"What is life?" is the question at the heart of the agony: tides of Numenera. Initially informal, the question of intoxicating concepts such as legacy solidifies. It is no coincidence that only a few games have a more sustainable legacy than Numenera's spiritual predecessor, Planescape Torment.
Tides of Numenera is Kickstarter's spiritual sequel to Planescape, a cult classic from 1999. Numenera is a single player role-playing game with a focus on text and dialogue. It's not in the same universe as Planescape, but it approaches similar topics from fascinatingly different angles. Oh, it's similar to Planescape in that it's really good. Let's just get this out of the way:
People worship Planescape Torment. The game took players on a journey through a world that was wilder and stranger than any other PC role-playing game from the mid to late 1990s. It shifted the focus from the struggle and focused directly on dialogues, interactions and happy oddities. You can talk yourself through most of the delicate situations, whether you're up for raw charisma, labyrinthine philosophy, or the subtle art of killing yourself to get a point. It showed people what PC-style RPGs could be if developers dared to throw the old template into a bottomless grave and say, "Fuck it, let's make one of the player's companions a floating goddamn skull because we can. " Numenera isn't quite on the same level as Planescape, but it's a worthy legacy of the Torment name.
In contrast to Planescape, Numenera got off to a fairly quick start.
In contrast to Planescape, Numenera got off to a fairly quick start. After a brief (though frustratingly inscrutable) character creation scene, your character only wakes up to realize that he or she is falling from the sky. You plunge into a strange techno-dome, where you are spotted by two people who declare that you are the last "castoff" from The Changing God, a man who cheated death by creating a centuries-long sequence of new bodies . Some people worship him. Others, many of whom are your castoffs, consider him a selfish idiot who may have accidentally unleashed an apocalypse beast named The Sorrow while hunting a castoff. He's basically a crappy father and the game is about his inheritance as much as yours. You both want The Sorrow to go away, so at least you have the whole thing of "don't want to die" in common.
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Once you've reached the first major area, the transdimensional city of Sagus Cliffs, the game can move as fast or slow as you want. I recommend doing it slowly. For NPCs and dialog trees, Numenera is what The Witcher 3 is for quests: each named character has a story. Some will make you think. Others will make you feel sad or hollow. Some are very, very funny. Where modern role-playing games like Mass Effect put you in a small handful of canned answers, Numenera is more of an adventure in itself than an RPG. It encourages you to work out subtleties and nuances and to get nuances from the cracks and columns of the dialog trees. Do you know that: you will read many words. But don't worry. These are very good words.
Numenera's “The Ninth World” backdrop was built on the ruins of civilizations so large and powerful that their technology was indistinguishable from magic. While the ninth worlds are essentially medieval, there are many remains of a billion years of progress. This manifests itself in everything from people's weapons and tools to the stories they tell. The characters' stories sit precariously on a creaking backbone of the story, and there's so much fascinating to learn if you just speak. Sometimes it's a curvy conversation or a new memory that your character can suddenly access. In other cases, you could pull on an apparently harmless thread and complete a multi-part quest. Moral shades of gray and difficult decisions abound.
Numenera doesn't show this stuff. It's up to you to look for it, and that makes it all the more rewarding if you discover a cool character or quest (smaller early game spoilers ahead). For example, I came across a statue in the middle of a carnival-like town square. I approached him and tried to interact with him because I thought what's the harm? Children danced around. This statuesque thing might not be dangerous. It turned out to be alive. His name? The genocide. I opened my big mouth and was sure to sign my own death sentence.
Numenera doesn't show this stuff. It's up to you to search for it, and that makes it all the more rewarding if you discover a cool character or a cool search.
Instead, The Genocide answered my questions playfully because he had no choice. The Genocide was once a member of a warrior tribe that almost reached global conquest under some kind of psychic machine god. He was locked up in this place forever after his people got involved in a fight by my character's good old father, The Changing God. Look forward a few centuries and people don't even notice the genocide anymore. It turned out to be more than a statue, but also less.
That was one of the first conversations in the game when I said, "Whoa, this game is not like other games." I have argued with The Genocide about everything from the nature of free will to the inclination of its tribe to terrible xenophobia, and I have learned the catastrophic history of a place that I had considered a "starter city" just moments before. I can't stress enough how much that is just the tip of the iceberg (End of spoiler).
