Review: Torment: Tides of Numenera (PC)
You start the game moments from death. You are falling, plummeting towards the ground from a dizzying height. You have no idea why you are there, who you are, but you are hurtling through the air kilometers above an unknown continent. Is that an explosion from above you? Wait, did you jump off of something? What could be worse than turning into a crater in the ground? As you ponder these questions and more, you die.
But death is not the end for you. No, there are much more terrible things that want you, that actively seek you out. Something alien, something indescribably powerful and ancient is hunting you, following the scent of your thoughts. It is called The Sorrow and it wants to destroy you in a way that eradicates every remnant of your existence and it is close. As far as first days go, you are pretty sure it can’t get much worse than this.
Welcome to Torment: Tides of Numenera. If you are an older PC gamer, you have heard of or played Planescape: Torment, a CRPG about an immortal looking for answers and death. It was a rollercoaster of wild locations, memorable companions and elaborate storytelling that unfurled in front of you. Torment: Tides of Numenera is the spiritual successor to that game, drawing on similar themes and strengths to make an unbelievably alien world come to life. Once again you are in the shoes of an immortal, with death no longer being the end to your game and your story. Instead, death can teach you many things because deep inside your mind is a labyrinth that seems to store fragments or reflections of other people. Here you can talk to them and draw on their experience and strength, or unlock more about yourself in hidden fathoms of your mind.
Oddities and heirlooms
Set a billion years in the future on Earth, things have changed quite a lot. So many civilisations have come and gone that everywhere you look there are ancient statues, machines and robots that nobody really knows how they operate. These things are called Numenera and they range from objects that help in everyday life to massive shields that protect entire cities. Some of them seem to only have enough power for a single use and these cyphers can drastically alter your advantage in a battle. Others will last long enough that you can use them without restraint, like swords that encased in a sheath of energy that creates a blade edge a single molecule thick, or armour that lashes out at nearby opponents, siphoning off health for the user. There are many objects that seem to have no purpose at all, or at least no purpose anyone can work out that would be of benefit now. These oddities are sold for scraps or to collectors or ignored completely if they are too large or too tough to break down into components for money.
While many strive for knowledge and understanding, the Ninth World is a dark age. Most feed on technology with no idea of how it works, or how to create more. Everything is alien, unknown and those that came before knew how to travel between the stars. Now, those massive ships act as houses and stores, their power systems so efficient that they continue to power devices and keep dwellers warm on cold nights. The engines of ships meant to explore the stars now do little more than act as a furnace for foundry workers.
But what is the game like?
But how does this game work? What do I do? At this point you might be wondering why I haven’t gotten around to discussing the gameplay, the systems involved in the game. That’s because I already am. What do I mean? This game is, in effect, a large book. All the general systems of games – the graphics, choices, gameplay, sound, level design – all take a back seat to the narrative of TToN, to the spectacular writing that describes and creates this fascinating world. Prepare to be engrossed in a book, because this is one wordy beast. According to inXile Entertainment the game has 1.2 million words contained in the game, making up the story, conversations, item descriptions and the various choices you can make. Oh and you will make choices all of the time. Are you inquisitive, or do you rush to action. Do you follow laws and look for justice, or are you in this for the heroics and leaving your legacy?
The doorways leading to quests will open and close without warning and the game will cut off your access to certain things based on what you said or did, and whether you failed to convince someone or not. TToN has no qualms about having you fail quests or miss them altogether. You can even completely miss companions that would join your party, meaning you never get to meet these amazing individuals. The companions have hopes and dreams and all have their own motives for joining forces with you. Be it safety, or power or the hope of great heroics, your companions will add extra options to some conversations as they reveal extra knowledge of a person or topic. Don’t fret about missing out on content though, as there is a lot to do. The way the game’s world reacts to your actions, the companions and their stories as well as multiple endings already has me wanting to play the game again. Would I make the same choices knowing the outcome, or explore different routes to see what new information is gleaned? How would my companions react to a brash, emotional glory-hunter, compared to how they reacted to a charitable, kindly knowledge seeker?
Everything you want takes effort
But wait, I haven’t reached the core of how this game plays yet, have I? Imagine reading a book. Not just any book, but a well-written, good book. Now imagine that every time a conversation happens or a character looks at an object in the world, the book becomes a ‘choose your own adventure’ style book. You make a choice, you turn to page 54. The story continues, your choices possibly having far-reaching consequences, which might not be apparent at this time or not. Add in a chance of success or failure for most actions. Did you persuade the group of thugs to wander off? If you aren’t the most intelligent person without skill in persuasion, perhaps you failed. If you fail there is a good chance you have a fight on your hands in this scenario. If you spent your Intellect points on the effort of convincing them to leave, they wander off, never to be seen again.
