David Bowie once famously asked “is there life on Mars?” Spiders’ new Cyberpunk RPG the Technomancer answers this age old rhetorical question: yes, and its bloody horrible.
The sequel to 2013’s Mars: War Logs, the Technomancer once again takes players back to a red planet which has been colonized by humanity for hundreds of years. Technomancer‘s Mars is a barren wasteland where supplies are scarce, water is a precious commodity, and humanity is forced to live in domed cities ruled by ruthless corporations. That’s not to say the surface of the planet is completely devoid of life; in fact, it’s teeming with the mutated descendants of animals brought to the planet by the original colonists, along with humans exiled from the domes and mutated by the extreme radiation of the sun.
Players take on the role of Zachariah Mancer (the titular Technomancer), a newly inducted member of a secretive order of battle-hardened mages, plucked from society and trained from childhood to harness their latent ergokinetic powers and, with the help of various cybernetic implants, are molded into living weapons that are used as the vanguard of the warring city state armies, as well as defacto peace keepers.
Starting off in Ophir, a dome city under the control of the Abundance corporation, players take on the day-to-day duties of a Technomancer, which seem to mostly revolve around being a detective of sorts in everything but name: butting heads with the local mob boss in the city slums, helping out local merchants, and clearing giant insects and mole people out of the service tunnels under the city.
However, this simple(ish) life is thrown into turmoil after Zach discovers secrets about the Technomancer Order while out on a mission exploring the ruins of the original Mars settlers on the planet’s surface, which could bring the order, and its privileged place in society, into question.
After the Head of the Secret Police catches wind of this (as the Technomnacers are the one section of society that the city’s ruling classes have no real control over), Zach is forced to go on the lam, leaving the city in order to discover the origins of the mysterious Technomancers, as well as the fate of the original settlers to the planet who were all but wiped out several hundred years ago.
Thus begins Zach and his companions’ journey into the wider world of Mars…Sounds kind of cool doesn’t it? And it is. After this point, the narrative completely shifts gears and the game really opens up. And now for the bad news: this doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the game’s thirty-hour run time. To say The Technomancer is a bit slow would be an understatement. That being said, Ophir is a rather cool and well-realized setting, and the character of Zach is surprisingly complex and likeable with some interesting nuances to his motivations and backstory that I won’t get into for fear of treading into spoiler territory.
That being said, like Spiders’ previous games, the plot is certainly the high point of The Technomancer, and certainly the main reason for pushing through its first few laborious hours. Though in retrospect, it does a great job of slowly layering in plot, world building, and introducing you to its diverse cast of characters. Getting through those opening few hours can be a bit of a slog. I say this because, like Bound by Flame before it, I almost gave up on the game after the first couple of hours.
For a start, you’re going to want to manually save a lot, especially during periods when you’re likely to run into resistance as the game has terrible check pointing. It autosaves when you change areas and incredibly randomly otherwise. You might get lucky if you die and it’ll take you back to the last room you were in before the ambush, or you might have to replay the last ten to twenty minutes of a mission.
Which brings us to my biggest bugbear with the game and the main reason you’re going to be dying a hell of a lot (at least initially): the leveling and combat systems. While, as in Mars Warlogs, you choose between one of four styles of fighting and level up along one skill tree, in The Technomancer, you have access to all four which can be switched between at will. there’s the stick fighting warrior stance, the mace and shield action of the guardian, the gun and knife wielding rogue, and then there’s your weapon buffing, lightning tossing Technomancer powers (which feels more like an accompaniment to the other three than a full-blown style of its own).
The key to success, according to the notes in the press kit, is leveling all four styles equally in order to keep the character balanced in order to overcome the numerous different types of enemies you’ll find in the game. The weird and wonderful flora and fauna of Mars, such as giant electrical insects and mutated prawns, are really cool to rumble with. The humans, on the other hand, are mostly several shades of standard grunt in a ski mask half the time, and angry, shirtless, axe-swinging dude the other.
Each time you level up, you get a single point to put in one of your four skill trees, and every few levels you also get to put one in skills like lock-picking, crafting, and social skills to open up additional dialogue options. Finally, you will also occasionally gain one point to spend on your attributes, which boost your stats and allows you to use better gear associated with each stance.
