Torment: Tides of Numenera Review – Long live hard sci-fi

Written by Jonathan Lester.

Disclosure: I backed this via crowd-funding. I’d like to think that I can remain reasonably objective, but you can be the judge of that.

Dark fantasy is dead. Long live totally unhinged, utterly bonkers hard sci-fi.

Forget elves, dwarves, dragons and all of the dog-eared playthings in the Tolkien toybox. Torment: Tides Of Numenera is set one million years in the future, where hyper-technology might as well be magic and literally everything can happen. And usually does. It’s a universe where you’ll interrupt umbilical cord-unravelling psychic executions, chat to anthropomorphic versions of the letter O and trade insults with rusting robot overlords on your commute. To a living alien flesh city, because why not?

Tolkien? Give me Douglas Adams with a pinch of Lovecraft any day. Torment is a pure imaginative flight of fancy, a beefy injection of the fantastic into the arm to the fantasy genre and one heck of a refreshing alien nightmare acid trip.

It’s also a decent CRPG, more to the point. Don’t worry Planescape fans, because Torment is an absolute corker.

You’ll enter this bizarre and barking universe as The Last Castoff: an immortal regenerating amnesiac who once had a fickle God living in his head. He’s booked it, leaving you with a just handful of memories and a very long fall towards an impossible floating continent made up of countless civilizations and jetsam from other planes of reality.

After a less than graceful crash landing you’ll explore this delightfully crazy future and discover the nature of your own identity throughout numerous metaphysical and mind-bending revelations. Or at least use it as an excuse to mess with weird and wonderful denizens in massively profound, often heartbreaking ways.

You’ll need to create your character first, though, which manages to be both elegantly streamlined and nightmarishly overwhelming. Unlike the Infinity Engine games, your character doesn’t have traditional stats, rather three pools of consumable resources that you can burn to increase your chances of passing dice rolls in conversation or interactions. There are only three classes to choose from (warrior, mage and a…erm…warrior mage), which makes for an approachable and flexible system. You can’t even change your appearance beyond selecting between male and female.

However, your character is mainly defined by skills and traits. There are an absolute ton of these, some obviously useful (Persuasion or light armour usage), some weirdly esoteric (Amanuensis? Mechanical Lore?), and all of which have absolutely no context whatsoever. As a grizzled CRPG veteran I found myself almost physically sick with angst – how can I minmax? What skills do I actually need? What’s going on?!

This quickly makes sense, however, when you stop thinking about your Castoff as a traditional videogame protagonist. Don’t sweat the stats. Don’t get hung up on builds. You’re basically Fry in the Futurama pilot, working things out as you go and eventually falling on your feet. There’s plenty of scope to develop your character and finesse the details later, so just go with the flow and enjoy the crazy.

This done, you’ll emerge into the Ninth World and proceed to mess everything up for everyone forever. By clicking on things and then clicking on countless dialogue options. This is a CRPG, after all.

What sets Torment apart from other RPGs, especially the more recent action variety, is just how much choice it gives you. You’re free to explore and engage absolutely everyone and everything in sprawling conversations, leading to hints, opportunities and stat checks for greater rewards. There’s an interesting multi-tiered morality system in play, known as Tides, which gradually modifies your character in intriguing ways based on the subtleties of how you handle yourself and treat others, a far cry from the standard ‘good’ and ‘bastard’ choices of similar titles.

Sensational writing from Chris Avellone ties this all together, resulting in an experience that just aches for just one more conversation, just one more interaction. Perhaps fiddling about with an ancient artifact might empower your weapon or grant you a vision into your past. Perhaps it will sizzle your gonads off. There’s only one way to find out!

Quests, of which there are a great many, give you numerous solutions and trust you to make your own decisions. You can talk your way in and out of trouble, persuading, lying and intimidating NPCs into helping you out. You can use magic… sorry, Numenera… or artifacts in unpredictable and exciting ways. You can explore and exploit the environment in climactic ‘Crisis’ standoffs. Even sleeping can cause quests to progress, or crash and burn, in some wildly unpredictable ways.

Torment actually allows you to think outside the box, treat NPCs as real people (or mutants, golems, robots… you get the idea) and quests as real situations with myriad solutions. Sure, there’s a lot to read, but it’s a small price to pay for a whopping amount of agency and some equally whopping decisions to make with some equally whopping consequences, both for you and the insane inhabitants of The Ninth World. And hey, it’s nice to use a bit of brainpower rather than just stabbing everyone up.

Deliciously, even failing quests can lead to interesting and unique situations and rewards.

As you play, you’ll find plenty of gear (often components of ancient devices now used to bludgeon people around the head), artifacts and Cyphers – powerful one-shot abilities that can turn the tide of a battle while plaguing you with crippling side effects. Coupled with the evocative writing and companions with their own agendas, Torment is one of the most fleshed-out and unique game worlds I’ve ever seen.

With all this choice on offer, ending up in combat almost feels like a failure. Which might be why the combat system feels like a punishment. The turn-based battles may be few and far between, but they’re also simplistic and sluggish, with just one movement and action per character. The fussy interface doesn’t help matters, turning what ought to be climactic showdowns into tedious slugfests. Considering how radical and exciting the setting is, and how awesome combat should be given all of the possibilities, I have to ding Torment’s scoreline here.

Combat also throws the spotlight on the 3D character models, which are rather primitive and crudely animated. They often stick out like a sore thumb against the drop-dead gorgeous backgrounds.

The Short Version: Thankfully the annoying nitpicks are far from dealbreakers. Torment: Tides of Numenera is in an experience that will grab you and wring you out with a smile on your face. It’s an essential play for CRPG fans, simply because it lets you play a role to your heart’s content in a deliriously inventive living universe. You know, rather than just trawling through dungeons and beating yet another dragon to death.

8/10

Written by Jonathan Lester.

You can get a massive discount on the game on PC from CDKeys, who are selling the game with DLC for just £19.99/$25.19. Get this cheap deal at CDKeys.com.

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