By Marty Mulrooney
Technobabylon is a cyberpunk adventure game created by indie developer James Dearden (Technocrat Games), published by Wadjet Eye Games. The city is Newton and the year is 2087. Players take control of Charlie Regis and his partner Max Lao, CEL agents hot on the trail of a serial Mindjacker – a criminal who steals people’s knowledge before leaving them dead. Originally released on PC in 2015 to critical acclaim, Technobabylon was released as a Universal App for iPhone and iPad on 16th August 2017.
Technobabylon pixel-paints a stunning future world that, much like the world of Blade Runner before it, is beautiful despite its grime and decay. The city of Newton is like many modern-day cities, with a huge divide between the rich and the poor. Governed by an autonomous AI administrator named Central, the law is enforced by the Centralized Emergency Logistics police force: CEL for short.
Charlie Regis and Max Lao are CEL agents. Their current case finds them trying to intercept the most likely location of the Mindjacker’s next victim, as predetermined by Central. Meanwhile, Technobabylon’s third playable character – an agoraphobic net addict named Latha Sesame – has escaped her apartment after very nearly being blow to smithereens. How will the stories of these three very different characters come together? All will be revealed.
The most exciting thing about Technobabylon is its world. Yes, cyberpunk has been done to death… but it’s never been done quite like this. There are a lot of scary negatives about the future portrayed here, but there are plenty of positives too. For example – minor spoiler alert – at a certain point relatively early on, Max casually reveals that she was actually born a man. Charlie – and no doubt the majority of players – is taken aback at first, before quickly pulling himself together and accepting Lao for who she is: his partner and friend. The game never mentions this again. It isn’t a plot device designed to shock; it’s life and it’s thoroughly refreshing.
Likewise, this is a future where the IoT (Internet of Things) has developed at an alarming rate. Nano-mechanical ‘wetware’ devices (which can even be home-grown) are used by the general population to mentally interface with other devices and computers, or even modify brain functions. Don’t let the retro pixel art throw you; the design of the various interfaces and systems feels highly authentic and futuristic throughout. Have you ever wanted to argue with a food machine? In Technobabylon, you can.
Taking the concept even further, when controlling Latha players can enter the Trance at any time, a virtual reality system where users are displayed as stylised avatars. It’s both futuristic and ’90s all at once and it’s fabulous. It’s also the place where Latha truly comes into her own. She was born to Trance. All of these incredible technological advancements are displayed with little fanfare. It seems that, in 2087, this is all fairly commonplace.
Charlie is the character that stops the player from feeling totally isolated. For reasons unknown and yet to be revealed, he hates much of the modern technology on display in Newton and refuses to use wetware or Trance. As a result, players can gain a better understanding of this strange new world from an outsider’s point of view. It’s such a relief when Charlie reacts in disgust to a restaurant that serves cloned human meat. Thank god; not everyone has lost their humanity.
Technobabylon is a traditional 2D point-and-click affair, or perhaps more accurately drag-and-tap on the iPad. Holding your finger on the iPad screen displays all hotspots. Interacting with a hotspot is as simple as clicking the hand icon to pick up/use/talk, or the magnifying glass to examine (which often prompts a text box to appear with a detailed description). The inventory can be accessed by clicking the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. It’s a simple interface that allows you to fully lose yourself in the world, chatting to a cast of colorful characters and manipulating a host of electronic devices.
For the most part the puzzles are very well thought out and implemented, seldom feeling like busywork for the sake of padding. There are some real brainteasers that are highly satisfying to figure out, but it must be said that the difficulty sometimes tips over into the obscure. It isn’t often, but the lack of a built-in hints system may find even seasoned adventure gamers reaching for the nearest online walkthrough. Perhaps this is a side effect of the gripping plot; you’ll always be eager to find out what happens next.
This is a superb iPad port that doesn’t feel like an inferior cousin of the PC version in any way. The impressive pixel-art graphics shine on smaller screens and the sound quality rivals that of much larger game studios. The voice acting in particular is very impressive, with the three main actors offering standout performances that sound both natural and warm. Eli Green plays Charles Regis just right: world-weary and full of dark secrets, with a sardonic wit and very dry sense of humour. Arielle Siegel as Max Lao is the perfect counterbalance: chirpy and cheerful even when faced with overwhelming odds. Together, their dialogue shines and it’s not hard to imagine future games spent in their company.
Crystal Lonnquist as Latha has a much tougher challenge, as many of her scenes unfold in isolation. Yet, despite the character having very little recent experience with human interaction, Lonnquist manages to make Latha endearing – especially when she’s kicking ass and taking names as her avatar ‘Mandala’ in the Trance. The supporting cast all give high quality peformances too, from the authoritative computerised voice of Central (Kayla Conroy) to the charming Shelly Shenoy as Chantelle, a robot French maid who can’t talk about what goes on in the bedroom.
Technobabylon is a difficult game to review, as so much of its entertainment value derives from its story. Suffice to say, it’s an intricately woven tale that comes together in the end to offer a satisfying conclusion, with just enough threads left dangling to make the prospect of a sequel an enticing possibility. Some of the puzzles may be a bit too tough – you’ll need to pay careful attention to each and every line of dialogue – but the payoff is one of the best – and certainly one of the most thought-provoking – adventure games of recent years, expertly ported to iOS devices. Whatever case Charlie Regis and Max Lao end up being assigned with next in the scary future city of Newton, this reviewer will be there.
9 OUT OF 10