Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – PC
Our gaming landscape is littered with sequels, prequels, spin-offs and entire franchises born from the dullest of concepts and most boring of settings. So how is it that a game world as rich and intriguing as the one found in Planescape: Torment can go untouched for a long 16 years? The easy answer is that although critically acclaimed, and often cited as one of the greatest role playing games of all time, Planescape: Torment was perhaps a little too cerebral, a little too avant-garde; a little too clever for its own damned good.
The original Torment went out of its way to separate itself from the conventional norms established by RPGs at the time, all the while making use of the Infinity Engine – a game engine that had become synonymous with computer RPGs with the release of Baldur’s Gate just one year earlier. Although set within the outer planes of the traditional Dungeons and Dragons universe, the original Torment attempted to push boundaries and turn the genre upon its head. In place of elves and dwarves we were served floating sentient skulls and a succubus allergic to metal. Focus was moved away from combat, and towards creative thinking, problem solving and dialogue as a gameplay element. So how does Torment: Tides of Numenera, its spiritual successor, hold up in terms of redefining the genre? Does it manage the outlandish circumvention of its predecessor?
The short answer is a simple ‘yes’. The longer answer is that it does so in a gloriously idiosyncratic way that restores my faith in what an impassioned team of talented developers can realise within a game world.
Brandishing the illustrious title of ‘highest-funded video game on kickstater ever’ with over four million dollars pledged, Torment: Tides of Numenera has had its fair share of controversial setbacks. Originally slated for a release in late 2014, the game had found itself pushed back and back until it landed itself the release date of the 28th of February 2017. This coupled with contentiously cut ‘stretch goal’ content, and the huge footsteps it follows in, has left many wandering if it will deliver on its lofty ambitions.
Running on a similar build of Unity to that seen in Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity, Torment certainly looks the part. An isometric layout with your traditional mouse controls, journal, map, character and inventory screen all mapped to the expected buttons. Characters models are lacking the details found in the fully 3D western RPGs with more polish, such as The Witcher series, but in many ways this helps to evoke a nostalgia associated with the CRPGs of old. Although perceived from a fixed isometric perspective, backgrounds vary from the occasional 3D modelled interiors that shift and change with realistic lightning models to your more conventionally high-quality painted backdrops used for large city expanses and underground caverns. From docked sky ships, to flowing fountains in which the water is replaced with a mass of gibbering fish, the environments are teeming with exquisitely unique detail that help to realise an incredibly rich and interesting setting.
And the setting is incredible; set on earth approximately one billion years in the future, you set out to explore the Ninth World, a society built upon the crumbled technological vestiges of several fallen civilisations that came before. The titular Numenera are seemingly magical equipment and items that have become part and parcel of everyday life. These items are often so advanced and mysterious they are indistinguishable from magic. This setting is a technological dark-ages; a hybrid high fantasy and outlandishly surreal science fiction that serves to perhaps rival the original Torment for ingenuity and uniqueness – even if the sardonic overtones of Planescape’s world have been replaced with a penchant for allusions to metaphysical quandaries and the incorporeal beings from beyond our own feeble understanding.
In Torment you play the latest cast-off shell of an immortal soul who has found a way to cheat death – the ability to construct new bodies to move on to when he sees fit. You are the by-product of this process, the spontaneously birthed consciousness left within one of his former bodies. You are looking for answers from your maker, and a way to avoid or defeat The Sorrow, a cosmic force bent on destroying all who evade death, which just so happens to include all the cast-offs and protégés of the Changing God, which is a tad unfortunate for you. So far, so outlandishly metaphysical. This initial synopsis helps to give a strong idea at what to expect over the course of your time with Torment. The townspeople of Sagus Cliffs for instance, literally give away whole years of their lives to manifest that time in a corporeal embodiments of vigilance to look over their settlement, whilst the local meat dealer in the Underbelly has a mysterious disease that grows toes all over his body. I can’t give too many examples without ruining the real sense of wonderment to be found within the game’s setting and characters. It is truely surreal and avant-garde in the most literal sense of the words.
Much like its predecessor, Torment is looking to engage its audience in discussions of philosophical concepts rather than tests of min-maxing statistics and item builds. And whilst there is a discernible RPG system with conventional mechanics like stat systems and loot, the game allows the player to engage it on a personal level from the get-go in a very literal ‘role-playing’ capacity. There is no character creation screen at first; instead you are tasked with answering questions and solving problems within your character’s self-imposed psychic labyrinth (I told you the game was surreal) to help the game understand how you are motivated and how you wish to interact with the world.
