For years now, it has felt like Spiders has been on the verge of creating a truly wonderful RPG. However, time and time again, the French developer has fallen short. Of Orcs and Men, Bound by Flame, and Technomancer precursor Mars: War Logs have all been games with massive ambition, broad scope, and immense promise, but sadly, all three failed to deliver on that promise.
Still, like many others, I felt that greatness was just over the horizon for the Spiders team. All it would take was a little more direction, a longer development cycle, and some extra spit and polish. With the announcement of The Technomancer and unveiling of its promotional material it finally looked like Spiders had turned a corner and found its groove. The studio put more money and time into the game than any of its previous efforts, all to deliver on all that unrealised potential.
So with all that in mind, it gives me no pleasure to report that the groove Spiders has found is actually the same rut it’s been stuck in for years. The game that it has delivered is in many ways the studio’s best work, but at the same time, it’s also their most disappointing.
The Technomancer is a science fiction action RPG set on a colonised Mars. Cut off from Earth, it is run by all-powerful water corporations, which control every aspect of human life on the red planet. Direct exposure to the sun is deadly, and creatures that have somehow survived in the planet’s wastes are monstrously mutated due to the massive amounts of radiation constantly bombarding its surface.
You play as one of the titular technomancers; soldiers with the ability to generate and channel massive amounts of electricity. This ability can be used directly as an offensive power, or to augment your weapons and equipment. Very early in the game, you find yourself on the run from the police, and on a mission to save mankind. During your investigation you then stumble on a deeper mystery about the planet’s ancient history, and it seems the role humanity has played goes back further than previously believed. It’s all very intriguing, but like every other Spiders-developed title before it, the promise is huge but the delivery is weak.
Things start out pretty well. The graphics might be a little dated, but they are more than functional, and the introduction to the combat system certainly raises hopes for some exiting action-oriented combat later down the line. You can use any of three combat styles: the direct but fluid and flowing quarterstaff style, the tanking mace and shield style, or an evasive gun and dagger combo. Each of these combat styles is further augmented by your technomancer abilities, allowing you to fling raw electricity at foes or add some extra punch by electrifying your weapons. As you progress, your combat prowess improves, and you can evolve your technomancer abilities to suit your style. The ability to swap between these styles – at least early on – hints at epic encounters to come.
However, it does not take long for many problems to surface. Rather than allowing you to focus on a path and specialize, the game uses a sort of rock / paper / scissors approach to combat, where a certain combat style is objectively better when facing certain enemies, and the quarterstaff style is generally flat out better than the other two. This means you need to spread out your points when levelling up, and cannot really build your character your way. The combat itself also devolves in to a clumsy hit and miss affair, with no weight given to your attacks, and no feedback given when you connect. Long animation cycles and limited actual freedom to fight how you want quickly suck all the fun from combat, replacing it with repetition and tedium.
Tedium really is the name of game here. The dialogue is some of the clunkiest I have ever experienced, and the voice acting ranges from truly dire to merely wooden. The game’s decent-enough story is never really allowed to develop, and isn’t given an opportunity draw you in. The open world of Mars does allow for you freedom to explore, and some of the quests and NPC interactions provide tidbits of genuinely interesting world-building, but all of the great moments are all too quickly buried under a metric ton of cringe-worthy twaddle.
As with every Spiders game that preceded it, The Technomancer has moments where it actually shines. Monster designs are exceptional and varied; and some of the backstory, political intrigue, and ancient history of this version of Mars is genuinely interesting. But at every turn, Spiders hamstrings itself with ham-fisted execution and partially-realised ideas.