Torment: Tides of Numenera

In the late ‘90s, two isometric RPGs dominated the video game landscape: Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. The former, with its Dungeons & Dragons license and classic sword-and-sorcery take on the genre, gained critical and commercial success. It went on to spawn a sequel, and become one of the most well-loved RPG series in history. The latter’s story is, appropriately, a little more complex. Planescape: Torment also made use of a D&D license, but eschewed the orcs and gnolls of the Forgotten Realms for the more obscure Planescape multiverse. The game was far less successful commercially, but its unique aesthetic and story-driven nature made it an instant cult classic, with a following that has endured in the years since its release.

Both Baldur’s Gate titles have received the remaster treatment in recent years, and their success led to developer InXile’s announcement in 2013 of Torment: Tides of Numenera. This new game would be a spiritual successor to the original Torment; it would use an entirely different license, but share much of that game’s DNA. A Kickstarter campaign was started with a $900,000 goal, which was surpassed within six hours. By the end of the campaign, the game had raised over $4m, making it the number-one funded RPG on the platform. If the developers needed any reassurance that there is still a market for a new Torment game, they certainly got it.

Now, after a long development cycle, and some delays (the original release date stated at the time of the Kickstarter campaign was 2014) this new Torment is finally done. It’s time to see whether the developers made good on their promises. 

Tides is an unashamedly traditional-feeling RPG very much in the mold of its predecessor. It’s built on the same Unity engine tech that powers another recent RPG throwback, Pillars of Eternity. And there’s a family resemblance. 3D characters are superimposed onto sprite-based backgrounds, and though the results don’t always quite mesh (some of the particle effects, in particular, are pretty lackluster) they certainly evoke fond memories of the 1999 original.

Though the tech at times feels workmanlike, the world InXile have created here is anything but. Tides takes place in the Ninth World, a billion years into the Earth’s future. Humanity lives out its existence in small medieval settlements surrounded built upon the ruins of a thousand dead civilizations. It serves as a particularly fantastic setting to hang the story on, as the possibilities are literally endless. The developers have been able to let their imaginations completely off the leash, which makes diving into their world deliciously enticing.

The numenera of the game’s title describes the many artifacts and technological paraphernalia left behind by the countless peoples of Earth’s past. These curios are sought-out, scavenged, bought and sold, but their true value is never really known by those who trade them — knowledge of the advanced technologies of the past is forever lost to the humans of the Ninth World. An item that explodes when thrown at an enemy is a hand-grenade. It doesn’t matter one bit that the thing might have originally been part of a machine that could open a gateway to another dimension and trigger a new age of learning and prosperity for the entire planet.

The whole advanced-technology-as-magic thing as been done before of course, but rarely in such a fleshed-out, fully realized world. Each area feels painstakingly designed, as do the folk who populate them, from the characters able to join up with your party, to the dozens of seemingly unimportant tertiary NPCs. In Tides, a shopkeeper isn’t just a way to buy items: she’s an unusually chipper lady who’s gradually transitioning into some sort of bug creature before your very eyes. That scientist is more than just a quest-giver: he’s a partially robotic armless outcast from another world who’s developed quite an obsession with different species’ methods of sexual congress. The Ninth World is filled with tons of interesting characters, and each is given a wealth of description that brings them to vivid life. I had fun getting to know every idiosyncratic one of them.

For the most part, the bulk of the intricate detail in Tides is delivered through text, with voice acting restricted to an odd line of introductory flavor for key characters. The rich character and item description, along with what must amount to hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue, contribute to the feeling of playing through a novel. This amount of reading is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but should not put off the game’s core audience. It certainly helps that I found the writing to be of an exceptionally high quality throughout my experience with the Tides, and if you enjoy fiction of the sort that’s on display here, you’re likely to become as lost in the prose as I was.

You’re birthed into this peculiar world as the Last Castoff, a being created at the whim of a mysterious creature called the God of Change. His party trick is immortality, achieved by jumping from one body to the next, leaving behind discarded husks in his wake. Only it turns out they’re not so husk-y after all: once the God’s mind has left a body, its emptiness is quickly filled with a completely new consciousness. The latest being you.

Once you’ve gone through an elaborate character generation process, and chosen your skillset and class (there are three to choose from: glaive, jack, and nano — broadly warrior, rogue and mage) you’re unleashed upon the world without much fanfare, and then basically left to your own devices. After talking to a few characters, you’re led to understand that your main goal is to avoid a dangerous creature called The Sorrow, a being that apparently enjoys hunting down and murdering Castoffs like yourself. Though that’s certainly your aim at the start, there’s infinitely more to it than that. The plot is emergent, and the manner in which it’s unspooled depends on where you visit first and how you choose to play the game.

