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RPG Codex Review: The Technomancer
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 4 July 2016, 23:02:17Tags: Spiders; The Technomancer
[Review by Bubbles]
When the Codex paid a visit to Gamescom back in the golden era of late 2015, The Technomancer was one of the most interesting games on display. The relatively small French developer Spiders were promising a story-heavy action RPG experience full of meaningful choices and consequences, with stat-driven dialogues and absolutely zero minigames, developed by a team of passionate pen&paper players. If Spiders had been able to realize all of these goals, The Technomancer could have become one of the best games of 2016; and if they had failed, it would at least have been an interesting failure.
As it turns out, The Technomancer is neither a great success nor an outright failure; it's simply a solid story RPG that is hamstrung by an omnipresent lack of polish and a few thoroughly stupid design decisions. Together, all of these flaws and little bits of weirdness infuse the game with a strong sense of character, a character which some people will find appealing and others repulsive. All I can do is try to offer my own perspective and hope that it will help people to determine if this game can appeal to them.
The Technomancer throws the player into one of the more exotic settings I've encountered in a mainstream RPG: you play Zachariah, a young Technomancer who lives on the planet Mars, in a dystopian society that is controlled by a few large corporations. Humanity is confined to a small number of scattered megacities, where they are sheltered from the deadly radiation of the sun; those who are exposed to the radiation become hideously disfigured mutants, who are treated like slaves by their human masters. The most precious resource is water, which is the source of endless wars between the planet's inhabitants. Your character's ultimate goal is to find a way to contact Earth and allow humanity to leave his godforsaken rock.
None of these elements are terribly original in and of themselves; even the Technomancers are basically just a morally flexible version of force users from the Star Wars setting. However, Spiders have fleshed out their world with lots of entertaining little details that give the setting a great deal of colour. To give an example: each corporation uses a different naming scheme for its people. Aurora is a religious corporation, whose citizens receive "virtue names" like "Chastity" and "Prosperity". Their rival Abundance is openly totalitarian and names its citizens for their roles in society; Michael Labour is probably a manual worker, Viktor Watcher is the head of the secret police, and Anton Rogue is... well, you can guess. Meanwhile, the mutants carry names like Phobos, Cain, and Scum, and they all talk about themselves in the third person.
The whole thing could easily come across as stupid and juvenile, but the developers seem so earnestly committed to their setting that they've somehow made it feel endearing. You'll come across an all-female gang raging against the "Phallos", a woman committing suicide by licking a stone, a famous singer with a terrible secret (possibly cribbed from Deus Ex, but why not?) and a literal poster girl for the regime whose favourite words are "fuck" and "shit" (“Now I know why they didn't put a caption on the poster,” comments an NPC). Eventually, I just embraced the general B-movie atmosphere and allowed myself to be entertained. Your reaction may differ.
I do not mean to say that the writing is entirely bereft of ambition either; I frequently got the feeling that the writers wanted me to genuinely care about the world and its characters, making me face major problems that had no easy solutions. For example, you learn during the tutorial that the Technomancers keep a terrible secret – they, too, are mutants! If the secret police ever discovers the truth, you, your colleagues, and all of your offspring will be condemned to a life of slavery with no hope of redemption. This is quite an unusual hook for an action RPG plot – there's no threat of global annihilation, no supernatural evil lurking in the shadows, just you and your co-conspirators against the secret police. For the first of the game's four acts (or about 13 hours of a 30 hour running time), the game actually manages to make good use of that premise. The secret police seeks to “divide and conquer” the Technomancers, and Zachariah is drafted into the army. He goes after deserters and smugglers, maybe tries to help or exploit a few people on the side, and is occasionally menaced by the devious head of the secret police, who is just this close to figuring out the great secret. You get to do lots of side quests in a (mostly) friendly city, you can interrogate the NPCs about the lore of the setting (strictly optional, but helpful in certain quests), you can bribe and manipulate people – in a word, it feels like a proper, dialogue-driven RPG. Add in a bit of Deus Ex-inspired mood music, and it's all good fun.
