Mars has long been a fertile planet for storytellers, but it’s all dried up—both literally and figuratively—in The Technomancer. Spiders is a comparatively small-scale developer, and their attempt to follow in the footsteps of Mass Effect fails even harder than the company’s 2013 clone of Dark Souls, Bound by Flame. Time and again, their ambition to make a triple-A title without the resources of a larger studio gets the better of them.
Because other RPGs feature customizable weapons, so too must The Technomancer, even though this game’s paltry list of upgradable status effects—poison and electricity—makes crafting utterly unnecessary. Other titles, like The Witcher 3, allow players to set traps to aid them in combat, but given The Technomancer’s hectic combat and tight corridors, its inclusion of explosive mines, which are less likely to blow up your enemies than your own team, are nothing short of awkward. The ability to swap between weapons on the fly is meant to appeal to those who crave a more customizable approach to combat, but it results only in three unbalanced, unenjoyable battle systems. Likewise, the uninspired array of electrical powers is rendered even more impotent by the fact that many foes are resistant to them.
The Technomancer’s highlights are like stumbling upon an oasis. The game is so terrible at times that any sign of beauty—like the giant tree growing at the heart of a crater in the so-called Mutant Valley—impresses. But these stray moments do little to satisfy, especially when stretched across nearly 30 hours of static gameplay. The story itself is especially lacking, with little context ever provided for the quest. Those who haven’t played The Technomancer’s 2013 predecessor, Mars: War Logs, will be especially lost at the way this game opens by initiating Zach Mancer into the ranks of the Technomancers, only to then immediately enlist him in Abundance’s army, part of the Water War against rival corporations like Aurora.
Then again, comprehension at that macro level hardly matters when so little of what players intimately accomplish at the micro level actually factors in. Players might have to complete some third-act objectives with the shady, mob-like Vory rather than the upstanding military or idealistic opposition, depending on whom you aided earlier in the game, but the basic objectives remain the same, and there’s only ever one direct route toward completing them. The companion sidequests are the most well-written parts of the game, expanding on the eloquent mutant Phobos’s philosophy of unification and showing players the “rehabilitation” center in which Niesha was raised to be so tough. And yet, should bullshit-free mechanic Amelia learn that the eccentric scientist of the party, Scott, had a hand in the death of her father, all is forgiven by the next mission. This makes the game’s “choices” feel just as shallow as the Karmic system, which basically comes down to whether players drain their enemies of the vital fluids that pass for currency on Mars or if they spare them. No surprise, then, that the game’s overarching villain, Viktor Watcher of the Abundance Security Committee (read: secret police), is just another cardboard Hitler seeking power through purity.
All this would be problematic enough, but there are glitches everywhere. Enemies sometimes appear and disappear in the middle of combat, and most can shoot with perfect accuracy through walls. The unbalanced difficulty overwhelms players with mobs of foes, which makes one’s stealthy approach all but useless; when enemies aren’t cornering players, they’re just as likely to get caught on the environment itself. Quest-giving characters sometimes refuse to advance the narrative until players have reset the game; some persistent missions refuse to acknowledge that they’ve been completed, leaving behind objectives to clutter up the minimap. Companions sometimes profess ignorance of places they’ve literally just completed a quest within, and objectives sometimes awkwardly overlap, as when players get two distinct missions to rescue mutants from Ophir’s slave pens, each of which must be completed separately. (Did half of the mutants willingly choose to stay behind after the first escape for the sake of plot scripting?)
There’s a point at which cosmetically hilarious errors, like the way cutscenes inconsistently render whether a character is wearing a helmet or not, turn into reality-suspending problems, an issue that extends far beyond the flaccid voice acting and stiffly animated faces. The rusty machinery carved into the hidden merchant city of Noctis’s canyon walls is a nice flourish, as is the contrast between the jaded neon graffiti in Ophir’s underbelly and its more pristine above-ground streets, but these details do nothing to alleviate the repetitious backtracking through these areas. Likewise, with only a limited number of upgrade points and no way to reassign them along the four-tiered skill tree, combat increasingly revolves around one or two unbalanced abilities, and prayers that your AI companions will live long enough to keep foes off of you. These aren’t simple problems of polish for The Technomancer. They’re the wearisome result of a company trying to ration out a few good ideas in the middle of a creative drought.