Update from 2018: Despite it may seem I didn’t like this game even just this blog post means that actually it was one of the few games that actually impressed me in every meaning of the word. I casually revisit it by time to time and I recommend at least trying it out. A second playthrough may be a bit better, mostly because of the issues I mentioned in this very post. The only serious problem with this game is that it was advertised alongside Planescape Torment while there are several huge difference between them and expecting similarity leads to disappointment.
Numenera starts a bit overwhelming, maybe because I didn’t follow the kickstarter itself and I’m not familiar with the Monte Cook world of Numenera. The first hours were pretty much smelling a flower and having a hard time deciding if it’s an aromatic odor or just something rotten to the core, assaulting your nose.
After a while it certainly matures into something great with very common literary devices (since Pillars of Eternity so I definitely recommend not playing that before Torment) and a story that is kind of difficult not to tell spoilers of when writing about it. I’ll try to keep it to events and parts you would find out at the very start anyway, because you have plenty of information right away.
The main story revolves around you being a human body, a mere vessel of someone called the Changing God. This character mostly starts out as an archetype of the idea of a monotheistic God, sometimes described as cruel or all-merciful but overall it’s very difficult to form an encompassing view of them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mythical figure is more human than anyone else, a Homo Deus excellence – the man-made god itself.
The main point of the story will be to make up your mind about the idea of their godhood, their self-made immortality and how to judge their (and also your own) actions. This is why the story works so well – even though you have limited options, and they force views on you it still doesn’t feel like that. While wandering the world talking to the non-player characters you have a lot of time to form your own opinion even if the game itself limits them into strict categories a lot of the times. Still feels like that you are free to make up your own mind, even if it’s just an illusion.
Let’s face it though, a video game can’t really do it much better, this is pretty much the best such a medium can go these times. While at tabletop sessions you have the storyteller (or dungeon master in some systems) to form the story for your decisions, a software should become creative to have a qualitative step over the current roleplaying games – something that softwares won’t be capable of for a long time, even though it’s just my own opinion and up for debate.
Another serious aspect of the game is that you can solve almost every single encounter without using force and violence, that seems like a good idea but given the world and realistic problems in Numenera, easily becomes silly a lot of the time. A common solution is to frighten and intimidate others, persuading them that you are tougher than you look – something you can be succesful at even against like 8-10 fanatic cultists and such enemies.
As I mostly had the Gold/Blue tides dominant on my character it certainly wasn’t an issue for me that besides “boss fights” you can always talk your way out, as it made a lot of sense to my character’s approach but in some situations it really led to awkward dialogues and silly situations that broke the illusion of the story for me. On another note, it worths mentioning: leaving certain main areas result in instantly failing any uncompleted quests, you can’t go back after leaving certain points.
The world is very strange because it doesn’t really feel like sci-fi but it’s not fantasy either, the thing is that the devices you encounter are never really explained well – I mean their inner workings and such. Just as a common example, every mention of consciousness could be just as easily replaced with the term soul. This kills the science vibe as every technology and machine is reduced into magic, while their presence is so dominant that some scenes are closer to a Shadowrun world than Middle-Earth. If I would need to summarize the world of Numenera then it would be a strange alloy of Mage The Awakening and Planescape, like in the ratio of 30-70 or so.
To be fair, considering how alien the structures and devices are in the world it would be very challenging to “harden” it from soft science-fiction to something more plausible, because we have all the technology here that are the rage these days like mind uploading, matrix-like simulations, time travel, artificial intelligence and large size quantum effects. These are all made into literary devices and other than their effects and how do they feel to use, they are never explained or described as potential scientific breakthroughs. Then again, this could be a conscious choice of the world builders, because for example the numenera cyphers are supposed to be mysterious, and detailing their workings would kill some of the vibe.
I completed most of the game with Rhin only , because the other characters didn’t seem memorable enough. This was pretty much a problem for me all the time with lot of characters in the game, that their stories and problems are interesting and fascinating as they have real moral problems and disputes but the characters themselves are not really interesting. I couldn’t even recall too much of them I’ve met in the game, that could be some problem with my memory for sure. Though if you consider how do they talk to you, like how the psychics don’t even take themselves seriously while discussing the nature of perception – it just becomes a mess of stories and you dont really grow attached to most of them, at least I couldn’t.
Sometimes even the merecaster characters were more memorable than the met companions or main story ones, that could be the problem of inconsistent writing process – I mean check the development information and see for yourself that there were more than 10 writers involved that surely makes a very wide variety of quality and moods involved. Trust me I wasn’t rushing the game through yet it took 21 hours to complete that is decent for someone like me who doesn’t have that much time to play any more, but still counts as kind of short compared to the 30-40 hours average of a Baldur’s Gate game.
Even the mere notion of writing this post means that the game is really good and I don’t think that I’ve played a rpg in the last decade that was this interesting, even with all the bitter taste involved that some parts left in my mind.
Though I encountered game breaking bugs while playing (one time the game was stuck at a certain point after finishing a dialogue so I had to kill it from the task manager, and another time I did something in the wrong order so failed to complete a pretty much important quest with no chance to redo it) I didn’t mention those, because I got the 1.0.1 version and they may have fixed these already.