Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

When I first created this site, the very first review I put up was for Planescape: Torment. The review is horrible (all of the early ones are, really; it took awhile to figure things out), but that nevertheless speaks to how important the game was for me that I wanted to start out with it. Then there’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment in the same way Pillars of Eternity was a spiritual sequel to Baldur’s Gate and Wasteland 2 was a spiritual sequel to a bowl of old Jello that’d fallen on the pavement and subsequently been left in the sun by uninterested passersby. In some ways, comparing the two does a disservice to both because of how stark the differences often prove to be. In other ways, however, Tides of Numenera invites and embraces such comparisons by taking elements from Planescape: Torment in ways that are probably a little closer to plagiarism than inspiration. Even the flaws detractors will point to as each game’s Achilles’ heel are nearly identical, which is a nice way of saying that T:ToN’s combat is complete and utter garbage that makes even PS:T’s widely (and wrongly, I’d argue) maligned combat feel wonderful by way of comparison. Then there are the problems so unusual and rare that I can’t remember the last time they actually stood out and distracted me. The clinical/drab UI would definitely fall into this category. Let’s get this out of the way early—Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn’t live up to or supplant Planescape: Torment in any way, shape, or form. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile game on its own, however, and even a simulacrum of something as justifiably venerated as PS:T feels like a welcome bulwark against the waves of mindless games that ask nothing of the player and offer nothing in return. This is a game for those who love lore and large chunks of flavor text so overwhelming that one could conceivably drown in them, and while that makes the game impenetrable to those mass-market gamers who require an easily digestible story and lots of visual pizzazz to enjoy a game, it also allows it to be incredibly rewarding and memorable for those willing to put in the time to read through it all.

This game is mostly writing, which makes a lot of weirdness possible

One of the unspoken downsides of modern voice-acted games is their inability to convey the way things feel, never being able to work in explanations of obscure and occasionally contradictory sensations that can only (at best) be hinted at with awkward facial animation in games sporting voice acting. A game like this that revolves around text almost exclusively, on the other hand, is able to dive headlong into descriptions of abstract things like consciousness forming/fading, and that allows it to go in some incredibly weird directions befitting of a spiritual sequel to PS:T. Granted, there’s occasional voice acting, but it’s both horrible and mercifully rare (the same could be said of the game’s combat, which I’ll get into later), with the overwhelming majority of the dialogue consisting of words alone. The game’s very premise highlights the kind of insanity that this text-heavy approach allows for, with the setup being that there’s a guy who long ago found a way to transfer his consciousness into new bodies, effectively becoming an immortal in the process and performing amazing feats to the point where he’s referred to as the “Changing God.” Each time he moves to a new body, however, a new consciousness forms in the old body, with the resulting individuals being called “castoffs.” Eventually a stalemated war—one bearing so many similarities to Planescape’s Blood War that it looks suspiciously like a replace tool job at times—broke out between the Changing God and some of his castoffs, and so castoffs are a divisive issue. Some view them with reverence. Others see them as selfish and loathe their kind. Still others consider them useful tools since their bodies have been designed to be more resilient than most (as in, self-healing and practically immortal, so death carries the same non-risk as it did in PS:T).

Merecasters sometimes have interesting stories, but it’s annoying not being
able to differentiate important ones from side content.

Needless to say, you play as the latest castoff of the Changing God, and you wake up falling from the sky for reasons that only become clear toward the end of the game. You quickly smash into the ground, either dying permanently (if you didn’t slow down your fall) or being knocked into a world-in-your-mind called the Labyrinth, and that’s where you’re quickly informed that there’s a thing called The Sorrow that chases and kills castoffs. With a mere touch, it can undo the very fabric of their being, which makes it a source of fear and desperation for many. It’s also incredibly enigmatic, and the explanation for what it is and what drives it is something I found lacking. That’s just one of several problems I had with the story and writing, to be perfectly honest, and while these problems never became enough to ruin the experience, they stood out as things that kept T:ToN from living up to its predecessor.

One of the biggest problems is also a boon at times, and that’s the lack of cohesiveness inherent to the world. As far as I can tell, Tides of Numenera takes place on Earth so far in the future that countless civilizations have come and gone, leaving behind layers upon layers of technology and creatures that aren’t fully understood. This means that there’s a lot of really interesting stuff to find, but it also means that what you find has nothing to center it. Planescape: Torment’s world was one full of craziness, but the rules behind all of that craziness were consistent and tied it all together. Tides of Numenera’s craziness consists more of one-shot glimpses into worlds and cultures that have no relevance to anything happening in the story, what your character is going through, or overall setting, so it often ends up feeling disconnected and arbitrary. That’s one of those things that’s difficult to put into words, but suffice it to say that while PS:T felt like a drawer full of stories written in adjacent realms, T:ToN often feels like a boat full of stories from entire other games that were forced in under the pretense of them happening “somewhere or sometime else because reasons.” There’s nothing grounding it because the world itself isn’t fully understood by those who live in it (hence the titular numenera, which are basically just technology-magic trinkets from bygone eras), and while that can allow for some interesting side stories, it simultaneously keeps it from coming together as a cohesive whole.

