Torment: Tides of Numenera is a spiritual successor to the critically-acclaimed Planescape: Torment. It was financed via Kickstarter, and at the time, it claimed the crown for the highest-funded video game in the service's history, raking in $4 million.
Like its predecessor, Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on a tabletop campaign, with an incredibly heavy emphasis on story, choice, and consequence. The very meaning of "choice and consequence" has been diluted over the years, as publishers overuse the terminology to market their games. But Torment: Tides of Numenera is different. Almost every encounter can be solved without violent conflict; every quest has a dizzying array of resolutions; and almost every non-player character (NPC) has a story to tell.
InXile successfully adapted the open-ended essence of tabletop roleplaying in Torment: Tides of Numenera. But is it the right kind of game for you?
Torment: Tides of Numenera in brief
Torment: Tides of Numenera is one of the richest story-driven experiences available on Xbox One today, granting users an utterly amazing amount of choice for moving through its rich and subversive plot.
Set on Earth millions of years into the future, you play as a disoriented human shell, known as The Last Castoff. Your body was created and used to house the consciousness of The Changing God, a man who transcends mortality by casting off bodies as they approach death, implanting his mind into new shells. A trans-dimensional beast known only as The Sorrow pursues The Changing God and his Castoffs for reasons unknown, and if you are to survive, you must navigate a dangerous sci-fi fantasy world teeming with the remnants of millions of years of civilization and apocalypse.
In Torment: Tides of Numenera, the possibilities seem almost endless. You can intimidate, trick, bribe, charm, and perform various other feats to resolve quests. That is, of course, if your preference edges towards the nonviolent. On the flip side, you can blast your enemies into bloody chunks using the game's various gizmos and spells, utilizing its deep and strategic turn-based RPG combat system.
Torment: Tides of Numenera may not appeal to everyone, however, even core RPG fans. It's a text-heavy game that frequently asks players to use their imagination for moments that would otherwise be presented in animated cut-scenes in "modern" games. The emphasis on text-based descriptions and dialogue allows Tides of Numenera to create its rich, branching narrative, all without bankrupting InXile. But the tradeoffs are clear.
Ultimately, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a vital purchase for those who enjoy RPGs in which consequences truly matter, for few accomplish this aim as well as Numenera. Steer clear if you have a heavy dislike of reading, but even casual book worms will find joy in Torment's writing, characters, story and gameplay.
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Navigating The Ninth World
Torment: Tides of Numenera story and setting
Torment: Tides of Numenera takes place in what in-game scholars call "The Ninth World," in reference to the amount of civilizations that have risen up and disappeared across millions of years of human advancement. The ebb and flow of the ages has left the Earth littered with the ruins of the past. "Numenera" literally refers to any artifact from a bygone age, whose purposes have often been long forgotten.
In these millions of years, the Earth has seemingly been visited by aliens, new creatures have evolved, and the veil between dimensions has been pierced, leading to all sorts of inconsistent phenomena, flora and fauna. Any attempts to try to make sense of Torment: Tides of Numenera's world would prove to be as mad as some of its denizens, who range from robots, flesh constructs, trans-dimensional entities, and sometimes, mundane, destitute humans.
As The Last Castoff, you are the by-product of The Changing God's desire to transcend mortality. The Changing God is known throughout the ages as a person who discovered the means to achieve immortality, by transplanting his consciousness into artificially-constructed human bodies. As each body is damaged, or even killed, The Changing God moves into a new host, and the previous shell is known as a Castoff.
Castoffs gain a consciousness of their own shortly after being discarded, yet their true nature is one of the game's signature mysteries. Endowed with super-human powers owing to The Changing God's design, the Castoffs number in the hundreds, perhaps millions, and each of them attempt to find a meaning and purpose in a world that is unforgiving and chaotic.
The game opens with the Castoff falling to Earth from space itself, from what he or she at least recalls to be an exploding moon. The player awakens inside the Castoff's mind and encounters the game's primary antagonist, The Sorrow. Appearing only as a black, tentacled entity of monstrous dark energy, The Sorrow presents itself as a being that can warp space and time, complete with the capability to enter minds, as well as the physical realm itself.
The Sorrow wants only to destroy The Changing God and anything touched by him or her, including his Castoffs — that means you.
Without spoiling the whole thing, Tides of Numenera offers a dark, engaging, and often shocking story where your choices really, really matter. I'll go over that a little more in the gameplay segment below, but the story feels all the more visceral when your choices can very critically affect those around you, including character companions that you may have grown to like.
The story is delivered primarily in a text-based format, which may deter even core modern RPG fans. There are occasional instances of voiced dialogue, but these moments are few and far in between. It's a shame that Tides of Numenera doesn't include a little more voice work, but given the sheer volume of dialogue, this would be a gargantuan financial burden for the comparatively small studio. Instead, Tides of Numenera leans on quality writing to deliver its discourse, scenery and character actions.
Tides of Numenera is based on Obsidian Entertainment's Pillars of Eternity technology, running on Unity 3D. The backdrops are pre-rendered 2D scenes, and for what they lack in modern 3D flair, they make up for it with relentless creativity. The Ninth World is full of all manner of mysterious apocrypha, and that sentiment is celebrated well by Tides' art direction, character designs, and magical spells.
A little more disappointing, however, is the quality of the engine on Xbox One. While far from unplayable, the game suffers from atrocious frame rate issues, which is surprising when you consider how comparatively simplistic the game's presentation is. Tides of Numenera can really struggle in populated areas, which is a bit of a shame, given how much emphasis on exploration there is.
