A CRPG spiritual sequel that comes tantalizingly close to the original
Black Isle Studios's 1999 RPG Planescape: Torment was a singular experiment for the popular Infinity Engine: one that strongly emphasized quality writing, role-playing and deeply philosophical ideas in a strange, almost alienating setting and pushed what was then standard to the genre - in particular, combat and showy cutscenes - to the sidelines. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that it was a game only intelligent people could enjoy - I'll save that type of debate for the Rick & Morty diehards - but I would suggest that it's highly unlikely such a niche game could be made today when it requires such a monumental risk from increasingly skittish game publishers. At least, that may have been the case until Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritual successor, successfully reached its funding level on the Kickstarter crowdsourcing platform and was subsequently released in early 2017.
Tides of Numenera switches from Planescape, a lesser known D&D campaign setting that the 1990s explored along with other obscure corners of the venerable table-top game such as Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse, Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance or Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace, to Numenera, a more recent setting created by table-top veteran Monte Cook. Despite this change of venue, it is nonetheless able to retain the original game's sense of curiosity and surreal existential horror. If anything, Numenera proves to be even more inscrutable than Planescape, depicting the Earth of a distant future that has seen various space-age civilizations rise and fall and left nothing but dangerous high-tech detritus and a heavily fractured veil of reality in their wake. Co-existing with the alien races and extradimensional beings their distant ancestors once befriended, the humans of the Ninth World, as Earth is now called, have regressed to a Renaissance-era level of progress and eke out a living finding valuable objects in the rubble of yesteryear: the titular numenera. Some have practical applications, used for weaponry and the tools required for civilization, while others provide nothing but novelty value or are so unpredictably hazardous that they're given a wide berth by anyone with sense. It's a setting that has an infinite amount of potential for a would-be GM, shaping their stories around any number of fantasy and science-fiction conceits. Even so, the game has a lot to unpack about this setting before it begins to feel coherent, and a considerable portion of the early game is spent exploring the initial mountaintop town of Sagus Cliffs and learning as much as possible about the Ninth World's geography, its politics, its people, its relationship to the past, and the role the player has in this unfamiliar landscape.
If the setting wasn't oblique enough, the game's story is a similarly convoluted exercise about a being known as The Changing God: a brilliant human scientist who discovered long ago a means to effectively stay immortal by creating bodies and transferring his consciousness between them. Each time he discards a body for a newer model, however, a nascent consciousness takes form inside it with a handful of blurry memories and a general lack of purpose. These "castoffs", as they're known, struggle to find meaning to their life once divorced from their sire's schemes, though are still blessed with genetically engineered bodies that can effectively regenerate from almost any injury and exhibit profound levels of skill in various fields. This is how the game builds a tabula rasa of a main character that can "die" as often as the player wishes, similar to the Nameless One of Planescape: Torment, upon which the player can ascribe their own philosophy and life goals. Meanwhile, the titular Tides of the game are an atavistic psychic force that the player learns to channel to affect the moods and thoughts of others, and will change color based on the actions and dialogue responses they make: blue for intellectual curiosity, gold for altruism and empathy, silver for a desire to be recognized and to have power over people, as examples. None of these colors are necessarily "good" or "evil" by any traditional meaning of the terms, but rather represent ideals that best resonate with a nigh-immortal creature living in this particular world. What few clues the castoff protagonist is given regarding the purpose of their creation is enough to propel them across several areas - though it's hardly an expansive journey with only three major regions to visit - and several concurrent mysteries to piece together.
Like Planescape, this is definitely an RPG for people who like to read. Every named NPC has reams of dialogue for players to peruse at their leisure, some of which lead to side-quests and hints about the current main objective, while others are simply there for color. Often, the player will learn something new about the world and receive a small XP boost. Occasionally, the protagonist will remember something about their former lives and gain new abilities or stat points. The game uses a system where each of the three major stats - might, speed and intellect - govern not only combat proficiency but also non-combat skills like mystical lore, mechanical expertise, persuasion, intimidation, deception, anamnesis (to make it easier to recall past lives), sleight of hand, perception, and smashing stuff up: each has their dominant stat, and the player will occasionally be required to use them in order to successfully complete an action. They can "spend" points from a pool to give these actions a better chance of succeeding, and the player must rest or use consumable items to restore the lost points. It therefore behooves the player to form a party with a wide range of specializations for every occasion, and ensuring they still have something left in the tank should armed conflict occur.
