Torment: Tides of Numenera
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Wordy. It’s the most concisely accurate descriptor of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and yet it isn’t meant pejoratively. As a gaming experience, it’s almost certainly the most text that you’ll ever read on a screen, but it is absolutely justified. The words themselves offer far more than the Pillars of Eternity engine it utilises, for while The Ninth World offers up colourful denizens to speak to and bizarre objects to interact with, it’s the stories and descriptions woven around these pixels which shine through. The writing fires synapses all over your brain, prodding your curiosity, making you recall similar fleeting ideas you may have had but never realised, and imbuing you with a sense of need which drives you to discover the end of every side quest, open every book, and tinker with every artifact.
It takes a few hours to adjust to the new world and, much like The Last Castoff you control, you will need to learn, listen and assimilate. The setting is The Ninth World, or rather Earth, one billion years in the future. With your memory almost entirely wiped after plunging to the planet in an incident you have no knowledge of, you awake in the Sagus Protectorate. An immortal of sorts, you’re a vessel discarded by The Changing God, a being who discovered he could transfer his consciousness between bodies in order to live forever. Each body he left behind - of which you are the most recent - developed its own soul, as well as a form of immortality. Yet his unholy endeavour unleashed the wrath of The Sorrow, an abomination who seeks only to destroy not only him, but any of his previous castoff bodies. Your goal, then, is to find a way to stop The Sorrow, and confront your sire.
Creating A Castoff
Torment introduces you to its mechanics and the essence of its role-playing immediately, and it’s refreshing to find the character build is a streamlined experience. A series of memories, similar to the ones you "reached" for in Pillars of Eternity, guides you through the preface. Here, however, they are interactive and allow you to decide how each scenario plays out. The results factor into your ultimate decision: which of the three character types you're going to play. Glaives, Jacks and Nanos are Torment’s analogue of warriors, everyman rogues and wizards, all with their own skills and benefits, but the one which the game decides suits you best is determined by your responses to various questions.
Traditional role-playing games would be unable to implement this kind of clever build mechanism, simply due to the sheer amount of attributes that most are hampered with. Torment strips these down, and is all the better for it. That said, if you do end up with a type you don't like, you're able to alter it at the initial choice screens. You'll also need to pick abilities, exploration and weapon skills to round off your character. On our playthrough, the game decided that a nano would be the most suitable character type, so he was bolstered with extra intelligence, a cleansing spell, knowledge of mystical lore, and the ability to read people's surface thoughts. A final choice lets you add a descriptor - picked from numerous options including Observant and Canny - which boosts abilities like Perception and Concentration to the detriment of others, such as Running or Persuasion.
Each character type will utilise three different Effort stat pools - Might, Speed and Intelligence, for both skill checks and combat. Completing a task may require you to spend Effort from one of the pools to improve the base score, and therefore your chance of being successful. If you want to distract a bureaucrat by scattering his papers you’ll need to use Speed, while deceiving folk draws on Intelligence, and more brute force jobs like pulling things from rubble requires Might. Each of your party will also have a bonus to certain stats, known as Edge, which lets you spend less Effort or even complete certain actions for free. You can flick between each character when you’re working out how best to handle a situation, and see which of them is more likely to be the most useful - but only if they have enough points in their stat pools.
Since the pools can be refreshed with consumables, spells (known as esoteries) and resting, there are plenty of opportunities for you to take your time around the world and perhaps back off from specific actions until you’re sure you have enough Effort points to make a good go of any situation. However, it’s also worth noting that some quests are time-sensitive, and since resting pushes the clock on, you may miss the window for completing them. Additionally, certain quests are only completable in either the day or night, adding a further layer of decision-making to proceedings.
