Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

Planescape: Torment was released in 1999, eighteen long years before the arrival of its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera.   The most ballyhooed title of the PC RPG Renaissance has a lot of unfair expectations to live up to.  It follows in the footsteps of a critically acclaimed cult classic, and it does so having raised a whopping $4.2 Million on Kickstarter from hungry fans of PC RPGs.  It also comes on the heels of numerous successful crowd-funded RPGs like Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and the Shadowrun series reboot.  These games have provided a high baseline for what it means to be a great PC RPG in 2017.  

If you will settle for nothing less than Planescape: Torment, then here is the bad news – you are going to be disappointed. Torment: Tides of Numenera does not live up to those expectations. That is certainly not for a lack of trying though. The game does everything in its power that it can do to remind you of the 1999 classic, often to a fault. When it comes to building a bizarre world with mysterious characters and unpredictable events, Tides of Numenera frequently exceeds the level set by Planescape: Torment. Ironically though, despite how unique it is, and despite how exotic it is, the world in the game isn’t interesting, and neither are most of the characters that populate it. The game also suffers from some basic design issues that impair it from a gameplay standpoint, making it a substandard RPG experience in some critical ways.

These issues, however, do not mean that it is a bad game or even a mediocre one. There are some important things that it does well. It features an abundance of role playing options, an intriguing plot, and, most of all, an endless display of jaw-dropping, gorgeous visuals. It is still an enjoyable experience, albeit not the deeply philosophical and memorable one that it is trying to be. Judged on its own merits, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a good game – one that is different from every other PC game that is on the virtual shelves. No matter how many hours you have sunk into recent RPGs, you should find something new to enjoy about Torment: Tides of Numenera.

In Torment: Tides of Numenera you play as The Last Castoff, awakening at the outset with no memory of who you are or how you got there.  Tides of Numenera is not the first RPG to use the amnesia trope, but it has a uniquely interesting background behind it.   Right away, you discover that the reason that you have no memory is because you were just born.  You are a castoff of The Changing God – a God who creates bodies for himself and inhabits them until he wants to create a new one, at which time he abandons the old one, leaving behind a new sentient being.  The Changing God has been at this routine for quite some time, and by the time you appear in the world, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of castoffs.  This premise sets up an interesting plot that, for the most part, does not disappoint.  You and your brethren are all being hunted by The Sorrow, a godlike creature that is trying to exterminate The Changing God and all of his castoffs.  Meanwhile, a devastating, Endless War between two factions of castoffs devastates the Earth.  Over the course of the story you meet other castoffs, learn about the Endless War, and uncover the past and the motivations of the mysterious Changing God. 

The centerpiece of Torment: Tides of Numenera is its world – The Ninth World, the civilization that populates the Earth a billion years from now.  Taking a cue from the Planescape setting of its predecessor, Tides of Numenera shows you a world that is highly unpredictable, exotic, and bizarre.  The Numenera are strange machinery and artifacts from civilizations past, and the Tides are mysterious forces that govern and respond to behavior.  The best way to describe The Tides would be that they are similar to The Force in Star Wars fiction.  However, instead of just one Force, there are five Tides, each of which represents a different aspect of human behavior.  The Silver Tide, for instance, represents pride, ambition, and the desire for recognition.  The Blue Tide represents the desire for knowledge and wisdom.  Through your choices you become attuned to some of these Tides more than others, and this attunement forms the foundation for the game’s role playing choices.

Torment: Tides of Numenera devotes as much time and effort to world building as any game in recent memory.  Is it a shame, therefore, that the game stumbles so mightily in this endeavor.  The world in Tides of Numenera is a chaotic, inconsistent, and senseless mess.  It is here that the game showcases its biggest sin.  It frequently mimics the surface qualities of Planescape: Torment, but it falls short of matching what made that game so memorable.  The world of Planescape was, indeed, a unique one.  The characters were exotic and they didn’t conform to the typical archetypes of the genre.  However, the world still felt like it was subject to an underlying set of rules.  Most phenomena had explanations.  There were limits to power.  There was cause and effect.  Despite everything that was different about that world, it was still a world in which you could make yourself comfortable.  The world of Tides of Numenera, on the other hand, appears to be governed by no rules.  Despite taking place in our universe, there is no evidence that the laws of physics even exist.  Anything goes.  The characters, settings, and events in this world are a huge grab bag of disparate ideas that seem indiscriminately pulled from the writers’ imaginations and then added to the world without consideration for whether they made any sense. It is because of this approach that the world in Tides of Numenera doesn’t feel like one world – it feels like about fifty different worlds cobbled together like a collection of short stories.  You can explore and interact with this world endlessly, but you can’t understand it.