If combat starts then you have entered a crisis. The game makes use of a turn-based combat system with everyone getting one move and one action per turn, ordered by initiative score. Depending on your weapon of choice you will have to spend Might, Speed or Intellect points to swing your hammer, fire a gun or launch an esotery – a magical spell, to simplify the parlance. In the beginning of the game, knowing when to spend effort on actions is an important balancing act. Use too much and you will be left with none later on when you really need it, or you will have to buy curatives to replenish your stat pools. Or, if you are feeling flush, you can go rest in an inn. Be careful though, as some quests will progress as you sleep. You might spend a little less effort, hoping that an attack with a 65% chance of hitting will actually connect, but what if it doesn’t? Can you survive another attack from the three thugs in front of you? As your characters level up and your stat pools grow larger this becomes much more manageable. Sometimes you will be able to add a point of Edge to a stat, which acts as a discount whenever you perform an action using that stat. This means that your burly brawling Glaives will eventually appear tireless in battle, while your Nanos will toss around fearsome spells without any mental fatigue. Surviving until this point is the biggest trick, and there is a reason that combat is called a crisis. This is very unlike most CRPGs where you wade through rooms full of pointless battles before facing the true threat. Every fight here can be deadly and is meaningful. Not all of them are completely about just combat either. Can you stop two groups from reaching for their blades and starting a gang war? Can you escape a room full of obstacles and fire before an indestructible foe reaches you and disintegrates you? Many battles can be overcome with a quick word or by using nearby numenera, for those who hate using violence to resolve story issues. Yes sometimes you have to fight, but it isn’t like so many CRPGs that fall into a trap of filling your quest log with pointless murder to find items or progress the story. The game neatly avoid this by not awarding XP for killing things, but instead for completing quests and experiencing new things. Your social skills, your problem solving abilities and your attention to detail is what will keep you ahead here. In fact, some of your biggest battles will not be during a crisis. It will be battle of words during a mere or conversation.
Tides? Meres? Castoffs? What??
Okay, don’t worry your head too much, we will get you through this. Long ago one man learned a way to transfer his consciousness from one body to another. Over the years he has perfected this technique, building stronger, faster, sturdier vessels for himself. This man is known as the Changing God and he is worshipped by a large cult that hopes to one day be like him. But when he shuffles off one body to head towards the next, the process doesn’t leave an empty shell. Instead a consciousness is born in the body, still strong and hale and possessing a large tattoo on the head. These people are called castoffs. You are the Last Castoff, the most recent. Your body has emergency measures in place that rebuild you after you die, healing damage. Besides your strong healing ability, you are connected to the Tides, another force that permeates the Ninth World, similar to magnetism. Eventually you learn how to manipulate the Tides and they play an important part in the story. The five Tides (blue, gold, indigo, red and silver) represent the facets of humanity and your actions will cause certain colour tides to swell and become your dominant colour. Meres are objects that belonged to other castoffs that allow you to explore the past through their eyes, witnessing an important moment in their history. These elaborate story sections are full of information about the Changing God, your siblings and clues. They also serve another purpose, but that is something worth discovering on your own.
After 30 hours of reading, of hunting for scraps of information and word-based solving puzzles, I still want more. Yes, reading this much is tiring and the amount of lore and people that you will be exposed to and expected to remember is staggering, but I still want to gorge myself on top-notch writing and world-building. The Ninth World is a fascinating place and has so much to offer. Cities inside a massive living entity that can open portals to other places in time and space, deserts where the Iron Wind, an invisible army of nanobots, turns everything they find into “improved versions”, often leaving anyone they touch a broken mess, unable to breathe thanks to the tinkering of the nanites. People who consume the dead and learn their memories and experiences, becoming living libraries. This world of wonder has left me pondering on all the locations that are mentioned in the books you read, the characters you meet and I know I want to go to those places. To see and do more. This is the mark of a great game, making a player want more, while having a satisfying ending.
When I first saw that Planescape: Torment, a game that shaped my outlook and expectation of games to come, was getting a spiritual successor I was worried. TToN has surpassed expectations and left me completely satisfied. This is a game that rewards and encourages the curious. This is a cool, sweet drink in a desert of games where story is only barely there because it is required. This is art.