Wot I Think – Torment: Tides of Numenera (for series newcomers)

You do not know the past of Torment, and so chose to hear everything.

No, you don’t need to have played 1999 weird fantasy roleplaying game Planescape: Torment to enjoy this spiritual sequel. There are references and commonalities, but they’re not in any way necessary to understand or appreciate it. What is required is a reasonable degree of patience, and an enjoyment of reading and of big ideas.

To summarise as briefly as possible: this is an RPG set in a world of equal parts magic and technology, and at which the relics and detritus of other worlds and realities have washed up. You, as a male or female character dubbed ‘The Last Castoff’ are born into it in adulthood, with apparent ties to a divisive ‘god’, and from there you must uncover the secrets of your own past, but more importantly make an ongoing choice about who you wish to now become.

Torment: Tides of Numenera does contain action, and many of its situations can be resolved with violence if you so choose, but to do so would be to cut yourself off from the game it most wants to be. The game is one of obtaining as much information as you can, and then making decisions with often far-reaching and sometimes tragic consequences based on your analysis of that information.

I don’t mean simply moral decisions here, but also that Torment will drop hints about possible solutions in its dialogue, leaving it up to you to put two and two together about how you might resolve its many quests or dilemmas, and the possible consequences thereof. This is an RPG for attentive players, not those who merely wish to accumulate increasing powers of destruction.

Think of it as the dialogue-based decision-making of Mass Effect or The Witcher, but expanded enormously, with far more scope to elicit further information before choosing your actions, yet also avoiding obvious binary nice/nasty choices. An empathetic choice is not always the best choice, while slaying an apparent villain might well close rather than open doors.

Simple morality is sidestepped via the titular Tides system, which effectively sees your character’s personality defined according to your various and ongoing actions. A gold character is one who has tended to be sympathetic to others and self-sacrificing; blue prides knowledge all else; red is impulsive, whether driven by passion or aggression. Your Tide(s) will shift as you play, and attempts to be one sort of person may be foiled by making difficult choices that favour society over the individual or vice-versa, or yourself over others, or vice-versa.

Though your Tide has only subtle effects on how others respond to you, the messages that denote changes to it does become something to personally strive for – to feel relief that you have done what you feel is true to you, or horror that you may have gone against your nature. Additionally, tending towards one behaviour or another is likely to lead to consequences that other Tides will not experience. On paper, Tides are comparable to the Alignment system of Dungeons and Dragons – lawful evil, chaotic good and all that. Here, though, they are mutable across the course of the game – this means you create your character as you play more than you do finesse an established template over time.

By contrast to that, Torment drops new players in at the deep end, with a torrent of unfamiliar terms in character creation. With a few exceptions (for instance, the choice between, essentially, a wizard, a warrior and a bit of both archetype, which is primarily a combat rather than behavioural factor in any case), there’s plenty of scope to drag your character in a different direction if you don’t feel comfortable with what you initially rolled.

This is not true simply of being able to divert your skills into other areas (mechanical prowess or charisma, for instance, instead of combat-related abilities), but also that, in any dilemma, you can ‘spend’ your pool of key stats on increasing your chances of success. This is known as the Effort system, and it means that even if, say, you only have 1 point of Might, you can spend that to potentially succeed at smashing open a box or prising a scale off a weird psychic cube.

You’ll get it back when you rest or use particular items, or maybe one of your party members has the points to spare instead, so you’re never locked into anything for too long – go with your gut and you’ll find a way to succeed. This is, in many ways, an RPG that’s far more about you and what you want than it is about the story it seeks to tell.

However, Torment is deeply invested in the story of its world, the story written around the edges of your decisions, and at times this can be to its detriment. The first hour browbeats players with fictional terminology and elaborate lore, though this eases off thanks to a combination of combing some understanding from it and gradually accumulating more personal goals and connections. Throughout though, Torment can seem more interested in a forensic examination of its many ideas about the philosophy of the self and the knotty problems of faith than it is emotional resonance.

