The Technomancer is a third-person RPG set in a dystopian cyberpunk future on Mars, fuelled by all the tropes you’d expect from both the genre and setting. (Ed. It’s almost as predictable as a writer starting their review with the title of the game.) Emulating heavy-hitter genre-favourites, particularly Mass Effect, The Technomancer bites off a quite a lot more than it can chew. The hard work invested struggles to shine through the dull, boggy surface of this disappointing over-reacher. Hidden in this game are interesting stories and promises of a fun, epic RPG brawler, but the foundations are very weak, and there is nothing within this amateurish title to compensate for its myriad of slip-ups.
The Technomancer begins with a lengthy exposition detailing the war over water on Mars called the Turmoil–you know that’ll be mentioned a lot because it’s capitalised–the division of social classes into the ludicrously well-offs and the pitiful poverty-stricken, and a string of buzzwords for places and institutes that you can’t possibly be expected to retain. Starting on at least one right foot, the game launches seamlessly into character customisation, although it is very basic, with protagonist Zachariah Mancer limited by his canon gender, voiceover, and name.
Suddenly the new player is told to invest their first point into a Talent – do you want to have access to lockpicking, better prices with merchants, a higher speech check rate of success in the field of Charisma, Science, or Crafting, or to be able to regenerate health when out of combat? These Talents are in no way balanced, are completely without context, and appear at first to be crucial, experience-defining choices – which they are not. Believe it or not, this poorly executed introduction to the game’s role-playing elements is a strong sign of things to come.
Having seen one pre-release trailer for The Technomancer, I had particular expectations; not high expectations, but particular ones. Third-person hand-to-hand combat with groups of thugs a la Arkham Asylum, or, considering the radiation-scorched setting, more suitably Mad Max. Players would have four choices of combat style which they would need to specialise in to capitalise on their strengths; the warrior, a staff-wielding, dancing bringer of pain; the guardian, more of a shield and mace kinda guy; the rogue, armed with a pistol, a venom-laced dagger, and unmatched agility; and finally, the titular technomancer, an umbrella class that enables you to power your weapons with electricity and perform high-damage spectacle spells.
This information is mostly accurate, though the reality feels a little less spectacular. Combat stance is not a definitive role-playing choice; instead, you’ll swap through roles scissors-paper-rock style to fend off certain scenarios. Up against a couple low-health monsters? Swat through them as the warrior. A few tanks in your path? Go guardian and block, block, block. And the rogue can… uh… shoot their pistol? The technomancer tree offers access to spells that I genuinely forgot to use most of the time, and are so slow and ineffectual in battle that I suspect my mind had deliberately forgotten them.
The fights in The Technomancer look great in trailers but are awfully slow in reality, due to a tragic skew of the standard brawler formula. For one, the incoming attack/counter indicator is omitted. Sure, a flashing light above enemies heads makes little narrative sense, but this mechanic is almost unanimously embraced because it is part of the formula that works. This is proven perfectly in the disappointing combat of The Technomancer, which dared to throw this formula to the fishes. There’s no rhythm to enemies’ attacks, and you’ll find yourself trapped with a group of three or four attacking you relentlessly, without any pause for you to counter. As the protagonist of an action game, and as a character often mistaken for a magician with god-like powers in the game’s narrative, you feel rather pathetic struggling against every no-good henchman in the slums. Oh, sorry, the Slums.
I hope you like fighting the same groups repeatedly too, because thankfully they all respawn after you’ve rounded the second corner! Quests involve a ridiculous amount of backtracking, so you’ll be forced into the same encounters dozens of times. Combine this potentially forgivable design with the fact that you cannot open doors, nor climb up or down ledges – obstacles dropped every 25 metres in some areas – while any enemies are hostile. Once you unlock a new area, you’ll still be sent through these old passages repeatedly, and you’ll still need to kill them baddies every single time you want to quickly dart through. I’ve already said enough about the combat for you to understand why this might not work in the game’s favour.
In The Technomancer, you are this world’s most inefficient errand-runner. Most requests made of our hero, Zachariah Mancer, on his path to mastering the martial art of technomancy, are just things that the police should be doing. Were murders not solved, and missing persons never found, before we graduated electricity-fighting school? Are the police so concerned with being corrupt and turning blind eyes to ganglords that they have no time to help their citizens with literally anything?
Many of these troubles can be avoided, of course, if you don’t complete any side quests. If you simply must venture into The Technomancer then this is fantastic advice, and you are so very welcome. The quests feel less like well-crafted narratives such as in Mass Effect, and more like the typically empty quests of traditional MMORPGs; you know, the type that have you sprinting between NPCs marked with exclamation marks, attempting speech checks or bribery to complete missions peacefully, beating people until they decide to give in when that fails, before ultimately returning to the exclamation mark on the map in return for a measly gear upgrade and some XP. Epic, story-driven adventure, I say.
The upgrade systems of The Technomancer are intimidating at first, and inconsequential in the long term. There’s nothing fun about incremental percentage upgrades, and no single upgrade in Talents, Attributes, or Skills – yes, they are all distinct-ish trees – feels particularly game-changing. Talents provide workarounds for some quests, like speech checks, crafting, or lockpicking, but in practice this only changes what button prompts you are offered; Attributes boost your basic stats in an imperceptible fashion; and Skills can enhance your move set within stances, or incrementally increase your damage output, speed or countering ability. Not one part of this screams “role-playing” or “interesting”; this might work for an epic-scale RPG, but not The Technomancer.
The faults of The Technomancer are made so glaringly obvious because its offerings, on paper, mirror those of bigger, more developed titles. There’s branching side quests, a lengthy main quest, companions with their own romances and questlines, dialogue choices and speech checks, loot drops, day/night cycles that add superficial complexity to a select few quests, lockpicking, crafting, skill trees, and an apocalypse to fight in. It has everything that is lauded in every big-hitter, so what’s the problem? The problem is that none of these mechanics expand the world or create opportunities for the player; they are unwanted additions in your clunky experience to find something fun.
Before I conclude, I do want to address something that is well done in The Technomancer. Some of the locations are really interesting, and sharply convey more meaning than any of the superfluous dialogue. The first hub area is a looming dystopian city that looks magnificent yet malevolent, while a village sprawling out from a temple in the desert exudes rebellious, bohemian vibes. Sure, these locales are derivative, but they’re this game’s prime – and only – example of showing not telling. If only they were populated with anything interesting.
The fact is that I have so many problems with The Technomancer that I’m not sure what to include here. The Technomancer is not a finished game, and despite all the effort that has been put in, I refuse to believe that anyone on the development team is convinced this is game is okay in its current state. I can only recommend this game to someone with a die-hard need to consume every piece of cyberpunk-dystopia media, regardless of quality.
You’ll also need to have superhuman patience, unbearable optimism, and more free time than sense.
“At this point, whether or not it strongly calls to you, chances are it’s a bit shit.”
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of The Technomancer for PS4.