The premise of this Kickstarter-funded sequel to Planescape: Torment is attractive right off the bat. There is an immensely powerful being called the Changing God, who creates a new body for himself every decade or two, and you are some remnant spark of life in the body he most recently abandoned. You still have sporadic access to his memories, and to a number of his mystical abilities… including the fact that you usually don’t actually die when your HP drops to zero, kind of like in the original Planescape. So far so good, right? A good elevator pitch like that one is important here, because at its heart, this game is a book, and how many people will pick up a book if its premise is unengaging?
They’re pretty far out there, I’ll give them that. It’s not the usual fantasy or sci-fi setting. At the start of the game, you’re already in the most exotic reaches of the universe — beyond the beyond — and almost everyone has some innate weirdness. Once more, this is true to the original Planescape. Here’s a sampling of the people you meet in the first town — not even party members, but the inconsequential nobodies who just loiter around: A young boy sent hundreds into the future because there was no food to go around in his time. An man who obsessively hunts a woman, who ran away from him after he’d resurrected her from the dead simply because her corpse was pretty. A little girl from a distant civilization that remotely controls lifelike bodies to explore distant lands, walking around in the body of a warrior, without her parents’ permission. It’s cool, even if I sometimes want to roll my eyes.
But ideas are secondary to their execution. A good premise for a word-thick CRPG doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good game; finding a fantasy novel with a killer premise on the back cover won’t guarantee that you’ll want to read a thousand pages of it, even if it does help it get a foot in the door of your brain. Tides of Numenera has a number of things to appreciate, but the thing is, if I walk into a room and see six NPCs, and I let out a defeated sigh right then and there, believing that I won’t be going anywhere for the next two or three hours, then I’m probably not as invested in what’s happening as I should be. It’s the equivalent of compulsively checking a book’s page count. At the very least, pacing is difficult, and if the people you encounter don’t intersect with everything else that’s going on in the story, they’re just… speedbumps. If every obstacle is an A+ story of its own, it’s different, but I wasn’t nearly that engrossed in either the main course or these distractions. I was hoping to spend less time asking needless tell-me-abouts tediously nested in dialogue sub-trees, and more time tripping over my own dick weaving elaborate knots of moral obligation and hypocrisy: the deep, reactive stories this genre is supposed to be getting resurrected for.
I’m certain that some of these interruptions are a direct consequence of the crowdfunding mechanism, which — to echo how I felt about Pillars of Eternity — has proven it can exert just as much useless and undue influence on a creative vision as any traditional publisher. Only so many games will be able to get away with such paeans to vanity as adding a magical endless graveyard map with the thousands of tombstones they promised as a pledge tier (with your own custom name and epitaph!), before all the players catch onto the fact that most will never even find their own tombstone, much less expect anyone else to. In fairness to those people, perhaps they don’t feel they’re “buying” a tombstone so much as contributing to the promise of “deeper story and reactivity” enhanced with every dollar pledged — the tombstone just a bonus — but can one really see success here by that metric, either?
The intrusive fingerprints of backers aren’t as obvious when you step out of the graveyards, but starting with the numenera themselves — little oddities ranging from the harmless to the terrifying, and each beginning as a suggestion from a backer with $350 to spare — there are a million little vignettes of varying complexity in the game. As the bigger picture goes, I found the effect of any “design an NPC” tiers to be far less overt than the “vibrant souls” of Pillars of Eternity, but one spends a big chunk of their playtime reading stories not unlike what you’d get from the SCP Foundation, and I imagine a commensurate amount of dev time (and therefore budget) bled away in the fulfillment of these rewards. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that some vignettes are quite brilliant, and the game’s writers clearly weren’t averse to the form, given how many little short stories of greater complexity appear in the rest of the game as remnant memories of the Changing God, the tales of NPCs, and of course the merecasters: items that allow you to dive into someone else’s past.
But do your choices affect anything? On a case-to-case basis, yes: quests have multiple solutions, and you can ruin someone’s life to get the item you want, though I usually don’t want to. You can also not bother addressing various calamities happening on the side, and I’m sure there’s a lot of epilogue text I’ll never see about how a lot of people died from earthquakes because I didn’t turn off an earthquake machine, or whatever. There are a couple time-sensitive quests you can fail by resting at the inn, too. I conducted a pretty deep investigation during Inifere’s questline, and even with a protracted dialogue-based solution to his quest, I missed the clean solution and was unable to release him from his torment, which felt more fitting than reloading a save until I could do everything perfectly and walk around guilt-free. This is nice, but these quests are compartmentalized and hardly ripple into others; nothing derails the story. The writing in Inifere’s part of the game showed considerable talent and effort, but there is no outcome in which he storms back in at the end of the game with his own proposal for dealing with the looming threat called the Sorrow: when the quest is done, he’s done. You don’t return to Sagus Cliffs after you leave it; there’s no second round of quests offered there, contingent on how the first ones went, nor any checking up on how the city might have been affected by a plague ship if you successfully turned it away in a merecaster. Tol Maguur, an undying slaver, doesn’t even show up to ambush you later if you kill him once. I’m unconvinced that the original Planescape was truly much better in this regard, but if reactivity was supposed to be a priority, I think they lost sight of their goal.
