I never got to play Planescape: Torment back when it came out in 1999. Back then, I was much more of a console gamer, and Torment was very much a PC game. It's a classic RPG, ranked on countless lists as one of the best RPGs and best games of all time, but it was happening in a different space from the one I was putting my time into. I was busy playing games like Tony Hawk and Soul Reaver. So with Torment: Tides of Numenera, I'm coming in cold and taking the game on its own merits, almost completely separated from the legacy leading up to it.
Instead, I come into it as someone who loves grotesque art, grey morality, and talking my way out of fights in video games.
I had a difficult time getting into Torment at the beginning. I felt absolutely lost and confused. I felt like I wanted someone to hold my hand a little bit more. It wasn't until later, though, that I realized that that's exactly what I was supposed to be feeling.
Like Planescape: Torment, Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on existing pen-and-paper RPG. Numenera, created by writer Monte Cook, takes the ideas of a post-apocalyptic world, of magic, of technology, and throws them out the window. This isn't a post-apocalyptic setting, it's a post-post-post-post-post-post-post-post-apocalyptic setting. The world of Numenera is set in the distant future (a billion years!), among the remnants of eight past civilizations. There's no differentiation between technology and magic – that old Arthur Clarke line about technology becoming so advanced that it appears to be magic sums up the world of Numenera perfectly. The world of Numenera is, if you squint your eyes, a medieval one, but not in any version of that word that we can imagine.
In Torment, you play the part of the Last Castoff, a body discarded by an immortal being called The Changing God, a person that has cheated death by transferring its mind into countless bodies over the ages. So it's not that you have amnesia so much as that you're a blank slate left with the imprint of a mind with centuries of memories.
When I first stepped out into the Ninth World, I was utterly and completely lost. The only thing that was really familiar was the menu. Even then, overhead RPGs like this, like Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, and countless others, aren't normally my sort of game. It's not that I dislike them, so much as that they just don't grab me.
It's like a picture book
The first thing I noticed about Torment is just how much text there is.
If you're going to play this game, you need to like reading, and you need to be patient. Much of it is optional reading, but that's kind of the whole point. Skipping it is like hopping into Skyrim and just playing the main quest. Or going on a trip and coming home the next day.
If you have the patience, though, to slog through the countless lines of questioning you can go down, the pages and pages of text, it's rewarding. A game like Torment can do things that bigger, flashier RPGs can't. Because much of the action is happening in unvoiced text, there's simply much, much more of it. There's detail everywhere. Many characters have whole branching sets of dialogue you can travel down that would translate into pages and pages of text. And that text is full of little bits and pieces about the Ninth World, unearthly words you can pick up through context, concepts you can glom onto a little bit at a time.
You occasionally get a voice line here and there – and when you do you know it's a big deal. But there's very little of it.
And all that text lets the writers do things in Torment that wouldn't work in a character action game, a first person shooter, or really anywhere else. Characters are allowed to be described in details that animation could never capture at any acceptable kind of budget. They're allowed internal emotions and minute movements. Characters you talk to just once in Torment can be rendered in greater detail than any animated character could be.
For my character, I took an ability that let me see, in text, the top-level thoughts of characters I was speaking to. That gave me not only additional insight into character motivations, but it added huge aspects to some characters that changed the way I viewed them.
One of my party members, Erretis, glowed brilliantly, and his glow would shift based on his emotions. When confronted with crises and drama, his surface thoughts revealed that he was not himself but was, rather, at the mercy of a couple of other voices – the sources and motivations of which I won't reveal. But it led to some genuinely funny dialogue like this:
If I hadn't chosen that ability, my experience would've been completely different.
And that leads into what really made Torment so remarkable for me, and relates back to the game being so text-heavy.
So many of the choices you make as the Last Castoff matter. They feel meaningful and they have consequences. They cut off paths as they open others. It can be paralyzing at first, but if you can make it past the opening moments it becomes empowering. One of the loading screen text boxes suggests that, sometimes, failing a skill check can often lead to more interesting results than if you'd succeeded, and that's absolutely something I found true.
I personally chose an intellect-based character for my playthrough. The opening moments of the game ask you to make a bunch of decisions and, based on those decisions, suggest a character type to you. You don't have to go along with the recommendation, but I chose to this time. My tendency is to play as characters wielding gigantic broadswords (see my review of Berserk and the Band of the Hawk for more on that), and I wanted to get away from that and try magic. That ended up changing the way I might've played through the game for the better.
