More often than not these days open world, action RPG titles fall into two pretty distinct categories; we get futuristic sci-fi settings with shooter elements, or fantasy worlds that build themselves around swordplay and melee combat. Given the way movies, TV series’ and literature all regularly fall into the same simple niches, this is never considered to be a problem that needs solving. With Spiders Studio’s The Technomancer, however, we get to put our hands on something that attempts to subvert this ideal as successfully as games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic have done in the past.
So, what exactly is The Technomancer? Set during the War of Water, which takes place two hundred years after humans colonized Mars, the game puts players in control of a rookie technomancer by the name of Zachariah. Zachariah hails from Abundance, one of the powerful corporations that operate on the red planet and vie for ultimate power. Aligning with such company puts the player in a fairly privileged position to start with; the early moments of the game make it very clear that the unaligned or uninitiated individuals suffer desperate lives.
When we first meet Zachariah, he’s preparing to embark on a quest to complete the initiation ritual to become a fully-fledged officer. Our hero is adept at various forms and styles of combat and, as a technomancer, he is able to call upon powerful gifts to conduct and utilize electricity to bolster his attacks and abilities. Taking these for a spin for the first time in the tutorial mission, players get a chance to explore some of what the colonized red planet has to offer, including finding out some surprising truths about the techomancers’ gifts and experiencing the powers for the first time.
As soon as you take your first steps in The Technomancer it becomes clear that this game offers a very entertaining prospect. Zachariah’s position and powers make for a great protagonist, and the sudden turn of events that put him on the run from secret police operating on Mars bring his comfortable life into turmoil. His quest becomes simple; break through the secrets of the ruling agencies and make contact with the lost Earth. What sounds simple, however, actually offers up plenty of intrigue and excitement across a well-populated story. Zach is pushed onto a path that takes him all over the planet and which requires all manner of skill and aid to navigate. It’s in these core areas that the game truly excels.
As far as combat goes, The Technomancer has more than enough answers to questions of whether this game would offer its players anything to get excited about. Like most RPGs, combat and other character abilities fit into different classes or styles. Unlike the vast majority of its contemporaries, however, The Technomancer does not force you to focus on becoming adept in just one of these. Progression through levelling up allows you to distribute points towards the skills and talents to become a formidable hero in one area, or you can choose to spread you experience more widely and become an all-rounder. Each option has its strengths and weaknesses, of course, while even opting for the all-round approach isn’t a guaranteed success.
The Warrior, Guardian and Rogue classes that are on offer fall into classic RPG categories. Warriors fight hard with physical attacks with a mace and shield, while Guardians are more precise soldiers who do all of their work with a two-handed staff. The Rogue class, meanwhile, makes use of traps and tricks to avoid being hit and cause damage from unseen attacks. These three options are changeable at will, Zach’s stance altering at the touch of a button, and all are able to be boosted by the Technomancer’s electrical abilities. The fact that these are always so fluid presents a welcome change from an RPG mechanic which so many other games use to force players into opting for one upgradeable path. It should also be said that the game’s fights look great. Combat is fast-paced and free-flowing and is even punctuated with a few slow motion flourishes for well-timed dodges or critical strikes.
This exciting and fluid combat is only worth so much on its own, but luckily the game builds a solid package around it as well. The Mars setting is a great choice; while you may expect the red planet to have a drab or unambitious aesthetic, there’s more than enough diversity to keep the exploration interesting. A city buried under ice and vibrant former paradises actually offer some pretty startling discoveries over the course of the game, and it’s always exciting to see where the story will be taking Zach next.
The planet is well populated by a diverse set of inhabitants, and enemy variety is always deep enough to keep the action fresh. Fellow humans like the secret police or bandit gang members attack cleverly in numbers, while a variety of mutants and monsters abandon all tactic and barrel into scuffles with raw strength and raging power. You’ll have to be on your toes to survive these encounters.
Not everyone on Mars wants to kill you, of course. Throughout the events of the game Zach will pick up a few companions who will accompany him through his missions and who also introduce stories of their own. Interactions with and around these characters will affect how they feel about the player and will have fairly significant consequences on parts of the story. For the most part, these feel as obvious and familiar as the relationships in a Telltale Studios game, for example, but they’re employed solidly enough to make you wonder what other paths or choices may have yielded.
But for all of the strengths that The Technomancer possesses, it’s lacking in enough areas to stop it from being an exemplary game. For a start, the visuals are just dated enough for it look like an impressive PS3 or Xbox 360 game, rather than a great product of the current generation hardware. Obviously budget constraints would have been mostly responsible for this, and it’s a massive shame that there wasn’t more in the coin purse to give this game the extra coat of polish that it sorely deserves. There are more than enough impressive locations on offer on the red planet, but none of them really arrive with any visual “wows.” Even the cutscenes don’t provide much in the way of aesthetic prowess. In fact, these slower and more open scenes even end up looking shabbier than when the combat gets frantic and senses of line and scale get blurred under fast movements.
As events wear on, it also becomes painfully apparent that this game falls down most when the action and adventure take a backseat. As a title with a heavy RPG focus, dialogue plays a massive part in advancing the story and the player’s position in the world. For a game like The Witcher 3, this is no big deal, as the conversations are generally well-written and expertly delivered. In The Technomancer, however, these elements are sadly lacking.
The majority of the dialogue is passably written, though it’s clear that the studio’s flair for writing a good adventure didn’t quite translate into the more sedate moments. Facial animations and character interactions are also extremely wooden, and the vocal delivery is mostly very deflated and uninspiring. Expect to find yourself hammering skip buttons whenever you’re not on the lookout for vital information.
Despite these few issues, The Technomancer is actually a very accomplished game that does well to fight for place among some truly exceptional action RPGs. It has A-list ambitions with a B-list budget, but more often than not it feels more akin to the former than the latter. The fluid combat system gives more than enough cause to play and replay the adventure, and a simple but effective story is well-supplemented by a rich world and solid RPG progression techniques. The trials of Zachariah Mancer are fraught with peril and danger, but his unique skills and a band of companions mean that he is more than up to the challenge. Above all else, The Technomancer is a tremendously fun adventure that more than deserves your attention and, perhaps, a spot at the top table of action RPG titles.
This game was reviewed for the PlayStation 4, and a copy was provided to us ahead of release.
The Technomancer tries hard to grab some originality in a very congested genre market. While it doesn't always stand out on its own, it does enough with a familiar formula and a solid story to make it more than worth your time. The Techomancer's tale is certainly one worth telling.