The central character in particular, a body once occupied by a mortal god but which has seemingly taken on its own identity since said deity moved on, can come across as even more of a cipher than he or she is (clearly deliberately) intended to be. Though others may find themselves following lines of conversation and thought that I never even saw due to one choice or another, I did find that this character’s dialogue options tended towards endless inquiry about the fiction of the world rather than their own feelings about their bizarre state. The central plot has similar artifice, with a couple of key reveals coming across as an abrupt gotcha lurch rather than the earned emotional rug-pulls they’re intended to be.

Similarly, some party members (of which you can have up to three at any one time) seem too obviously defined by their admittedly inventive central conceits – the woman who is surrounded by the flickering, ghostly shapes of her alt-reality selves; the man with the mysterious living tattoos; the bizarrely ever-cheerful guy with a body-wide halo – rather than how their relationship with the player might build. For instance, another companion character is, avoiding full spoilers, a sort of sister to yours, but there are vanishingly few options to explore the strangeness and importance of this. It’s just an accepted fact, treated as less interesting than the external dilemma that preoccupies that character.

Other companions are much more successful, with either more of a sense that they are real people in this world rather than walking concepts or because their relationship to the player is evolving and with long-term effects. One, in particular, has a glorious pay-off, which many may not see because of how this person is presented for the bulk of the game. Torment rewards persistence most of all – also shown by the way seemingly incidental side-quests sprout true and meaningful results far later on.

Much of this game, its world and its story hits harder in hindsight than at the time. It is most successful in how its questions – and your actions in response to them – resolve, whereas at the time some can seem like uncertain wandering or grinding through conversations with a endless army of characters. This is not true only of how factors both big and small come to bear in the end-game, but also much earlier.

There is, for instance, a tavern early in the game, in which every one of its ten or so characters offers vast amounts of conversation. To start with, most of these seemed like incidental flavour. After a time I began to see links. Then I made discoveries. Then I saw new things entirely (literally). I must have spent an hour and a half just in that one alehouse, resolving one deft and interwoven mystery that involved everyone inside it. On the surface, I was just running back and forwards across the same room, to the same handful of characters. In my head, I was metaphysical Poirot.

Torment is often like this, the seemingly incidental turning out to be the tip of some immense and intricate iceberg. What I loved most about it was losing myself to it. Entering a new area, cracking my knuckles, knowing that there would be so much to dig up here, and that, when I left it, it would be profoundly changed by my actions. Quite probably without a single body hitting the floor too.

It’s frequently a beautiful game too, although its rather simple 3D character models are not at all the equal of its lavish, painterly environments, while the UI is not entirely elegant. Though many of Torment’s strengths are in the images and agonies it conjures in the mind, it is reliably a delight to enter a new area and slowly unpeel the gloriously strange sights within.

It has its pacing issues, does Torment, and sometimes it can be too preoccupied with showing off the quality of its ideas and language over and above getting its emotional hooks in. Nevertheless, this would be considered a triumphant, wildly inventive and highly reactive roleplaying game even if Planescape: Torment had never existed.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is released today for Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam, GOG or direct from the devs.

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15 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    > Torment is often like this, the seemingly incidental turning out to be the tip of some immense and intricate iceberg.

    Nice, this is THE thing that I think almost no other game have captured since P:T. When you approached things, you didn’t actually know if they were important or not until you spent time examining them, thinking about how to interact with them.

    Other RPGs (even though I love them) often have this check-box feel to them, that you know so quickly why someone or something have been placed there, and what their role is. “Oh this is a combat heavy area, for those that like that and those that need to grind XP or loot. There will be no speech checks here”. If a companion has a “loyalty quest”, you know they all will. Even that concept – “party member”.

    • Premium User Badge

      Alfy says:

      To an admittedly much lesser extend, this is something I also appreciated with the Witcher: when I started a side quest, I never knew whether it was going to be about combat or discussion, and whether it was going to be short or long and involved. Not knowing felt refreshing, as each new interaction had to be thought to have potential consequences down the line (although not on a world-wide scale, in this instance).

