By Chris Byrne
If you’re hoping for The Technomancer to be 2016’s hidden gem within the RPG genre, unfortunately you’re going to be disappointed. Some occasional shining moments within the game and interesting nuances do little to hide the abundance of flaws that this title unfortunately suffers from.
The opening cutscene leaves a good first impression. It sets up the premise for the game’s story very well by keeping it short but sweet and giving you enough information about the world in order to understand what’s going on before moving straight into the game. This unfortunately leads into a rather lackluster character creation screen, which offers very little in terms of variety. There are no gender options, limited facial and hair options to choose from, and no interesting alien races for you to play as. Considering that the game has you play as a story-specific protagonist, I can’t help but wonder why this is even an addition to the game.
Once past the barebones character creation, it’s hard not to notice the distinct lack of polish this game suffers from. The voice acting doesn’t sync up well with the characters on screen, which created a real problem maintaining any sense of immersion. Other technical problems exacerbate this issue too. For example, the shadow quality is so low that it becomes more difficult over time to ignore it. In dialogue sequences, small movements of the head show just how bad the problem with the shadows is, as their aliasing makes the dialogue sequences on the characters and some environments look horrible. The characters themselves also look very dated; or in some cases one might even say outright ugly.
Thankfully when it comes to the visuals, it’s not a complete let down. Whilst it may look a little last-generation, the design team has done a pretty good job of building a world here, which has a decent amount of interesting locales to explore. You’ll spend most of your time within the city hub areas of the game, so it helps that they are interesting places to look at and explore to a certain degree. You can also explore outside of these hubs, where you’ll see more of the environments throughout Mars. It’s nothing on the scale or design of what we’ve come to expect from leading RPG’s in this generation, however it did enough to keep me engaged. There’s also some interesting enemy design used here, and it’s kind of a shame we don’t see more of it as part of the core game, as it’s mostly humans you’ll end up fighting.
This brings me onto the next aspect and one of the core problems with my experience of the game. Combat is often a hit-or-miss situation for these open world RPG’s, and in the case of The Technomancer, some brief moments of fluidity and enjoyment with it don’t stop the combat being incredibly infuriating overall. You’re given three stances to use, with a specific weapon type tied to each stance; Warriors use a two-handed staff, Rogues a small blade and a gun, and Guardians a mace and a shield. The problem is that there’s no real reason to swap between these stances, as it does little to change up the combat within the game. Essentially all the stances just end up feeling too similar to ever justify changing. The combat itself is very clunky. Whilst the characters in the combat are well animated, the controls just aren’t tight or responsive enough to make it enjoyable. There have been situations all too often where I’ve dodged an attack in in time, to still for some reason get hit. Not only that, but I’ve hit enemies in the game where the hit didn’t register, to then have them be able to hit me. I’ve even been stun-locked a few times to where I was given no chance to recover. These issues and many others with the combat unfortunately just make the combat situations feel really unrewarding, so it ends up becoming a slog through them, despite the moments where it does work. I was left feeling extremely annoyed every time I died, so beating fight sequences felt more chore than achievement. I found myself saving after combat very regularly so I could avoid any risk of repeating it if I died in the next section, with the end result incredibly laborious and just flat out not fun.
The problem with the stances extends into the RPG system for the game. There are three separate character screens to upgrade from, and most of the upgrades within all three are relatively mundane when compared to the systems we are used to by now. None of them have anything particularly interesting to get excited about, as it’s mostly percentage buffs, boosts to lock-picking, increased luck within dialogue options etc. You also end up having to either spend the points properly upgrading a stance to use it more effectively, or split the points out between all three. Ultimately, it just further forces the player to stick with the one stance, as you’d be best off spending those points upgrading the abilities within that tree, making me wonder why more thought wasn’t put into this system to at least help it endorse more use of the varying stances. You also later unlock the ability to take a party of people with you, but it somehow does little to make the combat more interesting. It does however mean you’ll experience the joy of the party getting stuck in your way in narrow corridors, which is always fun, right?