Speaking of which, the game makes a divergence here from its Infinity Engine forebears - the game is built with the same engine created for Pillars of Eternity, which was itself heavily inspired by the Infinity Engine - with a turn-based system that determines character order based on initiative. Players spend their turn either moving and attacking, or moving twice as far without attacking, or using various esoteries - as magical abilities are called in a world where a lot of them have a scientific basis that everyone has forgotten the particulars thereof, in a clear example of Arthur C. Clarke's famous third law - that either burn the movement or the action portion of their turn. Characters can also speak to their aggressors, spending their action trying to intimidate them or convince them to stop fighting. One imaginative "battle" has party members distracting an alien engineer so that another character could hack into his ship's navigational cortex for some valuable information. The number of options at the player's command is understandably limited - combat isn't the game's strongest suit, and each of the three classes that represent the three stat types are all fairly similar give or take a few unique per-character abilities - but the game supplements this with "cyphers": powerful single-use items that perform tide-turning feats like a massive group heal or a wave that knocks all the nearby enemies prone. Likewise, the game's seven playable characters and multiple approaches to problems provide enough variation that you could play through the game several times and not see everything.
On occasion Tides of Numenera can be a difficult game to like. Its fascination with its setting can lead to a lot of long, dull stretches of reading material - though I personally didn't mind this leisurely approach on the whole - and the setting can be almost hostile in its abstruseness, from characters that serve no purpose but to tell philosophical riddles to the game's insistence on its own glossary of terms for otherwise universal genre aspects. It also has a lot of darker themes which include a cannibalistic cult that learns secrets from the corpses they eat, an even worse sect of that cult that throws victims through blood portals to a dimension of enormous shadowy creatures that subsist on suffering, genocide on a massive scale, slavery, body horror, endless tales of woe and cruelty that are occasionally perpetrated by the Changing God and his castoffs, an ever-present force of annihilation known as the Sorrow that hounds all the castoffs including the protagonist, and a city-sized amoeba-like predator that psychically preys on anyone foolish, desperate or greedy enough to take up residence inside it for its unlimited access to other dimensions and their treasures, the portals to which are giant maws that demand to eat people before they'll open (or, sometimes, just a person's limbs, emotions or memories). Adding to this is the player's near invulnerability, which allows them to survive all sorts of vile self-inflicted injuries, and the game starts getting horrific pretty quickly. There's never anything too graphic, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart either.
All in all, I appreciated the game's intelligence, and the respect it has for the player's perspicacity in order to keep up with it. I liked but not loved the game's turn-based combat, its unhurried pace, and its relatively brief runtime (it's almost but not quite as long as the original Torment, for the record). The characters were fascinating, from your fellow travellers that include a girl from another world, an assassin and fellow disillusioned castoff, a moody priest that is struggling with his own guilt and beliefs, a scholar trapped between dimensions, and a foolhardy and oblivious hero who has more going on beneath the surface, to the many bizarre NPCs that range from the enigmatic to the pitiable to the sinister. I'd strongly recommend players pick the skill that allows them to read minds during the character creation process, as it adds a whole other layer to your interactions with NPCs - some of which are able to read your mind in return and, eerily, some of which cannot be read at all. In fact, the biggest flaw I could levy against the game is how unintuitive and user-unfriendly it can be with regards to how you should build your character and the way you should conduct yourself: it doesn't tell you as much, but it's a very good idea to stick to a single stat and make it (and its related skills) your focus when levelling up, otherwise you'll start having serious trouble keeping up with the costs of stronger esoteries and skills at later levels (or "tiers", since the game has its own name for everything). A minor quibble, and combat's generally easy enough that you don't have to worry about hobbling your character builds, but it's not the sort of information the game is willing to surface up front. If I wanted to be a little more literal, I might say the game's actual biggest flaw are the many weird bugs and glitches, most of which are harmless but frequently lead to characters wandering around trying to find their mark for several seconds before they perform actions, or getting caught up in the level geometry. It's irksome when you're walking along and find yourself in a battle, only to discover that your party got briefly stuck on the corner of a staircase and are some thirty feet behind you when combat commences. Doubly so if you've built your hero to be the magic-user that's supposed to stand at the back tossing nukes around.
If you enjoyed Planescape: Torment or are a fan of role-playing games that allow you to role-play your character's wits, charm or cunning to avoid conflict, and don't mind a whole lot of well-written text to click through, I would recommend this game. Its virtues far outshine its flaws, and while the setting can take some getting used to there's a lot to be gained from a world that feels so completely unlike anything we've seen before. If you bring to the game some patience for its pace and its bugs, as well as an open-minded willingness to absorb yourself in its strange universe, then you'll be rewarded richly in turn.