Sadly, this tense atmosphere cannot be sustained; once you reach Act 2 you are railroaded into a rather more conventional narrative, which also involves a whole lot more fighting than before. The designers try to compensate for that by introducing a few companion characters with off-beat personalities, interesting backgrounds and their own unique questlines; there are even a few surprising callbacks to seemingly minor side quests from the first act, and little bits of lore that suddenly become relevant in a new context. The remainder of the main quest is also by no means bad – there were some clever plot developments along the way, and the epilogue offered more interesting options than I expected. However, I could never shake the feeling that the game had squandered a lot of potential by making such an abrupt cut after the first act, drastically upsetting the dialogue-to-combat ratio, and throwing out so much of what I had enjoyed about its atmosphere. Combined with the strange imbalance in game length and pacing (the first act is nearly half the game, and the final “act” took me less than an hour), I got the impression that the developers might originally have had a greater vision for the game that had to be pruned back considerably during development.
This decline in narrative quality is compounded by the dodgy production values of the dialogues. Spiders are a somewhat smaller studio than Bioware or CD Projekt RED, and this lack of budget and manpower is quite noticeable during the game's many dialogue sequences. The most obvious concession are the many “auto-pilot” dialogue sequences, which have generally gone out of fashion in modern AAA RPGs. The main character frequently speaks on his own, without any player input, and can lead a lengthy discussion up until the point where a meaningful choice (spare/kill, use dialogue skill, etc.) can be made. Many characters can also be interrogated about the game's lore or about their personal background, but even then you will not get to lead the conversation; you only choose a short line of text, and then the main character talks and argues on his own. There are also remarkably few NPCs in the world, and many questgivers give multiple quests in a row, likely to cut down on the amount of unique character models required. This isn't strictly bad, mind you; being able to return to an NPC and see what's happened to them since your last visit lends the quest design a nice feeling of continuity.
The story also occasionally wants to present things that the designers cannot show; thus, an absolutely crucial, plot-defining late game cutscene involving a heated and potentially lengthy confrontation in a political arena simply shows a single character with indistinct voices shouting at them from off stage. The whole thing lasts about three seconds and conveys very little; even a text description would have been better. Dialogues also have a fair share of translation issues, including a tendency to confuse the words “his” and “her” (possibly because you cannot make the distinction in French). The voice actors range from “average” to “entertainingly bad”. Lines of dialogue sometimes transition awkwardly into each other; occasionally, it seems like a line may have been cut. Basically, there's a whole lot wrong with the presentation, but none of it is significant enough to sink the game.
Overall, I would describe The Technomancer's writing and presentation as “not great, but entertaining.” Going into my playthrough, I was prepared for a low-budget experience with a unique atmosphere; the game not only met those criteria, but also provided a bit more depth than I expected. Still, the quality of the writing by no means comparable to the greats of the genre, and if you go into this story expecting another New Vegas or Alpha Protocol, you're going to be most severely disappointed. If I say that the writing is more interesting than the typical mainstream fare, I mean to say that I liked it more than Fallout 3, Fable, Drakensang, or Venetica – no more, no less.
Of course, Spiders had never even promised to provide a great story; what they had promised was a robust system of choices and consequences and skill-based quest resolutions. On paper, the c&c is indeed one of The Technomancer's greatest strengths; the game offers a whopping six non-combat skills (Charisma, Science, Crafting, Stealth, Lockpicking, and Exploration), the first two of which can also be used in dialogue. About 85% of the quests in the game have distinctly different outcomes, which can be achieved either by using these skills, or by simply making a decision during dialogue (kill/spare, accept bribe/fight, ally with A/ally with B, etc.). Having so many quests with different solutions and outcomes is quite rare for an action RPG, and this number is achieved by the designers' laudable commitment to dialogue-driven quests. There are extremely few “get x of y” or “kill z” quests in The Technomancer, and it's surely a better game for it. Some quests are timed (if perhaps a bit too generously) and can actually be failed, while others can only be completed at a certain time of day. There are also no minigames whatsoever. All of this is how it should be.
Even better, the game also features a range of robust systems to take track of your decisions throughout the game. First up is the Karma score, which tracks your decisions along a simple good–bad spectrum. Helping people may either be good or bad, but killing them will always give you bad Karma, no matter what,. To support this system, the designers have opted to use a Gothic-style “killing blow” mechanic: if you defeat a sentient enemy in battle, they go unconscious by default. If you want to kill them, you need to plunge a syringe into their skull and suck out all of their “serum” (which also, pleasantly, serves as the game world's universal currency). This makes for a very off-putting image, and it helps to convey a message that's clearly dear to the designers' heart: good guys shouldn't just kill people willy-nilly, even in a video game. Unfortunately, the release patch has somewhat borked the looting controls; it's now far too easy to accidentally kill somebody by simply pressing the “loot” button on an enemy who has no loot. Let's hope that Spiders will patch this issue quickly.
