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Torment: Tides of Numenera | Game Review

Seventeen years ago I stumbled into a world where devils bartered with merchants on every street corner, touching the wrong shoe could send you to a pocket dimension and a sentient manifestation of the letter “O” was one of the tamer beings you might encounter.

Every alien experience in that place left my mind reeling, but the human heart at its core stayed with me ever after.

Planescape: Torment was, and remains, my favorite game of all time. Out of the hundreds I’ve played, none have yet matched its intelligence, wild creativity and understated passion.

You can understand why playing its successor would inspire a seesaw of excitement and anxiety. Even after taming my anticipation, it was impossible not to hope for greatness.

I could say that sense of hope suffered an atmospheric drop and collided with a building like the main character of T: ToN, but that’s too explosive a fate.

No, my hope merely gave a sad flicker and smudged itself out.

Distant and Otherworldly Like a Dying Star

AKA This is What Happens When a World Has More Personality than Its Inhabitants

I’m being dramatic. I don’t regret backing T: ToN when it appeared on Kickstarter. Numenera has its strengths and weaknesses like any other game.

It’s just that, considering its legacy—an important theme in the plot—it’s frustrating most of the areas it suffers are where it should’ve been strongest.

 

TToN Base
The “Bronze Sphere” was an important item in Torment, and it plays a helpful but less pivotal role in Numenera

I’ll be comparing Numenera with Planescape: Torment (hereafter referred to as Torment) in this review to support my criticisms. This might lead some to believe I’m not judging the game based on its own merits. In truth, I do this for simplicity’s sake since Torment is the most direct example of an RPG like this done right.

With a massive script of 1.2 million words, T: ToN seemed bursting with promise. Its size surpasses even its predecessor, which breached 800k.

“Survival” may be enough reason to keep playing an action title where the draw is exciting gameplay, but in a narrative RPG like this, there need to be emotional motivators.

Torment is famed for being a talky game, one you read more than play. You spend most of your time in dialogue, asking questions, choosing responses, interacting with the environment through words. The narrative is its life blood.

It follows that Numenera‘s plot should’ve been rock solid, yet it sits in the shadow of its predecessor.

Torment is about an immortal man who’s played many roles in life, but lost his memory in the process. The struggle to reclaim his past takes on urgency as he realizes his unique condition has given rise to the Transcendent One, a being which seeks to end him for good.

 

TToN Changing God
The Changing God

Numenera is about an immortal man who body-hops from one host to the next. When he leaves a host, a remnant of his consciousness remains and gives rise to a new person called a Castoff. The sire and his “children” are hunted by the Sorrow, an entity created by… spoilers.

The similarities felt a little on nose, but the opportunity to meet “family members” who were all former hosts to the man called the Changing God offered serious plot fuel.

It just never took off.

A Lotta’ Brains, Lacking Heart

The game starts with a fall. You, a Castoff, have been abandoned at the most inopportune time and find yourself hurtling through space toward a realm called the Ninth World.

You (hopefully) survive and get to say hi to the Sorrow before temporarily banishing it. Then you meet two unusual persons. One is a man with living tattoos; the other is a transdimensional woman who constantly shifts in and out of focus.

The pair info dump on you right away: telling you what a Castoff is, the things they know about your sire, details on the Ninth World, their histories and why they want to travel with you.

The trouble isn’t that you can ask about these things, but that they’re delivered in such a dry and encyclopedic way.

 

TToN Adahn
Ah, another Torment callback… stop teasing me

Contrast this with the subtler approach of Torment: Your amnesiac hero wakes up in a mortuary to find a fast-talking skull nearby. He mentions that a note has been scarred on your back and reads it to you.

This makes you ask leading questions: Who wrote the note? Should I find the man it mentions? Did I end up here by mistake, or did I seriously die? Who am I?

These are only answered in part, teasing you to explore further. You don’t even know the Transcendent One exists until later in the game.

Want to talk your way out a fight? Steal someone’s unpredictable artifact? Link your mind to an ancient malevolent being? It’s all good.

Numenera front-loads all its exposition, effectively killing momentum. You know who and what you are. You know what’s hunting you, if not why. You know the reason you can’t die.

What now? Escape the Sorrow, maybe?

“Survival” may be enough reason to keep playing an action title where the draw is exciting gameplay, but in a narrative RPG like this, there need to be emotional motivators.

Trouble is, I couldn’t find any. I never felt a personal connection with my character, her companions or the world’s NPCs.

 

TToN Castoff
Yeah, you can choose your gender. It didn’t help me relate any better.

The problem begins with the Castoff’s insipid depiction. It’s understandable they would start out as a blank slate, but they never grow into their own person.

If a dialogue response reads, “Intimidate the beast to stop it from eating you,” then you select it and the game moves on without any accompanying dialogue. At best, you might express the lukewarm equivalent of, “Back off, I’m tough!”

In Torment you’d get The Nameless One saying something awesome, like, “You can try, but you’ll die from a bellyache as I gut you.”

This is unfortunate, since the name-dropped “Tides” are a big part of Numenera‘s appeal. These color-coded energies offer more nuanced choices when interacting with the world than the typical good/evil dichotomy, such as the blue tide ruling logic and gold representing altruism.

Freedom of Choice

On a happier note, what the Tides lack in expression they make up for in versatility. The game presents you with a ton of options and freedom when it comes to resolving quests. I’d go so far as to say more than any other RPG from the past decade.

Want to talk your way out a fight? Steal someone’s unpredictable artifact? Link your mind to an ancient malevolent being? It’s all good.