This sin repeats itself with Tides of Numenera’s travelling companions.  Like most story-based, party-based RPGs, you meet a series of characters that you can invite to join you in your travels.  Like the world itself, they are, strange, unique, and quirky, but they lack some critical qualities.  As with its world building, the game falls short of Planescape: Torment by imitating what the game did differently without matching what that game did wellPlanescape: Torment wasn’t just great because you could add a succubus, a tiefling girl, and a floating skull to your party.  It was a great game also because those characters were likeable.  They had terrific personalities and some great dialog and banter between them.  They had realistic emotions and interesting back stories that lined up perfectly with the game’s themes.  It was very easy to get attached to those characters, and that is why the game’s ending was so emotionally stirring.  Tides of Numenera fails in just about every one of these areas.  The characters are dry, drab, and mostly emotionless robots with whom it is difficult to connect.  There isn’t much in the way of voice acting to lend them personality, and what little is there is mostly low quality.

The game’s writing, on the whole, is disappointing.  And, once again, it is because the game is providing a faulty reimagining of the game that inspired it.  The game’s marketing material poses the philosophical question “What Does One Life Matter?”, which is this game’s version of “What Can Change the Nature of a Man?” But, whereas “What Can Change the Nature of a Man” was a question that arose naturally from Planescape: Torment’s plot, “What Does One Life Matter” feels more like a contrivance – an addition that was forced in because you can’t have a “Torment” game without one big fundamental question. The writing in Torment: Tides of Numenera is also clumsily verbose, frequently obscuring what it is trying to say beneath layers of pretentious bloat.  It results in an incoherent world frequently being described with incoherent language – lengthy passages that you will have to read more than once in order to digest what the game is trying to tell you.  It is never poorly or incompetently written, but rather written with an unappealing and tedious style.  Planescape: Torment had its share of lingo and colorful descriptions, but it was still mostly written in plain language.  It was usually a joy to read.  Torment: Tides of Numenera, on the other hand, is lacking in restraint.  It adopts the rule that if weird is good, twice as weird is great.  Much of it is a chore to read.

The good news about the writing in the game is that the most important part of it, the plot, is a solid success.  The mystery of who exactly The Changing God is, what he wants with you, and your role in the game’s events is a satisfying one.  A rivalry between The Changing God and his First Castoff makes for a terrific backdrop to the story; it is one area of world building in which the game hits the mark effectively.  The game progresses the story at an ideal pace, moving forward with some major events, but also dropping bits of history and exposition into most of the side quests. 

In addition to using a new setting, Tides of Numenera uses a new role playing system.  It comes with its share of flaws, but for a first time system, it works well.  It is simple but elegant.  It offers just three classes and three fundamental attributes – Might, Speed, and Intellect.  There is a relatively small number of skills in the game too, with categories like Quick Fingers (i.e. your ability to grab stuff), Endurance, Healing, and Persuasion.  Despite the simplicity though, the game enjoys a great deal of versatility and freedom.  This system works so well because your Might, Speed, and Intellect are not just attributes, but they are also resource pools.  During combat and skill checks, you can spend your attribute points to increase your chances of hitting an enemy, the amount of damage that you do, or your chance at succeeding at a difficult task.  This makes skill checks and dialog a much more interactive process than just about any other RPG, where you have no influence on your chances of success in the moment.  In most games, combat and dialog are completely different experiences, but in this game, they are tied together by drawing efforts from the same pools.  This dynamic is both unique and effective.  It also adds challenge, which is important because the game does not feature a lot of combat.  Challenge was lacking in Planescape: Torment, and this is one area where this game legitimately improves upon its predecessor.

To help facilitate the game’s role playing, it makes items that restore your health and attribute pools rather weak.  It also makes resting an expensive activity -- even after you have accumulated a decent amount of wealth, someone may charge you 20% or more of it to let you rest.  This stinginess forces you to be judicious about how you spend your points, lest you spend them all and then get slaughtered in combat because you have nothing left.  You have many opportunities to spend those points, because Torment: Tides of Numenera offers you lots of choices; there are so many choices in how to interact with the world that the mundane dialog trees that offer you no choice stand out as the exceptions.  The choices also flow naturally, rarely seeming contrived or forced. 

Inventory in the game is rather simple and there isn’t much in the way of loot.  The one exception to this rule is Cyphers – powerful single-use artifacts that you can buy, find, or recover from fallen enemies.  Each Cypher in the game has a unique name, picture, and ability, which is another way in which the game separates itself from its peers.  You don’t pick up much stuff in Tides of Numenera, but when you do, it counts.  The game has just enough of these objects to make them a useful tool in combat, but not so many that the combat is too easy.  It is a nicely tuned feature that adds both artistic and gameplay flavor. 

