The Gods willing, you are reading this on the 28th of February, immediately after the wisely imposed review embargo was lifted by Techland Publishing. Tides of Numenera is the most well-funded RPG to come out of Kickstarter so far (at least prior to Pillars of Eternity II’s Fig campaign) and the one game, that the majority of old school players and backers, myself included, most counted on to, if not surpass the lyrical beauty of Planescape: Torment, at least stand beside that monumental RPG as is equal.
And the omens seemed favourable. It’s “spiritual cousin”, Pillars of Eternity, funded to a lesser sum and with far fewer expectations riding on it, had won every single award for its category and delivered a beautiful tribute to the Infinity Engine games of yore, that helped introduce hardcore role-playing concepts to a majority of today’s thirty-something players. The repeated release date delays acted as a bitter but sweet balsam to the souls of the game’s good natured champions. “Let them take as much time as they need. We just want this game to be Torment. And it will be. Because inXile are The Good Guys. They feel us. They know.” If we had only known, brothers.
I had intentionally refrained from playing the Early Access build that had become available to all backers (regardless of tier) in 2016. With memories of the Nameless One’s dark Odyssey still defining my gaming id, I wished to experience this new dark chest of wonders in its full glory or not at all. And you know what really sucks, it’s still way too early to sneak some brandy in my coffee without condemning glances from my neighbouring cubicles.
Numenera (because this game should have never been named “Torment” and that sacred prefix will ideally be forever erased from the players’ collective consciousness as having anything to do with the present game) gloriously fails in delivering each and every one of the things inXile promised during its Kickstarter campaign, back in the mists of 2013, when Kickstarter’s magic high was still going strong. Each and every one. But let us, like a proper disaster assessment squad, pack up our equipment, gather our team and bravely go forward to investigate how Kickstarter’s brightest hope, forever condemned the platform’s “sure-fire” credibility for delivering “the great games, like we used to play”.
The crux of the game’s story is interesting indeed. Action takes place a billion years into the future, in the wonderfully complicated multiverse of Numenera, lovingly created by Monte Cook. The all-powerful Changing God, the engimatic figure at the centre of the game’s narrative, in a quest to unlock the secrets of eternal life, manages to develop a technology via which he can transfer his conscience and experience in new bodies/hosts, thus effectively defeating Death and rendering himself immortal. Of course, things get complicated as his “old” bodies/hosts are not destroyed when their master’s soul leaves them, but rather, they develop self-conscience and attempt to determine their place in this strange new world. We begin our journey literally falling from the skies, as the most recent (“Last”) cast-off body of our God Daddy’s experiments. Our explosive landing in a forgotten chamber full of super-technology on the outskirts of Sagus Cliffs, naturally attracts fortune seekers and other, more unsavoury types. The Fallen Star’s journey, has only just begun.
It all sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? Almost, Constant Reader, almost. Under “normal” circumstances, I should not be raising any parallels to Planescape: Torment at all, but since the developers themselves elected to usurp that epic’s legacy in order to maximise their profits, they will be judged accordingly. In Torment (from this point forward, we will be using “Torment” to only refer to the 1999 masterpiece, and the under-review usurper shall be labelled as “Numenera”) the Nameless One, was a living, breathing testament of Torment. Every inch of his body was covered in scars and tattoos. He had committed nameless and countless atrocities as well as divine acts of kindness and mercy. The enormous contradiction of his being, combined with the truly masterful way in which details of that extraordinary life across the Planes were revealed to us along with the reasons for his “curse”, immersed and utterly seduced, thus creating an unparalleled sense of immersion and identification with our hero.
On the other hand, our character in Numenera is a newborn. A blank slate, tabula rasa. At the onset of the game, we are informed that a horrific entity, known only as the Sorrow, is chasing not only us but all Castoffs of the Changing God. Our first goal is to obviously prevent the Sorrow from destroying us. Numenera fails, at its onset, middle and conclusion to create even a slight sense of identification with the protagonist and his “torment”, quite simply because the latter, does not exist. It rather leaves us with the sense of having watched a hastily written sci-fi B-movie in which the irrelevant and forgettable protagonist is constantly running from the bad guys, because…well, they are the bad guys. Sad, but true.
In spite of the tremendous volume of descriptive text and the highly detailed descriptions of everything around us, there is a pervading sense that the true star of the show is the world of Numenera and not the Last Castoff or the anaemic, half-baked NPC’s that form our party. As an interactive version of the Numenera sourcebook for a pen-and-paper campaign, the game absolutely succeeds. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with what constitutes a successful and enjoyable CRPG. Any comparisons to the gorgeous dialogue exchanges of Torment or its sense of immersion in harsh, alien worlds are painfully in the favour of a game now 18 years old. In my 23 hours with Numenera (and that is including all possible side quests) I had the constant sensation of wandering between a super detailed encyclopaedia’s pages which ultimately, told no story at all.
