This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Technomancer.
It's always inspiring to see the sub-AAA sector lighting itself on fire and shooting for the stars. No retro pixel art or large-headed children in scary worlds for The Technomancer. Oh, goodness me, no. It's Mass Effect and Deus Ex full-on action RPG club that it hopes to blag its way into with its dark glasses and suspiciously bulky trench coat.
Have you characters, Technomancer?
'You bet your bollocks we got characters, party members and quest givers every color of the miserable bastard rainbow with struggles and adversities you'll invest in like a dot-com startup in the late 90s.'
Have you built us a world, Technomancer?
'You gamble your gonads we've built a world. A dark and complex cyberpunk world in which factions battle the supremacy against the backdrop of post-colonization Mars and there are only shades of grey.'
I ain't disputing that last part, Technomancer, but probably not in the way you intended. Now have you combat?
'You wager your wobbly bits we've got combat - exciting real-time combat with enough variety of weapons and skills to create a staggering number of alternative play styles.'
What number is that, Technomancer?
'Three! There's three play styles.'
Hmm, that is quite a staggering number. Alright, I'm down. Why don't you start by telling me the main character's overall goal?
... 'Oh bugger, I knew we forgot something.'
For what it's worth, our hero is Zachariah Mancer, a technomancer, because on future Mars everyone's surname is their job like a village of medieval serfs. We can customize his appearance, but it's not really worth to bother. You can't pick gender and the available faces are a global showcase of conventional attractiveness. There's also no facial hair, like, anywhere, even on the NPCs. Some people have stubble but nothing that can't be drawn onto face texture with felt tips. So I guess we know precisely where the 3D modeling budget ran out.
Anyway, our story begins with Zachy boy graduating from the Technomancy school of his home city on Mars. The technomancers are an exclusive and ever-so-slightly creepy order of mystics bound by vow to protect the secret of their mysterious power. What mysterious power, you ask? They can shoot lightning. That's it. Doesn't seem worth making that much fuss about in a world that also has guns. You could outequip a technomancer with a gift certificate and ten minutes in an American shopping mall. And the big secret you're all vowed protect is that technomancers are technically mutants, the lowest caste of Mars society because aren't they always? This, too, doesn't seem worth making that much of a fuss about and can probably lose all its impact with a few minor societal reforms. I mean, one suspects mutants are only an underclass because they are such ugly motherfuckers and the technomancers all look like various incarnations of Robert Patrick.
But it's Zachariah's devotion to keeping the secret that earns him the ire of evil ruling authority. Once the graduation's over Zach starts to work as a peace officer working with the evil ruling authority. So while I was at that point about as engaged as a dad chaperoning his daughter to a One Direction concert, I figured I was obliged to at least play as far as the bit where we get framed and the sinister authority turns against us, which anyone with the majority of their brains still inside their skull could see coming. Any game in which you start as a member of a sinister authority who interacts with poor people and suspiciously attractive revolutionaries will almost certainly contrive you to be no longer a member of the sinister authority before the second act, with the exception of modern warfare shooters, where you usually stay in the sinister authority and French-kiss assault rifles for six hours.
It's the usual action RPG format. Quest givers give you a place on a map to go to, you go to that place, talk to someone at that place and occasionally they become so incensed by the audacity with which you go to places talking to people that you're forced to beat them and their friends to death in a Dragon Age-esque disorganized melee. There's the inevitable stealth option but stealth attack doesn't even kill the target and it alerts everyone in the area anyway. So it's of as much use as a handbrake on a shark. Otherwise I've seen worse combat. I went for club-and-shield specialization because fuck it, let's just turn every game into Dark Souls. And here's my top tip: keep swinging and press block if the enemy dodges twice because you'll get a free parry. Combat got really fucking boring after I figured that out but the game compensates for that.
Remember when I said it was building a dark and complex cyberpunk world? Well, the emphasis was on 'dark'. The graphics get so shadowy it's almost impossible to tell the human enemies and my party members apart. They're all silhouettes with no beards. And half the time it's difficult to tell whether they're winding up attack animations or checking themselves for prostate cancer.
So, getting back to that inevitable first-act twist, it turned out I was giving too much credit when I predicted the evil authority would frame you for something before they do the big betrayal scene or indeed that they would show you the big betrayal scene. What happens is, two of the Zach's mates intercept him on the way to work and say, 'Hey, they are setting up a big betrayal scene in there. Might wanna just piss off.' And he takes their word for it. Blimey, those budget cuts hit everyone, don't they? Technomancer is certainly more at home to Trevor Tell than Siobhan Show. And by Christ does it tell!
Characters can't be said to converse in this game: they merely recite paragraphs of exposition vaguely in the direction of other people. And sometimes the game doesn't even get as far as the telling. Those two mates who warned you off from the betrayal piñata party? I'm prepared to swear that this was the first time we were meeting one of them. But she is presented like we already know who she is. Maybe I hadn't paid enough attention 'coz I was distracted cataloging all the metal wall textures. It's possible she was one of the NPC quest givers we met earlier. They were all fairly interchangeable: dark clothes, boring voice, no beard. Whatever, betrayal allegedly occurred somewhere, presumably. And we're forced to flee the city to pursue our quest of ... That's right. We've never figured it out, did we?
Well, there's some overarching thing about the technomancers having the lifelong goal to reestablish contact with Earth. But that's more of a hobby, really, and even if they succeed I fail to see how it would help. I don't see the scrappy survivalist communities of Mars crafting a space program out of radio parts and back issues of Top Gear magazine. All that we actually do is go from settlement to settlement sorting out random issues and be the pigeon to the main villain's Dick Dastardly who hounds us apparently out of having literally nothing else to do with his time. It's a shame because exempting a few petty niggles like the way Zachariah shuffles forward a few steps every time he tried to stop moving so getting in front of a small panel or dustbin to interact with is like keeping hold of a bar of soap in the bath, the game is technically functional. But it can't tell an interesting story for shit and in an RPG, that's 90% of the final grade. They failed to find the interesting story in a game about lightning wizards from Mars. That's like failing to find the homoerotic subtext in professional wrestling.
- More like electromancer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You'll notice I didn't mention Brexit this week 'coz I aspire for the comments to be about the fucking game for once
- My occupational surname would be 'Bellend'