Meanwhile, the Faction scores track your reputation with the half dozen major factions you encounter in the game world. If you consistently act against a faction during your quests, you may find that a previously peaceful city zone has been filled by respawning enemy units who are very interested in seeing you dead. Having to deal with these mooks can be annoying, but it's also a proper, gameplay affecting consequence. A similar mechanic is also used for managing the affections of your companions, although I never once actually managed to make a companion dislike me. Instead, the game allows you to get rid of your companions through quests and social interactions; of the seven companions you meet throughout the game, at least three can be “permanently removed” from your party in certain optional decisions. So far, so good.
Sadly, the game designers have neutered all of these perfectly solid systems by offering only a tiny amount of genuinely impactful consequences for your actions and your build choices. Of the six non-combat skills, two (Stealth and Exploration) are nearly useless, and play virtually no role in quest resolution. Although the developers have bothered to include a few “stealthy options” during one or two early quests, the stealth system is simply not powerful enough to bypass battles with any regularity. At best, it will allow you to get off a sneak attack and then commence fighting as normal. Exploration is even worse; it simply gives you more worthless junk to loot and eventually auto-highlights lootable containers. That leaves four other non-combat skills, and by the end of the game you can max them all out. But is there any reason to do so? Lockpicking is based entirely on hard skill checks and is used very frequently to open loot chests; sadly, 99% of chests contain only worthless junk. By the end of the game, I regularly dropped all my new loot onto the ground, because that was easier than wasting the time to go to a merchant. Crafting is slightly more useful, and offers a small range of choices between buffing stats like damage, crit chance, electricity resistance, etc. etc. However, the game was so easy on normal difficulty that I only used the skill to slap the occasional damage upgrade on my weapons.
You don't really need to max out Charisma either, since all Charisma checks in the game are purely percentage based; if you're willing to roll the dice on a 25% success chance, you can eventually pass every check with only a single point in the skill. By contrast, the checks for the Science and Crafting skills do at least come with minimum skill requirements; unfortunately, they are also more rare than the Charisma checks, and can almost always be bypassed by another action, be it a small bribe, a companion action, or simply a Charisma check. And if you feel a pressing need to pass a certain check (because, say, you want to see the special dialogue line), you can always equip skill-boosting gear and recruit a companion who passively increases your skill; thus you can get a temporary buff of two levels to a skill. Considering that skills max out at level 3, this is quite a big buff indeed. As a consequence of all of these design decisions, any choice in character building is largely illusory; you'll be able to arrive at the same results no matter how you spec.
The same weak and casual approach to consequences also applies to the Karma system: unless you go around choosing the absolute most “evil” solution to every quest and drain a bunch of people of their serum for no particular reason, you'll never be in any danger of dropping down into negative Karma. As a consequence, the game practically defaults to you being “good”, which is further reflected in the heroic tone of the main quest. An “evil” Zachariah doesn't really seem have a place in this storyline. I've also never noticed the NPCs responding to your Karma in an obvious way (e.g. somebody calling you a good person, saying that you're trustworthy, etc.); if Karma actually affects anything, the effect must be minimal.
Finally, the Faction system is probably the biggest sham of them all; apart from spawning a few hostile NPCs and occasionally providing a mild complication to certain side quests, the system is almost entirely cosmetic. People will snarl and grunt for a bit, but they won't actually punish you for your actions. And sometimes the game doesn't even bother with the cosmetics. At one point I grievously betrayed the brutal and vindictive crime boss of the slums and saw my faction modifier plummet to the bottom to the scale; and yet I could still visit him in his office and quiz him about the local lore. Outside, his army of henchmen had turned hostile and were waiting at every corner to bash my face in, but here, in the office, nothing had changed. All throughout the game, I encountered these bewildering situations where an NPC should have had a strong reaction to my actions, but instead stuck blithely to their normal script.