Overall though, the entire process of choice is made straightforward by limiting your decisions to those three stat pools, and decluttering the gameplay helps Torment immensely. Further simplification of the traditional party system comes with movement. Only The Last Castoff is selectable or controllable, and the rest of the party simply follows you. Aside from making pathfinding far more simple (although still not perfect), it removes the need for micromanaging individual characters. This, in turn, precludes any significant tactical manoeuvring in combat, but as combat isn’t a major part of the game, this isn’t a huge issue.
Hit Me Up
That said, you are almost certainly assured of a battle at some stage of your playthrough, and the good news is that the combat mechanics have been given a major overhaul in the eighteen years since Planescape: Torment. For a start, an encounter is labelled as a “Crisis”, and even in this situation you may still be able to influence your antagonists and talk your way out of trouble if the opportunity is there, or even use the environment to aid you. If not, then you’ll enter a turn-based scenario similar to the mechanics of Wasteland 2.
Each turn you can make one movement and use one ability, including melee and ranged attacks. As with normal tasks, by spending Effort points you can both increase your chances of hitting and also augment your attacks to do more damage - often with damage effects such as Chemical, Transdimensional, and Energy which affect enemies in different ways depending on their resistance. The pool from which your Effort comes from will vary - some weapons pull from Intellect, unarmed attacks use Speed, and certain esoteries may use different resources. You’ll need to keep an eye on each of your characters’ stat pools, as these will make up the core of your offensive might.
However, there are also one-shot items known as Ciphers which often prove a boon in battle. Ciphers are wonderfully unique, and each has specific properties to aid you or wreak havoc on your enemies during a Crisis. From a disgusting bladder which coats you in healing viscera, to an unstable detonation that has the potential to cause you as many problems as your foes, Ciphers are both weird and dangerous. Carrying too many of them will inflict a sickness upon your character which reduces their stats in some way, so carefully picking and choosing the ones you want (or just using them as soon as you can) is often a wise choice.
Overall, combat is a simple process of a turn-by-turn move and attack, but since you can see which of your enemies is next in line to act, you have a slight advantage and can adjust your focus accordingly. Torment’s combat isn’t going to win any awards for innovation or depth, but it’s far preferable to the likes of Pillars of Eternity where it often felt that you were one step removed from the battle, and just constantly selecting abilities. Here, you have to think far more tactically, map out your path across the battlefield, and keep an eye on any party members whose health is dwindling. It works effectively, and victories feel earned.
Pack It Up, Pack It In
Ciphers aren’t the only items you’ll pick up on your travels. Alongside the usual weapons and armour - almost all of which feel considered and meaningful - there are equally bizarre Bonded Artifacts. These bestow significant benefits, some of which come at the cost of your other stats. They are far more stable than Ciphers, though you'll need to decide whether their advantages are worth the negative effects. For example, the Scholarch's Archive attaches to your spine and boosts your training level in a couple of areas, as well as improving attack damage - but the payoff is lower Persuasion and Initiative. As you level up, you can opt to negate these disadvantages and use more Ciphers and Bonded Artifacts without penalty.
Finally there are Oddities, such as a ball that screams whenever it hears the sound of laughter, or a jar of paint that changes colour to match the mood of whoever has it daubed on their face. They are essentially the Torment equivalent of junk items, and usually fetch a decent price from merchants. But even these are interesting, reflecting the fact that inXile were willing to go the extra mile by immersing you in the culture of The Ninth World and the backdrop of the game - Monte Cook’s Numenera. Oddities might not have any value other than monetary gain, but we were still loath to get rid of them just in case they came in useful.
Because weapon and armour slots are reduced to the basics, and since Ciphers and quest items have their own areas, your inventory is wonderfully easy to manage. It will consist of Oddities, consumables, and gear you no longer need. You’re never overwhelmed, and for the first time in what seems like an aeon, your backpack feels useful - containing only what you need, or are interested in keeping. Shins, the game’s currency, are sparse enough to prevent you from overloading yourself with items, and the lack of constant item rearranging feels like a lifted weight which lets you concentrate on the game rather than constantly shifting encumbrance.
