A lots of text adventure.
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: Techland Publishing
Format: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Released: January 26, 2017
“What does one life matter?”
The longer you think about it the harder that question gets. What answer passes through the mind of a thug as they count the coins in a bloodstained pouch? What about the leader of a village, asked to sacrifice one innocent life for the chance to save many more? How many times has an RPG asked you to shoulder the burden of making these choices, and how often have those choices felt like they changed the rest of the game? There are certainly a few games that work hard to ensure every choice you make has a consequence, no matter how small. Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn’t shirk these difficult choices. The impact your character has on the world is just as powerful as so many other games, and yet this time that feels like it truly means something.
To those who are unfamiliar with the history behind this game, Torment: Tides of Numenera was successfully Kickstarted as the sequel to the fantastic 1999 RPG Planescape: Torment. Considered by many to be a cult classic, Planescape boasted an extremely unusual world filled with exotic places and even more exotic people, with the scarred and weathered immortal protagonist, “The Nameless One”, standing as one of the more unique protagonists to grace the genre. Skip to 2017 and we find ourselves with a spiritual successor that perhaps doesn’t hit the same highs as its predecessor, but still manages to be one of the most fantastic and thought provoking RPG’s I’ve played in a long time.
Torment is set in the Ninth World, a land riddled with incredible technological relics of a bygone age while modern society sits at a more traditional “medieval” level of cultural progress, even as the very landscape hints at impossibly powerful technology buried just beneath the worlds surface. The use of this bizarre world ensures that despite its ties to the original Planescape this game does not require any prior knowledge to be fully enjoyed. Immediately upon starting the game the protagonist wakes up, in the middle of falling from the sky with no memory of how exactly they got there. These sorts of situations are awkward at the best of times, but as an amnesiac it’s even more disconcerting. Needless to say, your situation gets worse before it gets better, and barely minutes into this game you’re already burdened by an utterly baffling situation with no clear goal beyond surviving long enough to uncover your history. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the “blank slate” start of this game, but before you hit the real meat of the game there’s a few hours of reading through lore and getting to grips with the terminology of the setting that come dangerously close to derailing the experience. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I persevered despite these misgivings. I love poring over well written lore and paragraphs of story and conversation before getting back to playing the game, but I will warn that if you aren’t someone who enjoys reading this is almost certainly not the game for you.
Torment uses gameplay based on 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, with combat playing out in turn-based rounds and plenty of multiple choice conversations to read through. The game’s three character classes give you a basic archetype to build around, letting you adjust your three stats to match. The “Nano” class focuses on magical powers with heavy reliance on the Intellect stat while the “Glaive” class is the aggressive combat class, able to focus into heavy weapons with the Might stat, or dextrous agility with the Speed stat. The aptly named “Jack” class offers a balanced approach, letting you build your character in whatever way suits you, without being a standout in any one area. Each new level lets you raise your stat pools, upgrade abilities, and provide a variety of other handy boosts to help build your character. Tied into your stat pools is the “Effort System” which allows you to boost your chances of success when performing a task, be it using Intellect when casting a spell to boost its power, or a Might check when threatening a foe. The same points used in combat are also used during conversation, so careful use of this system is of great importance, making every decision just that little tougher. Since your points will only reset after sleeping, an extended quest becomes about managing your teams Effort as much as anything else, ensuring you’ve always got a few points up your sleeve for an emergency.
I relied heavily on Intellect, and talking myself out of dangerous situations before they escalated into violence. Over the course of my whole playthrough I can fairly confidently say I ended up in less than ten combat encounters, with many of those being mandatory. Quite a few of these situations can be defused through conversation or completing puzzles even once they’ve begun, adding layers of problem solving to what could just as easily have been a stock standard tavern brawl. It’s not all that often a game gives you just as more ways to avoid fighting than ways to start a fight. No matter which way you decide to handle yourself in the techno-magical Ninth World, the game will adjust itself accordingly, with top-notch writing making sure every choice makes sense and feels appropriate to the situation.
Both Planescape and Torment are heavily focused on using quality writing and the player’s imagination to convey events, rather than a reliance on graphics and excessive cutscenes. Torment is perhaps a little too overwhelming at times, and many of its early conversations could have used a bit of ruthless trimming to make them manageable. I am pleased to say that once the world opens up and the worst of the technobabble is out of the way the story finds its footing, with even the simplest side quest often taking plenty of time and requiring you to make distressingly tough decisions. To its credit, even seemingly innocuous decisions often carry far more weight than you would expect. Once it sunk in exactly how interwoven even the smallest conversation could become, I found myself weighing each of my decisions carefully before making my choice. When the proud parents of an adopted child are tight-lipped about their son’s history, what protagonist wouldn’t intervene? What does one life matter? It’s not often these days that side-quest NPC’s offer as much intrigue as the quests your companions offer, let alone the main questline itself.
It feels a bit unfair to compare the companions of Torment with the eclectic characters you could hang with in the previous game. The companions you can have accompanying you in your travels are all distinct and interesting people on their own, but are still essentially all humans with complex and often tragic histories for you to unravel. Though maybe not as exotic as a chaste succubus or a floating skull, I still became thoroughly attached to the eclectic band of followers I gathered in Torment. For a little perspective if we compare the motley crew of this game against the far larger Mass Effect Andromeda I can say without hesitation that I care for the characters in Torment far more than anyone I’ve met in the sci-fi blockbuster. Really this comes down to the audience each game is targeting. Andromeda feels aimed towards those looking for the story to take second place behind flashiness and bombast whilst Torment relies almost entirely on the story being the hook for its players. Don’t take this is a scathing jab at Andromeda, it’s just that it’s a totally different experience to the more cerebral and thought provoking game that Torment: Tides of Numenera strives to be.
I made my way through the whole game in around 28 hours, with plenty of backtracking to finish as many stories as possible. Every area in this game is densely packed with detail. And although you’ll spend much of your time switching between familiar screens, there always seemed to be something new that I’d missed on my last visit. Each area is a carefully crafted set piece, telling a story often as complex and multifaceted as the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps my only real complaint is that this game feels as though it’s missing a few scenes before it reaches its climax. This isn’t to say the ending is bad by any stretch, but rather the game enters its final act rather abruptly. Having said that I’m not entirely sure what could have been added without feeling like excessive padding, so perhaps the sudden rush was intended. Even through to the end I still had huge questions that had remained unanswered, which is how I think is how the developers wanted to end the game. They don’t want you to know everything when you take a stand and change the world, when you’re forced to make a choice despite your uncertainty. I loved that they were willing to leave the player in the dark, for without knowing all angles, what does one life matter?
No matter the slight gripes I have over some of the early plodding through mountains of lore, Torment: Tides of Numenera has rapidly become one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played. I have loved nearly every moment of my time with this game, but despite my praise I don’t think that it’s a game suited to everyone. Torment is very much designed to reward you for careful thinking, studious reading and patient planning more than acts of heroism or senseless violence. I’ve no doubt you could brute force your way through vast swathes of the story, but I feel that in doing so you’d miss out on some of the most heart-wrenching, complex stories that I’ve come across in a video game. Torment stands out as in this generation of RPG nearly as much as the original Planescape did so many years ago.
“What does one life matter?”
I’m still not sure I can answer that.
If you’re willing to show some patience and do a LOT of reading, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a fantastic game to lose yourself in