions which are basically emotionless, regardless of what is being said, but on the whole the art design is reasonably strong. The voice acting is poor though, ranging from passable NPCs to a pretty awful main character. Unlike Bioware’s offering, Zach is a male-only lead and absolutely loves to talk, which makes conversations far more painful than they should be. You’ll find yourself eager to skip a bunch of dialogue just to get past it, which is a shame as the story is actually quite interesting...at least to begin with.
Unsurprisingly given it’s an action RPG, combat is a huge element of the game and it’s a mixed bag. Whilst obviously designed more for a controller - and it feels a lot more fluid using one - it’s still a button-mashing affair, with a couple of different attacks as standard and a third optional attack dependent on what stance you’re using. These utilise different weapons, and comprise of a staff-based Warrior stance for range, the speedier knife and gun of the Rogue stance, and the tanktastic shield and mace of the Guardian stance. They all look and move differently, but after a few hours it’s unlikely you’ll use anything other than the sweeping staff of the Warrior since it gives you both distance and enough speed and damage to make the other two almost redundant. Attacks feel solid and the combat animations are suitably flourished, even if the slow-motion final strike in any pattern feels somewhat tired. Dodging is a necessity for all encounters, but when you’re surrounded by enemies it is a haphazard affair. If you’re expecting the tightness of Dark Souls’ split-second timing, you’ll be disappointed. The biggest problem are the enemies themselves, a constantly respawning group of grunts intermingled with the occasional (sometimes spectacular, often mundane) boss. You would expect to be able to take on the weaker opponents with ease as you progress, but since many of them come armed with guns even from the outset they have a constant and often unfair advantage over you. Trying to keep track of your melee enemies at the same time as watching for bullets being fired - sometimes off-screen - from a ranged opponent can lead to a lot of frustration, and unfortunately this continues throughout the duration of the game.
One example occurs early on where you need to protect a group of four officials. You’re hit with waves of two or three bad guys at a time, who immediately start laying into your charges. When you think that you might have finished with protection detail, another group appear, then another, and ultimately a couple with guns who finish off them, you, or both. Your health does recover over time but too slowly for this kind of encounter, and while there are health injections you can use mid-battle, they require time to apply. If you’re hit during an injection, you need to try again, but with less health. The Technomancer is a tough game, even on Normal difficulty, but it is often unfairly so due to unnecessarily long animations for trivial things. Press the wrong button during battle over a body to loot it for serum, the game’s currency, and you’ll be hoping that the two to three seconds spent prone don’t invite a mace in the face from a nearby thug. Worse still, there seems to be no particular logic to the attacks which an enemy is able to avoid. You can be battering a goon for three or four consecutive hits, when suddenly strikes which are making contact stop causing damage. Since you could be surrounded by three or four enemies at a time and possibly more, battles are literally a hit-and-miss affair, where hitboxes and collision detection turn into a lottery. It’s a shame, as the combat - whilst nowhere near to scaling the heights of the Arkham series - feels weighty, and is coupled with satisfying bone-crunching effects as you pummel your opponents.
The dialogue element is also stripped down to the basics. Exhaust every branch of a particular tree and you may get offered a quest from your party members when talking to them. End up in a confrontation however, and the outcome of the conversation seems to be dependent on whether you’ve stuck enough points in the Charisma talent. If not, prepare for more button-mashing. There’s no nuance, or even a facade of options here - unlike Mass Effect where you might have been able to negotiate through careful dialogue choices regardless of your abilities, The Technomancer is far more binary. Similarly Lockpicking, the other important talent, determines your ability to get into a chest. Are you at level two? Then you’re not getting into a level three box of goodies. There is a distinct lack of excitement permeating throughout, as if the game wanted to offer more but ended up taking the core elements of most action RPGs and then not doing anything interesting with them.
The levelling trees you use to boost your characters are similarly lacking. Skills are specialisms within each of the three stances, plus Technomancer (mage-esque abilities), the Talent tree offers the aforementioned abilities plus other less useful options such as Science (faster health regeneration) or Crafting (allowing you to make more advanced kit). Finally, the Attributes tree contributes to the standard RPG tropes of Strength, Agility, Constitution and so on. All this means is that if you opt for a specific Attribute, you’ll do more damage within a specific stance, so if you enjoy smashing people with a staff there’s very little incentive in choosing Attributes for the other stances.
Initially, the game’s polish belies what is clearly a budget effort, but the more you delve into it the more apparent the cracks become. The environments are nicely drawn, but are populated by bland characters of which ninety percent are simply window dressing. Everything is laid out on your map and mini-map, and you’ll spend an awful lot of time running between different areas to complete busywork tasks including gems such as “Go here and kill these dissidents”, or “Go here and get this antidote”, or “Go here and free these merchants”. If you have the option of talking to the enemy, odds are you’ll be able to complete many tasks without incident. Otherwise, it’s more waves of similar-looking enemies. There appears to be very little personality to speak of - every NPC (including yourself!) is named after the job they do. This leads to some hilarious conversations with Ian Mancer the Technomancer, Tom Goodsman the trader and Eliza Major the, um, Major. When one of the characters started smack-talking another group of people for having ridiculous forenames completely straight-faced, the irony was almost too much to bear.
The most disappointing aspect is the story. Instead of making full use of the Mars setting and its environs, you're left hopping between areas fulfilling mindless jobs for bland NPCs. It falls into a Deus Ex "power to the people" plot replete with twists you can see coming a mile off, but with no motivation to even progress that far. The potentially interesting narrative arc is squandered early on when you realise that you have little to no emotional investment in any of the characters. Part of this is down to the voice acting, but much of it is the actual writing which feels hackneyed and overwrought. The result is a game that has the foundations of a solid RPG which are constantly being shaken by a lack of focus.
There’s not much to actually hate about The Technomancer, but not much to recommend either. It’s a reasonably polished game from a small studio which shows that they have potential to develop something great in the future, if they took the time to flesh out a lot of the ideas that are on show here and tried to inject a bit more personality into the world they’ve made. With this offering though, they’ve created something very much on a par with the film John Carter: Mars-based, nice to look at on occasion, and completely forgettable.