  2. Treners says:

    So. I bounced hard off Planescape:Torment, but mainly due to disliking the engine (Baldurs Gate also), finding it clunky and unpleasant. I am currently playing Pillars of Eternity and enjoying that, however (much more palatable to my coddled modern PC gamer tastes).

    Basically, is there a chance I will enjoy this game despite not enjoying the original Planescape: Torment?

    • Alec Meer says:

      It’s far more accessible, on a technical level (i.e. interface and whatnot). But like PST it’s very much a game about reading and deducting, rather than visual actions per se, so if you didn’t dig that then you won’t dig this.

      • Treners says:

        Nah, I dig that, it was very much the tech level and interface that put me off (I think something may have gone wrong with the 1080p upscaling mod I used that made moving my mouse feel… wrong. Like “push it halfway across the mousemat to move across 1cm of screen” wrong). Reading and deducting is fine and dandy so I might give this a go! Thanks Alec.

    • 9of9 says:

      Yeah, looking forward to trying this, now that the reviews have come in. PST didn’t appeal on account of being so clunky, no matter how good the writing was – and like with Pillars of Eternity and with Tyranny, hokey, obtuse isometric combat is always a big turn-off for me. This one’s the first game that seems to be truly resolved to avoid focusing on mandatory hack-and-slash, which is pretty exciting.

      On a side-note, I’m still puzzled by how drab the rendering looks. I mean, the environment design is fine, it’s just the colours and the actual rendering tech looks so very nineties. Like we’ve come a long way and given the environments are pre-rendered, it shouldn’t be hard to achieve much better, near-photorealistic lighting.

      I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun games’ stylised, simplified art style that avoids the visual noise and clutter I’ve always disliked so much in these games. It’d be nice to also see what can be done with some good GI, to make the places feel real.

      • Treners says:

        I won’t comment on art/visual styles cause subjectivity and all that jazz, but one thing that I’ve found made PoE more enjoyable is putting the game on easy and just blazing through the combat without really worrying about it- it’s not unbearable by any means but it’s certainly the weakest part of the game (and genre?), so I’d rather get through it fast to get to the plot.

        • Unclepauly says:

          Hmmph, I though the combat was pretty good with a few quirks. I’m highly looking forward to PoE 2 to see how much they improve the combat systems.

  3. Hoot says:

    Pillars is one of my favourite games of the last few years. I played Numenera on early access and bounced off it hard. 2 hours and the game couldn’t convince me to give a single crap about my character. Also the first two companions I met came across like bickering schoolkids and appeared to be poorly written. I got a refund.

    Shame. I loved Planescape : Torment.

    Maybe if I persisted past these weak few first hours that Alec mentions in his review I would have found the actual game. But I wasn’t willing to take that risk for £35, especially after I read there were like 10 combat encounters in the entire game; for me combat is an essential part of any RPG, although it was no Baldur’s Gate 2 in that area, even Planescape : Torment handled it well enough.

    In short, if you didn’t like the original PST then you probably won’t like this. It’s vastly different from PoE and inExile have kinda made the engine feel clunky as well.

    Sorry for the double post but having the comments for one article split across 4 pages is kinda weird.

  4. Laurentius says:

    A question about dialogue system? Can PCs finally express themselves naturally or is it same laconinc interviewr, that only ask questions nad ocassionaly hav monosylabic sentences to add. “Yes”, “No”, “Tell me about…”. I hate it. Why NPCs can keep jabbering for three pages worth of text but I can’t? I want to role-play talkative and extrovert character who like to express opinions to others and not in one liners.

  5. Drakedude says:

    Can party members die (and be effectively replaced), and can i fail quests? Do quests at least have degrees of failure, similar to Sorcery?

  6. Premium User Badge

    Gnarl says:

    “The central character in particular, a body once occupied by a mortal god but which has seemingly taken on its own identity since said deity moved on, can come across as even more of a cipher than he or she is (clearly deliberately) intended to be.”

    That’s a delicious pun for those that know the (at least tabletop) Numenera jargon, so I choose to believe it’s deliberate.