Part of the first wave of highly successful Kickstarter projects, notable others being Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and more, Torment: Tides of Numenera angles itself as a spiritual successor to one of the most legendary CRPG games of all time, Planescape: Torment. Known for a colorful cast of characters, an unusually rich world and heavy doses of lore, the pedigree of the original is time-tested, and well-approved. So then, does Torment: Tides of Numenera rise above the sea of stories, or does it sink beneath the waves, borne down by its own weight?
Before we answer that question, let’s discuss just what Torment is. Unquestionably, Torment: Tides of Numenera has a fascinating world, marked by strange beings and unusual apparitions. The lineage can be impeccably traced from Planescape: Torment, and for this, inXile should be applauded. Both games subscribe to Clarke’s Third Law admirably, and feature a world where technology and fantasy have melded in this unholy combination that leaves twisted architecture and bizarre “magic” in its wake. Though Torment is unable to live up to the sheer novelty of its predecessor, it still provides a compelling world and characters, even though the story and combat may leave something to be desired.
Undoubtedly, Torment is a game about choices. Like Planescape’s central question of “What can change a man?” Torment asks players to consider, “What does one life matter?” Though perhaps not as robust as the original, this question is unpacked through side quests, dialogue, and bits of trivia scattered about the Ninth World. If you thought computer games in the 1990s required a lot of reading, then you’re in for a real treat.
Thankfully, much of it is very interesting, but the sheer volume of text and knowledge one must parse makes it difficult to keep everything straight, or even remember which characters have relationships with whom. At times, I felt as though I was navigating a visual novel rather than an RPG. Lacking a glossary or codex for terms, people, and concepts players have encountered didn’t help, either, especially considering the complex setting.
Set on a future version of Earth called “The Ninth World” one billion years into the future, Torment places us within the role of the Last Castoff, a discarded shell of a human used by The Changing God. Our “father’s” antics and meddling with the Tides, a sort of morality system, have attracted the attention of a monstrous beast known as The Sorrow, who has come to purge both his and all the castoffs from the world. Along the way, you’ll run into countless automatons, orphans, soldiers, assassins, and more, all attempting to eke out their survival in the world.
The story in Torment, as one might guess, is more of a linear journey of survival than a more open-ended “world savior” tale. With The Sorrow supposedly hunting us around every corner, one might think that a sense of urgency would be integrated with Torment, but players will pick up enough secondary and tertiary quests to fill your logbook with your exploits. Your choices also cannot alter the story in any meaningful way, only changing the Last Castoff’s responses to it. Replayability is an issue with the main story, but thankfully the real meat of the decision-making comes with the side stories and interactions with your party members.
I dove into acidic pools in search of long-lost treasure, gave life to an automaton’s “children,” rescued a clawed beast that need electricity to survive, discovered the fate of the crew of a ship being swallowed by a mountain of flesh, relived the memories of a cat burglar and more. Every new story offered new ways to see and learn about the Ninth World, and it all was outstanding, especially compared to the central conceit of Torment. If anything, I wanted more of the writing found in the side quests, because they all offered something fresh, something new.
The Last Castoff is accompanied on their journey by up to three companions at any one time, with a total of six to choose from. I was slightly disappointed to see that all your allies were exclusively humans, especially for a game set one billion years in the future, though it isn’t a deal breaker. Most of your companions’ backstories are interesting, though wholly predictable, such as the soldier whose past catches up with him, or the self-proclaimed “hero” who’s more than he seems.
Regardless, the best character you recruit by far is Rhin, a runaway slave girl from another world, possibly another universe. Being 10 years old, she has no physical development, and hasn’t been exposed to the world of violence and manipulation that surrounds her. Because of her portrayal, I purposefully chose nonviolent resolutions to conflicts, and aimed to be an altruistic character, mostly to show her that good people still did exist, one billion years in the future. Maybe I wouldn’t have chosen the options that I did if she hadn’t been in my party, but either way, Rhin added something to my roleplaying in an unexpected way.
