Do Witchers dream of electric sheep?
Spiders Studio has had a bumpy track record in recent years. While games like the Souls-inspired Bound by Flame and 2013’s Mars: War Logs showed hints of promise, an overall lack of polish left these titles largely confined to the bargain bin. While not quite a AAA experience, the studio’s latest release, The Technomancer, largely manages to succeed where its predecessors faltered, delivering a thrilling journey to our rust-covered celestial neighbor to unravel a web of secrets and shadowy intrigue and make contact with Earth after 120 years of silence between the settlers of Mars and their distant home world. Though it still showcases its lean development budget at times, The Technomancer’s ambitious scale and captivating sci-fi setting serve as compelling reasons to immerse yourself in the game’s dark and brutal world.
Set 200 years afer humanity first colonized Mars, The Technomancer puts players in the shoes of Zachariah Mancer, a newly-minted member of the game’s titular faction (think Martian Jedi) who can bend electricity to their will and are trained in all forms of combat. Both revered and feared, these versatile soldiers are tasked with keeping the peace on Mars, but are frequently used as pawns for the various corporations and criminal elements who preside over the Red Planet. After discovering a secret that could shift the balance of power on the Martian colonies, Zachariah becomes embroiled in a sci-fi epic full of greedy corporations, secretive agencies, and a brewing civil war in an adventure that borrows heavily from such classics as Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Quantic Dream’s Omikron: The Nomad Soul to CD Projeckt RED’s modern masterpiece, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
It’s an interesting, if not wholly original setup, and the game’s solid writing and excellent worldbuilding do a good job keeping you engaged throughout the roughly 20-hour main story, which takes players from the austere corridors of ultra-modern cities, seedy slums ruled by criminal gangs, forgotten ruins, and the harsh martian wasteland itself.
After creating your character, The Technomancer hits the ground running, promptly introducing players to the various skills that they’ll need to learn in order to survive on the hostile planet. While many RPGs force players to choose a particular class to master, here you’re offered three unique play styles in the form of stances, which can be swapped between on the fly at any time. For example, the Warrior stance wields a staff and can unleash barrages of rapid-fire blows and area-of-effect attacks, while the Rogue stance offers a balanced approach, allowing you to accost your enemies with both a blade and a gun. Lastly, the Guardian class is a more defensive build, which focuses on using a shield and mace in tandem to hit hard and block oncoming attacks. However, this added power comes at the cost of the dodge ability that the other two stances enjoy. Combined with your Technomancer abilities, which allow you to pummel your enemies with blasts of electricity and even imbue your weapons in lightning for added damage, the game delivers a varied and diverse combat system that gives players lots of freedom to adapt to any given situation.
While it sounds like a lot to take in, the combat is easy to pick up and feels very satisfying in practice. Targeting and switching between targets is seamless, and the combat moves with a great sense of fluidity, even when half a dozen enemies are swarming you and your party. Stylish, slow-motion effects also accent well-timed dodges and strikes, giving the melees an almost Arkham-esque flavor. It’s punchy, it’s fast-paced. And most importantly, it’s fun as hell.
Further fleshing out the Stance system is a vast skill tree, which allows you to unlock new abilities and augment your existing skills, as well as bulk up your knowledge in sciences and charisma, which opens up more avenues for completing the game’s myriad quests. For example, having a vast knowledge of science may allow you to discern the cause of a rash of poisonings without needing to venture out for assistance from an outside party, while your charisma skills helps you coerce characters into doing your bidding without the need to resort to bribes or violence.
Over the course of The Technomancer, you’ll take on countless quests for numerous factions, some of which are shadier than others. During these missions you’ll often be given a number of different ways to complete your objective, and depending on the choices you make you’ll directly impact your standing with the game’s different organizations. For example, sparing a resistance leader that you’ve been tasked with killing by the Abundance military forces will cause your employers to question your allegiance, while working with the mafia is generally a good way to ensure pretty much the rest of the planet will hate you. These choices can directly impact the way the story progresses, and can even influence the way members of your party interact with the player. Killing people unnecessarily or taking on jobs for seedier organizations can even cause party members with a more finely-tuned moral compass to abandon the party altogether. However, if you nurture your companions’ trust they may ask you to undertake special quests, which further their allegiance to your cause and can even spark romances. Overall, it’s really impressive just how much you can influence the game’s world and characters, and the game’s grand ambitions often overshadow the title’s limited budget when compared to the AAA games that serve as its obvious inspiration.
Unfortunately, this B-grade budget does make for some issues that can’t be resolved with clever writing or deep mechanics. The Technomancer features its fair share of bugs and glitches that pop up pretty frequently, but thankfully never reach game-breaking proportions. Some minor issues include areas where you can clip straight through the walls of a row of houses, to the occasional cutscene that will play out with an NPC facing the wrong direction. While these are mostly harmless, I did find a particular location where no matter what happened, the gangsters inside a building in the slums would become active and attempt to fight me from inside an area I could not access. These enemies were impossible to face head-on, because when in combat you’re unable to open doors. That said, I was to blindly swing and shoot through a solid wall to kill them and ultimately reach my destination. In this same area, even when taking quests from the resident crime lord, his henchman would attack me as if I were an enemy time and time again. Thankfully, these major glitches seemed confined mostly to this one area, and hopefully Spiders will release a patch to address these issues by the time the game hits retail.
The Technomancer features a crafting system, allowing you to whip up health-packs, mines, and focus injectors at crafting tables that are scattered throughout the world. Additionally, you can upgrade your weapons and armor as well, adding various effects to your equipment, such as an added chance to disrupt your enemies attacks, or armor-piercing capability for weapons. While upgrading your weapons is definitely welcome, upgrading your armor feels almost superficial, as enemies dole out the kind of damage you’d expect to see in a Souls game, seemingly regardless of your armor rating. This eventually led to me simply buying the armor that looked the most appealing aesthetically, as any bonuses added through the crafting system seemed entirely negligible due to the enemy’s insanely high damage output. That said, the best defense is to master your dodge and shield abilities and to craft a mountain of healing items before setting off on your mission.
Despite being rough around the edges at times, there’s a lot to love about The Technomancer. The degree of freedom players are given over the course of the journey is impressive, and will surely appeal to players who cut their teeth on Bioware’s most memorable titles such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. Spiders’ vision of Mars is a fascinating place, and you’ll want to see the journey through to the finish, even if it’s a bit too predictable for its own good at times. Those looking for a cyberpunk adventure with a weighty combat system that channels some of the genre’s best entries would do well to check this out. And the game has plenty of meat on its bones, with a main story that clocks in at 20 hours, and the side quests can easily add another 10 to 15-hours to the experience.
Overall, The Technomancer is an admirable effort from Spiders that’ll scratch that sci-fi adventure itch during these slow summer months, and a great improvement over the game’s predecessor, Mars: War Logs. While it’s certainly not perfect, the game’s fascinating setting, entertaining story and rock-solid combat are enough to make us hope this isn’t the last time we see Zachariah Mancer.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive ; Developer: Spiders Studio ; Players: 1 ; Released: June 28, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Teen ; MSRP: 59.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review copy provided to us by the publisher.