Numenera is often called ambitious, experimental and in part suffering from being affiliated with a title as prestigious as Planescape: Torment – Having finished it after just under 30 hours, I would only subscribe to the latter statement. Rather I’d consider Numenera an utter failure for a variety of reasons that are reaching further than just minor complaints about misshandled combat mechanics or story hiccups, both of which naturally are issues that are often addressed by other reviewers still.
The most glaring issues of Numenera lie in its technical problems. While I didn’t experience any crashes, I did experience softlocks, I did experience frankly terrible pathing and worst of all multiple instances of enemies just refusing to end their turn. In a game that barely features any combat, for this to pose more than just a slight annoyance is frankly embarassing in itself. Secondly and somewhat related, Numenera critically lacks many features that have been a standard in the CRPG genre for many years now. The in-game Codex, usually meant as a means to properly read up on lore, game mechanics and more is ridiculously useless, only featuring the most basic terminology and information while the rest of the game floods the player with mindless exposition and mind-numbingly written dialogue that often feels like the NPC’s are merely reciting wiki articles of the area, the character or the event that is being talked about.
Extending this critique to the gameplay elements, Numenera doesn’t go to great lengths to properly explain its combat mechanics either outside the first half-hour tutorial. Not that it needs to, as the game isn’t either very deep nor very challenging, but even after my first playthrough I still wouldn’t be able to tell what exactly the difference is between the damage types at your disposal. Sure would be amazing to be able to read up on information like that in-game. Not focussing your game around combat but rather dialogue confrontations is fine and can work, as has been recently proven by games like Disco Elysium, but in Numenera it feels much more like combat has been streamlined towards the end of each specific chapter, resulting in hours upon hours of pure reading of questionable quality, followed by hours of combat encounters chaining into each other.
This critique ties into one of Numenera’s greatest strengths, which is that your combat resources (Might/Speed/Intelligence) – are also your resources for roleplay interactions. Thus, instead of simply rolling for, say Persuasion, you instead still have your Persuasion stat that however offers you the ability to also tap into your Intelligence stat to possibly allow your character a higher chance to succeed on any given roll. This kinda works to discourage save-scumming and is also a nice way to allow for more free party building. On the flipside, I feel the game thoroughly lies to the player whenever the loading screen claimed that failed checks often offer more interesting results: I can remember exactly one instance where failing a check delivered an actually interesting way to progress by way of unlocking a new sidequest. At best the failed checks otherwise give you an alternative items, perhaps some minor alternative options that don’t exactly lock you out of any kind of progression. At worst, it’s the same thing as every other game: Redo it until you pass.
Which leaves the actual story, something that I struggle to describe as anything other than ‘disjointed’. The first part of the game is something that is again very reminiscent of Planescape: Torment itself, allowing the most freedom and sidequest activities – Here is where the game does shine, allowing you to explore a universe that is foreign to you and, as long as you aren’t showered in needless encyclopaedic exposition, isn’t necessarily badly paced; But the issues arise when the game tries to sharpen its narrative towards the second and third chapter. Without going into spoilers, most progress you make, most characters you meet feel utterly redundant, including your companions. To offer an example for this, companion quests, which I would consider the backbone of many comparable roleplaying games, are barely resolved in Numenera, the most fitting example being one of the companions you start the game out with and literally ends her entire story minutes before the epilogue within a single dialogue choice.
What makes this infuriating is, that Numenera isn’t necessarily uninteresting. It’s just that the actual story is terribly misshandled – It tries to offer an absurd and mysterious world to explore but only manages to drown the player in an ocean of needless exposition. Equally, it tries to offer a unique take on companions – A woman who is split between endless versions of herself; A child who can’t remember anything about her past but has both an uncanny affinity to the Tides and also a pet god – Yet none of it is resolved and properly explored. It’s shallow. And sometimes it’s worse than shallow and dips into pretentiousness.