It’s a great feeling, having the world stretched out in front of you with the freedom to explore and create your own story as you go. But this approach does have its drawbacks. Tides intentionally avoids such genre tropes as a moustache-twirling evil villain and a quest to save the world from his evil plan. Its characters’ motives are much more ambiguous, its story much greater in moral scope. But this also sacrifices a little of the story momentum that is present in other more straightforward RPGs like the previously mentioned Pillars of Eternity. In that game and most others in the genre, you’re never in the dark as to where you should be heading next. Often in Tides, exploration and discovery are your only goals, and that may seem a little directionless to some. This is most keenly felt in the game’s opening hours, where the lack of a clear objective, coupled with the necessary info dump that comes with lore this dense, feels particularly heavy-going. It’s unfortunate that this comes right at the start, as it will probably lead to many switching off the game after the first couple of hours, never to return.

Which would be a shame, because once I’d gotten a feel for the world, and made it past that early section, the game felt much more accessible, and I began to get into the fundamentals of the what made the gameplay tick. Take the simple but effective way in which the game handles combat, or rather, ‘crises’ as they’re known. There’s a reason for this distinction, because this turn-based state is triggered by any potentially dangerous situation, not just fighting, and you can nearly always avoid violence if you’d rather not get your hands dirty. Why not try to persuade that ambush party to come round to your way of thinking and simply walk away? Or use your tech skills and hack those sentry drones to ignore you entirely? Your success in these endeavors relies on a number of factors, including your stats, and you can give yourself a boost by spending ‘effort’ — stat points in the three areas of might, speed, and intelligence that increase your chances of success.

There’s an elegant simplicity to this system in the way it can be applied to any situation in the game, even outside of crises. Opportunities to use effort points often arise while in conversation with NPCs, or even while simply walking around the world. Want to climb a wall? Try expending some might points. Curious to see if you can grab that weird-looking fish from the fountain? Use-up enough of your speed points, and you’ll guarantee success. Once you’re out of effort, you’re much less equipped to face the challenges of the game, but you need only to find a place to rest, and your points are replenished once more.

The emphasis on non-combat means the game is more about the interactions with the characters you meet and the unfolding story than other RPGs, very much in-keeping with the original game’s philosophy. It’s part of the Torment games’ identity, and while it will certainly appeal to longtime devotees, it also means that fans of loot drops and grinding for increasingly better gear will probably want to look elsewhere. Not that gear isn’t entirely absent from Tides. There are weapons to scavenge and buy, and items to pick up too, the best of which are accompanied by charming descriptions. The numenera you can equip in the game come in two main categories: artifacts and cyphers. Artifacts grant stat boosts and improve skills when given to your party, while cyphers are single use trinkets that can often have devastating effects on your own characters as well as the enemy.

There’s no ignoring that the game’s main focus is on the decisions you make in the game and their consequences throughout the story, and these consequences are embodied with the titular ‘tides’ system. The game explores the often morally ambiguous nature of decision making by marking each time you’re given a significant choice with an increase in one or more particular colored tides, which are like visual representations of your psyche — impulsiveness and passion are represented by red, for example, while indigo represents justice and the greater good. These tides are never overt but do affect the way characters in the game see you and react to you. Decisions have long-reaching consequences too, on both the plot and on the lives of the NPCs you meet along the way. Developing certain skills does affect the way the game plays significantly too. For example, I chose perception as the main skill early on, and throughout the game I was afforded an extra bit of detail in my encounters with NPCs from my character’s observations, information that was at times useful in determining characters’ motivations.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a game not just for those looking to revisit the classic original — although it will scratch that itch — but is a unique and ambitious title that stands on its own, and deserves to be discovered by a new wave of gamers keen to explore its complexities. It’s certainly not for everyone, with its focus on non-combat and its lack of a loot cycle making it an oddity even in the limited isometric RPG space. But once you open yourself to its charms, there’s a lot to love. This is a game that wants to make you think not only about the world it presents to you, but also the world around you; it addresses mature and complex themes of mortality and the nature of eternity; it encourages you to take your time, and consider the consequences of your actions; and it rewards the patient and thoughtful gamer like no other game I can think of. For those that are prepared to get past its inaccessible exterior, and won’t balk at reading line-upon-line of text in order to live and breathe the story, there’s a rich and multifaceted game world like no other just waiting to be discovered.

Score: 8.5