The cyberpunk genre is one of those genres that really should appear more often in computer games. After all, it’s an entire genre of sci-fi that revolves around computers.
But, it is a genre has been relatively neglected by modern mainstream developers. Thankfully, indie developers have proved themselves to be more than up to the task of filling this void in gaming culture.
“Technobabylon” is one of those games that I’d been meaning to play for ages, ever since I first read about it (although the price seemed a bit too high for the limited gaming budget I had then), but only got round to buying during a sale on GOG a few days before I originally wrote this review.
I should probably warn you that this review may contain some mild SPOILERS. Likewise, I messed up the chapter numbers in the file names for the screenshots in this review. The chapter numbers seem to be in binary and I mistook “10” for ten and counted the chapter numbers accordingly.
So, let’s take a look at “Technobablyon”:
“Technobabylon” is a 1990s-style “point and click” game by Wadjet Eye Games and James Dearden that was released in 2015.
As regular readers of this blog will probably know, I’m a fan of Wadjet Eye’s “Blackwell” series (you can read my reviews of those games here, here, here, here and here). Likewise, Wadjet Eye Games also has a bit of history with the cyberpunk genre when they released Joshua Nuernburger’s excellent “Gemini Rue” a few years earlier. So, naturally, my expectations about “Technobabylon” were fairly high. And this game surpassed them!
The premise and storyline of “Technobabylon” would take quite a while to describe here but, in summary, this is a game where you play as three people living in an AI-controlled mega-city who find themselves in the midst of a strange conspiracy.
Yes, my summary of the game’s plot sounds hopelessly generic and it really doesn’t do the game’s story justice – but if you like deep, intelligent cyberpunk storytelling in the tradition of “Neuromancer“, “Blade Runner“, “Ghost In The Shell” and “Deus Ex“, then you’ll find it in abundance here.
And …specialist… robots too. Ok, there’s only one of these.
One of the most striking things about this game is how unique it is. Although the game makes no secret of it’s influences, it also contains a very unique, fully-formed and distinctive cyberpunk “world”. Every tiny background detail in this game (and there are lots of them) feels like an organic and “realistic” part of the game’s world.
For example, the futuristic equivalent of the word “f**k” is the word “nuke”. This sounds hilariously silly when you first hear it. But, later in the game, you learn that the world has experienced something like seven nuclear conflicts before the events of the game. However, in a stroke of genius, this information isn’t relayed through a sombre monologue or anything like that. You only really learn about it from watching another character play a virtual reality computer game:
… And you’ll probably be laughing throughout this entire scene too! Now THAT is good writing!
“Technobabylon” is also different in tone to anything else in the cyberpunk genre and, yet, is pretty much the definition of “cyberpunk” at the same time. It’s a game about “high technology and low lives”, to use the famous quote.
Needless to say, this place looks a lot less grim in virtual reality…
And, like in Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, there are amusing background characters too.
Seriously, I cannot praise the emotional tone of the game highly enough. Even though “Technobabylon” includes some fairly heavy subject matter ( grisly murders, scientific ethics, terrorism, bereavement, poverty, blackmail, cannibalism etc…), it is never depressing or bleak in tone. The game contains just the right amount of sarcasm and dark humour to balance out these grim parts of the story without robbing them of their dramatic significance.
Oh government computer, you loveable rogue!
Likewise, the game’s futuristic world isn’t completely dystopian too. Cyberspace is shown to be a meritocratic place where both rich and poor are pretty much equal to each other (albeit with the side effect that poorer people are more likely to become addicted to it as a result). Not only that, since it’s set something like 70 years into the future, being LGBT is pretty much a total and utter non-issue too.
Seriously, this game is a liberal game in the best way possible – it doesn’t preach or anything like that, it just subtly shows how good some parts of the future could be.
This game is also a “mature” game in the truest sense of the word. In other words, it’s a complex, intelligent game. Like in “Deus Ex”, there are moments where you will have to make moral decisions that have no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. There are times when things are left unsaid. The game’s story also contains actual philosophical depth and will actually make you think. The game’s characters come across as being genuine (and realistic) people, the game shows the existence of multiple political systems etc…
Both amusingly and depressingly, the EU is shown to be ludicrously restrictive and over-protective. Pre-Brexit this was probably kind of funny but, post-Brexit, it already seemed a bit out of date.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned the gameplay yet. This is because it is, for the most part, pretty standard “point and click” gameplay. You talk to people, pick up items, walk around, combine items occasionally and solve puzzles.
