Video games are often seen, perhaps simplistically but not altogether inaccurately, as a composite of two fundamental aspects: narrative and mechanics. They also tend to be judged primarily on those two aspects, though excellence in both is scarcely a requirement to be considered a success. A work like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is universally revered, despite a deeply flawed combat system, on the strength of its expertly woven plot and characterization, while a title like Vanquish may be equally lauded for its refined gameplay even while it’s underpinned by a mundane story. Still, there are no prizes given for games that fail at both, and The Technomancer claims membership firmly, almost defiantly, to that unfortunate category.
The sequel to the unenthusiastically received Mars: War Logs provides a fleeting semblance of narrative depth, relying on the detailed setting and backstory inherited from its predecessor, before its failure to do anything particularly interesting with that legacy becomes glaringly obvious. We meet our protagonist, a young man by the name of Zachariah Mancer, as he is about to complete his studies and become a full-fledged member of the technomancer order (an elite group of soldiers that can channel all sorts of electricity-based powers and serve as special-ops units in an ongoing resource war between rival corporations) in a story that aspires to merge the dystopian urban squalor of Deus Ex with the messianic overtones of Commander Shepard’s saga in Mass Effect.
The laziness of its writing becomes immediately apparent through that most revealing of signifiers: names. Like our hero, everyone’s surname takes after their occupation: Amelia, the headstrong driver of the team, is called Reacher; Scott, the elderly scientist, is called Seeker; and, of course, there’s Colonel Viktor Watcher, head of the ASC (the Martian equivalent of that Stasi) and the main antagonist of the game, whose stray Cyrillic spelling should hammer the point home about his villainous ways, even if his job description fails to do the trick. Admittedly, the choice also serves to remind us of the starting city’s hereditary caste system, but there’s no such excuse for describing its various neighborhoods with bland, generic labels such as the Slums or the Exchange. The impression is consistently conveyed that The Technomancer writing team approached their task with the enthusiasm that a schoolkid shows for their homework on the first day of summer.
It’s an impression further reinforced by token dramatic situations, hollow, moralistic platitudes, and characters that are little more than an amalgamation of well-worn stereotypes: the wise and patient teachers, the army superior that comes off as a hardass but has her heart in the right place, the overexcited country bumpkin clashing with the inner city cynic. The plot trudges along just as predictably. The technomancers are hiding a terrible secret that could endanger their exalted position were it to be discovered and one that Colonel Viktor is especially keen on sniffing out. And so amid the backdrop of a losing war between your home corporation of Abundance and young, expansionistic Aurora, you rise through the ranks, butt heads with the authority figures of your hometown, and eventually head off to lead your own revolution against its oppressive regime.
None of which would have been serious issues had the various borrowed, forgettable fragments of its narrative at least cohered. In perhaps the most overt of a stream of constant verbal reminders that technomancers are exceptionally powerful, your commanding officer declares that she would normally require ten times the manpower of your three-person squad for most of the missions that you’re sent to. Given that the latter usually involve skirmishes with similarly-sized, similarly-equipped groups are we to conclude that it should take roughly thirty trained soldiers to deal with a handful of grunts? No wonder Abundance is losing the war.
Elsewhere, after incapacitating a ring of spies who have acquired vital information on a hidden rebel city, you can either kill or free them, with the latter clearly signposted as the “good” option. Never mind that this would endanger numerous lives and that it would literally require changing a single word of text to “arrest” or “detain” to amend it, The Technomancer seems entirely oblivious to notions of consequences and continuity, which should come as no surprise in a game in which the main character has the audacity to chastise a street vendor for not interfering with the lynching of a mutant mere hours after completing a mission where threatening members of that oppressed minority was actually the nicest option provided. Every contradictory declaration that the game makes, every false moral choice that it offers, and every unhinged chunk of story it throws your way is intended for short-term impact as if suspension of disbelief is something to be unequivocally surrendered by the player rather than gradually earned by the game. As a result, The Technomancer undermines the legitimacy of its own narrative and numbs players to the significance of the unfolding events or the details of an otherwise intriguing setting. The only sensible response to such sloppiness is to skip the pointless dialogue, ignore the forgettable bouts of exposition, and jump straight to the next battle hoping to find some excitement there.
…only to be disappointed even further. Although not as fundamentally irredeemable as the story, at times it almost seems like French developer Spiders set out to deliberately sabotage their own combat system. Aiming for the fast, flowing spectacle exemplified by the skirmishes of the Arkham series, their efforts are undone by a pair of gross miscalculations. First, your opening attack, which should ideally lead to an impressive chain of offensive moves, is randomly chosen between four or five different moves whose speed and range vary wildly. Simply put, at the moment that you launch a strike, whether with your quarterstaff, dagger, or mace (there are three fighting styles called stances, each with their unique weapons and advantages), you are unable to tell whether it will reach your opponent and how long you’ve left yourself open to a counterattack. This is compounded by the infuriatingly high probability that your enemies will either dodge or parry your strike anyway.
Consequently, the most practical way to approach combat, is to keep spamming the dodge button while waiting for the moment when you are absolutely, positively certain that your adversary is close enough to reach and otherwise occupied to attempt an attack, scratching that adversary for a fraction of his health before the whole absurd dance starts all over again. The combat is not entirely unpleasant once you get used to it, but, whereas Arkham’s precision-rewarding brawls are gloriously empowering, fights in The Technomancer feel stuttered and arbitrary — a game of Russian roulette in which each mistake may be fatal and each success is chanced upon rather than earned.
The mind-numbing repetitiveness of encounters (with identical mobs spawning in exactly the same locations every time you pass through) deals the final blow in any attempt to salvage a little joy from an experience (especially as it stretches on for more than 30 hours of gameplay) that consists mostly of combat and individually searching each unconscious body for loot via an unnecessarily protracted animation sequence. At least a recurring encounter with the thugs guarding the entrance to a local mafia boss, who is spouting the same nonsensical threats every single time you decide to pay a visit (and shortly before getting beaten to a pulp), provides unintentional comic relief and is strangely reminiscent of Asterix’s perpetually trounced band of pirates.
It’s a shame because both the setting, which occasionally offers glimpses of complexity and inspiration, and the sheer effort that (writing notwithstanding) must have gone into The Technomancer by a team operating on an obviously limited budget, deserved resulting in something better. There’s no pleasure in speaking harshly about a developer like Spiders, one that is part of a rare and precious breed: the mid-tier studio with an ambition to take on the heavyweights. We need developers like that lest the industry becomes a black-and-white divide between yearly AAA iterations and retro-inspired indie oddities. But that’s no reason to treat their efforts with kid gloves either, or else there may be a risk that they’ll end up as complacent as the the companies that they’re supposed to be providing an alternative to. If the game is a failure on several levels, there’s still some cause for optimism in the fact that its flaws are not inherent in its developer’s size and budget, which suggests that Spiders can learn from The Technomancer‘s mistakes and hopefully improve with their next effort.