Cranky Old Gamer: The Technomancer

The Technomancer cover art

Spiders isn’t a AAA game company – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

I played Mars: War Log a while back on XB360. It was ok, but not the kind of game that really dragged me in and made me want to see it through to the end. Spiders has released another game between then an The Technomancer, but I never got a chance to play that one. Reviews for the second game weren’t great (when I was still relying on them to figure out what to play), and it seemed to be just another medieval fantasy RPG.

When I saw the review titles for The Technomancer, it rang a bell. I remembered that Mars: War Log also revolved around a character type called Technomancers, and sure enough it was another game by Spiders. However, this one seemed to be much more fleshed out, more fully envisioned, than the earlier effort on the last-generation console. The reviews bashed it for being akin to early Bioware titles like Knights of the Old Republic – one of my favorite sci-fi games of all time, so I took the dive and gave it a go – and I’m very glad I did.

This second outing into the world of human colonies on Mars is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Zachariah, the titular Technomancer. Think of them as fighters with a bit of electrical magic added in – similar to biotics in the Mass Effect series. Through the storyline, you’re introduced to the Technomancers of Abundance – one of several water companies that dominate the political and social landscape of Mars. Earth hasn’t been reachable for generations, entire colonial sites have been lost to history, and mutations have created a sub-species of humanity that is, to say the least, not treated well. Each water corp has their own Technomancer brigade, but unlike Aurora (another massive water company/nation-state); Abundance treats them as battle commanders in the armed forces – essentially weapons to be used by the state. Your character is no different, with the game beginning as they transition from being a trainee into their first military commission as a Lieutenant.

I won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say you find yourself embroiled in the political intrigue of multiple powerful groups; and can – in the end – change the very course of history for the red planet. No, not the red-green-blue change the galaxy ending of Mass Effect; but actually change the entire society of Mars with your decisions. Granted, most of it is just spelled out in an epilogue, but frankly Dragon Age Origins did the same thing and it’s one of the most revered RPG’s ever.

What’s interesting about this game is that Spiders isn’t a massive game studio with hundreds of programmers grinding away at coding the next big blockbuster hit like Bethesda or Bioware. They’re not an indie group, but they’re small enough that the scope of both the game itself and the storyline within it are a refreshing surprise. Spiders has evolved a rather sparse Mars landscape found in War Log into a fully-viable planet stuffed with different experiences and personality. Each region is unique – with Ophir – a major city-state of Abundance – being a utilitarian, corporate behemoth of a building (no one can live on the actual surface of Mars due to solar radiation, so people live in naturally sheltered communities or massive enclave buildings like Ophir), while Noctis has an arabian-like vibe to it. You also visit Shadow Paths – points along rail-like transport systems that exist in naturally or artificially covered areas of the planet to protect from the sun’s rays; and long-lost colonial outpost domes from the original settlers. Unlike many of the AAA games lately, the scenery is very rarely re-used – it’s extremely varied and each area has some form of distinctness that keeps it apart from all the others. In short, this doesn’t feel like a dozen re-skinned dungeons, but individual areas created from scratch each time.

The people you meet also vary wildly. From the not-quite-all-there doctor companion Scott, to the intelligent mutant Phobos; each is given a distinct personality. Each also has side-missions that you can choose to undertake to get closer to each companion, and various perks (even romance) if you progress far enough with them. Non-companion characters central to the storyline also get their own personalities. From shady businessmen to impotent politicians, everyone feels like they had their stories written just for them.

Added to this, the world itself is incredibly believable. There’s no fantastic technology saving the inhabitants of Mars; as aside from some basic atmospheric manipulation decades back (to make the surface breathable), the planet is still about the same as it is today. There was some cataclysmic event that made the solar radiation outright lethal instead of just extremely dangerous as we know it – but there’s no magic going on here. The event caused a shift in the planet’s angle toward the sun, thereby making solar rays much more dangerous to humans – a potential event that science says could happen under the right (or wrong?) circumstances to any planet. The world of The Technomancer’s Mars is only slightly different than the actual Mars – and the differences are believably explained. I have to give Spiders credit for the level of research that must have gone into making that a possibility – a level of detail notably absent from many games that take place on earth, much less another planet.

The storyline is somewhat readable – you won’t be shocked by most of the twists and turns – but very enjoyable to play through. There’s an emancipation plot in progress, Secret Police who want to clamp down on everyone, back-alley mobsters, even a trade-hub of caravans with their own ulterior motives. While somewhat formulaic, the story does through a few curves in that you probably won’t see coming – and that I won’t spoil here.

This isn’t to say the game is without fault. The voice acting can be static, with characters voices failing to deliver emotion in many cases. There are two issues at play that cause this: First is the fact that the game was written in French, and the translation loses some of the emotion impact. Second, the acting talent probably didn’t work together on pre-recording reads and such. The facial animations are also not great, leaving characters speaking surprise without their eyebrows moving at all, etc. The issues distract from the punch of the storyline, but not enough to make the game one you should avoid unless those issues are your primary concern in a game.

Combat can also be unforgiving and occasionally just unfair. Even on Easy difficulty, you will find yourself outnumbered by damage sponges on multiple occasions. The combat itself is easy to understand, with three styles to choose from (staff-weapon moves, mace and shield, and rogue-like dagger and gun) plus the titular technomancy mechanic available to all three. The game handles combat well, and tends to be usually be fair but punishing. You can generally win out over your opponents, but you might have to re-try a fight or two due to just plain bad luck. The game’s camera follow doesn’t help it any here, and you will definitely find yourself having to manually move the stick to see what’s going on in the middle of a battle. I will definitely give the game points on the combat animations, however. Combat moves are fluid, and flow very well with only a few exceptions. Plus, the momentary slow-motion on critical hits makes them feel oh so very satisfying to land.

The lack of a fast-travel system is also painful. While you can travel by rover to outposts and cities, you have to traverse within the volume of those places (many of which are absolutely huge) on foot. This will lead you to go on mind-numbing runs through the same set of guards every time you have to visit a hostile location – over and over again. It doesn’t feel like lazy programming or filler or anything like that, it honestly just feels like an oversight where fast-travel simply wasn’t built into the game.

Overall, however, I’d recommend this one to anyone who likes deep Western RPG’s. The storyline is fun, and while usually pretty easy to divine what’s coming next, it will surprise you now and then. The combat is passible, though not exceptional; and the non-combat animations are fairly static. But if you like a good yarn and enjoy believable sci-fi universes, this is a game you should check out.