The last time that Push Square visited a world made by developer Spiders, it was in the form of Bound By Flame. The 2014 title had some lofty ambitions but it failed to meet any of them, and thus shipped as a bit of a mess in both the gameplay and presentation departments. Despite those disappointments, though, the French studio is back with its second PlayStation 4 game, The Technomancer. This RPG has promised even more than its predecessor in the run up to launch, but does it match the expectations that have been set? In some ways it does, but that's not enough to deal with the amount of technical problems and confusing design choices present here.
Upon beginning a new game, The Technomancer immediately places you in its limited character creation screen. You're given a selection of premade faces to choose from and a few tools to adjust minor features, and then you're off on your journey. Unfortunately, the game doesn't give you the option of playing as a female lead, which is a little confusing since you're given that choice in Bound By Flame - and in that sense, it feels like a step back.
After creating your male hero, you learn that his name is Zachariah, and that he's a Technomancer. His story begins in the city of Ophir on planet Mars, and after doing some odd jobs around town for its leaders, Zachariah learns that he is being followed, and is then subsequently betrayed by his own people. He flees to the nearby town of Noctis, and this is where the main objective of the game is formed: to find a beacon that will establish a connection between Mars and Earth. It's not exactly the most imaginative story, and this is reflected by how easy it is to guess what's about to happen; there are a few twists and turns along the way, but you'll already have spotted them coming a mile off. The story is serviceable enough to give you a reason to progress, but it's not something that you'll look back on fondly six months down the line. The Technomancer's plot is just not very interesting.
While the story is entirely predictable, the gameplay is what picks up the pieces. The minute-to-minute gameplay loop is very reminiscent of a BioWare series like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Our first look around Ophir reminded us a lot of Commander Shepard's first glimpse of the Citadel, with both games giving you that feeling of being overwhelmed thanks to the amount of things there are to see and people to talk to. Outside of combat, The Technomancer's gameplay is typical of most third-person Western RPGs. You can explore a number of towns, pick up side quests, trade with vendors, build relationships with your companions, and talk to non-playable characters about the places that you've visited and the people that you've met.
The game also does a good job of making its open world feel alive, with certain quests only being active within a certain time frame. For example, some side quests will only give you 12 in-game hours to complete them, and other mainline quests will task you with getting out of a tight situation within a short time frame, so you're forced to tackle each problem straight away. This is a good way of dealing with particular pacing issues that some RPGs face, in that you often have a main quest that's trying to hurry you along, and feels very time sensitive, but you've just spent 20 hours doing side quests and you're still able to freely return to the main story without a care. Again, tackling the dilemma in this way makes the world of The Technomancer feel like a living place that doesn't exist solely to react to your actions.
The gameplay here does a good job of dealing with certain tropes of the genre, but the combat isn't as up to the task. Engagements take place in real time and play out as you'd expect of an action RPG. You can pick between three stances throughout the game, and this determines what type of weapon you'll yield; the guardian comes equipped with a mace and a shield, the rogue handles a dagger and a gun, and the warrior is armed with a staff. All three stances also have access to the Technomancer's power, which changes things in a couple of ways, giving you the ability to electrify your weapon of choice and shoot electricity at your enemies. Our preferred stance was the rouge; the discipline's firearm is a great way to deal with foes at long range, and then if anyone gets too close, you have the dagger on hand. Combine both of these with the Technomancer power, and you've got a recipe for taking out enemies quickly and efficiently.
The combat system forms a reasonably solid base, but it's never built upon, and never really changes in any meaningful way. This turns the second half of The Technomancer into a bit of a chore, as you continue to use the same powers and abilities that you've been using using since the opening hour. Combine this repetition with the constant backtracking, and you actually begin to learn enemy placements and exactly how many foes you'll be fighting in each area. In short, everything eventually devolves into a tediously monotonous and mundane slog.
You'd think that there would be an engaging upgrade system to deal with the concerns that we've expressed - and there is - but it hardly offers any more depth than the combat system. There are skill trees for all three stances and the Technomancer power, but the new abilities that you gain access to are pitiful. The rogue's gun can gain an explosive shot while the warrior's staff gets an increased area of effect, and there are smaller upgrades alongside these that increase damage and upgrade your weapons slightly - but none of these ever feel substantial enough for you to actually use them or change your approach to encounters in any significant way. If more thought had been put into each skill tree, more substantial upgrades could have been provided, and combat could have evolved for the better, but as it stands, The Technomancer's skirmishes are acceptable for the first ten or so hours, but it becomes increasingly difficult to stay interested as things drag on.
Sadly, as well as a flawed engagement system, there are a number of problems with the game's presentation. It's fair to say that the graphics aren't up to the standard that we expect from a PS4 title in 2016, but that's something that we can look past for the most part. What can't be forgiven, however, is the janky dialogue that on numerous occasions doesn't match up to the character's lip movements on screen. Furthermore, the character's faces are completely emotionless for the majority of the game, so it feels especially awkward when a character says something particularly moving, and their face remains disappointingly static. It's also worth mentioning that outside of speech, we also noticed the odd misspelled word within the user interface. At least on the bright side, the frame rate manages to hold a smooth 30 frames per second for the majority of the time, and only drops when there's a large number of enemies on screen.
We completed The Technomancer's main story in 20 hours, and with a number of side quests still left to do, that playtime could be stretched by another five or so hours. What confused us, though, was the lack of a new game+ option upon completion, meaning that you've no choice but to work with a reset skill tree all over again if you want to begin a new game on the hardest difficulty setting, and we dare not think about how much of a slog that'd be.
The Technomancer offers up a couple of highs and a few too many lows. Its approach to open ended gameplay is appreciated and its combat is fun enough for the first ten hours, but the game eventually loses steam and its story is nothing worth shouting about. To make matters worse, technical problems harm the experience to the point where you'll find it hard to care about the characters during what are supposed to be emotional scenes. There's certainly something here for forgiving RPG fans, but for everyone else, we can only advise caution when it comes to this rough Martian adventure.