Even the best Fallout games were largely compartmentalized, but they could have 10 solutions to a quest (many due to more sophisticated mechanics, like stealth and theft, different dialogue if your intelligence was low and so on), and some of these solutions would traverse the boundaries of the modules they take place in, telling the player to get some information from someone in another town, tying you up in its quests. There’s very little available in the mechanics of Tides of Numenera to back up its interactions.
Really, Tides of Numenera’s best efforts at reactivity aren’t so different from the kinds of divergences you’d see in a recent Bioware game. For the most part, I only saw minor lines about how I dealt with earlier events interspersed into bigger conversations. In a few instances I had to fight more enemies because I’d pissed a creature off earlier, but it’s relatively unimpressive to slap a few more monsters into a one-time encounter based on one variable. All the warnings you’re given about how abuse of the Tides will draw the attention of the Sorrow amounted to nothing that I’m aware of. What’s more, I encountered bugs or oversights in dialogue that meant that even this small amount of reactivity could fail to represent me: I was told that I had abused the Tides before I’d even learned the Tidal Surge ability, having actually missed the first chance to get it. And one of my followers actually started telling me the second part of his backstory before I interacted with another character to hear the first, and all my dialogue responses implied that my character knew about the characters and objects he was mentioning. I was able to fill in the gaps with the first part of the conversation a couple minutes later, but this is pretty bad to see, because these interactions are what this kind of game is supposed to be all about.
As far as other sources of “replay value” go, I was unable to get the full stories from each of my companions in one playthrough, as I could only drag three of them around with me at any given time. But I didn’t feel attached to these characters to begin with, especially given that my primary mode of interaction was to barrage each of them with questions, and with the game encouraging me not to divide my experience points, it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t put in the effort to use each party member equally. Frankly, I’m uninterested in hearing their remaining stories. Pleased as I am that this game doesn’t too much of my time on mechanical interactions that don’t belong — as Dragon Age: Inquisition did — it lacks any good mechanics to fill things out, too. This means a replay would be easy enough, but I’d just be running from person to person, only reading the text enough to be certain I’ve already read it before, as I tried to find the missed interactions with my other followers. This sounds entirely tedious. I want to play Fallout 1 & 2 again. I want to pull out a gun and shoot someone in the leg in the middle of town, just to see what happens. I long to do all that because there was none of it here. Alas.
One follower I do truly have to salute was Rhin — the one written by a favorite novelist of mine, Patrick Rothfuss, as a Kickstarter stretch goal. It’s not that her backstory, her homeland or her gods, particularly fascinate me. But I see this young child as a devious little practical joke: she’s the weakest character in the party, unskilled and untrainable in all types of weapons, and she absolutely cannot survive on her own, which means you can’t ever remove her from the party without condemning her to a terrible fate of slavery or death in some god-forsaken hole in the middle of nowhere — not that I was ever even willing to try. Frankly, the guts needed to pull such a bastard move as this is beyond most full-time game designers, and the fact that there are players out there who have been outraged by this makes me love it even more. Combat being such a negligible part of the game, it really doesn’t hurt all that much to be saddled with someone largely useless, but even I’m unsure if I’d be taking as much or more delight out of this if combat was actually something I had to worry about.
Where Pillars of Eternity was a very encounter-focused CRPG — perhaps unbalanced and perhaps underwhelming to level up in, but nonetheless a game in which combat was at the center of everything — in Tides of Numenera, combat is the thing you’re forced to do as a last resort when you’ve failed all your speech checks and are committed to playing out the consequences. It’s entirely uninteresting, and while there are conceivably some differing “builds”, it hardly makes a difference — even if the prologue suggests otherwise by forcing you to make a bunch of choices before you even know what you’re choosing, like not knowing what a “bonded artifact” is, and yet committing yourself to penalties for their use. I don’t recall combat in the original Planescape being any better, and while that’s not much of an excuse, others can reach whatever conclusions they want to from this.
