Criticism, by its very nature, is often the most impactful when dealing with extremes. Terrible games become gutted with a sense of glee, and many critics thrive on dishing out negative criticism quite easily. Likewise, fantastic games invoke a sense of joy in a reviewer; leading the charge on something new or innovative, or something that directly resonates with the critic because of its overall quality. When faced with a product that fills you with no true feelings, no spark of creativity, what can you honestly say when a review can be summed up in one word? Such is the case for The Technomancer, the latest RPG by developer Spiders.
In a word, The Technomancer is average. Completely, unequivocally average. A game stuck in a state of perpetual ambivalence; The Technomancer has a few working parts that are completely muddled by mechanics that wear players down.
It is not necessarily a problem with the skills of developer Spiders at all, in fact I sympathize with them wholeheartedly in this case. Most of their games are RPGs, including Bound By Flame, Farey: Legend of Avalon and Mars: War Logs, which is set in the same universe as The Technomancer, and for the most part, they are original creations with some pretty ambitious ideas. The key thing to remember about these RPG’s comes down to the monetary and time limitations that Spiders clearly has. The Technomancer, much like all of the games by Spiders, are small budget B-game titles stuck in the middle between full-blown indie games, and AAA blockbusters, occupying the space held by such developers as Kalypso Media, Cyanide Studio, and Piranha Bytes. These dev teams are not household names, but for many hardcore fans, they are the alternative to the mainstream spheres of gaming, despite their lack of resources and often quality compared to the big-budget market.
With this in mind, it serves as a useful framework for explaining the problem with The Technomancer. The game just can’t compete with other RPGs on the market, much like other B-game titles. The game suffers due to the flaws of its design, being caught between a rock in a hard place as a full blown release for a game with an obviously limited budget. Every problem becomes magnified, and in the case of The Technomancer, this means a lot of problems to contend with in the thirty-hour experience you get with the game.
The premise is quite good, all things considered. You play Zachariah, a newly minted Technomancer, a sort of warrior-monk who can wield lightning from his fingertips. The story takes place on Mars, now a complete wasteland with Cyberpunk undertones, where we see corporations vie for power over the humans left behind on the red planet over two centuries ago. As Zachariah, you need to navigate the politics behind these companies to uncover a plot against your fellow Technomancers, and possibly, make contact with planet Earth.
While the ideas behind the game have a lot of promise, the execution is decidedly sub-par. Many of the issues stem from a rushed quest and story structure. Events happen extremely quickly, and often dumps of exposition become necessary to explain the gaps in the stories. The game also has no codex to sift through, making it hard to piece together relevant backstory information between quest-lines.
Another problem with this structure is the story pacing. The first half of the game is a slow burn that shows off some interesting ideas dealing with faction politics in Zachariah’s home city of Ophir. This is thrown out the window quickly when a power grab is made, making the early faction politics almost null and void to the world building you were participating in. In fact, a lot of the questlines fall into that same trap. Most of them have binary choices attached to them to add player morality, while others give the promise of more factional choices, but faction loyalties only come into play in one questline by the game's end.
The breakneck pace of the game is a major flaw, robbing any story moments of actual drama or subtlety. This is compounded to the lack of places to go in The Technomancer. There were just over a dozen different areas to explore, three of which happened to be major faction cities that you spend over seventy percent of the game in. Within ten or so hours you will see almost all there is to see in the game, from small, derelict ruins to maze-like, rocky canyons. The variety is small and structured, like RPGs from the mid-2000s that had to use and reuse the same environments to fill in the gaps when necessary.
With all of these issues, the only saving grace The Technomancer has is their combat system. Basing it on Mars: War Logs and perfecting it further with smoother efficiency, the player has three major attack styles, each with their strengths and weaknesses attached to them. The game also allows you to switch through them, giving combat a free-flowing feel. Are your staff attacks not effective against armored opponents? Switch to the rogue style and use guns and knives with quick speed and precision. Did your Technomancer powers fail to make a dent? Try the guardian style and use a mace and shield while waiting for the enemy to come to you instead.
It is similar to action-combat seen in the Arkham games or Sleeping Dogs, and The Technomancer is adequate in aping that same gameplay style, right down to discouraging button mashing and being precise with your combat choices. It is quite rewarding to move freely between several combatants in a given fight and surviving the whole encounter without a scratch, the ultimate reward for a game that struggles to present a solid narrative or quest design.
In truth, the combat found in the game is the best part of the game, as is most of the level progression. With four skill trees, an attribute and a talent skill line to fill out across more than thirty levels, The Technomancer offers several options for you to experiment with, even if some of the bonuses you get become superfluous in the latter half of the game. Combat, however, is not blemish-free either, as the game suffers from a serious problem with repetition. Creatures and guards constantly respawn in each location you visit, meaning you will be fighting the same groups of enemies over and over again and adding needless padding to the overall runtime.
Other major issues begin to show as the stringent budget becomes more apparent. Dialogue is quick and jilted, and everything from the games crafting system to the weapon and armor options are severely limited. The lack of environments to explore or objectives to finish makes the game world feel slight, and even the sound design feels rushed and tiny. The voice acting is average at best, and every single character is close to the personality of a cardboard cutout, likely to save time on other assets in the game over the ballooning word budgets we see in AAA titles.
If there is a game to compare The Technomancer with, it is reminiscent to Alpha Protocol. Both titles felt limited and decisively average in almost every way, except for one area where the game can excel. For Alpha Protocol, it was the game's dialogue and factional dynamics that elevated it above the dredges of a failed game. For The Technomancer, it is the fluid combat mechanics that pulls Spider’s title from the abyss. This doesn’t save either game from their fate in the bargain bin, but for the right person, the right audience, it is at least a passable experience in the way a B-game can only be, shlocky and without thinking about it too heavily.
The Technomancer always had an uphill battle from the start, but by framing the entire game in the B-tier, and being proud of that fact, perhaps the audience for Spiders' cyberpunk RPG is out there. The game is shackled by its limitations, but if the average experience was the best Spiders can do with what they have, then it certainly could have been a lot worse in the end for them.
Decisively average, The Technomancer can be an amusing role-playing experience thanks to its combat system, provided you are ready for constant repetition baked in a sub-par shell.