Torment: Tides of Numenera carefully balances brilliant storytelling with meaningful player choice, creating a role-playing experience unlike any other.
I was a good 10 hours into Torment: Tides of Numenera before I had my first violent encounter, and I love it for that. Even with the resurgence of adventure games and growing popularity of “walking simulators”, it’s still the norm for games to put combat first, and build everything else around that. This is especially true of RPGs, as richly storied as they may be; from the dungeon crawlers of yore, to the Infinity Engine games that so clearly inspired Numenera, to the modern takes on those classics, combat is almost always a defining component.
Not so with Torment: Tides of Numenera. Though it looks the part, with its isometric perspective and pre-rendered environments, it’s not an attempt to re-create Baldur’s Gate. Rather, it’s a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, another Infinity Engine game celebrated for its story, and the way it puts story before all else.
Numenera plays more like an adventure game, or even a visual novel. There’s a lot of text throughout the game, as you explore and talk to the many denizens of the game’s world. That’s a very good thing, because the writing is phenomenal. This is the sort of game compelled me to talk to every NPC I could find and exhaust every dialogue choice, just to read what people had to say. It’s often funny, sometimes poignant, and occasionally heartbreaking, but even the most mundane conversations – inasmuch as banter in a world as twisted as Numenera’s can be mundane – is captivating. That’s comes down purely to the talent of the writing team.
All that dialogue is also the cornerstone of how you go about playing Torment: Tides of Numenera. I’m reluctant to call it a “choice and consequence” game because that’s a phrase that’s been abused to the point of losing all meaning, but that’s exactly what Torment is. It’s an RPG where the emphasis on role-playing; on being the sort of person you want to be within this outlandish setting, and seeing how the world reacts to you.
To that end, it’s overflowing with choices: dialogue choices, decisions about which quests to pursue and when, choices about who accompanies you in your journey, stat-based skill checks, and so on. For any given problem, there’s a myriad of solutions, many of which depend on the compound effects of previous decisions. By its very nature as a game, the options are finite, but the feel limitless – and more importantly, they feel organic.
Of course, it’s still a structured game, with a broadly linear progression through a main storyline. It’s not a completely open-ended game, nor is it a purely on-rails one; rather,I liken it to a massive, multi-lane freeway. You start in the same place, and keep going in the same general direction, but there are a lot of different parallel routes to that end, which you can hop between more or less at will, and a lot of different off-ramps you can take depending on which lane you’re in and when you’re in it. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with the on-rails approach – I love Telltale’s work precisely because of its linear structure and the scope that offers for telling a coherent, authored story – but Torment: Tides of Numenera strikes a delicate balance between freedom and structure that works incredibly well.
A genuine commitment to moral complexity helps on that front, too. A lot of games boast difficult moral choices and shades of grey, but don’t have the quality of writing or characterisation to back that up. Torment, on the other hand, has that in spades, so the moral ambiguity works.
One side quest tasks you with figuring out how to deal with an “infestation” of bug-like creatures that feed off rocks, and are slowly destroying the city above the place they’re burrowing. They need food, and these particular rocks are the only ones that provide enough sustenance, but they’re compromising the integrity of the ground and causing homes to collapse. It’d be easy to show one side or the other as the “good guys”, or even to create an ambiguous but hollow dilemma by presenting both sides and leaving it at that.
But Torment: Tides of Numenera takes the time to go into some depth and explore the issue from different perspectives, focus on the human element, and engage you in a way that makes your approach personal and, as a result, meaningful. When you choose to forcibly evict the creatures, or let them continue uninterrupted, or find some sort of middle ground, it’s not simply for points on an alignment chart, or a coin-flip between equally unpleasant options. It’s not even just a judgement call based on some sort of moral relativism, though that’s certainly a component. It’s much more than that – it’s an extension of the character you’re creating over the full journey through the game.
That’s just one example of many such situations throughout the game. Not all are as heavy and bleak as that – there are personality conflicts, moments of political maneuvering, comical exchanges – but what’s consistent through all of them is how genuine they feel, and the impact they have on that element of role-playing your character.
It’s thanks to this commitment to some degree of freedom that combat can be such a rare occurrence. There’s almost always a way to avoid battles (or Crises, as they’re called in the game), and often you can even defuse a fight from within it, by talking or doing some other action rather than attacking. This is good, because if Torment has any weak point, it’s the combat. The mechanics are simple: within a turn based system, each character gets to move once and act once per turn. That’s a system that’s stood the test of time and works well. My issue is how heavily they depend on luck.
There’s always a random element in RPGs, but you can generally rely on some degree of consistency because of the frequency of combat. Even if a character has only 70 percent accuracy, you can rely on the pot odds balancing out over time. In Tides of Numenera, battles are rare enough and the success rate of actions is generally low enough that everything feels like a gamble every time. Even if you build your character for combat and take a smart tactical approach, the outcome ultimately comes down the fickleness of fate, lady luck, RNGesus, or whichever god of the dice to whom you pray.
It does make for a good deterrent from combat, but actions in combat just don’t feel like they carry the same weight as those made in dialogue and elsewhere. When you make a decision and the shit hits the fan as a result, there’s a sense of ownership and even a sense of blame. When a character dies because of the the coin landed, it just feels pointless. (But, I guess, that’s its own point about how futile and aimless violence is as a solution to problems.)
It’s worth putting up with some occasional frustration in combat for a game that’s as good in every other way as this one is. Torment: Tides of Numenera has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a game, and it’s rare to see a game that weaves a coherent narrative and player choice together as well as this. Fundamentally, it’s an RPG that puts the focus on role-playing, and it’s wonderful to see that outside the tabletop space.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is developed by inXile Entertainment and published by Techland. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A press copy was supplied by Techland for this review.