Review: Technobabylon

A city controlled by an AI, the police and other services working for it. A conspiracy to topple the status quo and the people caught in the middle. All of this and more you’ll find in Technocrat’s Technobabylon, a point & click adventure game.

Genre(s): Adventure (Point & Click)

Developer: Technocrat

Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games

Release Date: May 2015

Played: Main Story (2 Endings)

Platforms: PC

Purchase At: Steam, GoG

Good:

  • Amazing story.

  • Strong puzzle design.

  • Each character plays differently.

Bad:

  • Alt-tab or using the Steam overlay causes the game to bug out.

Review

Central, the AI manager, controls every aspect of Newton city down to sending personalised emails to the population, advising them on anything from their diet to taking extra under certain weather due to underlying medical conditions. Central is both overseer and caring mother, though it views everything from a logic point of view and in numbers and statistics.

Central’s law-enforcement arm is CEL, the city’s police. Dr. Charles Regis and Dr. Max Lao are two of its agents and two of the playable characters in the game, with Regis being the closest to a protagonist, even though Technobabylon makes most of its characters central as their stories are perhaps equally important in terms of the plot.

Regis is old-fashioned and unplugged. Everyone else in the city is ‘wired’, hooked up to the Trance, the augmented & virtual reality iteration of the internet. With it, people have access to the net instantly with just their minds. For everyone else this is the norm, the way to be, but Regis prefers things old school, and doesn’t approve of the city’s ruler and its lack of respect for privacy—something he fixes by covering his office’s camera with tape. Regis has a bit of a shady past, involving using his Genengineering (genetic engineering) skills for unsavoury purposes before he left what once was the USA.

Mwaahahahaahhahaha!

Mwaahahahaahhahaha!

Max Lao on the other hand is the technical and mechanical expert of the pair. She’s wired and much like the rest of the city she works in and out of the Trance. She provides Regis with the technical expertise they need as well as boundless patience at Regis’ somewhat unorthodox and mostly blunt approaches to any given situation. She’ll laugh most things off but she’ll also be stern when she thinks her partner is crossing a line.

Then there’s Latha, a Trance-addict, someone spending much more time in the virtual reality than in meat-space. If it weren’t for food and water she wouldn’t ever disconnect. We meet her early in the plot, to help her escape from her apartment before it explodes and while the game mostly focuses on Regis’ point of view, her segments are instrumental in understanding the story, as well as help us connect with the entire cast.

Cheffie is there to annoy you into stabbing yourself with a plastic fork!

Cheffie is there to annoy you into stabbing yourself with a plastic fork!

Technobabylon’s story isn’t just about a conspiracy to disrupt and perhaps derail Newton’s city status quo (a dystopian utopia I find beautifully executed), but also about family, about the lengths someone will go to protect their children or siblings. It’s about growth and understanding, about overcoming your limitations and even about how to find peace and letting go of the past. This is a well-developed and masterfully written cyberpunk thriller, and it remains human, understandable and most importantly relatable even in this futuristic environment. On the Sci-Fi side, the terms are easy to pick up and don’t require hours of exposition. Terms like Trance and Wetware are thrown around casually and as you play with them, you understand more about their function than the few infodumps can ever tell you.

The world they built for the game was instantly attractive to me as a Shadowrun, Blade Runner and Deus Ex fan. It evoked memories from each of those. The Trance reminded me of the net in Shadowrun, with people’s avatar and special skills that translate to net commands. Central, the AI reminded me so much of those you meet in the various Deus Ex games. And finally the setting itself, the downtrodden city filled with dark alleys and broken promises was a mix of all these titles but more predominantly Blade Runner. If you like cyberpunk dystopian worlds and their aesthetics, you’ll feel right at home with Newton city.

Newton City skyline! It's awesome

Newton City skyline! It’s awesome

One thing I enjoyed was how they don’t shy away from darker subjects, but also don’t focus on them, instead treating them on a more personal level, how they affect the characters and how they feel about it. For some, even cannibalism is acceptable and just part of the amoral nature of the city, for others it’s the complete opposite. There’s detachment, apathy but also outrage. In terms of the subjects themselves, there’s the human eating, murder, suicides, Minjacking aka stealing your entire personality and memories, and even abandonment and vendettas. When we first meet Regis and Lao, they’re investigating a location based on Centrals predictions of another mindjacking victim. They arrive on scene but can’t get on the elevator because of security. But before they can figure something else out, they hear a scream and see a janitor fall on the hood of a car, bounce and left a bloody mess on the asphalt, the pixel art gruesome mess of a man shaking a few times before dying. Even with the art, it’s disconcerting, as is the fact the character just walks up to the fresh corpse and searches it.

