The spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment is something quite unique in modern gaming: a historical timepiece that captures the essence of hardcore roleplaying and never once tries to hold your hand. Series fans will no doubt want to dive right in, but casual fans tempted by the idea of trying something new should tread carefully. Torment: Tides of Numenera is a divisive experience that may well rub you up the wrong way.
You’re the Last Castoff, a soul who awakens in an unfamiliar body with no memory of your past. You’ve been abandoned by the Changing God, a superhuman who long ago discovered the ability to switch between hosts and remain immortal. Upon leaving one body for another, The Changing God activates the consciousness of the vessel left behind. You’re one such vessel, left with a blank slate and a desire to work out who you are, but also who you want to be.
Tides of Numenera’s stage is the Ninth World, a future Earth a billion years removed, based on Monte Cook’s pen and paper RPG though in spinoff form here. Nine is a reference to the eight worlds that have come and gone before it, broken down and repaired over time, and fans of Monte Cook’s work will find this tasty stuff, full of lore to pore over, characters to meet and intrigue heavy on player agency. It’s possible to navigate the entire story without ever once engaging in combat outside of the tutorial mission, and for anyone who likes their roleplaying delivered sans frills but with decisions to make at every turn, it’s wonderful stuff.
Powering the game is the Unity engine, which delivers an isometric 2.5D perspective and spectacularly detailed environments. It’s clear that a great deal of love has been poured into the artwork, and while aesthetically very different, it reminds of the old Commandos games where every blade of grass was meticulously drawn and ultimately served a purpose. In Tides, you have the ability to snap the camera closer to the ground to pick up another layer of detail, but this also serves to reveal just how spectacularly ugly character models are. From afar, Tides of Numenera is impressive, especially for an indie game built on the back of a Kickstarter campaign, but up close it suffers.
It’s not perfect then, but while you might not want to zoom in on every interaction, getting stuck into the game and zooming in on every detail is exactly the approach you should take, because a half-hearted attempt to discover the world of Numenera simply will not work. Let this be a warning to casual players: Tides is hard work, not because it’s difficult, but because it demands you chew over its details to progress. With no codex, no waypoint system and no helping hand, you need to pay attention to every interaction and every line of dialogue to know what to do.
Personally, I like this emphasis on storytelling and it’s a gameplay conceit that harks back to its spiritual predecessor Planescape: Torment, but I think inXile misses several tricks. For one, there’s a complete absence of spoken dialogue and while that’s fine, the novel’s worth of text you’ll read occupies an ugly interface that makes reading a chore.
There’s also a disconnect between characters and what they’re saying. In the old Sierra games of the ‘80s and ‘90s you got a close-up portrait of the character speaking replete with snappy lip synching, and a similar system would have worked wonders here to immerse you properly in the world. As it is, it’s hard to really feel like you’re on the ground and that’s compounded by a peculiar system in which character’s actions are described rather than animated.
The simple act of traversal is also a slog. The Ninth World features large hubs comprised of different screens to traverse, and each screen is broken up by a lengthy pause to load. These interruptions are a problem. They disrupt your train of thought and make it difficult to orientate yourself, let alone work out where you need to go next. Soon, you’re engaged in a maddening stop-start game of connecting the dots with a map that’s of no help and a mission summary screen that might as well flip you the bird.
It took me four hours just to work out how I could sleep in the first world (which replenishes health and other helpful effects) and several hours more to get anywhere of note. Numenera is so stop-start and so prohibitive that the joy of discovery is superseded by the realization that you’re just heading further down the rabbit hole. If there’s ever a game you need a notepad handy for, it’s this.
In another sense, this lack of hand holding frees inXile to concentrate on what matters to their core fanbase: crafting the most complex and rewarding story possible, propped up by an enormous cast of characters, potential fighting companions, side quests and story missions. Tasks can be completed in various way and every bad situation can be salvaged – even dying, which doesn’t transport you back to your earlier save, but comes with its own surprise revelations. To inXile’s enormous credit, they emphasize the importance of letting your story play out naturally.
To get a sense of what it’s like to play Tides of Numenera, picture a Deus Ex game delivered to your door as a “choose your own” adventure book. Actually, that doesn’t describe what it’s like to play, because the simple fact is that Numenera can be a chore, especially in combat, where many of its greatest problems are present. Combat is turn-based (fine) but also slow, sluggish and riddled with bugs (not fine). Enemies are like chess players stuck staring at a board, skating around the scenery, trying to decipher where you are and what they want to do. It’s impossible to skip their turn, and several times I encountered bugs where I couldn’t move myself.
Fortunately, combat can be skipped so long as you’re willing to invest more time and effort to find alternative methods. Taking the slow road is often the best course as it gives you a chance to get to grips with the world on offer. While you’re exploring, you’ll generate you tides, passive personality traits that begin to shape the person you are. Cleverly, they’re kept in the background, rather than as an obscene menu tree to pour over and influence.
While I respect what Tides of Numenera stands for, I can’t say I enjoyed playing it. As a companion piece to 1999’s Planescape: Torment, it sticks out in 2017. There are bugs to endure, long load times to sit through and a cumbersome interface doesn’t help matters, while the framerate often hits unacceptably choppy waters. Small niggles grate: it’s easy to get stuck in scenery, and it’s a crying shame dialogue – such a crucial complement of the experience – isn’t presented better. Those of you who played 1999’s Planescape: Torment will no doubt brush off these flaws as reasons to invest time in the game and learn to love its charms, but casual fans will baulk at the time and effort required to overcome those initial hurdles.
At the very least, Tides of Numenera knows what it is and delivers wholeheartedly on this vision. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s something genuinely fresh in a sea of copycats. If you’re a newcomer tempted by Numenera’s uncompromising approach to gameplay, be prepared to invest a good deal of energy – you never know, you might just come away a believer.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Love it or hate it, Tides of Numenera is a worthy follow-up to Planescape: Torment, but an experience that’s unlikely to win over fans reared on modern games.