“What does one life matter?” is the question at the heart of Torment: Tides of Numenera. Initially shapeless, the question solidifies around heady concepts like legacy. Not so coincidentally, few games can boast a more lasting legacy than Numenera’s spiritual predecessor, Planescape Torment.
Tides of Numenera is the Kickstarter-borne spiritual follow-up to Planescape, a 1999 cult classic. Numenera is a single-player RPG with an emphasis on text and dialogue, and while it’s not set in the same universe as Planescape, it approaches similar themes from intriguingly different angles. Oh, it’s also similar to Planescape in that it’s really fucking good. Let’s just get this out of the way:
People revere Planescape Torment. The game took players on a journey through a world wilder and weirder than any other PC RPG from the mid-to-late ‘90s. It moved the focus off combat and put it squarely on dialogue, interactions, and gleeful oddity. You could talk your way through the majority of dicey situations, whether you decided to leverage raw charisma, labyrinthine philosophy, or the subtle art of killing yourself to make a point. It showed people what PC-style RPGs could be if developers dared to chuck the old template into a bottomless tomb 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 inheritor of the Torment name.
Numenera, unlike Planescape, gets off to a pretty brisk start. After a brief (though frustratingly inscrutable) character creation scene, your character awakens only to realize that he or she is falling from the sky. You crash into a weird techno-dome, where you’re discovered by two people who explain that you’re the final “Castoff” of The Changing God, a man who cheated death by creating a centuries-long succession of new bodies. Some people worship him. Others, many of them your fellow Castoffs, think he’s a selfish dickhead who might have accidentally unleashed a Castoff-hunting apocalypse beast called The Sorrow. Basically he’s a shitty dad, and the game’s as much about his legacy as it is yours. Both of you would very much like for The Sorrow to go away, so at least you’ve got the whole “not wanting to die” thing in common.
Once you reach the first main area, the trans-dimensional city of Sagus Cliffs, the game can move as quickly or slowly as you want it to. I recommend taking it slow. Numenera is to NPCs and dialogue trees what The Witcher 3 is to quests: every named character has a story. Some will make you think. Others will leave you feeling sad or hollow. A few are very, very funny. Where modern RPGs like Mass Effect railroad you into a small handful of canned responses, Numenera is more of a choose-your-own adventure than an RPG. It encourages you to tease out subtleties and nuance, to tempt nuance from dialogue trees’ cracks and crevices. Know this: you will read a lot of words. Don’t worry, though. They’re very good words.
Numenera’s setting, “The Ninth World,” is built atop the ruins of civilizations so great and powerful that their technology became indistinguishable from magic. While Ninth Worlders are basically medieval, remnants of a billion years of progress abound. This manifests in everything from people’s weapons and tools to the tales they tell. Characters’ stories are perched precariously atop a creaking spine of history, and there’s so much fascinating stuff to learn from just talking. Sometimes, it’s a winding conversation, or a new memory your character is suddenly able to access. Other times, you might yank at what seems like an innocuous thread and pull up a multi-part quest. Moral grays and difficult decisions abound.
Numenera doesn’t signpost this stuff. It’s up to you to seek it out, and that makes it all the more rewarding when you discover a cool character or quest (minor early game spoilers ahead). For instance, on one occasion I encountered what I thought was a statue in the middle of a carnival-esque town square. I approached it and tried to interact with it because, I figured, what’s the harm? Children pranced about. This statue-looking thing couldn’t possibly be dangerous. Turns out, it was alive. It’s name? The Genocide. I opened my big mouth, certain I was signing my own death warrant.
Instead, The Genocide gamely answered my questions, because it had no other choice. Once a member of a warrior tribe that nearly achieved global conquest under some sort of psychic machine god, The Genocide was forever imprisoned in that spot after his people were routed in a climactic battle by my character’s good ol’ dad, The Changing God. Flash forward a few centuries, and people don’t even notice The Genocide anymore. Turns out, it was more than a statue, but also less.