But nevermind the small stuff: the real payoff of the faction system is supposed to come in the endgame, when you're tasked with collecting allies for a large-scale operation that will send major consequences rippling throughout society. Spoiler alert: you cannot actually fail this quest, and it can only end one way. Even if you have alienated or killed all of your potential allies, the game will twist things around to help you out; at worst, you will have to complete a simple optional objective. And of course the game ends shortly afterwards, thereby conveniently removing the need to show any actual in-game consequences to your Mars shattering actions.
Maybe I've been spoiled by the likes of Age of Decadence, Fallout New Vegas and The Witcher 2, but in this day and age, I simply can no longer see the merit of stuffing so much purely cosmetic c&c into your game. If Spiders could not offer a properly reactive main quest on the budget they had available, then they would have been better off cutting the game down to a more manageable size and providing proper branching. I'd much rather have a 15 hour RPG where my decisions have a real, noticeable impact on the story than a 30 hour game where even murdering a major character will ultimately only affect a side quest or two.
In the game's defence, it does at least feature a proper epilogue, which informs you of the new state of the world and the fate of the various factions. Here, at long last, The Technomancer can finally show the consequences of some of the biggest decisions you've made throughout the game. This was one of the most satisfying moments of my playthrough, if only because I had completely given up hope of seeing any reaction to these decisions at all. But a simple epilogue cannot be a substitute for proper, meaningful in-game consequences, and The Technomancer is simply too shallow and casual in its c&c to provide those.
The Technomancer is billed as an action RPG, and thankfully its combat system is fluid and fast paced enough to accommodate some fun, fast paced gameplay. Certain experienced hardcore RPG players have actually levelled harsh complaints against this system; they consider the combat to be far too difficult even on normal settings. Supposedly, the enemies deal far too much damage and have access to game breaking attacks that are not available to the player, which makes the main character feel “normal” and “weak”, and not like the superhuman badass he is supposed to be. Strictly speaking, these complaints are accurate; you have to play carefully and evasively, making constant use of dodge or block moves and carefully timing your strikes if you want to have any success against the many large groups of enemies and the decently dangerous bosses in the game. The controls are also slightly clunky, especially when it comes to locking onto enemies for ranged attacks; it's not enough to ruin the game, but it will force you to adapt to the system. At least one of your abilities even deals friendly fire (!!!), which is a truly bold and dangerous move in a time when even old-school devs like Obsidian are moving away from friendly fire mechanics. But is any of this truly a bad thing? Have action RPGs regressed to the point where they need to play themselves, wowing the player with sparkly super-combo effects to create the illusion of being a totally cool dude who can superslam the cosmos itself? I don't feel a burning desire to play that kind of game, and for me, the relative weakness of the main character in the early game felt perfectly entertaining.
That said, you can certainly make a valid complaint about a lack of balance in the game. The Technomancer features a Witcher 2-style system of four talent trees; three of these trees support specific stances, between which you can switch freely during combat. Each stance has specific advantages and drawbacks, which can be further enhanced by the talents. The Rogue stance uses a short range dagger, but can also attack at range with a gun, while the Warrior tree uses a two-handed staff which can be used for reach attacks or whirled around to deal AoE damage; however, the radius of the AoE is quite small, and the wielder is exposed to enemy attacks while he is swinging the staff. Finally, the guardian style uses the classic hammer-and-shield combo, providing excellent passive and active protection modifiers that are offset by a rather slow attack speed. Finally, there is the Technomancer tree, which provides a variety of electrical attacks. These attacks bypass most active defenses and can inflict a variety of massive debuffs; as a tradeoff, they consume a mana-like resource and cannot be spammed like normal attacks. That's the theory, at least.
In practice, the Technomancer tree is by far the strongest tree in the game, followed by the Rogue tree. The reasons for that imbalance are fairly simple; both trees provide ranged attacks, which are strong against both melee enemies (who don't have any strong distance closing abilities) and against ranged attackers, who are best defeated by keeping your distance from them while throwing lightning and taking potshots; you will get lots of audio and visual cues that allow you to dodge the shots of your enemies, but they aren't smart enough to (intentionally) dodge yours. The Technomancer tree also includes an incredibly strong force lightning-style attack that combines a ranged AoE+stun+knockdown and only requires a bit of careful setup to use. That attack alone can wipe out at least half of your enemies in any given encounter. The other attacks in a tree are a little weaker, but with a fully maxed out talent tree they can be spammed nearly continuously. Meanwhile, Warrior and Guardian stances lack any ranged options whatsoever, and a reviewer who only focusses on those trees will certainly have a harder time than a technomancing gun slinger. The lack of any respec feature also means that you can be locked into a weak build fairly easily, and most of the talent descriptions do not offer the kind of hard statistical information that would allow you to make an informed decision about your build. On the other hand: this game is named “The Technomancer”, and the main character is a Technomancer by profession. It's not entirely illogical to assume that the Technomancer tree would be useful for your character, and even a few points in that tree will be enough to comfortably beat the game on normal mode. If you should really, truly need some extra talent points, you can always get some quick xp by fighting a few enemy groups.
