Torment: Tides Of Numenera
PC, PS4, Xbox One
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