Need to Know
What is it? Action-focused sci-fi RPG
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 4690k, 8GB RAM, GTX 970
Release date: Out now
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Link: Official Site
The heavily guarded security station, pile of sandbags, razor wire, and armed guards should be my first clue, but it’s not until I see the gang of thugs that I realize I just wandered into the wrong neighborhood. Poisoned daggers, rusty guns, and clubs made of recycled scrap metal surround me and their leader growls: “Make the slightest move, you’re a dead man.”
I’m Zacharia Mancer. I’m a newly promoted officer in the Technomancer corps. I’m the protagonist and I have electrical magic hands, damn it. I don’t have to stand for this. I draw my staff, electrify it, and start putting on a clinic. Moments later I am dead, having accidentally clipped through a wall, gotten stuck on a piece of furniture, and stabbed to death by seven awkward dorks.
Technomancer is a huge, ambitious third-person RPG set in a long-established future civilization on Mars. Corporations own cities and go to war over precious reserves of water. The premise is just sci-fi enough and cyberpunk enough that I’ve seen Technomancer compared to Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but I think it’s closest to The Witcher: Wild Hunt in terms of player customization, crafting, and action-focused combat. Technomancer developer Spiders tried to deliver that Witcher RPG style on an indie budget, and the result is messy, buggy, and muddled.
Non-starter of Mars
Characters fight in three styles on Mars: as a Warrior with a quarterstaff, as a Guardian with a mace and shield, or as a Rogue with a dagger and pistol. Technomancers, a specialized type of mutant that can control electrical magics, can augment their combat with electrified weapons or by casting area attacks.
The three styles and the Technomancer ability grows through a skill tree to unlock stronger attacks and new moves, but basically they’re all variations on attacking and dodging. Most combat drove me to frantic clicking and muttered prayers. The sad thing is, I can see how this combat system could have been great. A fight in full-swing against one or two enemies is actually kind of beautiful. Carefully alternating attacks, blocks, and dodges is artful and smooth, and the camera swoops as Zacharia throws strikes and dodges enemy stabs. Combat like this is energetic, but it’s also very busy, takes up a ton of room, and swings the camera all over the place.
After the tutorial, enemies don’t show up one or two at a time anymore, they come running in groups. Suddenly busy, chaotic combat with a neurotic camera becomes the most unpleasant RPG combat experience I’ve had in a long time. Even selecting which enemy to target in a big group is impossible. Technomancer’s combat systems are just not up handling the large-group melees that Zacharia faces over and over again. Baddies in Technomancer, to their credit, prefer to attack all at once.
Where The Witcher handles crowd control so wonderfully, Technomancer’s combat does not sit in a flattering light. I died often, and I couldn’t always tell exactly why. When I finally did make it past a combat situation that had been kicking my ass, I couldn’t always say what it was that I did differently. Honestly, I think I just got lucky. I never felt fully in control of my character, and that’s a real problem in an RPG that focuses so much on combat.
Bore of the Worlds
Combat is the biggest pain, but it’s not the most disappointing thing about Technomancer. The premise and the lore of this world is fantastic, and I found domed cities and rusty slums to be interesting and attractive. But the world is empty. I ran past sprawling marketplaces full of empty shops and bereft of customers. I wandered up to NPCs and discovered they were mute, silent, and unaware of my presence.
When NPCs are around and engaged, results vary wildly. Remember that gang of thieves that menaced me in the alley? After they beat me to death a few times, I got frustrated. After my next loaded save, when they surrounded me and the leader delivered his line, “Make the slightest move, you’re a dead man,” I listened. I didn’t make a move. They didn’t move, either. After a minute of really awkward silence, I just started walking. The whole gang , weapons out, refusing to get close to me and refusing to make me a dead man. I opened a door to another part of the level and left them behind.
I would have liked to talk my way out of that situation, but it wasn’t an option. As an RPG, Technomancer offers very few ways around any given obstruction. There are some problems that you fight through and some that you talk through, but few where I could choose to fight or talk. The only persistent moral choice I made was whether to execute or spare incapacitated enemies. Though killing had an effect on my karma, it doesn’t seem to be an important effect.
I wish I could give Spiders some credit for taking on a gargantuan project. When a game is this big and feels this unfinished, it’s an indication that the project started big and came to an end before the world could be filled with life and commerce and people to talk to. I’ve got to admire the work that goes into aiming at BioWare and coming away with a solid B-movie effort. Even though I might admire good work ethic, I can’t recommend Technomancer at its full launch price of $45 when there are so many better-looking, better-playing RPGs for a similar price.