And right there we have the biggest flaw of this game: the goddamn respawning enemies. The Technomancer is quite insidious about its encounter design: for the first act of the game, it lets you play around in friendly areas, where most violent encounters arise during quests, and many of them can be avoided entirely through alternate quest solutions. Thus, the game lulls you into a false sense of security, making you feel like this is a story-driven experience focussed on multiple quest solutions and choices and consequences. Maybe that was originally the developers' plan as well; maybe it was only a lack of funding that forced them to lean so heavily on respawning enemies to pad out the game. Whatever the reason for their decision, the end result is a repetitive slog that dominates most of the game's second half. Time and time again, the main quest leads you through one certain set of areas that are filled to the brim with enemy units. Once you arrive at your destination, you'll find that most of the vanquished mobs will have miraculously respawned, and you will need to clear your way right out again. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
The side quest design aggravates this problem further, because most of the quests are unlocked by completing other quests. In the first act, this actually feels quite pleasant; you get the feeling that the quests are logically interlinked, and the only trouble is that you have to walk through the pacific city streets to a nearby location. You can also stumble across unmarked quests this way, so it's hard to complain too much. But once the game world opens up and starts sending you through hostile territory, this quest design becomes a near-fatal flaw. You have to go from settlement A to settlement B, fight a bunch of enemies in between, receive no new quests at B, then go back to A, fight the same enemies again, receive new quests at A, then head back out to B… it's ghastly. By the endgame, I could barely tolerate it anymore.
There are certain ways to make the experience easier, but they don't exactly feel good; for example, it's possible to skip most of the enemy groups by simply running past them until they lose interest. There are certain obstacles that prevent you from running away, such as doors that can only be opened out of combat, but once you know where these obstacles are you can plot an “ideal course” to avoid most of the combat in these areas. It's a terrible, degenerate way of playing the game, but it's still better than the alternative.
It should be noted that this constant back-and-forth through respawning enemies really only applies to this one specific set of areas. Otherwise, the game developers seem to have made a conscious effort to make their hostile areas small and easy to navigate, with plenty of shortcuts and sometimes no respawning enemies at all. If all of the game were designed like this, the combat could be very enjoyable. As it stands, the best we can hope for is that Spiders may see reason and slow down the enemy respawn rate in a patch, so that you could at least return from your quest objectives without having to fight your way back out. For all the aggravation they cause, these enemies cannot add more than 3 to 5 hours of playing time, and the game would still have lots of content without them. It's not a game's length that matters, it's the quality.
The game's story is decent, but it falls far short of its full potential. Its "unique" writing style and the general low budget atmosphere are going to be massive turn-offs for some people, though for me they only added to the charm. Nearly every quest has multiple solutions and different outcomes, but the consequences of your actions are almost entirely cosmetic. The combat is fun but a bit easy, and the respawns are utterly abhorrent. What does all of this amount to? In my appraisal, The Technomancer is a good low-budget game with a few significant flaws that might be alleviated by future patches. As far as the current version is concerned, prospective players should search their souls whether any of the game's positive sides can outweigh the tedium of clearing out endless respawns in the same area again, and again, and again. For me, the benefits still barely managed to outweigh the cons, though I would never consider replaying this game until the respawn rate is reduced.
Of course, I also received this review key for free, so I could afford to approach the game without worrying whether I was getting good value for my money. The Technomancer is currently being sold for 44,99€ on the Steam store, and that price may be hard to justify for a game that was very obviously made on a tight budget. Every player has their own idea of what a good purchase price looks like, but if you want my advice, I'd wait until the game is fully patched and at least 60% off. It is worth playing, but there's no need to rush.
The Technomancer is available on Steam.