Speaking of the roleplaying systems, Torment makes use of a limited one, if I’ve ever seen it. There are three stats: Might, which increases health; Speed, which increases evasion; and Intellect, which increases willpower and improves magic abilities. There’s a whole host of skills and abilities on top of the stats, and the two are combined in uses of the “effort” system. Like skill checks found in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, players must roll on if they perceive something, move something heavy, or dodge a trap, for example. There is a base value derived from the associated skill, but by spending points in a stat pool tied to the skill, you can increase your chances.
Your allies do come in handy during uses of the “effort” system, though perhaps not as the developers intended. After realizing just how many Intellect-based checks there were, I grabbed as many points in the pool as I could, and leveled up associated skills, leaving party members to succeed on more physical checks. After about 15 hours and nowhere near max level, I was succeeding on nearly every check that came my way, with little effort on my part.
Outside of dialogue and adventuring, any RPG needs combat, of which in Torment there is surprisingly little. The no-combat approach was likely informed by the lukewarm reception players had to the original Planescape’s combat, though I’m not sure reducing it down to a few handfuls of encounters was necessarily a good idea, either. Then again, what combat you do encounter is awkward and slow. With turns playing out sequentially, lengthy animations for every attack, and a sometimes-non-functional UI, if anything, the sparse combat encounters were a blessing, not a curse. Your party members are generally more suited to the rigors of combat than the Last Castoff is, making for moments when the player character is running around in stealth, healing, while your allies wail away on the enemy.
The sound design of Torment is also equally alien, and the music does a good job of emphasizing the situation you find yourself in, but the game is oddly silent, in terms of voice acting. Companions have a few sparse lines in specific conversations, and idle chatter between them certainly adds background noise, but otherwise, Torment is a rather solitary affair, it feels. It’s unclear why there’s so little voice acting, but I would like to see more of it.
Torment also aims to capture the visual style of RPGs of the 90s, and does so admirably, though this doesn’t mean that Torment is visually appealing. Capturing the look and feel of Baldur’s Gate or Arcanum is no mean task, but graphics and art styles have improved vastly since then. Even compared to the much more modern Divinity: Original Sin or Pillars of Eternity, Torment seems unusually muddy, even though my GPU was under intense load while playing. As far as bugs are concerned, I encountered a surprising number of them. Audio cut out more than once, companions would freeze in place, I personally got stuck on world geometry at least once, and a few hard crashes round out the package.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is a mixed bag of emotions, stories, and production values. The side quests are excellent, but the main story is lackluster. Characters you meet and talk to briefly are multifaceted, when compared to your own companions. The RPG systems are interesting, but imbalanced, with combat being thoroughly mediocre. The music is fitting, but the lack of voice acting leaves you with an odd sense of solitude. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The result is a game that reads more than it plays, which is admirable, considering the legacy of the series, but ultimately a difficult recommendation.
The Multiverse: Side quests and character stories are worth coming back for.
Alien Landscape: The Ninth World is thoroughly interesting and fascinating.
Recaptured Magic: Hearkens back to the Golden Age of CRPGs.
Nostalgia for the Ages: Limited voice acting and visual style are reminders of older RPGs.
Endless War: Combat is uninteresting, when needed.
A Billion Notes: Difficult to keep track of all the events and lore thrown at you.
A Story for No Ages: Main quest line and most companions fall flat.
I have a love-hate relationship with Torment: Tides of Numenera. Its narrative-rich world constantly kept me excited to see what story revelation or quirky character I’d find next, but walls of text and trivial “challenges” that the game provides ended up being torment a little too often.
The amazingly designed world is only matched by the phenomenally crafted story and dialogue which gives you a great range of questions and paths to go down, but you have to be ready for them. At times Tides of Numenera feels more like reading a book than playing a game because of its narrative weight, and more than once I felt like I was drowning in all the information. I’m here to play a game, not read a novel.
Combat is almost always avoidable, which is really cool, but punching someone can be just as fun. Torment: Tides of Numenera gives you both options, but combat is often too easy to feel rewarding, and the grand story can overwhelm you with centuries of history and mysticism. For every awe-inspiring plot revelation and clever quest solution there’s an awkwardly sluggish combat or boring NPC who just won’t shut up. Tides of Numenera is a great game for some, but will be pure torment for people seeking the next BioWare RPG or just looking to smash an elf’s face in for some experience points.