There’s also a lot of early-game technobabble littered into the dialogue before you have a grasp on what it all means. Eventually you figure everything out and can follow along with ease, but it’s a lot to barrage the player with early on. Another problem is that dialogue is occasionally plagued by unnecessary big words, which is a strange thing to complain about, but we’re talking about words that are so rarely used in common parlance that many players are unlikely to have ever stumbled across them. It’s almost like someone on the writing team was in a sexual relationship with a thesaurus while working on the game, and while it makes the game look well-written on the surface, it also has the ugly habit of obfuscating the meaning of sentences and forcing the reader to rely on context to piece things together, which is a big ask when the huge blocks of text are already a deal-breaker for many. The crazy thing is that the game wouldn’t suffer for being written in a less flowery way, because the writing is already a bit contrived in places. This is most noticeable in the dialogue, where a huge number of questions are in the form of “tell me about ____” and tack on an “again” once you’ve asked them already. Nothing makes dialogue appear unnatural like 6 lines of “tell me about so-and-so-again!” forming an unnatural block of text where each line begins and ends the same way. Granted, this makes it easier to skim, but skimming the text is the worst possible way to play through this game; if you let little things pass you by, you’ll miss out on the fact that some of the earliest, most irrelevant-seeming quests actually hint at later happenings in unexpectedly huge ways, including unlocking later dialogue options you can use. Skimming (or worse, skipping side content entirely) will see you blowing through the game, but later story developments will seem to come out of left field because you’ll be missing all of the build up to those characters and their histories. The obvious problem with this is that it’s impossible to tell at first glance which sidequests will spiral into something important to the story and which are completely pointless fluff padding out the game, so you have to go through both.

Backer content, merecasters, and the parts you shouldn’t skip

I played through Tides of Numenera twice with totally different play styles to get a feel for what matters and what doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and I’d say I have a pretty solid grasp of which is which by now. A lot of the early game’s content is either important to understanding later things or ties into content that’s worthwhile despite not having a huge impact on the plot, though there are a few sidequests like one with a guy looking for his supposed girlfriend Perseia that fizzles out unsatisfactorily. At the very least, it’s worth interacting with the ghost in the weird futuristic bar in Cliff’s Edge and trying to take the related quest (which is bigger than it first appears) as far as possible before moving on with the story. I also found it worthwhile to solve the murders in the Underbelly area and meet the kids at the right-most part of Cliff’s Edge since their fate factors into the ending slides. Additionally, there are a few things that unlock in the Labyrinth over time, and while none of this is required, you get enough interesting back story that it’s worth it to check in occasionally on a first playthrough and do everything you can in there. Oh, and be sure to recruit Rhin while in Cliff’s Edge. She sucks at fighting, but combat can be solved with diplomacy and sneaking, too, and she’s awesome at both. Her story can also resolve in a really cool way.

Around halfway into the game, you find yourself in what’s basically a futuristic graveyard and have to enter a four-digit code to get to specific rooms. These rooms are littered with meaningless backer content for the most part, but there are also interesting items and characters you can stumble on while exploring around. This is all side content that can be safely skipped if you’re so inclined, but I found the Children of the Endless Gate stuff worth completing anyway. Later on you find yourself among other castoffs, and it’s worth upgrading your companions’ armor while you’re in the area. This is the only opportunity to do so as far as I can tell, and there are a few annoying combat encounters later on that’ll be less irritating if you can afford it. After that, almost nothing matters. Much of the second half of the game is pointless filler, though it’s very much worth the time to mess around with the cyst and the sparking building in The Bloom to put together the Transdimensional Scalpel; not only is it an effective weapon for Matkina (if you recruited her, which I’d also recommend), but it allows you to get through an annoying combat encounter later on using fewer turns. It’s also worth exploring The Bloom to find a way to help Rhin. After that, though, nothing really matters until the end. As for merecasters, which are basically choose-your-own-adventure stories that sometimes change the past and sometimes do nothing, most of them are useless. The ones you go through as mandatory parts of the story usually matter in some way, but the ones you find or steal are rarely anything but unrelated stories with the only exception I found being an optional part of the Endless Gate quest.

