|Platforms||PC (reviewed), XBO, PS4|
|Release Date||February 28, 2017|
Review code provided
Torment: Tides of Numenera is the spiritual successor to much-loved classic Planescape: Torment. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is an oft-used starting point for many sci-fi/fantasy settings. T:ToN is no different. In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of sorts for these types of games, notable examples being Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny, as well as InXile’s own Wasteland 2. How does this newest offering fare up to the rest of the new breed?
The answer is fairly well, all things considered. The setting has switched from the D&D-based world of Planescape to another table-top based universe, Monte Cook’s Numenera. Here, Arthur C. Clarke’s third law really stands out as the simplest possible summary of the world: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Torment: Tides of Numenera is set a long, long way into our future. Experts estimate eight highly advanced civilisations have risen and collapsed, thus we begin in what’s dubbed The Ninth World. The previous inhabitants have left behind a countless amount of trinkets and technology, collectively referred to as Numenera, and those skilled with the use of such make up the world’s adventurers, scholars, explorers and warriors. When they can figure out how to turn it on.
The game begins with you crashing towards the Earth, the Last Castoff of the Changing God, a being who has seemingly achieved immortality by creating bodies, living through them before casting them aside and transferring consciousness into a new one, leaving the hundreds of discarded Castoffs to make their own way in a tough, unforgiving world. You form your character through this intro, and although there’s only three classes, there are many different ways to build your character. You can choose between the Glaive (a fighter-esque character), the Nano (technologically advanced wizards) or the Jack (of all trades), although each are fairly malleable as combat is not the main focus of this game – but we’ll get to that later.
All characters’ abilities and skills (including the standard set of companions you’ll build your party from) are managed by stat pools, Might, Speed and Intellect. These in turn are managed by the fantastic Effort system. Each task, both in and out of combat, are performed by skill checks, which you can increase your chances of success by expending Effort from your stat pools. You have a limited amount of Effort, and replenishing these is neither cheap nor frequent, requiring you to tactically decide when to expend these points and how important a success in whichever task is to you – at least at first. Thankfully, your party can assist in these, so you can form a very skillfully balanced party should you decide to.
The key here is that all key events in the game require some expenditure of Effort, whether it’s Intelligence based social manipulation, quick-fingered theft of key items or simply smashing skulls in on a whim, although you’ll get the most out of the game if you go down the path of the non-combatant. In actuality, combat is the least effective route – after the tutorial section, it was literally hours before I had my first real fight that I couldn’t talk my way out of. My character’s ability to read minds unsurprisingly helped in that matter, whilst also providing an extra level of entertainment value. When you do end up in combat encounters, you can still use the environment (or, indeed, conversation on your turn) to achieve victory; while combat’s the weakest part of the game, it’s by no means bad. Simply mediocre. I found the conversation solutions to be more rewarding, but it’s not necessary. You can still choose to mulch first and ask questions never should that be your preferred choice.
This brings us to the titular Tides. The Tides are a sort of moral force that shape the universe, represented by different colours. You, as a Castoff of the Changing God, are attuned to the Tides, and each decision you make shifts these Tides around you. If you continually ask more and more questions, the Blue Tide will be dominant. If you act on impulse, the Red Tides will shift by a certain amount. On occasion, once you have unlocked the skill, you’ll be able to outright force a change in the universe by using a Tidal Surge, greatly increasing the influence of whichever corresponding Tide fits. These don’t lock you in to any particular path, but do add interesting roleplay favour. Unfortunately, due to all the Castoffs’ meddling with the Tides, you are all being hunted by The Sorrow – a multi-dimensional Lovecraftian horror, seemingly all powerful and unstoppable. Your main task, selfish as it is, is to discover what The Sorrow is and how to prevent it from ending you.
Like all cRPG’s, a hell of a lot of reading is required in T:ToN, to the point that would be off-putting to many (not including myself). There are very few visual set pieces, zero cut-scenes, and in fairness to the format of the setting, it really did feel a lot like I was moving miniatures across a (very beautifully designed) tabletop game board. This obviously means that the writing has to be exceptional, has to be the hook.
