Review: Torment: Tides of Numenera

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There’s nothing the game industry loves more than a solid franchise to work from. It’s the reason series like Baldur’s Gate or System Shock get brought back after decades away, or names like Prey get bolted onto whatever the publisher can find. So it’s no surprise that folks would want to build on the legacy of Planescape: Torment, often cited as one of the pillars of the CRPG genre. But when you invoke a name like that, you summon certain expectations, and a new level of scrutiny for your project. Torment: Tides of Numenera is a fine RPG in its own right, but when viewed through the lens of a successor, its weaknesses are brought into much sharper contrast.

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You are a Castoff, the child of the Changing God. Your sire has found a sort of functional immortality in creating new bodies for his consciousness to occupy, but when he leaves one, a new personality is born into it. Unfortunately, being a child of a god also brings with it unwanted attention, and in your case it is an all-consuming being of eldritch darkness called the Sorrow. The only hope you have of surviving this thing is to follow the trails left by your creator and your fellow Castoffs, a winding narrative threaded through a world of fantastic technology, inexplicable beasts, and trans-dimensional travel. You’ll be joined by a motley crew of companions as you find a place for yourself in this world, and uncover the role the Changing God had set before you.

The setting is doubtless going to be the first thing anyone notices about the game, especially those coming here in search of that grungy weirdness offered by Planescape: Torment. The Planescape setting was an interesting one because it was a bizarre hodge-podge of concepts and themes, but one that was united by a strong core in the city of Sigil. All the portals to fantastic realities and artifacts of untold power were balanced by the uncertainty of planar travel and the terrifying authority of Sigil’s governing body. From that we jump to Tides of Numenera, where in the first real screen of the game we get a crush of about a dozen immensely powerful and mysterious leavings from alternate worlds, some of them so deadly there are NPCs present specifically to tell you not to touch them. And it turns out, all of this is just down the stairs from a bustling shopping district.

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I’ll give the Numenera setting plenty of points for being creative, but the way it’s expressed here, it feels like a very forced, unfocused creativity rather than the tight world-building of Planescape. Almost every screen of the game is going to have some mysterious construct with reality-warping powers, or an NPC from a higher plane of existence who poses serious questions about mortality and consciousness just with their presence. It’s like the people who made this fell in love with that one cosmic being in the bar of Planescape: Torment, and decided their new game just needed that all over the place. The cities you visit like Sagus Cliffs don’t feel like real, believable settings because every five feet you’re going to be tripping over another wildly powerful relic or existential threat among the commoners and traders.

Clearly a lot of effort went into establishing the world here, and if you can look past the illogical parts of the setting there’s plenty of interesting backstory and details to dip into. The main story itself is a decent enough driver to keep you on the path of the Sorrow and the Changing God, but it’s the side quests where the writing really seems to shine. It’s here that the more exotic aspects of Numenera get explored and expanded, in everything from simple discussions to full murder investigations, arbitrating decades-old feuds and saving a man from being legally psychically devoured. There’s one quest in Sagus Cliffs that runs as a sort of undercurrent to everything else that serves as a perfect example of what can be accomplished here, because it starts as a very basic attempt to help someone and spirals into a huge investigation into an ancient curse affecting the entire city in a singularly strange way.

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The writing is more than up to the task of carrying these heavy concepts, managing to avoid the density that weighed Pillars of Eternity down while still offering detailed dialogue options and highly evocative descriptions. NPCs have vibrant, memorable personalities, and the philosophical discussions you end up in with cosmic beings and principled cannibals give you some clever options to mull over. Tides of Numenera has a fantastic stat system supporting these interactions, where your characters have pools of points for attributes like Might or Intellect. Some dialogue options require skill checks against your stats, and for those you can spend points from the corresponding pool to boost your chances of success. It’s a great way to make dialogue more engaging than just picking whatever option your character sheet has unlocked for you, and adds an element of resource management to the real meat of the game.

You can enhance these stat pools when you level up, by giving them more points, giving them permanent boosts, or unlocking the option to spend more points on certain tasks. There are plenty of skills, both learned from leveling and earned through special events, that also add to these pools and how they work. Equipment isn’t a huge part of the game (much as it wasn’t in Planescape: Torment), because aside from basics like weapons and armor it’s mostly focused on the titular Numenera. These are artifacts that produce all kinds of wondrous effects, from healing to explosions to psychic influence, but as one-time consumables. It’s a strange thing to emphasize in a genre where people routinely finish games with inventories full of unused potions and super weapons, especially since the game seems balanced around never using them.

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You’ll probably want to blow whatever combat cyphers you have whenever you end up in combat, because it’s a blessedly infrequent affair. Despite wisely going the turn-based route for combat, Tides of Numenera’s battles are still a low point of the game for how tedious and awkward they tend to be. The tutorial will teach you that many battles have non-combat resolutions enabled by talking directly to foes or using elements of your surroundings, but there seem to be just as many, if not more, straight fights to slog through. Your opponents are usually numerous and weak, which is the opposite of what you want in a turn-based system. There’s also a huge amount of swing in the challenge, where I was breezing through most fights in the game and then slammed hard into a series of battles right in the middle that required more planning and positioning than anything that came before or after.

I also can’t leave this one without mentioning all the bugs I’ve encountered in my journeys. Most of them will be annoying but not ruinous, like alert icons on your party members that won’t clear or quests that won’t properly register as complete in your journal. Some can be a bit more intrusive, such as characters getting stuck on pathing or geometry in battles and losing their turns because of it. But eventually you’ll start running into big ones, like a quest I had to clear out a dungeon breaking because the dialogue option I used turned the enemies non-hostile, but that didn’t register as clearing the dungeon (and it locked me out of fighting them again). I haven’t run into anything that couldn’t be resolved with a reload or replaying a few minutes of the game, but for a title like this, I feel like the standards should be higher.

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And that’s just it, isn’t it? None of the issues or gripes I have with the game are disqualifying, and on its own, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a perfectly good CRPG. The writing is great, the setting is unique, and the mechanics are at least weighted towards what makes CRPGs fun. But this one doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The very first thing it describes itself as on its store page is “the thematic successor to Planescape: Torment”, and if you do that, you’re opening yourself up to a whole new realm of comparison and criticism. This might be a fine RPG but that’s not what the successor to Planescape should be, not with the muddled setting and weak combat and obvious bugs. Temper your expectations for something less than Planescape, and you’ll have a solid 30-hour RPG to venture through, full of decent twists and surprises.

2 comments

  • I mean, Planescape was also a massively buggy game with weak combat, in fairness. I feel like the problem is less that this game is getting compared to Planescape, than that it is getting compared to a version of Planescape that only exists in people’s minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The main issue is that Numenera’s setting and narrative don’t really hold up to Planescape. I mention the combat and the bugs not because they’re unique problems here, but because they don’t help the game transcend that central weakness.

      Like

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