Like 1999’s Planescape: Torment, Torment: Tides of Numenera outclasses the overwhelming majority of video games when it comes to depicting strange but plausible characters. As an amnesiac who somehow fell from the sky without dying, you look for clues about your existence by engaging with a motley crew of merchants, scholars, outcasts, officials, criminals, mutants, cyborgs, and others. Though the constant inquiry about your origin and purpose would feel more personal with a less unambiguously defined protagonist at the game’s center (here, players get to choose the gender of what is essentially a shell of a person), a sensitive portrayal of an unpredictable society helps this roleplaying game overcome some buggy issues on the PlayStation 4, such as missing animation frames and the occasional freeze-up.
Given that Tides of Numenera was scripted by many of the writers responsible for Planescape, it’s unsurprising that the story involves the unlocking of blocked memories. But whereas Planescape reads more as a tale of redemption for its protagonist, the Nameless One, Tides of Numenera is more psychologically and sociologically abstract in its examination of “numenera,” or objects that have survived over the course of several civilizations. Numenera can grant one supernatural abilities, but if you carry too many, they start to have negative effects, which can range from a physical disability to outright madness. This metaphor, which rears its head in both the game’s text and action sequences, suggests that history can simultaneously be a life-affirming lesson and a morass that we can’t get ourselves out of.
As you explore the game’s settings and learn of various problems related to numenera (such as a woman who can’t answer a straight question because she involuntarily speaks in two different voices), Tides of Numenera reveals itself as a sympathetic view of an imperfect world without a clear road to peace. Developer inXile Entertainment already tapped into the differing perspectives of soldiers and civilians in Wasteland 2, but as relevant as that game’s commentary on military intervention was, inXile hits on something more universal here: the feeling of being cursed to grapple with the past to such a profound degree that progress in life is torturously gradual.
Given its fair treatment of wildly different people, Tides of Numenera’s approach to conflict appears radically empathetic in the current fear- and hate-filled era of U.S. politics. Characters are all dying to get something off their chests, whether it’s a sculptor obsessed with representing the emotional circumstances of a murder or a psychic who supports war because conflict tends to precede resolution. Tides of Numenera implies that conversing with people whom you might morally or politically oppose can untangle the baggage of the past. And if you select the optional skill that allows you to see the random thoughts of characters, you gain more than an advantage for completing quests; you get an unflinching window into human anxieties.
Tides of Numenera still doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance of Planescape. In the latter game, the Nameless One says, “Updated my journal,” a routine reminder that the player is controlling what feels like a distinct soul; that phrase has been replaced here with more clinical mantras like “Making a note.” Moreover, technical problems, such as the choppy gait of your avatar, might stick in your mind as you try to simply appreciate Tides of Numenera’s humanistic tapestry. Yet Planescape would also feel more focused without some of its ridiculous combat scenarios (city thugs served as frequent pests in broad daylight, with townspeople stupidly acting as if nothing was happening). By not littering the proceedings with superfluous action, Tides of Numenera makes a stronger and admirable case for an open dialogue in a world that’s predisposed to repeating histories of violence.