Although most of these puzzles involve futuristic technology, there’s relatively little “moon logic” here.
But, even if – like me – you’re absolutely terrible at adventure game puzzles (and have to read walkthroughs constantly), then this game is still a lot of fun because of it’s story, it’s characters, the level of interactivity on offer and the brilliantly designed “world” of the game. Seriously, even with heavy walkthrough use, this game still has at least 5-7 hours of gameplay.
Even if you cheat in virtually all of the puzzles, you probably won’t feel like you’ve been cheated by this game. The only possible exception to this is the final ‘chapter’ of the game, where there’s a lot of pointless wandering back and forth before you finally reach the game’s dramatic conclusion. Likewise, one of the puzzles involving finding plant specimens seems to involve a certain degree of randomisation too.
Yes, the puzzle a while before this part of the game seems to be slightly randomised. Still, it isn’t that difficult to solve – since you just have to find a plant that matches a particular description.
My favourite puzzle in the game is probably the very first “chapter” of the game, which is a self-contained “escape the room”/ game tutorial puzzle.
Although it can take a while to learn how the game’s technology works (eg: you have to use a gelatinous substance called “wetware” to connect to devices, you have to connect to cyberspace to do certain things etc..), all of the elements of the puzzle are easily found and there’s some truly hilarious comedy too.
This isn’t even the funniest line in chapter one. Just try to get the food machine to make a metal fork and you’ll be treated to one of the funniest (and most “Futurama”-like) lines from the game.
Visually, the game is spectacular. Like in the later “Blackwell” games, Ben Chandler’s pixel art is truly superb.
As you would expect from a cyberpunk game, the entire game takes place at night – which allows for some truly beautiful lighting. Likewise, the location design takes heavy influence from both “Ghost In The Shell” (especially the ‘Stand Alone Complex” TV series) and “Blade Runner”. Naturally, it looks extremely cool as a result:
Yay! MORE games need to include “Blade Runner”-like streets like THIS 🙂
And more “Ghost In The Shell”-style stuff like THIS 🙂
Plus, there’s also a little bit of Lovecraftian gothic horror too. Seriously, I LOVE how this game looks 🙂
Even though the download for this game is something like 900mb-1gb in size (seriously, it’s a 1990s-style 2D game! Still, the file size isn’t as bloated as some other modern games in this genre like “Deponia“!), the game runs reasonably well even on old computers – although the walking speed during the cyberspace segments can be a little slow.
Likewise, if you’ve got an older PC, then switch the graphics from 32-bit to 16-bit before you start playing. It doesn’t seem to make an obvious visual difference, and it helps the game to run faster. However, if you save your game with one graphics setting, you can’t access those saves if you’re using another graphics setting. So, change the settings before you start playing!
In terms of the voice acting, it’s really good. All of the voice actors fit the characters really well, and their lines are delivered with a movie-like level of quality. Not only that, the voice acting can sometimes be an essential part of the game’s comedy too – especially with robotic characters like Cheffie and Stepford, who have been designed to sound annoying in a hilarious way.
Yes, the food machine’s voice sounds JUST as annoying as you would expect. But, she’s hilariously funny at the same time.
In terms of music, most of it just seems to be the kind of ambient futuristic music that you would expect. One stand-out tune is a slightly understated rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, which really helps to add some atmosphere to a couple of parts of the game.
However, since this is a relatively new game, the soundtrack isn’t included in the “standard” game download you can buy from GOG. In fact, you have to shell out another few quid in order to “upgrade” to a version of the game that includes MP3 copies of the soundtrack, and other bonus stuff. Still, at least it isn’t modern-style “DLC”, I guess.
All in all, “Technobabylon” is a perfect sci-fi game. Seriously, it’s up there with games like the original “Deus Ex”. Yes, there are a few annoying puzzles – but these are more than made up for by the complex storytelling, the immersive world of the game and the fact that this is a serious, intelligent sci-fi game that still has a sense of humour. The art looks stunning and the characters are really interesting too. As I said, it’s pretty much perfect! Just be sure to keep a walkthrough handy!
If I had to give this game a rating out of five, it would get a five.