140 hours -- Review of Tides of Numenera
The following paragraphs contain slight spoilers, such as the names of companions, the areas that you will visit and characters that feature in the story. No major spoilers or story reveals, but if you wish to go in fresh and enjoy discovering every area and bit of lore yourself, you better avoid this review. Tides of Numenera is a success, not a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, but something that can stand perfectly on its own. If you enjoy reading good science-fiction novels, you will most likely enjoy Tides of Numenera a lot.
Tides of Numenera is set in the Ninth World of Monte Cook, Earth in the distant future that has seen a number of civilizations rise and fall. Much of this history is lost, but the world is full of the remnants that these highly advanced civilizations left behind.
You begin your journey in Sagus Cliffs, a coastal hub that lives from exploring these remnants, called Numenera. The circumstances of your arrival are impactful and your initial choices define the character you incorporate. The game sets you up intelligently with a choice between two companions. Callistege is ambitious and scheming while Aligern is a more honest down-to-earth companion. You learn continously as you begin to explore the area where you arrived, called the Reef of Fallen Worlds, the city of Sagus Cliffs and later the world.
This is a defining trait of ToN, you always learn and discover more of the world. The world is brought to life primarily by visuals that give you a vibrant impression of the science-fiction setting, and copious writing to provide depth and breadth.
The writing is excellent and comes in a variety of flavours. First of all, you can speak with the characters that you encounter. You will also receive detailed descriptions if you interact with an object in the world, along with a variety of background information and options how to deal with a situation.
You progress mostly by speaking with characters and interacting with objects in the world. The more elaborate encounters will take the form of quests that you have to fulfil to reach various goals. At any time you can be tasked with a fair number of quests, which are tracked by notes in your journal to assist you. The quests in ToN are easily amongst the best we have seen in video games and appear organically arrived from the setting and the needs of its inhabitants. There are quests that put a burden on your shoulder and give you responsibility and others that require you to be smart to discover ingenious solutions and bits of lore that remain hidden for the unaware. This matters in important ways and determines to a large part the experience you derive from the story.
The story of Tides of Numenera is bold and is the first serious and successful attempt of writing an interactive novel that is on par with accomplished works of science-fiction. It has you dangling from the first minute to make sense of all and figure out what your responsibility in the emerging story is, and possibly begin to develop an idea of a solution for the challenges that you face. It is safe to say that no video game before succeeded on creating a science-fiction setting and story of this scope.
It tackles the great questions that slowly dawn on the horizon of humankind. What is consciousness? What is reality? How closely linked are the realm of physics, down to the quantum scale, and the realm of the biological? What is the role of intelligence?
Instead of bogging you down in science, ToN gives you a vehicle to explore the questions on a human level.
ToN plays around with the concepts of reality, timelines and consciousness in encounters and interactions with numenera, and has its own unique vehicle to deliver this. Naturally there are memories and archives, but what truly makes this setting tick are so-called merecasters that are rare artifacts which record and let you experience individual memories of events in the past. These are brought to life in the form of a self-contained story that lets you choose your actions. Superficially these look similar to choose-your-own-adventure books, but the clou is that they link to key events in the past and different timelines and which your choices define. Because of this you play a game in which reality is more fluent, and if you consider that you look for a solution of an inherent problem, gives you an entire set of tools to probe for a solution.
Some meres are only loosely connected to your story, but they highlight themes which again can be related to what you try to accomplish. All meres share excellent writing and are a science-fiction fan's dream of exploring strange and alien places immersively. Books can do this, but it is the quality of choice that makes you truly a part of the setting and story told.
Tides of Numenera is of course a video game and does feature more than writing and visuals. Your character and companions have unique traits and skills, outfits and equipment, and can carry items in their inventory. Everything is put into service to aid you in your progress. Your companions have their own motivations and what drives them is well expressed.
The underlying role-playing systems are well developed and as the characters gain experience their skills expand. The inventory lets you carry useful equipment and consumables. The most powerful items are naturally numenera of which you can carry only a limited amount, while there is no limit on any other items.
ToN's vehicle of choice for measuring your actions are the Tides, which indicate your inclination to certain actions and paths by a color code. Blue is associated with wisdom and knowledge, red with passion and action, indigo with justice, gold with empathy, and silver with reputation. There is no judgement implied and as a whole the system of Tides is well suited for you to learn about your what drives you.
The Tides also play an important part in the story as it is implied that there is an underlying mechanic that makes the Tides tick. There is a fairly good exposition midway through the game that tells you what you need to know.
The mechanics of ToN as a game take a backseat to the outstanding writing throughout. Combat, that is hostile encounters and special challenges, are resolved through a so-called crisis in which your characters and opponents act in an ordered sequence. The design is well thought-out and allows you more than the use of weapons, particularly to talk to opponents and interact with the environment. Potentially each crisis could be a uniquely rewarding encounter, but in practice the system is not employed in full and mostly limited to simplistic actions. The reason for this is possibly that the development time and QA would have gone up exponentially with more complex interactions. In all fairness, the combat is not a defining feature of ToN, rather it is its unique trait that mostly all combat can be avoided in intelligent ways. Though it is a disappointment that no crisis comes even close in scope to the one presented during the original fundraiser.
The resolution of role-playing challenges is based on three character attributes, might, speed and intelligence. This is augmented by the Effort system, which lets you boost your attributes momentarily with a limited Effort reserve. This works well in Sagus Cliffs and the initial areas.
Roughly the last third of the game is played in the Bloom, an age-old city-sized creature that spans myriad worlds and multiple realities. In principle it is an ideal playground for the gameplay elements to show their full potential. Yet because of the number of different options you have at your disposal, you have never difficulties to achieve your goals. It is interesting that this shifts the gameplay in a remarkable way. While being able to achieve your goals without difficulty sounds like an easy path, the writing gives you often multiple viable options with different outcomes so that it becomes difficult to choose which path you want to follow. There are many intriguing encounters and characters to meet and later on you will visit outstanding and alien places that show you the scope and depth of the Ninth World.
The endgame draws you in like a vortex with the possibilities it offers to explore. It is a remarkable way to end a game like Tides of Numenera and on par with the best video games have produced. Considering the fluent nature of realitiy in the game, it provides plenty of potential to explore the endgame again and again.
Yet I wished that the mechanic what decides the endgame would be more closely based on every action and choice that matters, particularly of what could be done in the fathoms of the endgame. It seems that instead the writing of different choices served as a glue. This is acceptable, but not ideal.
As it is, the defining feature of Tides of Numenera, throughout from the beginnings of the game in Sagus Cliffs to the endgame, is its writing. The quests, the dialogs, the story exposition and the meres are brought to life by a writing that is exceptional in video games. Tides of Numenera succeeds as an interactive science-fiction novel in scope and literary quality like no game before it and can stand toe-to-toe with the works of accomplished sci-fi writers.
I still feel there is lots to probe in the endgame, and even going back further to review key decisions much earlier in the game. There is plenty of potential for a second playthrough.
For me, Tides of Numenera is the best game in a long time, in the top two of all the games I ever played, and I have played a lot of games since the days of Starflight and Wing Commander. In my book Tides of Numenera is significantly better than Planescape: Torment.
Last edited by Quantomas
on May 11th, 2017, 4:08 am, edited 1 time in total.