Tor­ment: Tides Of Numen­era

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Eigh­teen years on from the re­lease of Planescape: Tor­ment, this spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor picks up the cult RPG’s legacy and brings it to a new set­ting. Mov­ing away from Planescape – a mul­ti­di­men­sional spinoff of Dun­geons & Drag­ons – Tor­ment: Tides Of Numen­era is set in the Ninth World, the fo­cus of Monte Cook’s more mod­ern pen-and-pa­per role­play­ing game, Numen­era.

That tran­si­tion is im­por­tant be­cause, like its table­top coun­ter­part, Tides Of Numen­era ac­tively pulls away from D&D and its in­flu­ence. This new sys­tem places heavy em­pha­sis on flex­i­ble sto­ry­telling and player agency, giv­ing no spe­cial prece­dence to com­bat, loot, dun­geons or mon­sters. It’s a sys­tem where fight­ing and killing are op­tional, com­pan­ion char­ac­ters are only nec­es­sary if you de­cide that they are, and where loot is only use­ful if it solves the task at hand.

The Ninth World is Earth, one bil­lion years in the fu­ture, a planet ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed by the pas­sage of count­less ad­vanced civil­i­sa­tions. The world you in­habit is ap­prox­i­mately medieval, but un­know­ably com­plex an­cient tech­nol­ogy is ev­ery­where. In the first hub city of Sa­gus Cliffs an or­der of sci­en­tist monks makes its home within a tower whose mem­bers be­lieve to be some kind of an­cient craft, whose en­gines power forges in the lower parts of the city. But they have no way to make it work, and they have no word for ‘space­ship’. That’s one back­ground note in a game that’s packed with de­tail, ex­pressed through reams of de­scrip­tive writ­ing.

Your char­ac­ter is The Last Castoff, a ‘new­born’ cre­ated by an im­mor­tal be­ing called The Chang­ing God who cre­ates and oc­cu­pies new bod­ies to pro­long his life. Each time he de­parts for the next body, a con­scious­ness is spon­ta­neously cre­ated within the old one. These castoff peo­ple, of who you are the most re­cent, are hunted by a trans­di­men­sional crea­ture called the Sor­row. Dis­cov­er­ing a means to stop the Sor­row is the thrust of your mo­ti­va­tion, but Tor­ment places less em­pha­sis on this than it does on the Ninth World it­self and the com­pan­ions you may meet along the way: a woman sur­rounded by ghostly shades of her­self in a va­ri­ety of al­ter­nate time­lines, a lit­tle girl who speaks to the god she keeps in her pocket, a dis­il­lu­sioned fel­low castoff, and many oth­ers.

This is a game of walk­ing, read­ing and talk­ing through small but dense hub ar­eas, the first of which is the city of Sa­gus Cliffs. A flex­i­ble skill-check sys­tem is used to re­solve chal­lenges. Whether you’re try­ing to move some­thing heavy, iden­tify an an­cient ob­ject or sway some­body’s opin­ion, you com­mit re­sources from one of three pools – might, speed or in­tel­lect – to in­crease your odds of suc­cess. By en­hanc­ing your pools or pick­ing up new ar­eas of ex­per­tise, you spe­cialise your char­ac­ter to­wards cer­tain tasks.

Com­bat is op­tional and takes place only in the con­text of a Cri­sis, a dis­tinct mode where the game be­comes turn-based but the same skill-check sys­tem is used. While there are a few new rules gov­ern­ing com­bat, the ma­jor­ity of the game’s usual ac­tions are still avail­able. Hid­ing, speak­ing, us­ing items and ma­nip­u­lat­ing de­vices can all re­solve a fight with­out blood­shed, pro­vid­ing you’ve pre­pared your char­ac­ter to do so. Tor­ment’s sid­e­quests are among its strong­est fea­tures, chal­leng­ing your ex­pec­ta­tions about how RPGs are struc­tured and how their sto­ries are told. At first, the no­tion of pick­ing up tasks from strangers around a city hub seems very fa­mil­iar from other in­nu­mer­able games. Where Tides Of Numen­era sets it­self apart is in the in­tri­cate in­ter­weav­ing of these sto­ry­lines. One plot might task you with un­cov­er­ing the mean­ing be­hind the ac­tions of one of your fel­low castoffs. That might lead you to a corpse, where the man­ner of death is less im­por­tant than the fact of it – some­thing you can put to one side as you deal with the mat­ter at hand. How­ever, read­ing be­tween the lines un­cov­ers a link be­tween the man­ner of that death and an ad­di­tional, en­tirely un­re­lated plot­line. Fur­ther­more, the life of the de­ceased has ram­i­fi­ca­tions for a third plot­line, and you can pick up any of these threads in any or­der and un­cover the com­plex in­ter­re­lated lives of the cit­i­zens of the Ninth World at your own pace, in your own time.

Tides Of Numen­era’s char­ac­ters aren’t con­fined to their own nar­row plot­lines. As such, the nar­ra­tive feels or­ganic in a way that com­puter RPGs rarely do – in­deed, the ef­fect is closer to a well-run pen-and-pa­per cam­paign. The trade­off is that it takes a self-mo­ti­vated player to get the most out of an RPG struc­tured in this way. Not ev­ery­one will gel with the game’s heady high con­cept – and its text-heavy man­ner of ex­press­ing it – or en­joy the process of bring­ing those in­ter­weav­ing threads to­gether. Tides Of Numen­era is about watch­ing dis­parate plot­lines, char­ac­ters and ideas as­sem­ble in ag­gre­gate to form a vastly un­usual world and, in its best mo­ments, a phi­los­o­phy – one coloured by your own out­look and ac­tions. Yet this comes at the cost of the most ac­ces­si­ble el­e­ments of a tra­di­tional fan­tasy story, such as an ob­vi­ous vil­lain or clear stakes. The Last Castoff isn’t, de­spite their prove­nance, par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. There are lots of castoffs. The Last Castoff just sort of is, and that’s the point, but it’s a less grabby jump­ing-on point for a new or un­con­vinced player than “slay the dragon”.

Yet this is pre­cisely what fans of the orig­i­nal Tor­ment will want to hear, and Tides Of Numen­era has the po­ten­tial to bring in a new au­di­ence that has never played a game that ex­presses ideas in this way – par­tic­u­larly on con­sole, where these kinds of throw­back RPGs are only just find­ing a foothold. There are worlds wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered be­yond the con­fines of tra­di­tional fan­tasy. This is one of them.

The sid­e­quests are among its strong­est fea­tures, chal­leng­ing your ex­pec­ta­tions about how RPGs are struc­tured

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