CHARACTER CREATION-RPG MECHANISMS (OR THE DEAFENING LACK OF THEM, THEREOF)
When a game puts zero effort towards being impressive in its audio-visual department, we naturally expect it to compensate by providing deep and intricate systems. To encourage multiple approaches to the situations it presents, and reward our actions accordingly. Numenera shows its pitiful, grease stained and dog-eared hand, early.
A bare bones character creation process with 90% of all skills presented, being completely and utterly, useless. The UI itself looks like it was designed by a Computer Science student on the eve of his thesis deadline, seeing double and being half-crazy with sleep deprivation. Theoretically, there are three available classes to choose from. Glaive, Jack and Nano. Warrior, thief and mage, respectively. Right. The Glaive cancels itself, as during the game’s 23 hours (and that is if you really stretch it, doing all available side quests and NPC quests) you will be hard pressed to find a total of 15 different combat encounters, the majority of which either ends too soon, or screams for an alternative resolution, one that does not require violence, you cretin. Similarly, skills such as “Light/Medium/Heavy Weapons” are purely decorative. Stealth is also non-existent in the game, outside of battles. Any pickpocketing or scouting mechanisms that you might have been expecting (and were indeed present in Torment) shine by their absence. In fact, all of the game’s locations are so small and cramped that when iI discovered a cypher (more on those, a bit later on) which allowed me to lift the fog of war, I was laughing to myself. Apparently, that was the same fog of war that took about four clicks per screen to completely eradicate.
The Jack is essentially a half-cocked Nano and it is not unfair to assume that anyone backing the game’s Kickstarter on their fond memories of Torment, will naturally gravitate towards playing a Nano with full diplomatic perks as well as the interesting, but utterly useless ability to read characters’ surface thoughts. In other words, character creation is a sham, as there is really only one path through the game. You can choose whether you will make your life a bit easier by avoiding its pointless combat encounters, which the spartan and just plainly acceptable turn-based combat system puts no effort towards making interesting or fun, but that’s about it.
The other major “foul” concerns Numenera replacing “traditional” RPG stats with the following three: Might, Speed and Intellect. Those three categories each have a maximum value (which we can raise as we level up our characters) and the majority of our actions in the game (in battle or outside of it) revolves around constant skill checks. Are we, for example, attempting to convince a character of our viewpoint? Based on our Intellect skill we see our chance of success. Now through the Effort mechanism, we can expend additional Intellect points to improve our odds of success. These points are then in turn replenished either by resting or by using consumables.
In action, this is an utterly pointless mechanism, as, after a certain point and via the correct skill upgrades, all skill checks become automatic successes and we are only required to invest a bare minimum of skill points. A completely inept and inane system, that potentially works brilliantly for the pen-and-paper version of Numenera but has precisely zero value for a CRPG. Either during a Crisis (the game’s definition of a battle) or outside of it, never came a moment where I thought to myself “Damn, this is a brilliant system, I wish more game developers used this in their games!”
The same curse of “total redundancy” affects every piece of equipment available in the game as well. This is a game where any and all engagement in it’s -too few anyway- combat situations is strongly discouraged. It is therefore utterly useless to add even the 20-25 different weapons and armour items that are included. They do contribute an infinitesimal amount towards the confidence of players who, ignoring each and every one of the developers’ enormous signposts for non-combat resolutions, will choose to play as uber-aggressive, autistic little orcs (and my hat is off to you gentlemen, for thy fortitude far surpasses mine) but apart from that, feel more like another half-hearted slap to the players’ face. There was also heavy speculation regarding the inclusion of “cyphers” in Numenera, exotic and volatile artefacts that the player can only use so many times before they implode. They are in fact so unstable, that your character cannot even carry too many of them as he will be poisoned with “cypher sickness” and eventually die.
The bitter truth regarding cyphers is that whatever micro-buffs they may confer or whatever sad combat edge they bring, are utterly redundant as well. I caught myself equipping cyphers on my characters mainly because they “looked cool” and I had a sick sense of guilt and obligation towards whatever poor developers were forced to sign off on this game in its release state. The litany of terrors does not end here, as “Oddities” have been included as well. These are some “super weird” items that come into our possession in the course of our adventure and have the power to do, brace yourselves, absolutely nothing. You read that right. inXile’s official excuse on this is that they “add colour and character to the game’s world”. My soul is broken inXile, I’m off to add cognac to my coffee and I’ll be right back to continue writing this obituary.
I must have collected about forty Oddities in my journey through Numenera. I can’t quite remember if one or two of them gave me an extra line in some secondary and meaningless character dialogue (remnants of another hastily abandoned design dream, no doubt). I was mostly selling those to purchase consumables that would replenish my characters’ Might, Speed and Intellect pools. As a concept, as part of a complete game, they would have been interesting. In Numenera’s case, they only serve to add insult to the injury.
Having already exceeded the textual constraints of a traditional review, I would like to sum up by saying that character progression, equipment upgrades and cypher and inventory management, the “heart” in other words of any game intended for the players’ entertainment, are barely present, barely held together, just enough for the game to qualify as an “RPG-lite”. When Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate contains more meaningful character development than a game called Torment: Tides of Numenera, you know that you are in serious, very serious trouble. If you were considering purchasing Numenera in order to have a traditional “RPG” experience, this is not the game for you.
