Torment: Tides of Numenera – Review
26 May, 2017
Torment: Tides of Numenera is the sequel to narrative-heavy RPG Planescape: Torment, and makes you a stranger in a strange land. Here’s what we think.
Torment: Tides of Numenera begins with the game’s protagonist hurtling down through the sky, towards the Ninth World: a name given to Earth, a billion years in the future. The game’s introduction has no flashy CG cutscene like the original Planescape: Torment. Instead, it treats you to nothing but darkness as the wind rips at you. This intro acclimatises you to the primary mechanic of the game: reading a lot of stuff.
Sure, the game has exploration, combat, trade: all the trappings of a role-playing game. Above all else, however, there is a ton of reading to be done as your protagonist interacts with people and objects in The Ninth World. This is probably the first barrier of entry potential players should know about. If you’re not prepared to read several novels’ worth of words, Torment is probably not for you.
If you do enjoy the written word, however, then you will find that like its predecessor, Numenera tells a story about identity and immortality. Much of it revolves around an entity known as the The Changing God, a mysterious figure with the know-how to change bodies and indefinitely prolong his life. Every time he changes his body, his previous body, engineered to be hardy and immortal in itself, is ‘cast off’.
You are the latest such ‘castoff’, and as you are busy skydiving towards the Ninth World, you develop a consciousness. You soon discover that another mysterious entity, The Sorrow, is hunting down both The Changing God and the castoffs. Not unlike Planescape, your adventure is a deeply personal one as you continuously escape the clutches of The Shadow while searching for meaning and identity in the mad, mad world you’ve literally fallen into.
There are things I’ve experienced in Torment: Tides of Numenera that I could not so much as have imagined before. Going into the premise, I was aware that The Ninth World was going to be a strange place full of curiosities, but nothing really prepared me for the bizarre concepts the game threw at me.
Shortly after your ‘birth’, you find yourself in the sprawling metropolis of Sagus Cliffs. Absolutely nothing in this city is mundane. The guards of the city, called ‘Levies’, are in fact genetically (?) engineered beings and created when citizens gives up a year of their life each.
Take a stroll around the Government Square, and you will find the ‘Red Thicket’, a walled-off garden where you can speak without fear of being overheard. Literally. The only people who can hear what you say in the Red Thicket are the people you intend to speak to.
Crawl around in the muck of the city’s underground Underbelly, and you will come across a cult that consumes corpses to obtain their memories and stored wisdom. Later in the game, you find yourself in The Bloom: a massive inter-dimensional organic being made of raw meat that has come to be a lawless home for outcasts and the desperate.
The word ‘fantasy’ in modern pop culture has come to conjure images of a predictably Tolkienist world full of elves and dwarves, but much like the original Planescape: Torment, Numenera presents a world that rightfully stakes its claim on the word ‘fantasy’. It is truly a world unlike any I’ve seen or imagined, a world I will no doubt keep returning to, like a fascinating dream I can revisit time and again.
Many of the game’s wonders are sealed behind its wildly descriptive writing. Not content with presenting you just dialogue, the conversation boxes in Numenera will treat your senses with descriptions. The writing in Numenera appeals not just to sight and hearing, but even touch, smell, taste and memory. Touch an unusual monument, and you find yourself reliving memories from a past life. Pick up an oddity, and you find that even if it has no use to you, it bears enough description to make you wonder what use it could possibly have had.
The original Planescape: Torment is perhaps best known for two things: its tremendous writing, and its terrible combat. You don’t have to play Numenera for very long to realise that developer inXile Entertainment were conscious about the original game’s failings. The original had to concede to an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system and add dungeons with stock enemies, but Numenera forges into a decidedly different direction.
While the game does bear a role-playing system, it feeds more into dialogue and exploration than it does into combat. Dungeons are completely gone, and every enemy you encounter has an explicit reason to hurt you. Most of the time, you can talk your way out of a fight, and sometimes, you can talk your way out during a fight. It’s a fresh and even courageous take on role-playing that puts Torment: Tides of Numenera somewhere between a conventional RPG and a text-based choose-your-own-adventure game, like inkle’s 80 Days.
The game’s unusual role-playing system gives you three ‘stat pools’: Might, Speed and Intellect. Like a health bar, these are filled up when you rest, and expended when you use them for special tasks or during fights. You can refuel them with certain items, but if you run out of a stat, you’ll have to either rely on your party members’ pools or find another way out of a situation. Numenera rarely, if ever, forces you down a singular path, and you almost always have a choice in what you can do to resolve a situation—which sometimes, may not be ideal, just like in real life.
The stat pool system feels, like the rest of the game, strange. The idea of committing a skill check, which is how most role-playing games deal with special effort, makes more sense than the idea of a depletable pool. Can you really expect a little girl to move rocks with the same efficiency as an older, seasoned warrior, just because she has enough Might points to spend? And if it can be imagined that a character is too ‘tired’ to use their Might points, how indeed can they manage to use Speed with ease?
The system may not seem entirely believable, but it works uniquely for a game like Torment: Tides of Numenera, where being able to use pool points results in never feeling limited by your skills. If your character doesn’t have too much Speed, she can still snatch an object from a non-player character, but she’ll have to find a way to replenish that pool to perform a similar feat. Better yet, the game allows you to spend your party members’ pools as well, which, apart from being convenient, adds to a sense of party collaboration.
When things do go sour in Torment: Tides of Numenera, you enter what is called a ‘Crisis’. It looks and feels like a turn-based tactical battle, but every Crisis is bespoke. Most of the time, you will be able to use various environmental objects both strange and mundane, and in some cases, you can resolve a Crisis by talking. I did not keep track of how many Crises I ended up in, but if I had, the number would likely have been countable on my fingers.
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