Torment: Tides of Numenera is the successor to Planetscape: Torment, the RPG developed by Black Isle Studios and released back in 1999. The cult status of the original meant that when the follow up went on to Kickstarter it was funded in around 6 hours to the tune of $4 million… so quite successful then. Set in a world created by Monte Cook of table-top RPG fame, Torment aims to provide a rich, detailed and consequence driven story, favouring that over action and loot farming typically seen in this genre. That said, crowd-funded games aren’t necessarily mass market and one of the key questions here is if the game will be able to break from the hardcore fanbase and make it into the mainstream.
InXile Entertainment and Techland Publishing have brought the high end sci-fi Ninth World to PC and console using the Unity engine combined with the skills and experience of a team used to building popular RPGs. The Ninth World is Earth in 1 billion years time, and you are a cast-off, a husk that used to be inhabited by a being that’s found a way to cheat death and live forever. It’s come at a price though, and continued regeneration has brought an ancient creature into the world called the Sorrow whose purpose is only to bring balance and stop the being and all his cast-offs. Cue the start of your epic adventure across mysterious and intriguing lands, as well as a journey into the dark recesses of your mind, as you try to figure out how to cling to life.
What Torment: Tides of Numenera is most reminiscent of is not an RPG game, but rather a choose-your-own adventure book, particularly given there is a great deal of reading and option selecting to do. The isometric environments are nicely detailed and form the limits of your exploration, though the core time you’ll spend in the Ninth World is actually in reading background history and character responses. There’s very little voice acting (and what’s in there is decent), so the onus is on you to either fully engage with every written word, or decide to skip it and see if you can figure out what’s happening on your own. Exploring all dialogue options isn’t essential in all cases, but is rewarding in terms of character growth so it’s best not to ignore it completely. It’ll also open up a myriad of side quests that will have you engaging with every nook, cranny and uniquely named character you come across.
It’s at this point that the game will become divisive. There are those that will either be used to this text heavy adventuring and take it in their stride, and those that are more used to having the content spoken to them and will find it a bit of a chore; and despite growing up spending my time with text adventures on the BBC Micro, I’m afraid I’m in the second camp. There are an impressive amount of characters to interact with, lots of different questions and responses you can select, and so a massive amount of dialogue to read. It’s not easy going either in the early stages as you get to grips with the language of the Ninth World and take on board the high concept elements of advanced technology and the intangible influence of the Tides. The first few hours alone are a slog purely because of the amount of text thrown out to establish context and the world, and then there are tutorials on top of that which are again, very wordy. It creates a sense of wading through treacle just to get the journey going, and establishes the speed at which you’re going to make progress.
You’d think then that the perfect counterpoint to the slower paced nature of exposition delivery would be getting into the combat side of things. The turn based system is pretty straightforward and familiar enough that you can pick up how it works if you’ve had enough RPG experience in the past. However, what’s unique here is that you don’t actually need to engage in combat because you can talk your way out of most situations, and even if that fails there are some instances where you can stop the fight before it gets chance to start. After an obligatory combat scenario near the beginning, it was a long time before I got into a battle again because my character build leant more towards intellect and stealth that either gave me the gift of the gab, or let me get a pre-emptive strike in against a leader and stop things escalating. It also nicely flows so that sometimes you don’t even realise there was going to be a scrap because you’ve naturally moved down a dialogue path that skips the conflict.
Being able to make it through the entire game without engaging in battle will mean you miss out on one of the more intriguing elements of the game – the Cyphers. These are unique, one time use only special items that give you an edge in combat, but come at a price. Carrying too many in your inventory can result in Cypher sickness that negatively affects your stats, or even run the risk of them exploding and wiping you out. Death isn’t the end though, punching your ticket in the real world will revert you back to exploring your own mind – trying to find your way out of a labyrinth and back to the present. Hidden in your subconscious maze are secrets, sub-plots and all manner of things to help increase your abilities so that when you do make it back to the land of the living you’re better equipped to deal with the dangers.
One of the most significant dangers you’ll encounter whilst exploring the many detailed environments is frustration. Sadly, the areas are far from optimised for performance and really let down the work that’s gone into them. Screens chug along as you move, skipping frames and causing NPCs to stutter; text from interactive objects hangs on the screen obscuring your view – and on more than one occasion didn’t disappear, even after I’d moved into a new region; and the loading times are long for the size of the area on display. In quite a few instances it takes a quarter of the time to traverse a landscape than it does to load it in, which gets quite annoying when you’re tracking back to complete side quests. There has been a patch to address a number of the launch issues, but playing through this latest update on a PS4 Pro it’s hard to compliment the way it runs, and from what’s been reported it’s not just the consoles that suffer.
Torment: Tides of Numenera isn’t a bad game, and the performance issues can be overlooked, but it certainly is an acquired taste. Some RPGs have the ability to transcend boundaries of genres and find mass appeal amongst the hardcore and casual alike, and whilst the scope and depth of this game should be given a large credit, it’s fundamentally a title that has a very specific audience – namely the people that helped crowdfund it. If tabletop gaming, philosophical questions about the essence of life, sci-fi settings, a huge amount of time to sink into a game, and very detailed lore absorption is your thing, then you’ll enjoy what’s on offer and will get the most out of the multiple outcomes each situation has the potential to present. If you’re not interested in any of those things I can only recommend you don’t pick this up on a whim, it might remain one of those titles that sits in your unfinished games section.
A PS4 review copy of Torment: Tides of Numenera was provided by the Techland PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.