VISUAL-AUDIO (THE DISCREET CHARM OF “EVERYTHING IS IN YOUR HEAD”)
In my five years of writing game reviews professionally, this is the hardest one I have had to write, by a large margin. The bitter disappointment and disillusionement of Numenera are such that I am scrambling to be as objective as possible in its presentation. None of us were expecting any miracles in the audio-visual department. “Pretty pre-rendered backgrounds, tolerable sprites and quality speech and soundtrack” is the unspoken promise of all “retro-revival” RPG’s of recent years that have come to us via crowdfunding platforms. Even here, Numenera manages to utterly disappoint. The pre-rendered backgrounds are indeed well-designed (even though, in retrospect, terribly few). The game only includes two major – and the term is used liberally – hubs, Sagus Cliffs and the Bloom. Character sprites are the very definition of utterly generic Unity placeholder art. They manage to give such a faceless, tasteless, colorless definition of all characters that in combination with the complete lack of NPC portraits (only our party’s NPC’s are afforded the luxury of portraits, completely mismatched to their respective personalities) we are left to imagine the game’s NPC interactions all on our own. Their approximate shape, their faces, their garb, their characteristics, everything has to be in our heads. In 2017. This is exacerbated by the almost total absence of recorded speech. Random phrases for random characters are voiced so infrequently that it is actually surprising when a spoken word is heard after hours of silence or ambient drones. There is a palpable sense of things being tragically underpolished or just plain abandoned in the audio department. When you consider that Pillars of Eternity, with significantly fewer funds at its budget delivered a gorgeous “audio-visual” combo, Numenera is naked and plain inexcusable. It manages to miss the mark -by a wide margin- in a field that in 2017 is considered all but a given. If you fired up Planescape: Torment right now, a game from 1999 with no mods, it looks and sounds infinitely prettier and more complete compared to Numenera. It has identity and character, both visual and aural something that in Numenera, is only hinted at in the Sorrow’s appearance, as her sprite takes up half the screen. It’s a damn shame than even all of her dialogue is constrained to a Mass Effect-esque info/exposition dump near the end of the game.
MASS EFFECT? HAVE YOU LOST IT COMPLETELY, LAD? (“DOES THIS DAMN GAME GET ANYTHING RIGHT?)
The more I twist and turn this in my mind, the more I become certain. It does not matter one iota what you will do or choose in Numenera. The game’s endings are strictly pre-defined and the choice is given to you via a horribly Mass Effect-esque finale sequence that will have purists frothing at the mouth at the sacrilege. We have an extremely linear, short game that may offer the illusion of three or four different choices when it comes to quest resolution but is actually taking us from point A to point B to point C with surgical precision. Compared to Torment, this is infantile.
The only good things I remember from this game are two very well-written side quests as well as the refreshingly well-conceived NPC character of Rhin, who is truly wasted in this irredeemable fiasco. If Numenera had released as a humble, indie RPG set in alternative, post-apocalyptic game world and cost about 10 euros on GoG.com, it would have been an honest proposal. We would still positively comment on its rich and detailed world and its deep lore. We would not project any kind of expectations on it, and we could even have honestly recommended it to hardcore RPG junkies who’ve exhausted all quality titles in the genre and were looking for smaller, more “left field” games to tide them over until the next serious release.
In its present state, Numenera shamelessly usurps Torment’s name and legacy and does not even scratch the surface of the majesty, glory, importance and damn it, plain old good fun that it’s “spiritual father” provided. The feeling of a hastily released and under-developed game pervades every second of Numenera and will be the subject of a myriad RPG post-mortems in 2017. Something obviously tragically derailed between the Kickstarter campaign and its actual release and the game was released “as it was” in order to recoup development costs. inXile’s Wasteland 2, whilst not creation’s greatest RPG, stands as a towering and eternal masterpiece compared to Numenera.
Shame on you inXile, you have failed us. Shame.
(Many thanks to Enarxis Dynamic Media for providing us with a review copy of the game)
- Very rich world and setting, ripe for use in other games, preferrably not with “Torment” in their title or similar pretenders’ claims.
- A few, tragically too few moments in the Bloom, speak of the game that may have been, back in 2013.
- This is not Torment by any stretch of the imagination. Just comparing itself to the 1999 masterpiece, is anathema.
- Extremely poor audio-visual presentation, even by indie game standards. For a 4.5 million dollar Kickstarter, this is a disgrace.
- In spite of its rich world and lore, it utterly fails to create an emotional connection with the player or make us care about anything going on in the Last Castoff’s story.
- RPG mechanisms, character development, inventory acquisition and management are at amateur levels.
- Meres and their sad, sad implementation. It would have been preferable to save some face and not include them at all.
- The bitter aftertaste in players’ mouths, that this was merely a tech demo for selling the Numenera world to pective publishers for future projects. There is no game here.
- The silently cut stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign. In light of the project’s extremely poor quality, the argument of “We wanted to focus on polish” seems even weaker. High tier backers should be furious.