An uncommonly appealing and bizarre RPG that wants you to read more than bleed.
“Reading,” the Nigerian poet Ben Okri said once, “is an act of civilization.” Torment: Tides of Numenera embraces this idea, pairing a whole fantasy novel’s worth of quality quest text with a design foundation that champions chatting with enemies rather than running them through with swords. It’s a strange concept in the context of most roleplaying games, and Torment: Tides of Numenera delivers a satisfyingly strange world to complement it. It’s too bad that the combat falls short when it’s actually necessary, but the surrounding world usually presents enough memorable wonders to make up for it.
As a spiritual successor to 1999’s Planescape: Torment, one of the finest (and strangest) RPGs ever made, Torment: Tides of Numenera embraces its predecessor’s isometric design with its use of the capable Pillars of Eternity engine. More importantly, it preserves Planescape: Torment’s weird philosophical tone and aesthetic, filling the screen with everything from quasi-medieval markets to entire cities crafted out of meat.
Sometimes, admittedly, it clings too much to fantasy trappings despite its setting of a billion years in the future, and its mages and ax-wielding warriors leave it feeling like a take on Baldur’s Gate with aliens in the place of elves. Fortunately, it’s an attractive vision. It takes place in an era when the strange trash of thousands of dead civilizations – the titular numenera – rots scattered about the Earth, its purpose often long forgotten. It’s a world where headless men arouse about as much curiosity as a 3D printer today, where neon-green monoliths zap the unprepared, and where pods packed with demigods sometimes plummet from the sky. For all that, it’s also a world where random goons with swords attempt to rough you up if they don’t like your looks. I guess some things never change.
I admire that you’re not actually a hero, but effectively garbage – literally.
Above all, though, it thrives on honoring Planescape’s emphasis on a protagonist who’s not on a quest to save the world. I admire that you’re not actually a hero, but effectively garbage – literally. You’re the “Last Castoff,” the empty shell of a being called The Changing God who creates new bodies for himself and then dumps them like used Coke bottles once he’s ready to move on to another. Others exist like you, and each assumes his or her own consciousness after being tossed aside. Through it all, a horrific entity known as The Sorrow mysteriously hunts down every castoff, and your main goal is never much more serious than keeping it at bay.
Fortunately, you’re not such a nobody that no one wants to hang out with you. Torment: Tides of Numenera features several companions who can tag along with The Last Castoff three at a time, and I sometimes found their stories as fascinating as my character’s. Take the wise Callistege, who walks around surrounded by flickering clones of herself glimpsed from alternate realities. Or consider Erritis, a warrior whose unstable personality channels Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston. Strangely, a disproportionately large amount of his lines are voiced, while the bulk of the rest of Torment’s dialogue remains disappointingly relegated to text.
When you play Torment: Tides of Numenera, you might as well be reading a book.
On that note, don’t expect a bunch of pretty cutscenes to relay all this. Know that when you sit down to play Torment: Tides of Numenera, you might as well be reading a book. Aside from a quick tutorial, whole hours went by before I had to draw my sword. The voice acting, while excellent, shows up about as often as rain in the Sahara (unless, of course, you’re around Erritis). It’s tough to pull off this kind of text-heavy design – even Pillars of Eternity sometimes slips into drudgery because of it – but the quality of the writing here manages to sustain the story for nearly the entirety of its roughly 35 hours. (Completing all the many side quests would push this number far higher.) Unfortunately, it suffers a bit from one of the main drawbacks affecting the similar recent RPG Tyranny – when the end comes, it comes quickly, along with a multitude of revelations that leave the uncomfortable impression that additional content was condensed into a few conversation.
It still delivers a fantastic story, though, the power of which largely rests on the wealth and variety of its dialogue choices. Virtually every conversation and interaction triggers a cascade of dialogue options with skill checks, usually with text that sometimes sprawls into a dozen richly styled sentences. Tides allows for three combat classes – the warrior-like Glaive, the versatile Jack, and the mage-like Nano – and the latter opens even more dialogue options through the ability to read minds. In fact, conversations offer such a dizzying array of options that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out how to end them (especially because the UI doesn’t gray out options you’ve already read through).
The red tide doesn’t necessarily mean you’re evil.
Fortunately, carefully choosing each one isn’t just about being rewarded with another burst of well-crafted text: much the fun of Tides consists of discovering how each option affects the influence of the titular tides over you. Persist in asking multiple questions and you’ll gain points in the blue tide, which favors inquisitiveness. Do a good deed and you’ll gain favor with the gold tide, which champions self-sacrifice. It’s tempting to brand these as simple D&D-style alignments, but the twist is that Tides is written in such a way that your self-sacrifice could come with an ulterior motive. The red tide doesn’t necessarily mean you’re evil, it merely means that you act on your first impulses. Mixed together, they decide how other people react to you, which sometimes even carries over into combat. It’s a decent foundation for replay, as you could either talk your way through almost everything or try to stick a sword in everyone who looks at you funny.
I usually found the combat comparatively dull.
I can’t say I found the thought of the latter particularly appealing. Not because I’m opposed to hacking up a few digital bad dudes with digital swords – far from it – but because I usually found the combat comparatively dull. The problem lies in the number of enemies it tosses at you. Tides of Numenera delights in piling several enemies on the Last Castoff and his or her buds at once, and they hit hard, making it uncommonly tough to survive even with the use of ciphers or taking advantage of an option to kill the leader and cause their followers to go running. Most of the time, though, it’s just kind of tedious. The problems revealed themselves in an early “crisis” (Tides’ fancy name for a battle), in which I had to sneak past a gaggle of humanoid insects while distracting them with musical objects. I only had one companion at the time, and there were maybe seven of the other guys. So every time I’d move, I’d have to wait for all of them to move as well, thus forcing the incident to go on far longer than it needed to. I didn’t even try to fight them. That’s probably a good thing. When I later finally had to jump into a real fight after a poorly chosen response, I realized I barely knew what to do with all the combat skills I’d amassed from leveling. Even when I was prepared, my little band of four would themselves surrounded with, say, seven cultists. More often than not, though, combat comes off as a distraction – so it’s a good thing you never really have to fight.
At the same time, Tides’ battles include some interesting ideas. For instance, the influence of the tides carries over into combat, and sometimes on your turn you can use your influence to possibly persuade or intimidate a foe into ending a fight that’s already started. Another strength is that each combat scenario feels carefully crafted rather than a random load of trash mobs thrown into a room, and there’s a decent variety of combat skills depending on class – such as “Warp Dash,” which lets Jacks teleport to enemies and slash everyone in sight – and one-use ciphers, which unleash devastating attacks (and sometimes explode in your face if you’re carrying too many at once). The animations aren’t that special, but one thing it does well is allow for smart positioning in combat on both PC and console.
The battles disappoint overall, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some sense of strategy outside the squabbles peppered among the reams of dialogue boxes. One of Tides’ better features in this regard is the “effort” system, which lets each character in the party draw from a pool of stat points every in-game day to add a little boost to the effectiveness of an action. Need to figure out how some eon-old gadget works? Pump a few effort points into the task and you’ll have a greater chance to override it even if your class would fail the skill check in another RPG. It also works in combat, allowing you to land strikes that might have missed. Their limited design, much like the rest of Tides of Numenera, has the nice side effect of encouraging thoughtful play. Early on, it’s hard to shake off the temptation of use effort points to their full effect at every opportunity, but I found greater reward in learning how to wait until I truly needed them.