Review: Torment: Tides of Numenera

Her name was Rhin. She was maybe ten years old. I found her hiding in the rubble of a dilapidated house somewhere in Cliff’s Edge, hungry and hurt and reluctant to trust others, her scars a testament to the years of misery and abuse she’d endured. With gentle words and promises of safe refuge, I persuaded her to join me. Things would be different now, I told her. I was going to protect her, I vowed, from all the evils of the world.

And then I sold her to a slaver in Circus Minor for some information, because life isn’t fair, I don’t like kids, and her stats were rubbish anyway.

Game info
Genre: RPG
Platform/s: PC / XBO / PS4
Reviewed on: XBO
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: Techland
Distributor: Ster-Kinekor

I am the Last Castoff, not some gaudy “chosen one” with pretensions of pomp and destiny, but the discarded detritus of divine hubris and a recent, if not entirely voluntary immigrant in the Ninth World. And something is hunting me, so that sucks, but in the meantime, I must discover the real me.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a game with an intimidating legacy. As the spiritual successor to Black Isle’s cult-popular, regular best-of-ever list nominee, carnival freak show special Planescape: Torment, it was always going to be a somewhat controversial game for fans of the “original” – many of whom pledged cash for its $4 million Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, wanting something that was the same, but different, but the same… but different. And it is, and it isn’t.

Swapping out the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Victorian horror Planescape setting for Monte Cook’s alt-futuristic, baroque sci-fi fantasy Numenera universe – inspired, no less, by Planescape, and also a Kickstarter megahit – Torment: Tides of Numenera is unmistakably the product of its predecessor, but also its own thing. And not always for good.

So, let’s talk about the bad. The load times on console are terrible, more than 30 seconds or even a minute at a time in some places. And even worse, load screens are very frequent in this game – whenever you move between locations, it has to stop and load the next one, and there are a lot of locations. There’s no quick travel system either, so you can’t bypass locations you don’t need to visit, and when moving between locations that are, like, three locations apart, you have to slog it through all those locations and load screens too. That’s lousy design.

There are over six million location transition points in this image.

What’s even lousier design, however, is the game’s immensely tedious combat, despite the developers swearing they’d fixed that. Although it’s mostly avoidable – you can usually talk your way out of precarious situations in this game – there are several mandatory encounters in Torment that had me almost quit in shrieking frustration. For one thing, it’s turn-based. That’s not in itself an issue for me, because I actually like turn-based combat, but instead because the AI is so exceedingly stupid that it takes forever to finish a turn. Enemies dither and dally about, sometimes just turning around in circles, until deciding to do something else, then dithering and dallying about even more, before ending a turn a minute later without accomplishing much of anything. Multiply that by ten, and a single encounter can go on and on and on. And then…

The game crashes.

There’s one encounter about a third of the way through the game that I won’t describe too much in case of spoilers, but it involves escaping an invincible enemy boss and his minions, with a number of other NPCs besides my own party of four characters. Between the dawdling, erratic AI and about a million turns, it took me 30 very dreary minutes to reach the objective. The game crashed. I restarted the encounter, because you can’t save in the middle, and 20 minutes or so into it, my party was wiped out. I restarted the encounter again, and 30 minutes later, the game crashed again. So, I restarted the encounter again, and only then, I finally managed to get through it. I’m lying. It crashed again. It took me over two hours to complete something that shouldn’t have been more than 10 minutes at most.

Aaaaand that’s the bad. Kind of. I’ll explain. Torment is a thoroughly, even zealously retro RPG that subverts contemporary genre convention with extravagant indulgence. And it’s not just the prodigious amount of text – but there are over 1.2 million words in the game, so that too – and its focus on meaningful choices and consequences over ostentatious min-max power fantasies and character boob sliders, but also the presentation. The graphics are pretty enough, I suppose, but inscrutably inconsistent – the grotesequely hallucinogenic, extradimensional Bloom, for example, is so much more more vividly realised than every other location in the game, making them look drab in comparison, and the character models might’ve been copy-pasted out of 1999. Me, I’m into the florid prose, the old school pen-and-paper conceits, and the isometric nostalgia, but it’s definitely not for everybody.

Now, the good. And there’s so much of it. This is a game about you. Without getting stuck into an exhausting exposition of its fundamental mechanics and this, that, and the other thing, there’s no “right” and “wrong” in Torment. And I don’t mean in terms of something so mundane as ethics  – although the eponymous Tides do serve as a sort of moral barometer – but rather that, unlike almost every other RPG, failing in a task in this game is not a reason to reload a save and try again. In fact, failing in a task is sometimes more intriguing than not.

Early in the game, I was asked to solve a series of murders in the Underbelly, a sleazy, ghetto industrial ward in Sagus Cliffs. I did my investigating, but took my time about it. Hey, I was busy with other stuff too. As a result of this procrastination, two more victims were added to the mortuary list, both of them already casual acquaintances. Feeling guilty and anxious to close the case, I examined the evidence and named a suspect, who was summarily arrested and hanged. Except, ooooops, it wasn’t him, and the real killer escaped the city. I wonder how things might’ve turned out otherwise, but I learned an important lesson in thinking more critically about other characters and their motivations, and my own biases. How many games manage that?

It helps that the writing is absolutely phenomenal. At times, playing Torment is like being immersed in a book – something evocative and psychedelic, like if China Miéville wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure – but one whose pages are empty until you turn them. There’s a sense of possibility, of opportunity, of existential quandary, in every bizarre chapter, and that experience is exclusive to you.

Technical note: In the first half of the game, every combat encounter – okay, there were perhaps only three of these encounters in that time – crashed at least once for me, and a bunch of other random times too. I’d gotten my copy of the game a week ahead of launch, though, and since the day one update was released (and I’d nuked my console cache, as recommended by the game’s support page), it didn’t ever crash again. And I can’t work out if it’s my imagination or what, but I think the enemy AI was also somewhat less moronic, and the turn resolution a bit faster. The patch notes include an ambiguous “balance tweaks and improvements to combat”, so, dunno, it could or couldn’t be coincidence. It’s probably also worth mentioning that this was apparently not a problem in the PC version of the game.

92Its technical problems and monotonous combat notwithstanding, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a mesmerising and eccentric game that revels in its own idiosyncrasies. Thought-provoking, macabre, and unpredictable, this is one of the most instantly memorable RPGs in a decade, and a worthy scion of its inspirations.

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