When it comes to the quests, it’s a pretty standard affair for this style of RPG. You have the main storyline and a slew of optional side quests to do. Some of the quests actually present some pretty interesting segments, but it can mechanically end up being a bit monotonous. It involves a lot of running around the city talking to the game’s many NPC’s; essentially distilling them down into standard fetch-quests. There are, however, some storyline options at the end of these quests, which have knock-on effects on the rest of the world, plus you’re presented with a wide range of NPC’s to talk to and extensive dialogue. It’s nothing major but it does help the world feel a fraction less static. It would have been nice to see these facets more fleshed out though. There’s also a reputation and karma system within the game, but it’s not exactly easy to see how these affect the game’s story in a significant way.
The story and writing for this game are a bit of a let down too. You play as Zachariah Mancer, a Technomancer just about to complete his training. Technomancers are equipped with cybernetic implants to become mage-like warriors. The story takes place within a colony on Mars in the city of Ophir, and you are tasked with working to maintain order. Water is in such scarcity that it has become a fought-over resource, known as Serum. I actually like the premise for this world quite a lot, as it shows a grittier future world, somewhat reminiscent of some of the most lovable of the 80’s and 90’s sci-fi movie genre.
You can use Serum to buy weapons, armour and so on, with it acting as the core currency across Mars. Extracting Serum from NPC’s means you’ll lose karma as doing so will kill them, but I’m yet to see how this affects the game in a way that’s meaningful. Whilst there is some good voice acting, the narrative did little to engage me with the characters. The script gets a bit clunky in some sequences too. For example, towards the end of a part of the main quest, the decisions I made affect the dialogue. The NPC I was talking to had drastic tonal shifts when speaking to me. When those dialogue files are just stuck together like that, it’s a further immersion breaker. The story also suffers from some pretty big clichés - without spoiling things for you, think ‘shocking’ origin twist for Technomancy, arbitrary grudges against you in the ranks and sweeping government conspiracies driven on the healthy staple of deception and lies - the list goes on. Not only that, but, when in the dialogue sequences, the characters will jerk to a stock position when beginning the next sequence of their speech; it’s really jarring and further accentuates the lack of care put into the little details to help the game’s presentation. It’s a shame because they built a world here that I was interested to explore based on its premise, but these sorts of issues sadly pulled me straight out.
The soundtrack for this game isn’t exactly helping matters either. Maybe it’s the musician in me, but you’ve got some pretty awful synthesizer sounds for the most part, with nothing inspiring or catchy in composition to properly convey any sense of tension or ambience. For example, if the game anticipates combat, it’s all dull monotone synth stabs until you hit the combat, which builds into… well I’m not even sure what it is. You’d be surprised how effective a good soundtrack is, and it’s regrettable that the uninspired audio in this respect does nothing to mitigate the list of problems this game already has.
It’s frustrating to talk so negatively and criticize this game as much as I have done because there are aspects of it I enjoy. I like how ambitious Spider Studios were in building this world, and I don’t think it’s an awful game overall. If you were a fan of their previous game, Mars: War Logs, then you may enjoy this pseudo-sequel, and if you can overcome some of this game’s failings, it could fill some space until another game in a similar setting comes along; Mass Effect: Andromeda for example. The problem is that when it’s weighed under so many problems with its combat, roleplaying system, clunky dialogue and just huge lack of overall polish, it makes it a very hard game to recommend, especially if you were hoping for some serious improvements on their last entry. I really wish the studio set their scope for this game smaller and focused on making a much more refined experience. For any aspect where this game shines, it’s all too easy to point to you to a game that does it significantly better. It’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here to create an RPG in the current gaming space that was unique enough to stand on its own. Unfortunately, it’s an average RPG at best, and an unpolished, uninspired and annoying bore fest at its worst.