Speaking of the visuals, I’ve mentioned the aesthetics. The environments are highly detailed, with graffiti from any number of artists, some gang-related and some just random messages. There are twisted neon signs, broken down and chipped off concrete walls and columns. Dank basements with pirate terminals for the junkies, a few cots and sofas laid out for their comfort. Government housing for the unemployed, with broken tiles, exposed wirings and food processors that can’t manage a decent meal but have an AI built-in that’ll make you contemplate suicide. These are just examples of how this game pulls you into its dystopian future.

Characters sprites are the pixelated type you find in many Adventure Game Studio titles and which I’ve grown to call Wadjet Style. It’s a particular type of visual that stands out in contrast to the detailed backgrounds and the beautiful character portraits you see during conversations.

Sound design in Technobabylon is odd, at least in terms of sound effects and music. While most locations have their own music, and the pieces are fantastic and moody, the default music volume is lower than that of the sound effects, making scene atmosphere depend much more on environmental sounds than the music. I tried different settings, such as music only, or sound only, or inverting the volumes of music and sound, and I realised the default setting was a ‘sweet spot’ where it all came together and worked wonderfully. If the music is at its strongest, the melodies and tones overpower and drown out the sound effects and the environments feel dead and empty. The sound effects are subtle in some cases or sparse enough in others that you can still hear ad feel the music in the background, adding context to the scene. The music itself ranges from soft melodies to the pumping techno beats we associate with cyberpunk.

One of the most gruesome scenes in the game!

One of the most gruesome scenes in the game!

This is a point & click adventure game and as such there are puzzles. I found them challenging in general. There were a few obvious ones, but others left me struggling to find the solutions. Even at the start, and which you’ll see in the gameplay video, I had problems realising I needed to use AIs against each other. Later on, I struggled to get rid of a guard in a stealth puzzle, and it turned out a terminal I’d ignored had an on button for an electrical source. The AI personality splicing puzzles are a particular highlight for me.

Most puzzles are inventory based, but a few completely environmental, using what’s already there and not what you have in your pocket. I was thankful of these puzzles as when I did something that temporarily took me out of the game—alt-tabbing when it worked, launching the steam overlay, taking a screenshot—when I came back, the game bugged out. Dialog boxes went too fast, making them unreadable, the audio vanishing as well. There was even one instance when my entire HUD vanished. I had no inventory and couldn’t get into the menu to reload, not that it helps. Each time that happened, I had to quit the game and re-launch to fix it.

A politician with a machine that forces him to be honest! I WANT this future!

A politician with a machine that forces him to be honest! I WANT this future!

Every time there are multiple characters in a game, I sigh, because there isn’t really a mechanical difference between them, they’re all equally capable. In Technobabylon however, there is a big difference between playing as Regis, Lao or Latha. Regis is your classic adventure protagonist, using items and the environment to get ahead. Latha’s segments focus more on using the Trance to solve problems, affecting the real world from the net. In meat-space she focuses on establishing connections using her wetware—techno-organic gel-like compound that creates a link between systems and the user’s brain—so she can tap into them Trance-side. Finally, Lao is a mix of the two, using her wetware to bypass security and tap into systems, but without the full immersion Latha experiences.

You’ll often find clues in emails, and each character has access to their inbox as well as the local news feed. The news articles aren’t really important for the story or mechanically but they offer insights into the world you’re playing in, helping your immersion. Regis and Lao also have their travelers–smartphones. They have access to the news and mail but can also make calls, to each other or to Central, to report in or seek advice.

Blackwell Movie? Sign me up!

Blackwell Movie? Sign me up!

Something I particularly enjoyed was that some puzzles and situations could go in different ways depending on how you handled them. One moment in particular is when you deal with a suicide bomber. It can go lethal or you can talk the guy down and each solution affects the plot differently. It’s not a choice-based game, but there are cases with a ‘freedom’ of solution. There are even multiple endings. I’ve completed the game twice and found two of them. I think that’s it, but who knows, maybe there are more. I wouldn’t be surprised. And these endings are true to the genre, with a mix of happiness and darkness.

Technobabylon is a pretty long game, at least compared to recently released titles. This is a game that could have been easily split into episodes, though I’m pleased and thankful they didn’t. This is one of those stories that needs to be experienced in one go.

Conclusion

Technobabylon is one of the best adventure games I’ve played in recent years, if not ever. The best way I can describe how good it is, in terms of world, plot, music and gameplay is this: It’s Deus Ex (the original) The Point & Click Adventure game. And you should play it. So far, it’s won my best adventure game of 2015, even if it’s only May.

TMA SCORE:

5/5 – Hell Yes!

3 responses to “Review: Technobabylon

  1. Pingback: Adventure, A Genre of Virtues and Vices | The Mental Attic·

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