As I grew in both skill and familiarity with the world, I was able to handle situations more deftly and while decisions still had unintended consequences, they made a sort of sense to me. I also grew my Intellect trait. You have three primary traits – Might, Speed, and Intellect – that come into play during both roleplaying segments and combat. They influence which abilities you use and how much power you can dump into thsoe abilities, and they also determine how influential they are in conversation. A high intellect skill, for example, might make deception or persuasion easier, while a high speed rank will make it easier to just grab what you want without anyone noticing. By the end of my game, my character was the smoothest talker the world had ever seen.
You also have choice about who you bring along with you. You meet a cadre of characters in the first area, and you can bring up to three of them along. You don't get to swap them out later, though, and you don't even necessarily have to meet them. You could miss them entirely.
Not only does your choice affect combat, but it affects those roleplaying situations. The assassin Matkina has been around for ages and knows many, many people. Rhin is young enough to be innocent, and will respond to your decisions with that in mind. Aligern and Callistege won't tolerate being in the same party, so you can only pick one of them, if you should want either.
All this choice, though, means a lot for the replayability and discussability of the game. Your next play through will take you through the same areas and quests, sure, but picking a different character class and different allies will give you access to different interactions and different outcomes. If you should encounter someone else who has played through the game, you can't assume your experiences were alike.
All of the weird history and deep choice combines with some incredible environmental art to make for a truly alien atmosphere. Certain things will look familiar, like swords, stairs, ladders, capes. But some of the creatures I fought, the buildings I came across, and areas I explored were some of the most imaginative I've ever seen. One area takes place inside a living thing that doesn't obey the laws of logic, and navigating its halls means witnessing some truly bizarre art. It's a bit like walking around inside a Heironymous Bosch painting and talking to the inhabitants.
The only ding I can give the art is that, as an isometric CRPG, everything about the game is too distant. Staying zoomed out makes the game easier to navigate, and you can never zoom in far enough to feel like you're immersed in the world. That made it a bit harder to connect to the game and characters at first, though I did find my way in all the same.
The other aspect that doesn't feel all the way there is the combat. Because I was able to talk my way around combat so much, this was rarely a problem. The rarity of combat eventually caused me to have so many special items that it hurt my character to carry them. The few times combat does come up, though, it becomes obvious just how underdeveloped the combat is. It works like basic pen-and-paper RPG combat converted to a PC game, and feels very stilted. It works, but nothing more. It's never satisfying. Hidden dice rolls dictate the turn-based combat and it can lead to some frustration.
Combat was also where bugs came up. You can save anytime you want in Torment, except during combat. It auto-saves pretty regularly, too. But there were a few times where I ended up in an endless loop or a character got stuck on something that kept me from progressing. I didn't run into any of the game-breaking bugs that PlayStation 4 players have found, but it did affect my game, and I had to restart a few combat sequences because of those glitches.
Despite the bore of combat and the glitches that plagued it, and despite how tough it was for me to get into Torment at the beginning, I ended up having a great time with the game. I've played games with bigger spaces and less-powerful characters, but rarely have I felt so small, inconsequential, and helpless as I did as the Last Castoff.
And that's kind of what Torment is about. The whole world, the whole universe, is scraping by, surviving, and grasping for power. No one can compete against all of that. Instead, Torment is about surviving and changing what you can. Making your own life matter. The Changing God that kickstarts the events of the game asks at one point how much a single life matters, and the people you meet and decisions you make end up hammering that point home over and over again.
I don't know if I'll play Torment: Tides of Numenera again. It's rare that I go back to any game a second time. But I know that I'll be thinking about what other stories are hidden away in the game, what other details I missed out on, for a long time.
If you've built up Planescape: Torment to legendary status in your mind, or if you're looking for detailed mechanical systems, you may find Torment: Tides of Numenera a bit lacking. It's strengths are in the writing, art, and atmosphere. It's also a bit expensive right now. At $45 for full-price, it feels too expensive. But at $30 or less, it'll be a worthy choice for any RPG fan.
Disclaimer: We received a retail code from the publisher and played through the entirety of the campaign (about 38 hours) before writing this review.