For a few years, a bunch of Parisian studios have been able to deliver entertaining titles with limited budget, as Spiders with games like Mars: War Logs or Bound by Flame. The French developers are back this week with The Technomancer, an ambitious action-RPG which actually easily bests their previous work. It's not perfect by any means, but it definitely proves Spiders is composed of talented people who can achieve quite impressive things with very little. We'll try to explain why in the following review.
Of Dorks and Men
Set in the same world as Mars: War Logs, The Technomancer lets you play the role of Zachariah Mancer, in a story taking place before the events of the previous game. Though not a sequel per se, those who have already played Mars: War Logs should be familiar with the overall context where two corporations, Aurora and Abundance, oppose each other and try to maintain order and discipline on a planet which has lost contact with earth for a long time. When the story begins, Zachariah is about to become a Technomancer, a soldier capable of generating electricity to use it as a weapon. By becoming a Technomancer, he will have to protect an important secret related to his kind and keep looking for a way to contact earth by finding relics from the past. Of course, things are going to get a little bit more complicated than expected because of the ASC, the Secret Police of Abundance, whose men are jerks at best.
Being set in a hostile world, The Technomancer shows the difficult living conditions of the settlers, each inhabitant having to accept the role assigned to him or her. As a result, last names have no meaning anymore on Mars and everyone is named after their function. Scientists all go by the name Seeker, merchants Goodman, Technomancers Mancer, and so on. French developer Spiders has managed to create a believable world in which the different layers of society can be found though the different locations available in the city of Ophir, but also in the less controlled places you will visit outside of Abundance's territory. The non playable characters are many, creating an impression of life like never before in the studio's previous titles. Quite an achievement considering the small size of the team behind the game and the small budget they had in comparison to AAA titles.
One of the complains which could be addressed to Mars: War Logs or Bound by Flame was how hard it was to believe the world was vivid, as there were always very few NPCs in the villages or cities, which were always really small on top of that. The scale of The Technomancer is much bigger, and though there are only 12 different locations total, it never feels as limited as it was in say Bound by Flame. Ophir is divided in different pretty large sections, with the Exchange, the slums and the Underworks, while Noctis and Mutant Valley offer some freedom of movement on a smaller scale, but are still big enough to be credible as populated settlements. The other areas are clearly more linear, but they are generally reserved to story-driven missions, much like in the Mass Effect series.
Being an action RPG, The Technomancer will have you fight your way through a certain number of situations. To make sure all players would find their own playstyle, Spiders decided to include four different stances, all offering a completely different approach to combat. Rogues will rely more on agility, using a blade and a gun to maintain a certain flow as they roll away to dodge the enemies. Guardians will adopt a more defensive style with their shield and mace, reminding a bit of Dark Souls. As for warriors, they will makes the best use of their staff to attack several foes at the same time, providing players with a balanced alternative to the two other combat styles. Last bu not least, there are the Technomancers, gifted with powers they can use to either attack of defend themselves.
Each combat style has its own skill tree in which you can unlock new attacks or powers with the points you earn every time you gain a new level. Since not all skills can be acquired, you will have to choose wisely based on your own preferences. It is for example possible to create a perfectly balanced character able to use all styles with a minimum of efficiency, or you can choose to limit yourself to a couple of them to unlock all the abilities that go with them. This adds some real replay value to the title, as you won't be able to see everything in one playthrough. It wouldn't matter much if combat wasn't fun, but it is pretty fun indeed. That being said, it definitely requires some getting used to before being able to enjoy it. Because of the animations, the early fights might give you the impression there is a bit of latency in the controls, but once you get a hang of it and you unlock bunch of new abilities, it all works very well. Contrary to a game like The Witcher 3, hitting the enemies seems less floaty, giving a real sense of weight to every blow you give. In smaller areas, the camera angles sometimes get in the way, especially in the slums, but if you've managed to survive Dark Souls, it shouldn't be much of a problem really.
Added to the four combat styles there are also two more skill trees which allow you to personalize your character even more. Talents are divided into six categories, charisma, science, traps and lockpicking, exploration, stealth and finally crafting. Next come attributes, which are basically physical abilities such as strength, agility, power and constitution. Each attribute is linked to one of the four classes (Rogue, Guardian, Warrior and Technomancer) but you're free to use your points the way you want, even if the ability is not especially made for the combat style you prefer. Again, even after completing all the available missions in the game, you won't be able to max out your character.
Another important element in The Technomancer is the relationship system with your companions. Given that they all have different personalities and opinions, it won't always be easy to please everyone. Some of them might even leave your party if your behavior becomes unbearable to them. I t is however possible to remain friendly with all of them, and sometimes to even take it to the next level (and we're talking male or female here). All you have to do is to make the right choices when talking to them, or when completing missions.
All the companions you'll meet are really likeable, making you care about them more and more as you progress into the story. Depending on who's at your side on a mission, you'll hear them react accordingly to their personality, which is a really nice touch. Each will also give you a talent bonus every time they accompany you, which comes in handy more than once when your own talents aren't leveled up enough. The relationship system extends to the different factions in the game, as every choice you make, every lie you tell, will improve or worsen your relationship with the faction you're dealing with. Something that ads even more depth to the game mechanics.
Crafting and looting are also of paramount importance in the Technomancer as weapons and equipment can be upgraded with the materials you find everywhere. Each weapon or piece of armor has a certain number of slots which can be equipped with some sorts of mods of different levels. To upgrade to a better level, you'll need to improve your crafting skills and buy the necessary schematics to the merchants. Note that you won't only have to take care of Zachariah's gear, but also of all your teammates.
All in all, The Technomancer is a very generous title filled with content and ambition. It may not be the best looking game there is out there, but it certainly has something to offer that is worth more than good looks. The universe Spiders created is truly immersive, the story and characters are solid, and the voice actors do an excellent job to back them up. The icing on the cake is obviously the superb eclectic soundtrack Olivier Derevière has come up with, another proof of his undeniable talent in the industry. After a few minor but still enjoyable games, The Technomancer could very well be a milestone for Spiders. It's clearly not a perfect game, there is still too much backtracking and recycling of the same areas, but the gap between this game and their previous work is so big that we can't wait to see what they are going to do next.
On the upside
+ Rich and deep universe
+ Characters and story(ies) are solid
+ Each main location has its own atmosphere
+ Good length (36 hours to complete in normal mode)
+ Efficient and varied combat system
+ Some replay value
+ A game that's all about choices
+ Some pretty nice vistas
+ Noctis, Mutant Valley and the final zone
+ The boss fight at the end
+ The soundtrack
+ The voice acting is solid overall
On the downside
- Graphically dated
- Still too much backtracking and recycling of certain areas
- Too few real boss battles
- The main antagonist could have shown himself more
- Pretty dark environments
- Camera can be a little annoying sometimes