Tell Me A Story
Each area is packed with interesting characters and quests. Whether you're sparring with a martial artist who can slow down time in Cliffs Edge, or sampling different types of meat in the Underbelly grown by a man who is covered in toes, you'll find dozens of fascinating narrative nuggets. Some of them will help you remember some of your past lives, while others will give you the opportunity to help - or hurt - a few of the unfortunate inhabitants of the city.
The tasks you’re given and their possible solutions go hand-in-hand with the character you want to roleplay. When you see a man being slowly tortured, you can leave him to his fate, attempt to get a fake document to set him free, or rile up the crowd to turn against his captors. When a boy covered in huge blisters is contemplating surgery from a dubious doctor to help him look more attractive, you can advise him on the procedure, trick him into giving you all the money he’s saved, or convince him that beauty is on the inside and that he should return to the childhood friend who misses him. Which is the right decision? The game leaves that up to you to decide.
Interacting with your environment can also yield unexpected results, whether you fail or succeed. For instance, examining a tree of metallic hands may provide you with a mace or a seedpod if you expend Effort points. But if your Effort fails, the tree will wound you, injecting you with metal and inadvertently make you stronger - increasing your permanent health. From the beginning, Torment wants you to experiment and explore, and not to consider failure of an attempt to be a negative. It's a simple idea, both refreshing and compelling.
It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To
You’ll be accompanied - if you desire - by up to three other companions, from the six you’ll meet as you explore the world. Each of them has a story, whether it’s an orphan girl who talks to a rock in her pocket, a matriarch who has phased through dimensions and fractured her very being, or an idiot warrior whose broken mind may actually have been caused by something more sinister. Their backgrounds are thoughtful, their personalities distinct, and since you will only get to spend a playthrough with half of them for any significant time, there was an immediate desire to return to the game and run through it with the other three as well. They feel more fully written than the characters in the likes of Tyranny and Pillars, and their quirks feel at home in the techno-medieval setting.
Planescape: Torment fans will lap this up, and there are some nice nods to Torment’s spiritual successor, including at least one NPC who makes a useful cameo. Furthermore, as in its forebear, death isn’t necessarily the end of the game. Here, a fatal misstep will take you to the labyrinth of your mind, where further quests and puzzles await you. One of the most impressive achievements of the game is how it ties various tasks together, regardless of how you discover them. The narrative threads weave in and out of each other seamlessly - an underground resurrection machine could be linked to a ghostly figure in the labyrinth, while additionally serving as research material for a novice wanting to be a priest. How you piece them all together is one of the game’s real pleasures, allowing you to uncover its secrets in whichever way you decide to approach them.
Given the level of density involved, it’s no surprise that major area hubs are cordoned off from each other, cleanly closing off any unfinished minor quests as you move onto the next segment of the story. It may disappoint completists desperate to find and finish everything on one playthrough, but that simply isn’t possible. The sheer number of interactive items, party-specific tasks, and conversation options (which organically change based on your character’s stats and alignment with the eponymous Tides) mean that multiple runs will be required to discover the majority of the game’s secrets. And like its predecessor, there are likely to be new discoveries made for many months, if not years, to come.
Ultimately though, Torment offers up such an abundance of ideas that absorbing them all at your first attempt would be like trying to read a potted history of philosophy from the twenty greatest minds in the field over the course of a weekend. Weighty themes such as existentialism, death, morality and sentience are dissected and presented for study and judgement in numerous illuminating and enjoyable ways, but the burden of digesting such a banquet of concepts through text alone may prove too much for some to stomach. Yet, for all of Torment’s verbosity there is an underlying accessibility, a willingness and desire for you to understand and question. It may be couched in the game’s unique slang and delivered by otherworldly mutants but, like Planescape, the core ideal shines through. For those willing to embrace it and immerse themselves, they’ll find The Ninth World the perfect setting for a superlative story and Tides of Numenera a worthy heir.