Torment: Tides of Numenera Preview

Torment: Tides of Numenera has a big hill to climb. As a pseudo-sequel to Planescape: Torment, it’s benefited from the association with a game widely considered one of the best, most creative, and most philosophically dense role-playing games of all time. Anything less than that standard would likely be a disappointment–especially for the huge fans who gave Tides a record-breaking Kickstarter.

The problem is that the 1999 original Torment is pretty resistant to having a sequel for several reasons, most overtly, that it had an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons license to use the “Planescape” setting that its sequel doesn’t. Planescape: Torment’s bigger difficulty: it’s kind of a mess. All that storytelling creativity is there, yes, but it’s with an AD&D ruleset that didn’t really agree with it, a combat engine that couldn’t support it, and a structure that frontloaded all the best ideas and conversations. Making a sequel to a beloved mess involves the difficult process of fixing the mess while also including what made the game so beloved.

The solution, for Tides of Numenera, is this: take the removal of the AD&D license and make it an advantage. There are mechanical benefits to this, and I’ll talk about them soon, but the thing that struck me most about it initially was what it did with the setting. Planescape was built on the convergence of all the different magical “planes” of various other AD&D settings. This made it wild and varied, with different bizarre gods and wizards and demons all interacting— but it was still, at its core, fantasy.

Tides of Numenera, on the other hand, gleefully adds science fiction to the mix of fantastical intersecting realities. Now, I don’t mean giant starship battles and space marines, but rather that the mix of influences in Tides includes collisions of technology in addition to collisions of magic. Time travel, AI, religious cults, techno-magical items? Whatever fits the moment fits the game.

For example, in the preview section I played from the middle of the game, I needed something from a crashed spaceship in the middle of of organic beast called the “Bloom” that people lived inside of. In order to acquire it, I had to convince the ship’s AI, which was keeping memories of the dead passengers alive as a monument to its failure and a record for their families. One resolution there is to integrate the AI and its memories into your character’s mind–one of your powers in Tides. And then you can find an organic gateway to another world–a “Maw” in the Bloom–that opens when fed on guilt, and give to it the AI, resolving a different quest.

You don’t have to do it that way— you can brute force the Maw, with consequences, or find a guilty someone more deserving of being devoured for your benefit. I didn’t even find out about all these different options until I talked to a developer afterward, and he asked what I’d chosen to do. This leads to the thing that impressed me most about Tides in both the Early Access version available and the different preview section: the pacing fits the game.

An RPG is a difficult balancing act. Almost all modern RPGs are combinations of multiple systems: combat, dialogue, inventory, downtime, etc. Too much of any of these can be a problem; The Witcher 3 has great exploration and a great story, but can stall out if you explore too much and are forced to do several plot missions in a row. Planescape: Torment starts in a densely-packed city filled with quests, factions, and dialogue, but occasionally veers off into puzzle or combat-focused dungeons, taking you away from what made it so special initially.

In my admittedly few hours with Tides, its systems never felt like they were colliding in a bad way. Instead, everywhere I went, I consistently found something interesting to do, and often a quest chain to follow. Most of those quests tended to resolve themselves relatively naturally as I poked around, spoke to people, and learned the shape of the world. In other words, if I just took the world of Tides as it came, I progressed through the game, making interesting choices in the way that it wanted me to. I wasn’t facing choice paralysis, or being confused by essential game systems, I was just…playing. That’s an exciting feeling in any RPG.

Tides reinforces this by veering away from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and normal role-playing conventions with a simple, effective system to focus on the sort of combat-light, dialogue and setting-heavy game that it is. Your character’s three core stats are Might, Speed, and Intellect, which you can improve over the course of the game.

Most importantly, these core stats serve as currency pools for skill checks. If you run into a belligerent thug that you need to get past, and decide to try to strangle him, your Might may only give you a 45% chance of beating him. But if you pay two might points, that becomes an 85% chance, so your five Might drops to three, but you succeed in the encounter. They come back when you rest or use items for healing, but turning core stats into currency that can be gambled with is a really smart way to keep dialogue as the focus of the game.

Here’s the kicker: I didn’t actually fight any battles in the preview event section of the game and still felt this way. I did have a Crisis or two— scenes where groups confront one another in ways that could end in violence, forcing you to tactically work to resolve them. But I was able to tactically resolve these Crises by engaging in dialogue, although I could have picked combat instead.

I’m not one of those RPGs-don’t-need-combat types, either; I usually think fighting is an essential component of pacing for video game RPGs until they can come up with skill and dialogue systems that can fill the same role. My time with Tides is limited enough that I’m not ready to guarantee that this is that game. But after playing Torment: Tides of Numenera I’m starting to believe that it’s plausible— and its late February release is worth getting truly excited about.