Fighting can be avoided, possibly entirely, depending on which areas you skip and what you walk into an encounter with, but entering the turn-based “crisis” mode cannot, even if you only use it to rush over to and interact with objects in the environment, and never hit anyone back. But I don’t even necessarily want to avoid all the fights: I like to be the good guy, but sometimes, the idea of debating down some crazed madman by defeating them with their own logic is groan-inducing and dissatisfying. It’s one thing if you’re just picking the truly convincing thing to say from a list of options, or you perceptively picked out all the clues in the area before getting into it. But when you just have a high intellect stat or persuasion skill, and you have some god-given ability to make people throw away their own convictions and agree with you? It rings hollow. But I can’t put this entirely on Tides of Numenera when the whole genre seems to love doing it. The sole solution is to hire more tactful writers in the first place.
The only truly cool thing about the crisis mechanic is that (in rare cases) you can still talk to people while you’re in it, and one quest revolves entirely around this: you need to interact with the central computer system on a spaceship without tipping off its crew, and you do this by splitting up your party and asking the captain to give you a tour, having a couple members of your squad follow him around and ask him questions about the ship to stall for time, while one goes through the procedures with the central core of the ship, and another stealthily confirms these actions from a terminal on the bridge. Although it’s ridiculous — you’re likely doing this in the crew’s own interests, having figured out what’s best for their civilization within 30 seconds of meeting them — I’m truly glad it was included, because it was brilliant, and the game never does anything like it anywhere else.
But what would have made it better, and made the rest of the game better, is if skill checks themselves weren’t random. I think it’s a damn shame that we’re still doing these dice rolls in CRPGs when there have been better approaches around for years. If you have advanced training in stealth and dexterity, and this guy you’re trying to do whatever to has intermediate training in perception, you should be able to perform x actions without being seen, or get x distance away from him. If you pass the threshold, you can do it, and if you don’t, you can’t. Why does RNG have to factor in at all? It creates far more replay value when there are things your character’s build flat-out prevents them from doing. But this seems to be a recurring frustration with a lot of these traditional tabletop designers. It’s like they have this way of doing things that works when you’re rolling dice in a group, but never seem to realize that the way people are incentivized to react in a single-player CRPG are completely different, and the mechanics must be, too. As mature as I have tried to be when it comes to accepting messier resolutions to quests, I find that if there’s simply an optional door with an item behind it, and the game says, “No, you didn’t roll a high enough number, so you can’t lockpick the door and get the item,” I’m always going to hit quickload.
There’s also Tidal Affinity: mundane dialogue choices you make will attune you to one color or another. I was Gold-dominant, which represents concepts like selflessness and empathy, though I also picked a lot of Red Tide options that represented passion (in practice, this could mean anything from artistic sentiment to making threats or violent outbursts). Tides get talked about a lot in the game, but I found it to be inconsequential: it altered some combat abilities available to one of my followers, and other Gold-dominant NPCs were occasionally willing to help me without first passing a persuasion check that I’m sure I would have passed relatively easily anyway. Honestly, I guess I should be thankful that they didn’t have this affect my ending, because if I had to get into some Mass Effect-style mess — flip-flopping between whatever “Renegade” meant in the moment, from “badass” to “cruel” — just to keep my affinity consistent, I would not have appreciated that.
What does it say that the best parts of the game were the merecaster segments? With combat just an afterthought, and dialogue a tiresomely systematic series of interrogations that rarely ever felt human, is it any surprise that I would rather just throw all of the game’s mechanics aside and play little Choose Your Own Adventure-style episodes of interactive fiction? But I really loved these. In one, I was so intent on keeping a village on the back of a whale from being completely annihilated that I threw a grenade into a crowd of people who were just in my way. In another, I made terrible choice after terrible choice and was fully satisfied with the result, where my own daughter died from some kind of radiation sickness and my robot companion left me to die that way too, instead of giving up the cause: a power source that would keep the robot itself from dying. If I feel positively about this game, it’s largely because of these parts, and the occasional other good throwaway bit, like the time I got a game over because one of my companions grabbed and opened a jar filled with something really terrible before I could even say anything to stop him, which was actually really funny.
Production values aren’t very high, though I do feel a little bad complaining about this in a crowdfunded project of passion for a genre that can’t rake in huge sums of money anymore. The voice acting isn’t great, but there’s mercifully little of it. The visual art is honestly all over the place, but I saw some very cool painted backgrounds in merecasters, and some nice touches in environments here and there. Bugs and other small annoyances are a bigger problem: needless slowdown, my character shouting “I’m barely hurting it!” every time I hit someone for like two damage from a secondary aura effect that’s not even happening on my own turn, barked follower lines sounding echoed and extremely far away. I even had to roll a save back once when I somehow broke a rather straightforward quest, but just the once. If anything, the low number of post-release fixes, compared to Pillars or Wasteland 2, is telling in itself: this game is simple, and simple games don’t tend to have fifty broken quests where you can get stuck because you handed Quest Item A to Person X after telling Person Y you would give it to them before handing Quest Item B over. Perhaps I would have preferred a more broken game.