Instead of throwing tradition codes on you, Numenera remains largely anchored in character stories. I never felt bogged down, even though people excitedly began to tell their life story about me when I asked them their name. It would be one thing if the game told me directly the story and meaning of a particular place. Instead, Numenera let me discover the lore by hanging around with characters, learning their story, and quarreling with them. Whether I was in a bar full of psychic superheroes who had sacrificed too much, or in the belly of a carnal god that people brought to life (and worship), the core was believable humanity. Numenera's stories go everywhere and reach the outer limits of science fiction and fantasy, but they never lose sight of the game's central themes and ideas.
Still, the story Numenera tells is not quite as personal as that of Planescape. There are many subtly heartbreaking NPC side stories, but the main story lacks the much-needed emotional glue. Planescape's companions remain a high-water brand for the genre, but half of Numeneras are usable at best because, strangely enough, there is a lack of unique personality traits in a game that otherwise contains a variety. The game tells you to talk to them often, but most of the time the things they have to say are immaterial. While almost every companion has a few spectacular moments, they feel less like people than like onions that you want to peel back until they reveal their secrets. I adore a few of them, but I wonder if I will remember them in a year or two.
As for the story itself, there's a pervasive sense of intrigue and mystery, but the danger and pathos rarely feel authentic. At the end of the day, pretty much everyone you meet, good or bad, is ready for a rousing debate, and even heated conflicts are buried by lengthy spouts of logical prose. I like how thoughtful the game's conversations are, but they can upset the tension and pace of the game. They say brevity is the soul of the joke, but I would argue that in this case it is also the heart.
I like how thoughtful the game's conversations are, but they can upset the tension and pace of the game.
Numenera's tension problems also manifest themselves systemically. The game's "effort" system is the worst offender. It's actually pretty cool on paper, which makes its mistakes worse. Your three main statistical pools – power, speed and intellect – also act as points that you can incorporate into everything from persuasion / deception to studying lost technology or snatching strange fish from fountains. The more effort you spend, the more likely you are to do something. However, when you run out, you are SOL until you rest or use a (fairly rare) healing item.
However, it didn't take long for my main character to have so many intellect points that I was able to give myself a 100 percent success rate on every intellectual assignment and still have trouble points left. After that, the “right” way through the dialogues was obvious and I was able to brutally convince / perceive / persuade everyone. Sure, it gives me the opportunity to talk to an exoskeleton machine monster surrounded by the deceased's bones and thinking, "I'll talk myself through, no problem." But it hurts the illusion of being lost in a strange new world, and that illusion is a big part of Numenera's appeal.
There are a handful of cases where words fail in Numenera. These "crisis" moments are cool in that they are not traditional RPG combat encounters. The game changes to a turn-based format in which you and your enemies challenge it, but there are no random thugs or monsters, and violence isn't necessarily the answer. Despite the fact that Planescape's not very good combat system is based on D&D rules, Numenera's crises feel more like actual table scenarios. Each crisis offers different context options, and in many cases you will have to find them out in no time. Sometimes you can still talk to people, but sometimes you can hide through a place and hack its computer systems. Some moments can turn into crises, but it won't, unless you say something stupid or become too aggressive.
Some crises can be quite frustrating. Non-violent ways through crises depend on your characters having enough points in certain statistics and skills, and there is no way of knowing what will be useful before a certain crisis. I could see an optimal strategy a couple of times, but I couldn't execute it because I hadn't assigned all the statistics and skill focus wisely enough. This is less of an issue in late game crises as your characters are likely to be pretty beefed up by then, but late game crises have scale issues. Things quickly get messy between several moving parts (characters that are out of your control, environmental factors, etc.) and some remarkably poor characters' find-outs.
(Publisher's Note: Nathan checked the game on the PC. Kotaku's Jason Schreier tested the PS4 port and found that it was full of technical issues, including constant freezes that made the game almost unplayable for him on this platform.)
I don't peck because I love. Despite clear shortcomings, Numenera is easily my favorite game from The Great PC RPG Revival (sorry, Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny and Wasteland 2). Planescape Torment has been unique for almost two decades and it will remain so after that time. Despite all the odds, this 2017 video game took Planescape's stained old flesh and sewed something strange and new together. I wonder what legacy it will leave.