As advertised, Torment: Tides of Numenera is much heavier on dialog and storytelling than on combat.  Just about every fight has major significance, which means that there are no trash mobs in the game.  You can talk your way out of some hostile situations, but you do occasionally have to break out your weapons and fight for your life.  Like with the role playing sections, the true decision-making and gameplay in the combat is figuring out how much effort to spend on each of your actions.  Do you spend all of your effort up front to eliminate a powerful enemy, or do you spread out your efforts a little more?  Since dialog uses the same attribute pools, you may want to save some of your efforts for after combat. The combat functions effectively, but it has little depth.  It is a good thing that there isn’t a lot more of it, because it would become tiresome if the game were aiming to be a combat-heavy experience like Pillars of Eternity.  The special abilities in the game aren’t very special or interesting, so most of the combat involves bashing the nearest enemy with your default attack or occasionally using a healing item or a cypher.  There isn’t a lot in the way of variety when it comes to weapons and armor either.

From a mechanical standpoint, there isn’t a lot to Torment: Tides of Numenera.  From a graphical standpoint though, it is a dazzling spectacle.  It is hard to think of an RPG in recent memory that has provided a more potent combination of beauty and visual variety than this game.  Every screen is bursting with detail and every area looks substantially different from the last.  One area is a steaming underground mine loaded with glowing machinery.  Another area is a putrid, disgusting cavity in the stomach of a huge beast.  When anything in this scenery is in motion, it looks just as lovely – a gorgeous fountain, a gigantic machine with massive, churning pistons – there is very little in this world that doesn’t induce a sense of awe.  Getting to see what the next area looks like is as effective an award for success as experience points.  The fiction in this game has its issues, but the visuals more than hold up their end of the bargain.

There is one visual area where Tides of Numenera does suffer though, and that is its interface.  The interface is both plain and drab, with text that is frequently too big, even on a 4K monitor.  This problem is especially annoying when you hold down the Tab to highlight all of the objects on the screen.  The names of the people on the screen are so big and intrusive that when you hold the Tab key down, all of those names clutter up the screen so that you can’t tell which name goes with which body.  It is a sloppy piece of game design that shouldn’t be in an RPG of this caliber.  The game also suffers from a problem that I have never complained about before and I probably will never complain about again – the font.  Torment: Tides of Numenera uses the most dull and unimaginative font that I have ever seen in an RPG.  This problem may seem like nitpicking, and perhaps it is.  Nevertheless, a few hours into the game I started to notice that I disliked how the game looked during dialog, and that is because during dialog it looks like there is an ugly Microsoft Word document covering up the bottom fourth of the screen.    

Mark Morgan, the mind behind the soundtracks of Fallout and Planescape: Torment, returns to the genre to compose the soundtrack for Tides of Numenera.  The soundtrack effectively adds to the game’s atmosphere, but other than one or two decent combat tracks, there isn’t much to it that makes it memorable.  It is a pale shadow of the Planescape: Torment soundtrack and all of its dark, sorrowful brilliance.  There is an emotional aspect to this game that is sorely missing, and its lack of a hauntingly beautiful score is a culprit.  The best part of this game’s audio comes not from the music, but from the sound effects that accompany your dialog choices and your successes and failures.  Whenever you make a choice that affects your relationship with the Tides, the game tells you and then drives the point home with the tune associated with that tide.  Still, the audio is yet another area where the game never fully sinks its hooks into you.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a difficult game to score.  It might be unfair to compare the game to a classic like Planescape: Torment, but then again, the game invites you to do just that at every turn.  It is a comparison in which Tides of Numenera does not fare well.  It is a very genuine, honest attempt to live up to that legacy.  There is little wrong in the game that can be chalked up to either a lack of effort or a lack of game design competence.  But, nevertheless, it fails in some major areas, sometimes profoundly.  If you have invested a lot of emotion into hoping that this game would be the next RPG storytelling masterpiece, then it is hard not to feel disappointed

Does the game fare better when compared to its contemporaries?  It has arguably the most beautiful scenery of any isometric RPG ever made.  It is loaded with choices, and it merges gameplay with dialog in a manner that no RPG has ever done.  However, some aspects of its gameplay are lacking, especially depth in combat and character building complexity.  The closest appropriate comparison in recent memory is the 2016 RPG Tyranny, a game that featured some terrific character interactions and some of the most effective world building of all time.  It was a very good game – a better one than Tides of Numenera in the end.

It is a wonderful age that we live in for the PC role-playing game.  There are many quality titles to choose from, and each of them from Wasteland 2 to Pillars of Eternity to Shadowrun offers a totally unique experience.  In the end, if you have enjoyed the wave of Kickstarter PC RPGs so far, then you will enjoy Torment: Tides of Numenera too.  It will likely be a game that you want to finish, but it likely won’t be one that calls you back for a second or third journey.