That was one of the first in-game conversations that made me go, “Whoa, this game isn’t like other games.” I argued with The Genocide about everything from the nature of free will to his tribe’s propensity for terrifying xenophobia, and in the process I learned the cataclysmic history of a place that, mere moments before, I’d regarded as “The Starter Town.” I cannot stress enough how much that is only the very tip of the iceberg (end of spoilers).
Rather than throwing lore codexes at you, for the most part Numenera stays grounded in character stories. I never found myself feeling bogged down, even as people excitedly vomited their life’s story at me if I so much as asked their name. It would be one thing if, say, the game straight up told me the history and meaning of a certain location. Instead, Numenera let me discover the lore by hanging out with characters, learning their histories and listening to them bicker. Whether I was in a bar full of psychic super heroes who’d Sacrificed Too Much or in the belly of a flesh god who people took to living inside (and worshipping), there was believable humanity at the core. Numenera’s stories go all over the place, pushing at the outer limits of sci-fi and fantasy, but they never lose sight of the game’s central themes and ideas.
Despite all that, the story Numenera tells isn’t quite as personal as Planescape’s. There are plenty of subtly heartbreaking NPC side-stories, but the main story is missing much-needed emotional glue. Planescape’s companions remain a high-water mark for the genre, but half of Numenera’s are serviceable at best, curiously lacking unique personality traits in a game that otherwise contains multitudes. The game tells you to talk to them often, but most of the time, the things they have to say are insubstantial. While nearly every companion has a few spectacular moments, they feel less like people and more like onions you’re trying to peel back until they spill their secrets. I adore a couple of them, but I wonder if I’ll 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 everybody you run into, good or bad, is up for a rousing debate, and even heated conflicts get buried by lengthy outpourings of logical prose. I enjoy how thoughtful the game’s conversations are, but they can mess up the game’s tension and pacing. They say that brevity is the soul of wit, but I’d argue that, in this case, it’s also the heart.
Numenera’s problems with tension manifest systemically, too. The game’s “effort” system is the worst offender. It’s actually pretty cool on paper, making its flaws even more of a bummer. Your three main stat pools—might, speed, and intellect—also function as points you can pour into everything from persuasion/deception to studying lost technology or snatching weird fish out of fountains. The more effort points you spend, the more you up your likelihood of Doing The Thing, but if you run out, you’re SOL until you rest or use a (fairly rare) healing item.
Before long, however, my main character had so many intellect points that I could just give myself a 100 percent success rate on every intellect-related task and still have effort points to spare. After that, the “correct” way through dialogues was obvious, and I could brute force persuade/perception/lore everybody. Sure, it’s empowering to walk into a conversation with an exoskeletal machine monster surrounded by bones of the deceased thinking to myself, “I’ll talk my way 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 occasions in Numenera when words fail. These “crisis” moments are cool in that they’re not traditional RPG combat encounters. The game switches to a turn-based format where you and your enemies duke it out, 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 was rooted in D&D rules, Numenera’s crises feel more akin to actual tabletop scenarios. Each crisis offers different contextual options, and in many cases you’ve got to puzzle them out on the fly. Sometimes you might still be able to talk to people, but other times you might be able to stealth your way through a place and hack its computer systems. Some moments have the potential to become crises but don’t turn out that way unless you say something dumb or get too aggressive.
Some crises can be pretty frustrating. Nonviolent paths through crises depend on your characters having enough points in certain stats and abilities, and there’s no way of knowing what will be useful before any given crisis. A couple times, I could see an optimal strategy, but I couldn’t execute on it because I hadn’t quite allocated everybody’s stats and skill focuses smartly enough. That’s less of an issue in late-game crises, because your characters will likely be pretty buffed up by then, but late-game crises have scope issues. Between multiple moving parts (characters outside your control, environmental factors, etc.) and some remarkably bad pathfinding on the part of your characters, things quickly fall into disarray.
I nitpick because I love. Despite clear flaws, Numenera is easily my favorite game of The Great PC RPG Revival (sorry, Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, and Wasteland 2) so far. For nearly two decades, Planescape Torment was one of a kind, and after that kind of time passes, you figure that’s just the way it’ll stay. Against all odds, however, this 2017 video game has taken Planescape’s mottled old flesh and stitched together something strange and new. I wonder what sort of legacy it will leave.