Torment is probably the ‘truest’ of role playing games that I have encountered in a long time. That is to say, choices feel nuanced, weighty and effecting, far beyond the usual moral dichotomy of caricatured dilemmas – giving children a terminal disease or cotton candy is hardly an interesting morale choice. Instead of a traditional ‘good vs. evil’ alignment system, we are introduced to the titular ‘Tides’, which are in essence schools of thought or collections of emotions or actions. The option of jumping headfirst into a tumultuous body of water may increase your affinity to the Red Tide, which is connected to passion and action, whilst altruistic pursuits would raise affinity for the Gold Tide, which encapsulates empathy and charity. This system also replaces reputation systems found in older Dungeons and Dragons driven Infinity Engine RPGs, with your affinity for a tide affection how an NPC or character may react to you, or what dialogue options become available to you later on.
Although character interaction and problem-solving sit at the fore-front of the game experience, it is important to note that combat is a constant threat (although a fully pacifist play through may well be possible).The combat gameplay is turn-based akin more to Fallout’s action-point and movement system than the stop-start pause-and-plan gameplay of the Infinity Engine RPGs of old. Making use of the Numenera table-top game system, you are able to expend ‘efforts’ or points from a pool of stats in order to increase your chances of succeeding at a task, or connecting for a good amount of damage with an attack. Unfortunately for Torment, its combat is often its weakest aspect. Fights are often cumbersome affairs that devolve into melee slog fests when you run out of fancy magical maguffins to fire at your foes. In addition to this the initial difficulty of the battles felt unusually high, but I had built to be a silver tongued charmer who avoided physical violence at all costs. So this may well have been a hole I dug myself into. However, I was never punished for this difficulty.
Firstly, there were countless ways to play the game that would avoid direct combat if I wanted. A simple example exemplifies this best; I was able to direct my overly-heroic sidekick Erritis to use his high speed statistic to disarm a violent enemy before the combat encounter had even begun. This caught the enemy off guard and gave him pause for thought as to whether or not he should be looking to fight with us, and decided to back down. I managed to go stretches of several hours at a time avoiding combat through dialogue options and use of persuasion, intimidation and deception skills. I have never felt that in control of my role-playing experience in an isometric CRPG, and it felt great.
Further to this, across my time with the game, I never saw a game over screen or solid fail state, despite failing many tasks and dying in combat on multiple occasions. On the most extreme end of all this, Torment makes use of immortality as not only a thematic concern, but an element of gameplay. Death simply sends you to a psychic labyrinth in which you can meet more characters and learn more about your past. When you claw your way back into the real world you will, at least at first, find yourself within the encampment of a death-worshipping cannibal cult. The interaction between the player character and the cult is morbidly fantastic, but I won’t spoil anything for you here.
More subtly than the games literal reincarnation motif is that when failing at tests of strength, speed, or my ability to bullshit my way out of trouble, it would often lead to even more interesting eventualities than if I had succeeded. A miss-timed and inadequately prepared encounter with an ominous piece of long dormant technology might even reduce your overall character stats, but the lack of punishing fail states doesn’t make this a feel bad moment. I wore my permanent health de-buff as a proud battle scar, a reminder of my own hubris and stupidity. I began to feel comfortable with the fact that my party weren’t always going to get it right, and that we could learn from these mistakes. This is a beautiful way of reflecting the game’s themes of learning, growth and agency of the individual in its gameplay – something you rarely see within even the best RPGs of our time.
That is not to say your actions, or lack of them, do not have consequences. Upon awakening from my party’s first night of rest in an Inn, we were met with a messenger sent from a member of the local nobility. We had been investigating a murder for him, and our lack of discoveries on our first day of investigation had led to the death of another NPC. This is one of those moments where you realise that time, effort and passion has been put into constructing this game world in elaborate and painstaking detail. And it makes for one of the best RPG experiences I have played in a long long time.
Torment is a dialogue heavy RPG full of thick and robust prose exploring theoretical and philosophical concepts other games shy away from – delving into the incorporeal, metaphysical and the abstract at every turn. If you are adverse to reading whilst playing a video game, you will not enjoy Torment. But aside from that and some clunky combat, Torment is simply a must-play experience.
A philosophical role playing game in which the tired and out-dated moral alignment systems of western RPGs have been replaced with a more nuanced approach; it brandishes a beautifully realised game-world full of intricate details and exquisite oddities. All backed up by some absolutely stellar writing that looks to treat its audience with the utmost of respect whilst taking them on a journey they are sure to have not experience in a video game before. 16 years was worth the wait. Torment: Tides of Numera is the spiritual successor Planescape deserved.