The Technomancer is the latest title from French developer Spiders, and marks a return to the world of its 2013 title, Mars: War Logs. Mars is in the grips of a constant struggle between its mega-corporations for its most precious resource: water. Whilst War Logs put you in the shoes of war veteran Roy Temperance from Aurora, Technomancer puts you in the shoes of Abundance’s Zachariah, a freshly minted solider of the titular profession.
On Mars, technomancers are cybernetically augmented humans who have the ability to generate and control electricity in combat – and our journey opens on Zach undergoing his initiation into the organisation. After uncovering the mutated secrets of your origin – kind of undersold for its impact, given we don’t get the cultural information as to why this is so bad before we learn the truth – you’re soon set to work with the military. What follows is a journey into Mars’ secrets and past as Zachariah strives to break the century-long silence and make contact with Earth once more.
Much like War Logs, this iteration’s story will introduce you to a suite of characters who act as companions and party members to Zachariah. Here they take on a larger role, as you’re able to develop your relationship with each to improve your combat effectiveness when paired together. Various actions will improve your destroy your standing with each, as will undertaking special missions when you form a close enough bond. You can even develop a romantic relationship, with both male and female partners available to Zachariah. It’s a nice touch to add this inclusiveness (especially from a smaller developer), which makes it all the more confusing why larger companies find it so hard to give everyone an equal go at awkward video game romance.
Combat-wise, the companions offer a number of specialties that mirror the various combat approaches you can take. Zach has three key combat options: the Warrior stance uses staff weapons, Rogue utilises a dagger-pistol combo and the Guardian has a mace and shield. You also have your technmoancer powers, allowing you to perform various offensive and defensive skills, as well as the ability to electrify your weapons to do added damage and the chance to stun enemies. At no point are you locked down to one particular combat role: you’re free to use and develop the skill trees of each at your own behest, depending on your preferences and the type of fights you’re facing.
The highlight for me was the aesthetic of the game. Mars’ environments vary from insular and creaking technology to barren wastes, small scrounged-together encampments and impressive natural formations. Given the Martian setting it would be all too easy to just put ‘Red’ on the design document and call it a day, but Spiders have made sure to put a bit more effort in than that. The persistent glow of blue-lit chests and cabinets help direct you to loot and objects of interest, and the overall colour scheme of the world shifts widely depending on your location.
Now, all of that sounds great. Right? Gritty sci-fi RPG, cyberpunk aesthetic, multiple combat approaches and mysteries to uncover. The problem is that Technomancer has a lot of premise and promise, but doesn’t really deliver in a satisfying way.
The problem is that I am a sucker for Spiders’ games. I said it before in my Bound by Flame review back in 2014, but it bears repeating: A+ for concept, just a passing grade for actual execution. The cyberpunk stylings of the game tick a lot of boxes for me, as does the whole techno-wizard vibe of the technomancers themselves, but none of it really hits the mark. As beautiful as the game is, it inevitably feels quite empty – while areas such as the Exchange at the start of the game are full of NPCs milling about, you can’t interact with any of them beyond merchants and those relevant to the story. The rest are nothing but set dressing that end up doing little but get in the way. The game also has a problem with visual balance; after adjusting the game using the all-too-familiar ‘move the slider until you can barely see X image’ to achieve the ‘correct’ brightness, I found that half the game was so dark as to be blinding. Many early areas left me in pitch black on occasion, and the lack of lighting or tight camera work made cutscenes little more than silhouette puppet shows half the time.
It’s not all bad though – not being able to see the characters interact occasionally works in your favour. The awkwardness of the gum-flapping character models rarely syncs up with with what they’re saying, and on some characters is so Uncanny Valley as to be off-putting. Scott Seeker – one of your companions – is one of the first characters you actually see speak, and his gremlin head contorts in a way that is cartoonish. Bear in mind this isn’t a one-off background character – he’s a core cast member, just like Zachariah. A generic NPC looking a bit weird is one thing, but someone you’re potentially going to spend half the game with should feel less like only half his facial muscles are working.
When you’re not working through awkward dialogue enacted by Scott ‘Creeper’ Seeker, you can instead focus on the intensely lumpy difficulty of combat. While fights in the very first sequence during your Initiation mission are fairly easy to master, shit gets real the moment you’re free to roam the game yourself. I can’t think of a single fight against random enemies in these opening areas that I only had to do ONCE. Enemies hit hard, en masse, and simultaneously. Normally when you lose or die in a game, you should have an idea of what you’ve done wrong, and how to do better next time. In The Technomancer, my usual takeaways were ‘I got trapped in a corner’, or ‘I got stuck in a beatdown loop’. Enemies will juggle you mercilessly, with no chance to interrupt, and will often all rush you at once to block any chance to escape and take a breather. Even if you do get the chance, using items to heal or recharge your electrical energy have such long animations that they are all-too-easily interrupted by enemies as they chase you down – not to mention having this animation interrupted loses you the item itself.
The magic of many action-based combat games is that they can make you FEEL swarmed without actually making it impossible. Early Assassin’s Creed did this very unambiguously with only a few of the total enemies attacking you at a time, while the rest looked on. More recent titles like The Witcher 3 have monsters and human enemies always moving and circling, offering the threat of damage while secretly taking turns anyway. Not so in Technomancer – every two-bit thug and random monster is vying to be the first to lay into you. And these hits are brutal! Generic mobs will take you down in seconds if you aren’t perfectly dodging and weaving, which is a dumb thing to expect players to have mastered from their first fight. Even sub-bosses, such as a renegade soldier I was told to take down in LITERALLY THE FIRST SIDE-QUEST I GOT, will floor you instantly – the aforementioned soldier had a gun that could take me down in two shotgun blasts, or a single sustained assault rifle strike. This isn’t ‘failing forward’ gameplay – encouraging you to learn from your mistakes – it’s just failing.
Honestly, I’m disappointed that The Technomancer couldn’t deliver. I want to like it so much! The seeds of an excellent game are there, but they just haven’t been tended to a level that really needs to be played. Hopefully Spiders will patch the game to improve some of the difficulty wall issues and this will become a more enjoyable experience, but I don’t think it’s a must-play for now. Overall it feels like an atmospheric step forward for the developer, but a mechanical trip backwards. Until that gets sorted, the red planet can wait.
The Technomancer was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher.
Review: The Technomancer