It’s been at least a few years since the phrase “turn-based” has inspired anything more than eye rolls and sighs of exasperation. At a time when even Final Fantasy is an action RPG, it often seems like players who desire a slower, more cerebral experience might as well pick up chess. I’d been doing little more than absent-mindedly grinding ARAMs in League of Legends when I was t-boned by the deep, sophisticated, and classic experience of Torment: Tides of Numenera.
The Torment Legacy
Torment: Tides of Numenera carries quite a legacy. The spiritual successor to the cult-classic RPG Planescape: Torment, the game hearkens delightfully back to a time when games came on CDs, phones hung on the wall, and people still used the word “LAN.” To paint a backdrop, we must retreat back to the 90’s.
In the history of the development of RPGs, Interplay’s subsidiary Black Isle Studios has achieved mythic status for its work in both development and publishing from 1996 to 2003. The team that would form the studio developed Wasteland and, subsequently, the original Fallout, before branching off into a subsidiary studio. Under the Black Isle Studios banner, they developed Fallout 2, which took over large swaths of my life when it came out in 1998 and continues to hold my esteem.
Their next project, Planescape: Torment, unfortunately didn’t make it onto my radar. But the Advanced D&D-based game received critical acclaim, heralded as “the greatest game ever made” and “a masterpiece” by users at gog.com. A New York Times review of the game from the turn of the millenium posits that, “[if] a computer game [can] have the intellectual heft and emotional impact of a good book while remaining as captivating as a well-paced film,” then Planescape: Torment is the number one candidate.
Despite the acclaim of these RPGs, as well as publishing Baldur’s Gate, their parent company Interplay was struggling. After going public, several lawsuits, and then meandering through a merger, founder Brian Fargo left Interplay. According to an interview with engadget, Fargo began using business cards with the title, “Leader in exile.” This joke would be the big bang that begat InXile Entertainment.
After these veteran RPG developers played musical chairs with different companies for so long, it was big news when InXile announced a Kickstarter campaign to create a sequel to Planescape: Torment. And the big news lead to big bucks, as the campaign absolutely smashed its goal of $900,000, raising nearly $3 million for development. No doubt backers were fueled by the nostalgia surrounding the original title.
Weaving Through The Quagmire of the Ninth World
But to describe Torment: Tides of Numenera as a jaunt down nostalgia lane would be tremendously inadequate. The game is incredibly dense; rich with a complex, branching narrative that makes me shutter at the thought of what its treemaps must look like. Part of the success of the game, and a source of its merit, is its paradigm toward decisions. In addition to an intriguing world full of unique concepts, developed by Monte Cook, Torment teaches players about the power and responsibility of decisions. The idea of trying to save and load early game states to alter your choices as you play through the story seems trite and ridiculous. The most satisfying moments of playing Torment come from when you take a deep breath and accept whatever consequences may come.
The opening sequence provides an introduction to the game’s various mechanics, such as its version of performing feats, navigating conversations, and the Crisis combat system. It was about 8 hours of gameplay before I encountered another Crisis battle, though that was mostly my own doing. My Observant Jack proved quick-witted enough to weasel his way out of several potentially dicey situations.
I found myself having surprising emotional responses to the tasks and choices in the game. I stalled a side quest for a long time, as I couldn’t seem to find a solution that did not involve murdering a weak, innocent, exiled, deformed creature. There are always various ways to complete a quest in Torment, and if none of them seem appealing at any given moment, it may only be a matter of time before something else falls into place. The world feels alive and active, and completing areas involves fitting all the little pieces together just so, or slightly askew and living with it anyway.
Everything in Torment has repercussions. Several times I’ve found myself in a dialogue facing 7 or 8 choices, my legs crossed and my hands rubbing my temples, trying to imagine the consequences that are about to ensue. Not to mention the immediate trepidation I feel each time I find a mere, a device that contains the memories of others that I can enter and potentially use to alter history. When used cleverly, these can have powerful effects on the Ninth World and its inhabitants. Or, they might end up having no effect. It depends on how you play through it.
Classic Mechanics, Timeless Story
Combat in Torment is no slouch either. It’s thoughtful, complex, and tactical. Understanding the Crisis system presents a more immediate strategic challenge than navigating the game’s myriad conversations. Opportunities to fight are presented by the story, rather than random encounters. That said, the game is not without its dangers, and not starting any fights in the first 8 hours did little to stop me from dying several times.
Even death in Torment: Tides of Numenera takes an unusual turn. As a castoff, you inhabit a nearly immortal body, formerly used by a being known as The Changing God. Death can be used strategically, returning you to the Labyrinth inside your mind, where certain achievements will grant powerful benefits in the rest of your adventures. This mechanic makes for a much more continuous experience than the traditional save-die-load-continue mechanic employed in classic RPGs.
While the skeleton of the game will likely be the same from one play to the next, there is a multitude of aspects that will be wildly different for everyone. Options in Torment: Tides of Numenera are ample, and often being wrong, or failing an attempt at a task, or even dying, can yield interesting results. One evildoer I attacked dispatched me so easily I didn’t have time to act, only to be so impressed by my reincarnation that he bowed at my feet. In turn, the game offered me the opportunity to snap his foolish neck, and I took it.
If you feel as though your gaming life has been missing something lately, some deep and meaningful connection, some thoughtful and even philosophical exploration of life itself, give Torment: Tides of Numenera a try. I already find it threading its way into my life and my thoughts. Its narrative offers a genuine impact, while turning the controls over to the player. The story from my experience is one I created myself, from the various choices I made. In the end, that is a greater satisfaction than I could have expected from any game.