Overall, it's quite hard to talk about Tides of Numenera's story, as every single player will experience it differently. The plot diverges greatly based on your decisions, more so than any other game I've played on Xbox One. One thing is certain, though, regardless of the paths you choose, you will find it hard to put this game down.
The world of Numenera is rich and mysterious. Every screen has dozens of NPCs to interact with, secrets to unearth, and side quests to plunge through. I spent almost 20 hours in the first area alone, stumbling through Numenera's bewildering environs, as confused as the Last Castoff himself. And it feels glorious.
Torment: Tides of Numenera gameplay
I went into Torment: Tides of Numenera with the assumption that it would essentially be a fantasy version of InXile's incredible Wasteland 2. I was wrong.
As noted above, Torment: Tides of Numenera is primarily a narrative experience, with combat and loot taking a secondary role to your choices and their consequences. As such, gameplay hinges primarily on how you deal with situations, and while Numenera's systems are a little obscure, unravelling them is part of the fun.
Torment: Tides of Numenera will not hold your hand, save for the occasional loading screen tip. Instead, you may find yourself deferring to the internet to find out what the difference between Mental and Trans-dimensional damage is, the significance of the game's various "Fettle" status ailments, and what stat weights are the most beneficial. Tides of Numenera's gameplay brims with nuance, but its core systems are well explained and relatively straightforward.
Make no mistake, Tides of Numenera is definitely an RPG, with a complex leveling system, turn-based RPG combat, and equipment progression. But developing your character's skills out of combat is just as valid a strategy.
Each member of your party has a pool of might, speed, and intellect. You can spend these points at a relevant time to increase your "effort," in any given situation, and thus, increase your chance of success. A quest might give you the opportunity to pick pocket someone, and spending extra points in speed will increase the likelihood you will succeed. Similarly, attempting to repair a machine or manipulating another character might require that you spend intellect points. Your stat pools can be replenished using items and by sleeping, but carelessness with their expenditure can lead to other consequences.
While investigating a murder near the start of the game, I found myself using lots of stats to persuade suspects. I spent so much intellect (potentially wasting a whole bunch), that I could no longer overcome certain goals. Upon sleeping to replenish my stats, I found that another murder had occurred, and I was accosted by the quest giver as a result. As such, even the passage of time can trigger intriguing consequences.
Sometimes, of course, you might end up talking your way into a fight, which is where Numenera's battle system comes in. It's turn-based, similar to the game Divinity: Original Sin, where positioning and strategy is just as important as your stats. As a Nano, I have access to a wide array of magic-like sci-fi powers, which presumably manifest as a result of some form of nanomechanical powers. Players can also choose to play as a warrior and rogue archetype, focusing on might and speed respectively.
Torment is on the mature end of the spectrum, with your abilities leaving enemies splattered in torrents of gore. Spending stats to achieve victory takes a similar role in battle as it does in conversation and other actions. Like in Dungeons and Dragons, critical rolls come with additional benefits, including the replenishment of your stat pool.
Beyond basic attacks, flanking and Nano spells, Tides of Numenera enlists its namesake as part of the game's equipment. "Numenera" refers to the eons of detritus that represent the remnants of lost worlds, dimensions, and civilizations. They also come in the form of "cyphers," which are unique equipment items that provide all sorts of bonuses and abilities. Hunting these down, either through exploration or quests, really rewards the player for curiosity — particularly as most cyphers will be purely optional to obtain.
Torment: Tides of Numenera will reward the patient, inquisitive gamer who isn't afraid to explore and has the attention span to sit and listen to what NPCs have to say. Even the smallest detail can result in a new plot twist or opened pathway, and the way you build your character, endowing them with different types of knowledge and skills, will also shape your destiny.
An instant CRPG classic
Every action is designed to feel critical in Torment: Tides of Numenera, and even failure can lead to exciting possibilities. The way stats deplete over the course of a waking period makes your decisions to spend effort even more crucial, and it serves to make you feel deeply connected to the game's story and characters.
Still, I wouldn't recommend Torment: Tides of Numenera to everyone. Torment's text-heavy delivery harkens back to simpler times, and that may dissuade some gamers with more modern sensibilities. This game was designed specifically as a successor to Planescape: Torment, as a homage to the golden age of CRPGs of yesteryear. In that endeavour, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a cover-to-cover triumph.
For a game that is visually simplistic, I would've liked to have seen a more optimized engine, with better performance on Xbox One. I encountered a few bugs with quests, and while neither issue is a game-breaker, Torment would've benefitted from some extra polish.
- Rich world oozing with content.
- A game where choice and consequences truly matter.
- Engaging plot with instantly memorable characters.
- A lot of room for replayability.
- Would have benefited from more polish on Xbox One.
- 2D isometric format hasn't aged well.
Overall, I absolutely adore the game, and I feel that modern roleplaying fans who also enjoy narrative-heavy games like Life is Strange will find a lot to love about Torment: Tides of Numenera. Modern RPGs from blockbuster-budget studios could learn a lot from InXile with regards to "choice and consequence," and the true value of a branching narrative.
If you're looking for a story-focused game where your choices truly matter, set in a rich, nuanced world absolutely crammed with sci-fi obscurities, fantastical beasts, and mind-warping trans-dimensional phenomena, you will adore Torment: Tides of Numenera.
The game is available now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
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This review was conducted on Xbox One, using a copy provided by the publisher.