On one hand, the writing is spectacular throughout. The conversations you’ll have with the extremely bizarre characters inhabiting this extremely bizarre world are in depth, eloquently written and require a lot of concentration as what may appear to be a minute detail in the deluge of text thrown at you could be the key to some side quest you may or may not have picked up. Thankfully, the instances in which this is inscrutable are few and far between, but really strengthen the fact that every conversation could be important. The ones that aren’t don’t seem superfluous per se, and each are as deep, informative and world-building as the last. The issue comes with the style of writing itself. It seems that almost every character in the world has been eating a thesaurus for breakfast daily. Although a lot of the time, this fits with the types of people you’re talking to (insane AI constructs, three people melded into one body, several creatures barely capable of interacting with one universe at a time), it’s extremely refreshing to come across a straight-talking character.
Another major facet of this type of game that can’t be ignored are your companions; other “main” characters that for whatever reason decide to accompany you on your journey, for better or for worse. Ideally, each of these will be a strong, well rounded, well written character with individual personalities and motivations. T:ToN hits the mark about half the time on this. There’s Erritis, your ridiculously overblown, stereotypical hero who swashbuckles his way through the world, caring little for anything except thrusting himself into the heart of adventure. Hilarious at times, there’s actually a reason for this which is extremely entertaining to work out. You have Aligern and Callistege, a feuding couple of Nanos, who subvert standard fantasy tropes in a nice way but ultimately fall flat in terms of engagement. Matkina is a fellow Castoff, allowing a touch of relation from your initial introduction. She’s also a deadly assassin. Tybir is a war veteran of the Endless Battle, somehow equally a coward and a hero. Both of these are pretty interesting, with Tybir’s story making up one of my favourite experiences in the game. By far my favourite companion, however, is Rhin. Created by Patrick Rothfuss, Rhin is a lost child you can take under your wing; accompanied by her self-created Gods, there’s so much potential which unfortunately goes unrealised until late-game. The payoff is remarkable, however, and the emotional impact is well worth it.
Unfortunately, the writing for some of these doesn’t quite meet the standards of the rest of the game. Thankfully, they do react realistically to your choices – Aligern and Callistege will never travel together, Erritis will complain if you avoid taking a chance to lose a limb here and there, and depending on certain major choices, some will deem it impossible to continue to associate with you. This is all well and good, and brings a certain gravity to your decisions, however by the time you’ve left the first major area, you’ll have little motivation or chance to switch your party around. By then you’ll have more or less fitted your party out to suit your playstyle, and while there is always the chance to lose them, I didn’t find those risks coming around often enough. Or I just got lucky. Thankfully, the rest of the characters inhabiting The Ninth World more than make up for it. Even some short interactions had me either giggling to myself or utterly horrified.
Performance-wise, the game runs more or less perfectly. I did encounter some game-halting bugs from which reloading was the only option, although each one has been addressed in the upcoming patch. The real stickler with T:ToN is the pacing. While you have your standard acts, each one taking place in a different hub-section, each environment littered with loot and backstory, each beautifully rendered, interesting and contributory to the overall feel of the game, I found myself anchored in various sections by the sheer amount of tasks and characters. In other, potentially more interesting areas, I found myself breezing through in minutes. The last portion of the game, to tie all loose ends up and give a proper conclusion, felt rushed. Come to think of it, each end-section of each act felt this way. Very jarring, considering the fairly consistent pace of the first three-quarter parts, and reflective of the game as a whole. Combined with the rather abrupt end, I wasn’t particularly satisfied once it was obvious I was at the conclusion – although, in this case, it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is a model example of a classic cRPG. It’s quite a difficult game to score. There’s some major inconsistencies in terms of quality in certain companions, certain portions of the writing, and definitely in the overall pace of the game. This is completely outweighed by the ludicrously interesting world in which it’s set. If you can forgive the above flaws, and are prepared to read a novel’s worth of text in its 30-35 hour run-time, you’ll end up like me – playing until 3am, doing just one more quest and revelling in navigating the ridiculously wonderful Ninth World.
It’s a role-playing game with emphasis on the role-play. A thought-provoking, philosophical and intrinsically fascinating journey, it’s a game where you truly write (and read) your own story; the variation between choices along the way allows for a certain amount of replayability, although the constant battering of walls of text may not suit you as it did me. If you’d prefer a more combat-focused experience, Pillars of Eternity may be a better choice to relive the classic Infinity/Aurora-age cRPG’s.
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