Any decent 90s kid played Planescape: Torment, the (very) late 90s game that Torment: Tides of Numenera is the spiritual successor to (hereafter the pair will be referred to as Planescape and Torment, respectively.
Planescape was like nothing that had come before it; it was a mind-bending and deep tactical RPG built on the Infinity Engine (the engine Interplay made the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games on). Furthermore, the game’s story was very comfortable exploring the idea of reincarnation in a bizarre world that was equal parts intriguing and twisted.
It was a weird game. Weird with a capital ‘W’.
But with that weirdness and some of the best characters, dialogue and lore in gaming history, Planescape captured the hearts and minds of players of the time. For years, no other game even came close to reproducing its heart, its charm or its fascinating philosophies. This was partly because of Black Isle studios’ closure and Interplay Entertainment’s legal and financial woes in the early 2000s, but mostly because the game itself was unique.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Choices
Torment starts with players apparently falling from a great height. The screen is entirely black with sounds of the wind whipping around your ears, and you’re presented with several dialogue options to choose from that direct how (and if) you land, as well as provide glimpses into your past. Its presentation reminded me of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books we all grew up reading.
Should the player’s choice not end in sudden death, their character awakens in a strange shifting chamber where they’re introduced to the basics of the interface, and choose what kind of character they’d like to play. The screen then fades and the player’s character wakes up in the “real” world, where they are immediately confronted even more choices.
It’s all very word-intensive, very descriptive, very mysterious and intriguing… but above all, it’s incredibly well written. This is fortunate, because this game has more words in it than your average novel. Moreover, the story is far more layered and better written than most games available at the moment.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Plot
Players aren’t out to save the world from destruction or take revenge some evil bastard for murdering your family, you’re out to understand your role in the world. That’s because you’re the latest cast-off body of “The Changing God”, an immortal being who creates new bodies, inhabits them for a few decades, and then moves on.
Over the millennia The Changing God has existed, hundreds, if not thousands of these “cast-off” bodies have been created in the wake of his passing, most of whom are still alive and either plotting with, or against, The Changing God.
That’s because each of these “cast-offs” are immortal – well, kind of. As you discover the first time you “die” in the game. Most deaths have you returning to The Labyrinth, a room in your mind where you chat with a caretaker of sorts and then return to the world where your body lies healing. Time can pass while you’re in there and quests can shift, but for the most part it’s a forced time-out where you must rest a bit and reconsider the tactics that led to your ‘death’.
You can also die permanently, which requires loading an earlier save game, but the instances in which this happens are infrequent.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Death is not the end
Dying is not always a punishment; it can be a way of resolving a conflict, of making a point to an NPC, or even just of returning to the Labyrinth, where several story-related events take place. In Torment, death is not an end to be feared, but a doorway to walk through.
In one sequence, for example, players encounter the strange Dendra O’Hur cannibal cult, who sheepishly admit they’d like to eat the protagonist while still alive in order to “taste” immortality and sample their thoughts and memories. Since they’re immortal, players can make a choice no mortal (sane?) person would consider.
It’s a fascinating sequence that had me recoiling in horror while also arousing my curiosity – a dark corner of my mind genuinely wanted to know what would happen if I said yes. I was not disappointed.
The mechanisms of your life, death and constant rebirth leaves players with very little idea of who their character really is, and what they’re meant to be doing. All they have to go on is the special crystal casing they emerged from, lore concerning The Changing God and something called The Sorrow – whose sole purpose is to chase and consume cast-offs – to avoid or defeat.
As the story unfolds, players will visit some fantastic places, from fantasy cities to underground warrens to space ships and beyond. One of the most memorable environments is The Bloom, a huge entity made of living flesh with a mind of its own that people have made their home. You could call it a city made of meat – a fascinating idea that dials the weird up to 11, and leaves it there.
Torment is packed full of clever, well-realised levels, characters, situations and stories that are a joy to experience thanks to the truly excellent writing.
Peeling back the layers of the story takes a good long time, too – you’re looking at around 40 hours of game time if you don’t dabble in side quests, and a lot longer if you do. If you love to read, you appreciate great imagination and world-building, you’ll love Torment.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Death is not the end
At its heart, Torment is a party-based role-playing game, that places heavy emphasis on player choice and the effects they can have on the world around him/her. Players can progress through nearly the entire game without fighting anyone; if you’ve always wanted to play a fast-talking type whose brain is bigger than their biceps, you can because Torment almost aways offers alternative solutions to conflict.
It does this through its character system. Choose a character whose starting skills are all social, level up your Intelligence and put a point or two into Edge – a booster that determines the starting chance of success of any stat-based action – and you’ll hardly ever have to pull out a weapon.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Branching narratives
There are multiple ways to resolve both side and main quests. The one example that comes to mind – and that I can illustrate by way of an official video – is the story of the nychthemeron that you encounter early in the game. I’ll let the video do the talking:
There are tons of quests with varying resolutions, providing a lot of replay value. More importantly, they deliver on the game’s Kickstarter promise of meaningful choices. Finally, after many years of game designers promising this – and one or two of them failing (Mass Effect 3, we’re looking at you), Torment: Tides of Numenera delivers.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Tidal Forces
The players actions also affect something called the “Tides”, forces in the game world that correlate to specific values. The official Wiki says tides “…are the currents of urge and emotion that flow through humanity’s collective psyche” and that “…entities that are capable of perceiving and manipulating the Tides appear in the history of the worlds, with the most notable being the Changing God”.
Perform actions in line with a specific tide more than others and it’ll become “dominant”, and subtly affect how the world responds to you. As I played I found the two tides I favoured were Blue and Gold (see below), a fascinating insight into my own play style/personality as much as it impacted on how The Last Cast-Off’s story unfolded.
Torment’s beauty lies in its twisting stories and quests that change according to the player’s choices and the fact that it’s truly accommodating to any play style. Sure, it rewards smarter play but it’s also happy for you to blunder your way through every encounter and smash everything in your path.
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Crises me a river
If the game has a weakness, it’s the turn-based combat and problem-solving system called “Crises”. Enemies take their moves far too slowly for my liking, and for some reason I struggled to make good use of the combat abilities of my party, even after levelling and unlocking new ones. Whenever one triggered, I groaned.
Expending effort to increase damage and the chance of critical hits or using “ciphers” – one-time use combat modifiers – didn’t seem to be as effective, either, and on the odd occasions I fought I just didn’t have any fun.
It’s true players can avoid combat for the most part, but fights aren’t entirely unavoidable as several points in the main story trigger them; while they’re not bad, per se, they’re just a bit too clunky and not particularly enjoyable.
Graphics, audio and controls
Visually, Torment is simply gorgeous. Every level is packed with detail, and running natively at 4K everything looks astoundingly sharp. The socre is likewise wonderful, beautifully-matched to the visuals and subtly employed.
Torment plays exactly like Planescape did with keyboard and mouse interface that’s easy pick up, but it also plays with a controller, which in some instances improves things
Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Verdict
Anyone who backed the Kickstarter for this game (and I did) will be very happy with the result. It’s a worthy successor to Planescape, yet brings its own eccentricities making it stand apart. From the branching quests, to the variety of scenes to the beautifully written story, the sheer volume of work the developers put into it is astounding
I loved my time on the Ninth World, as I’m exactly the target audience for a game like this. So if you, too, grew up on the Baldur’s Gate games, you tried and loved Planescape: Torment, I can’t recommend Torment: Tides of Numenera enough.
Torment: Tides of Numenera was reviewed on PC. A retail code was provided by the publisher.