Torment: Tides of Numenera review

Early in Torment: Tides of Numenera, I encounter a man about to be executed for a crime. How is his sentence carried out? Well, he’s fed a potion that turns his words into a tendril-laden monster, which then strangles him to death. His corpse is then eaten by a priestly figure, who through this act of cannibalism, will be able to re-experience the crime the man committed, and get to the whole truth.

What the hell am I playing?

Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on the Numenera tabletop roleplaying system created by acclaimed game designer Monte Cook. The tabletop game revels in the weird science-fantasy world it’s set in: an Earth a billion years in the future, thriving amid the ruins of nine ancient civilizations, so replete with alien, extradimensional and advanced tech, that everything seems like magic (see Clarke’s Third Law). “Discovery is the soul of Numenera,” the core rulebook states. Part of the joy of playing Numenera is exploring the rich, bizarre world.

InXile’s digital version of the RPG, on the other hand, channels its spiritual predecessor (the cult classic Planescape: Torment), in that despite taking obvious glee in the strangeness of its source material, the game is centered on its characters. Yes, there’s a city made of living flesh, psychic battlefields where memes can be deadly weapons, and a machine that takes a year from your future as a raw material to create a city watchman. But that’s not what the game is about. It’s more about the roguish criminal who joins your party and is desperate to find his lost boyfriend. It’s about the tech-priest who worries you might be the person who killed his family but chooses to follow you anyway. It’s about an orphaned child who believes her toy is a god. And of course, it’s about your player character: the Last Castoff.

Tides of Numenera is not an open-world game. It ignores freedoms many modern RPGs offer their players. It does not allow you to customize your character’s look (aside from gender) or history. The protagonist is very firmly the Last Castoff, an empty body that developed its own consciousness after its last sentient owner, the Changing God, vacated it. The world of the game is tight: you don’t wander off on your own, and there is a plot you’re meant to follow.

Paradoxically, it’s precisely these tight constraints that grant the player a freedom that’s far more important and compelling: the freedom to twist the narrative, and shape the world (as in, you can literally reshape the landscape in some instances). Creative Lead Colin McComb has already discussed the studio’s depth-over-breadth approach to design, where fleshing out existing characters and spaces takes precedence over adding more. Miles of extra scenery mean nothing if there isn’t anything to do in them.

So, the Changing God, the one who ditched your body at the first sign of trouble? Turns out that he’s been doing that for centuries, leaving behind hundreds of castoff “children”, with no thought of the consequences. And he’s a bit of a douche.  His constant body-hopping has also awoken a terrifying monster known as “The Sorrow”, who’s now out to kill every Castoff.  How you deal with this is up to you.

And it really is: one of the awesome things I learned about the game is that there’s always another solution. You think you have the best, most exciting way to finish a quest and resolve a dilemma, but then you bump into some random mutant on the street with a bizarre power and you think “Hey now…could her powers offer alternate solution?” Chances are they could. Even in the middle of combat, you can often talk to enemies to persuade or threaten them, or interact with some weird piece of technology in the environment to change how the fight’s going to proceed.

And all these choices are rewarding! Both narratively and mechanically, the game makes sure all the different styles of play are equally valid. There’s also no simplistic good/evil dichotomy (which seems to be the current fashion for these tight, narrative focussed RPGs. Check out my discussion of Tyranny). Instead, your moral alignment is gauged by what’s known in the fiction as the “Tides”. Each Tide corresponds to a philosophical outlook. The red tide, say, is for those who value action over planning and passion over logic, and the silver tide represents those who seek fame and self-improvement. While your attunement to the Tides never blocks you from making particular choices, they do influence how people react to you, which is hugely important in such a story-driven game. This diversity of choices, conversations, and outcomes ensures that the thirty-odd hours it takes to finish game are in fact replayable many times over, each attempt leading to surprising new discoveries.

“This diversity of choices, conversations, and outcomes ensures that [Tides of Numenera is] in fact replayable many times over.”

Which brings us to the writing, which is what truly makes the game stand out as an RPG. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re a fan of Planescape: Torment, and its loquacious style. Tides of Numenera continues that tradition: scenic detail or important events are typically delivered via text, and conversation with NPCs can be long. The strength of the writing, however, ensures that conversation and exposition rarely come off as prolix. Details are weird and evoke the world of Numenera (“Memories like bloodflies buzz about your head, whizzing away before you can catch them.”) and even minor NPCs hook you (“I am Anstoll. I do not exist,” was the first thing one NPC said to me) or offer surprisingly deep insights (“Sure she takes a little part of me now and then,” a man tells me, referring to a monster who eats his limbs as payment, “but life does that to all of us, isn’t it?”). The game’s central theme grapples with the question “What does one life matter?” and over and over again, my interactions, quests and choices made me ponder that question. I had to pause the game when a slave I bought but intended to free died performing a task I asked him to carry out. It was a small moment, really, not part of any major plot, treated as a mundane occurrence by other characters. But the game made me think and care.

Even if you’re less of a wordy type, and want to get straight into the action, the game presents a refreshing take on combat and skill resolution through systems taken from the tabletop engine. Instead of attribute scores that increase over time and give you higher probabilities of success, Numenera uses a system of three “pools”— Might, Intellect and Speed— that you spend to improve your odds. It’s kinda like “mana”, but for every type of action. In combat, you can spend points to increase damage and accuracy, but even in non-combat situations, you can spend points to say, fish a shiny object out of a pool of slime, snap someone’s neck before they get away from you, or even convince someone that they are, in fact, a figment of your imagination.

Fans of Planescape: Torment will find many callouts, in-jokes and references to the original game. Old-school RPG aficionados will enjoy the beautiful visual style, and the focus on narrative. But would the game appeal to gamers outside its core group of Kickstarter supporters? Colin McComb admitted to me that he considers the game to be very much a niche title. But I think that Torment: Tides of Numenera can rest easy on its many strengths, confidant that players of all flavors will be drawn to its intriguing world, fascinating characters, and difficult choices.

Verdict: Yes