As such, you’re left with somewhat of a conundrum during the game’s early hours. You can either level up each stance slowly – which means your character will remain pretty ineffectual for quite some time (it took me until round about level 12 before I really started noticing any positive effects) – or you can pile all of your points into one stance and leave yourself open to a whooping from enemy types which are naturally well-guarded against it.
On top of all that, chuck in the fact that the combat system feels like it was designed for one on fighting and yet you pretty much always end up fighting mobs of enemies, the enemy AI is utterly merciless and prone to rushing you, you can be dispatched in a couple of hits if you’re really unlucky. and gobshites with projectile weapons will happily shoot you from off screen for massive amounts of damage. Oh, and the camera can screw up in tight spaces, forcing you to fight the camera while trying to avoid a swift kicking from the enemies around you.
These issues are mostly alleviated once your character has got a few levels under his belt and has the necessary skills and abilities needed to start kicking some serious ass. It’s at this point combat begins to feel more dynamic and a lot more fun. The moment-to-moment gameplay feels similar to that of the Witcher with Zach using a mix of slashing, parrying, and dodging enemy blows to defeat foes. Though at the same time the Technomancer doesn’t have the same sense of weight and blows don’t carry the same guttural impact as they do during Geralt’s adventures. It does feel ultimately satisfying to beat the odd and take apart a large mobs by ducking, diving tossing in some spells and then moving in with a flurry of blows with your electrified quarterstaff, however.
All your weapons and armor can be upgraded in a few basic ways to increase their effectiveness in battles, such as increasing resistance to electrical attacks, upping critical hit chances or their ability to stun an enemy, to name a few. In a nice extra, your upgrades also alter the appearance of your weapons and armor, though I’m not sure how much actual good the apparent stat boosts actually do when you’re in the thick of it.
This being a modern RPG, you’ll be happy to hear that your actions have a modicum of influence over the game’s narrative and the way other characters act around you, though this does mainly seem to boil down to certain factions’ henchmen attacking you on sight, or being afraid of you depending on what your current karma rating seems to be with them as well.
In an interesting twist you can also literally harvest extra cash from the enemies you defeat. When you defeat a human, you don’t actually kill them. Instead, you simply knock them out, at which point you have the option to either drain them of Sirum (the substance used for currency and crafting health packs) and kill them (losing karma in the process) or alternatively just robbing them of whatever supplies they have on them. To be honest though, killing them isn’t an attractive option as it lowers your karma rating, which eventually leads to everyone treating you like crap, and the additional boost to your funds is paltry to say the least (though I would recommend putting a skill point into exploration which lets you skin animals for cash and parts asap as you get much better returns with no negative effects).
On the whole the Technomancer‘s presentation is adequate. It’s not the prettiest game you’ll play on your PS4 or Xbone, but it certainly isn’t ugliest. The designs of the game’s numerous mutated creatures are all rather lovely, even if most of the human inhabitants outside of the main characters lack much in the way of variety, with some looking downright fugly (not in the way you would want anyway). The Technomancer has a surprisingly wide color palette as well considering the general dinginess of the Mars wastes and squalid slums and concrete monoliths you’ll explore. The slums have a decidedly Blade Runner feel, as does the music which hits similar steady electronic beats of both Ridley Scott’s classic and Bioware’s Mass Effect. Meanwhile, the voice acting is decidedly hit and miss, with the main cast all putting in fairly decent performances but most of the tertiary characters feel a little phoned in. Still, for a AA title, it’s surprisingly good.
The Technomancer, isn’t a perfect game. Not by a long shot. It has some serious pacing issues and the usual quirks to combat and levelling that seem to make the opening of every Spider RPG way more hassle than they ever need to be. But despite these issues, I still couldn’t help but fall for its charms; the intelligent world building, multi-layered plot, great monster designs, and (eventually) the combat (once you have those upgrades) more than make up for its somewhat mediocre opening and initial teething troubles. It’s nowhere near Witcher 3 levels of perfection (then again it doesn’t have to be), but still a great mid-tier action RPG that’s well worth checking out
The Technomancer was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Spiders | Publisher: Focus Interactive | Genre: Turn based Strategy | Platform: PC,PS4 PS Vita, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 16+/M | Release Date: November 28, 2016