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Torment: Tides of Numenera ($45 on the App Store) is the spiritual, but not direct sequel to Black Isle’s critically-acclaimed CRPG legend Planescape: Torment, which, as geeks of a certain age will tell you (pushes up glasses,) was based on a campaign setting for the pencil and paper iteration of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. A text-driven masterpiece, Planescape: Torment shunned the combat-heavy gameplay that most folks associate with mainstream video games. Instead, players talked their party of digital adventurers out of trouble and down new avenues of the game’s complex story. The decisions you made in Planescape: Torment, mattered.
Torment: Tides of Numenera? It’s got all of this going on too.
What’s it about?
In the game, players take on the role of The Last Castoff, the discarded avatar of an immortal scientist-cum-wizard called The Changing God. There’s been many castoffs over the centuries, created by the Changing God to hold his consciousness as he runs from and works to defeat a seemingly unstoppable enemy called The Sorrow. Over the course of the game, you’ll be faced by Torment: Tides of Numenera’s central theme: what’s the worth of a single life?
From your character’s standpoint, it’s a good question: the Last Castoff is functionally immortal. No matter whether you’re taken out by misadventure or intentionally snuffing it to gain a new insight that’ll drive the plot forward, you’ll keep on coming back for more. The companions The Last Castoff gathers to his cause over the course of the game, however, are merely mortal. If they die, their deaths can have consequences for your story further down the road. This makes for some interesting gameplay. You can risk or sacrifice your life, and at times, do the same to the other members of your party. Doing the latter may allow you to push the Last Castoff’s story forward, but could hobble your characters in other ways down the line.
To play Torment: Tides of Numenera you’ll be doing a lot of reading. Quest largely lines are forwarded and resolved in text and through the use of character attributes like strength, intellect and speed. The higher the artiste, the better the chance for success.
So too goes the games rare instances of turn-based combat. You’ll do battle armed with a characters relying on a miscellany of spells, single-use artifacts, projectile weapons and old fashion blades. While it can’t hold a candle to the top drawer gameplay mechanics of XCOM 2, the turn-based combat in Tides of Numenera is tense. I always felt like I’d accomplished something when my party came out the other side of a violent encounter in one piece. Much of this tension comes from the fact that the stakes in the game are high: the death of your party means never being able uncover the final chapter in The Last Castoff’s story. With writing of the calibre we’re treated to in Torment: Tides of Numenera, such a outcome is almost unthinkable.
I was able to complete all of the game’s side quests and main storyline in around 40 hours. That’s a respectable amount of gameplay. However, I found that Torment: Tides of Numenera isn’t a terribly repayable title. Even if you create a character with a complete different skillset and make different choice throughout the game, you won’t find much variety here. Having been so spoiled by open-ended games for so long, some players may not be thrilled by this. I’d argue that it’s better to be told a good story once than be subjected to a gazillion mediocre tales. But that’s me.
Then there’s the game world. It’s beautifully painted environments, while varied, feel limited. In Tides of Numenera’s starting area, for example, is a village composed of buildings that have stood for a millennia and technology so advanced that it could be mistaken for magic. There are mutants, shunned by many, headless tradesmen, airships destined for far off lands and a police force composed of police officers made from the energy of other people’s lives. It’s amazing world building.
But at times, it feels static. With few exceptions, the option to interact with the denizens of Torment: Tides of Numenera are limited to dealing with merchants, and speaking to NPCs as part of a quest. For a game that is driven by text, instead of pricey voice talent, that’s disappointing. I’m not asking that every NPC on the street have a complete backstory, but a little more depth would definitely have added to the game’s immersion for me.
Despite its shortcomings, Torment: Tides of Numenera is an excellent game, for a particular kind of gamer. If you’re looking for twitch-based gameplay, instant gratification and a bit of mindless violence, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you value story, world building, intrigue and have the attention span required to the game’s 40 hours of gameplay through to the end, don’t hesitate—download it from Steam or the Mac App Store immediately. There’s few CRPGs that can match it.
Séamus Bellamy is a travel and technology writer with bylines at Boing Boing, AFAR Magazine, BBC Worldwide and USA Today. A full-time digital nomad, Séamus calls Canada home--but he doesn't see it all that often.