In The Technomancer, you are a guardian of the people that can barely manage to guard himself. For all that Spiders latest mid-budget RPG offers, this is an issue that plagues you again and again through the game’s 20-hour campaign. At least here the The Technomancer’s inconsistency is an asset. Mostly, it’s not that bad… it just never becomes good.
The Technomancer is set during the War of the Water, two centuries after humans have colonized Mars. Things aren’t going very well for mankind and water is scarce. You play as Zachariah Mancer (yes, really), a new inductee into the order of Technomancers, guardians of humanity with the power of electricity at their fingertips. This setup might be cliche, but as a backdrop for your place in a world in desperation, it works. This sense of familiarity permeates The Technomancer. From the idea of super powered guardians to insectoid aliens, to the shanty hub towns and decrepit buildings and caves you’ll spend most of your time in, the setting and story are well-trod territory for science fiction. Alike are the game’s combat and loot mechanics, which take clear influence from Mass Effect and other modern roleplaying games. Slipping in is easy. Mostly.
The biggest problem with the game is that, in striving to compete with big budget roleplaying games, its of rough edges stand out like a sore thumb. Hit and miss voice acting cause the occasional raised eyebrow, as do stiff animations the drag you straight into the uncanny valley. A bigger problem is that The Technomancer just assumes you’ll understand everything without bothering to explain it all.
As you explore, you’ll loot equipment from slain foes, craft upgrades, and purchase weapons and armor from vendors. By this point, you’ll have leveled up a handful of times, dropped attribute and skill points into their respective trees, and understood that this is a game that enjoys its numbers; The Technomancer doesn’t obfuscate its percentages and behind the scenes stats. Realizing this, you might ponder the points and bonuses on your new loot. Except when you do, you’re likely to have no idea what any of those points even do. Loot is graced with unhelpful, tooltip-less icons that you have to hope you know what they mean. More often than not, I chose my upgrades based on whether their impacts was green or red and got on with it. This made a big piece of the game feel flat out bland.
The same can said for character progression. As you complete quests and work your way through the campaign, you’ll gain levels allowing you to put points into four skill trees and a handful of attributes. Attribute bonuses are universally vanilla, consisting of multiple levels of the exact same bonus. Your first point in Power with earn you the same +2 as your last point.
Skill trees - warrior, guardian, rogue, and technomancer - fill in the typical RPG roles exactly as they sound, with electricity-based technomancy filling in for mage. The first three skill trees are also combat stances, (technomancy is used across all) and investing points really serves to power up your preferred playstyle. This is well and good, but each tree is inundated with passives, making most levels boring checkboxes on the way to what you actually want.
Combat starts off fun. The default control scheme takes some getting used to, with dodge attached to a mouse click, and alternative attacks on the control and space keys. In the beginning it’s a romp, leaping about and acting like the world’s most powerful bug zapper. As you play, however, it becomes clear that Rogue is the preferred playstyle. Guardian has its place, and warrior I actively avoided, but both feel painfully slow compared to the Rogue. The lack of strafe buttons also makes movement feel boxy and rigid.
The big problem, though, is that The Technomancer can’t decide whether it wants to be Mass Effect or Dark Souls. When it tries to be the latter it fails horribly. Which is often. Enemies pack a wallop, and even lowly trash mobs will come at you at once, eating massive chunks of health without clearly telegraphing what they’re about to do. They do telegraph, but not very well, and the game revels in darkness and twilight, making it even harder to see what’s about to happen. The only viable way to survive is to dodge in and out of range like a gymnast high on Red Bull. You can pause time and issue commands, but doesn’t make much sense when your only command a handful of abilities at any given time. Companions, though pretty thin on personality, make for acceptable meat shields (their own AI isn’t impressive).
This isn’t the case with every encounter, just too many of them. When you can see your enemies clearly and avoid being swarmed, The Technomancer’s combat is actually pretty fun.
Spiders’ biggest accomplishment is their world building. From its shared-universe predecessor, Mars: War Logs, Spiders has made tremendous improvement. Mars can be beautiful in its squalor. Missions tend to be linear, but I loved exploring the ruins to see what I would find (mostly nothing -- exploration isn’t important it seems). There are small details all over the place, but especially in hubs, that give the world a sense of place that was just absent in War Logs. Even the writing, though not particularly remarkable, is a dramatic improvement.
The Technomancer isn’t anything to write home about, but if you’re willing to overlook its flaws, this is Spiders’ most compelling world to date. Their vision of Mars is one that would be worth exploring even with its rough edges, if not for the sheer imbalance of a combat system that persistently drags the experience into the dregs of frustration. Spiders isn’t short on interesting ideas, it’s just the execution.
Gameplay: 5 - There are RPG systems aplenty, but imbalanced combat and only one worthwhile playstyle drag the experience down.
Visuals: 8 - Spider’s vision of Mars is filled with small flourishes and great vision. It’s not the prettiest game out there, but does well with what it has.
Longevity: 6 - Clocking in around 20 hours and packing 40 Steam Achievements, The Technomancer offers a good first-run playtime, but balance problems make returning a longshot.
Value: 5 - Imbalanced combat and too many rough edges make even $44.99 for 20 hours seem too expensive.
Polish: 6 - Lack of tooltips, stilted animations, poor companions, and a general lack of explanation