Replayability is only a bonus so far as you’re invested.

The Tides must’ve kept the devs at InXile busy with the vast amount of variables needed to track each and every interaction. You’re never locked into a set path; you can choose to go back on your word or follow an entirely different thread halfway through a quest chain.

Even the combat doesn’t need to involve brawling. During scarce turn-based encounters called crises, you can interact with the environment and NPCs to peacefully resolve situations or sway the circumstances in your favor.

 

TToN Crisis
100% success! What can I say, my character was really smart (if little else)

An “effort system” allows you to use stat points to increase the effectiveness of attacks or your chances of success at an action, just like in dialogue.

This means your wimpy nano (wizard) can use all their strength points to knock over a rock and block an enemy’s path, or a dumb glaive (warrior) can put together their two brain cells to override an AI system.

The flexibility to handle quests on your own terms is enjoyable and should’ve made me eager to replay the game and explore different outcomes. But replayability is only a bonus so far as you’re invested.

Without any affinity for the people around me, it was hard to care about the tasks I was given. Most NPCs were so busy describing their super awesome projects and mysterious homelands that they forgot to develop personalities.

Worldbuilding Woes

In an act of hilarious/cruel irony, there’s even a character in Sagus Cliffs, the first main city, who literally serves as nothing more than a history dispenser!

I turned to the companions for emotional redemption, but they were a mixed bag. For all the time InXile said they worked on “deeper interactions,” I found little to discuss.

Around Numenera‘s midpoint I was hit with a heavy-handed discussion of the game’s central question, “What does one life matter?” Apparently not much.

I kept chatting, hoping to improve my relationships or talk about all the weird stuff going on. Yet once I’d exhausted the companions’ original dialogue paths, they only had brief comments before reaching their personal quests. I found none of the deep, philosophic discussions that built throughout Torment.

Growing weary of my allies’ silence, my mind wandered back to a group of psychics I’d met in a Sagus Cliffs dive bar. The comradery and purpose between them had filled me with jealousy. They even had inside jokes!

It was something my random and depressive group utterly lacked.

 

TToN Mere
Look at that! Tension, curiosity and setting established in mere sentences. Where was the editor for the rest of the game?

It’s a shame that Numenera‘s best writing is found in mostly optional “choose your own adventure” segues about Castoff siblings, because they would’ve made fantastic playable segments. They were great precisely because they focused on specific characters instead of bloated worldbuilding, but they’re still removed from your own narrative.

Around Numenera‘s midpoint I was hit with a heavy-handed discussion of the game’s central question, “What does one life matter?”

Apparently not much.

My previous decisions were largely ignored at the story’s end, and instead I was presented with a Mass Effect 3-like “choose your ending” scenario based on the Tidal checklist. None of the conclusions felt very satisfying.

In Which Setting Saves the Day

You want to know what Numenera can give you, if not an intriguing story or meaningful relationships?

The world.

The game’s setting was my last bastion of hope, and miraculously, it delivered. Monte Cook has created an apt successor to the Planescape universe.

From a lore angle, they truly made me believe that the average street rat could happen across the right item and become a demigod.

Technically the Ninth World is our own Earth, just a billion years in the future. Countless civilizations have enjoyed their glory days then subsequently fallen, leaving behind remnants of technology that are as unpredictable as magic.

Not only does Numenera give you glimpses into all manner of exotic cultures, but you can equip unique items called cyphers and artifacts that convey powers to your characters. One might be a worm that borrows into your brain and improves your perception, another a mechanical apparatus that chirps as it blinds enemies with lasers.

 

TToN Bloom
I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

These treasures allow you to customize your character and explore different play styles regardless of your starting class. From a lore angle, they truly made me believe that the average street rat could happen across the right item and become a demigod.

They could also end up electrocuted by a biomechanical vine, but hey, what’s life without a little risk?

Numenera didn’t blow me away, but I’ll remember its flashes of brilliance.

In Numenera, even the vendor trash is special. Called “oddities” in game, I found myself examining every item I picked up for the compelling descriptions before deciding if I could let them go.

One of my favorites was a tiny, chittering fish I grabbed from a fountain. How could I sell that?

Pieces to a Different Puzzle

Numenera itself is an odd chimera, and not always in a good way. The game feels like a collection of short stories. Some tales drag, too caught up in their own cleverness to engage with readers. Others take advantage of unique material to tug at your curiosity.

But this is not the grand, sweeping novel that Torment was. I don’t blame Numenera for not living up to its predecessor, but I do fault it for being a choice-centric RPG that failed to make me care about the choices it presented.

 

TToN Ceturl Statue
If you run into this kitty, give it a pat for me

Numenera didn’t blow me away, but I’ll remember its flashes of brilliance—a Castoff sibling’s quest to save a race of peaceful monsters, how I explored the memories of an ancient cat deity and my portal-jumping escape from the belly of a beast.

In the future, I hope InXile takes those shards of promise and turns them into something as rare and precious as Numenera‘s artifacts.

 

 Good Weird world to explore Many ways to resolve quests Attention to detail and immersion
 Bad Unemotional plot, forgettable characters Underutilized crises Lack of resolution based on choices

 

Links
Torment: Tides of Numenera on Amazon, Steam and GOG

Rhylan Dane

Rhylan Dane

Formerly a freelance copywriter, Rhylan now manages Armorbelle and creates marketing thingamajigs for personal clients. She has wanted to be a pirate since the age of 3, and although she still has no idea how to sail, she’s become very adept at stabbing and plundering.
Rhylan Dane

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