Let’s talk about companions and the early game

That’s a bare minimum, of course, and it’s very much worth exploring as much as possible. There’s simply no way to consistently differentiate the good content from the fluff, and while not everything mattered in the end, those few decisions that had lasting repercussions were sweet enough to make up for all the pointless content I had to wade through in the process. Companions would be a good example of this, with them seeming pointless and unlikable at first, but ending up deeply entwined with certain parts of the plot. My first playthrough (the one I enjoyed the most since I wasn’t skipping content to see what would happen) saw me ally with Callistege, Rhin, and Matkina. I also spent some time with Erritis when I needed the extra muscle, and I’d recommend all of those companions over the others. Matkina in particular has a lot to say and was almost like a second main character at times for all the dialogue she got. Same with Callistege, though to a much lesser extent.

Cyphers are basically extra-special items. Carry too many and you get negative
status effects. Carry even more and you die.

The companions pale in comparison to those in Planescape: Torment, of course. They’re less interesting by their very nature, but there’s also something about them that was nagging at me early on after I had recruited them. Eventually I figured out what bothered me so much about them, and that’s the fact that they really don’t have any reason for coming with me beyond “because you asked.” Sure, one could rationalize it as curiosity or protection for some of them, but that doesn’t work for everyone, and both explanations are rendered more or less invalid when you subsequently deny them information and put the party in danger. This is one of those game-y things you have to just accept, though, because their arcs become interesting later on when the rest of the game becomes less interesting.

One of the tips on the loading screens promises that failing a skill check can sometimes be even more interesting than succeeding at it. Another says that sleeping can cause events to occur without your intervention, changing things overnight. Both are true early in the game, but only early in the game. Cliff’s Edge is a good example, because the houses there are about to fall. If you sleep, houses start to disappear into the ocean and certain NPCs will die. Same if you don’t solve the murders in the Underbelly before sleeping, and there are also some semi-important guards in The Bloom that can die if you sleep. Also in The Bloom, a new character shows up after sleeping. As for failing being more interesting than succeeding, you can cause an early area to be covered in night if you get frustrated and smash something instead of figuring out a riddle, and you can also get a better item after failing a skill check in that same area. Apart from these things, though, I noticed no differences; failing skill checks almost exclusively leads to a worse result or forces you to retry at a greater cost, while sleeping eventually comes with no negative effects whatsoever. Apart from those one or two changes in The Bloom, all of this stuff occurs early in the game. It’s like they had planned to implement it everywhere, but simply ran out of time or money. On the bright side, this part of the game is interesting when the companions aren’t, and the companions become interesting when this part of the game stops being so, causing each to alleviate frustration from the other. [Update: I just remembered two more examples where failing is important/interesting. Apparently the ghost in the bar only turns into a quest if you fail the skill check and end up killed by it, and at one point my character died in combat, only to have combat stop as the enemies were astonished by my character coming back to life. That doesn’t change the fact that such things are rare and mostly present early in the game, of course, but it felt wrong to not give the developers credit for things I encountered, but forgot about.]

There’s some reactivity, but I couldn’t change the few things I wanted to

At one point, an NPC I really liked decided to draw an enemy away so that the rest of us could get away. Eventually I realized that the goal of this “combat” encounter wasn’t to actually fight the enemies, but to instead get away as fast as possible. When all the survivors of this hopeless battle ended up being drawn into the portal I used to get away, I reloaded a save and decided to play through the entire irritating combat encounter again with the singular purpose of getting away before she died. Since all survivors are pulled into the portal, it makes sense that she’d also end up being saved in this way, right? Think again—the game doesn’t recognize this as a possibility and you’ll be blamed for her death no matter what. She won’t appear again. Another example of a lack of reactivity would be The Bloom, which is a living creature in addition to being an explorable area. On my first playthrough, I used the Transdimensional Scalpel to get on its bad side and antagonize it at every opportunity since I disagreed with the way it operated. I was rewarded with a really annoying combat encounter, so I resolved to be as nice to it as I could on my second playthrough in the hopes of avoiding that. I gave it everything it wanted, even tricking people into sacrificing themselves to it. Then I came to the combat area again and the message about how much it hated me wasn’t there. I was sure that it’d let me walk through the area without a fight, but then combat started anyway and its cultists considered me an enemy once I left the area.

What makes this so frustrating is that the rest of the game has a lot of reactivity. A text-based scuffle late in the game might be made less serious once you inflict a weaponized word you learned from an NPC early in the game upon your foe, while being a nice person to one of your companions can cause them to appear in the most unlikely of times and make resolving the last possible combat encounter through words alone much easier. There are many interesting moments where things you learn from one conversation carry over into another, and while there are also moments where you’re railroaded (you’ll help Matkina in her merecaster no matter which choices you make), it’s still quite a bit more than I had expected. That just makes the moments where you feel like you should have a choice all the more conspicuous, though.

A lot of this stuff is familiar, but named weirdly for no reason

I don’t know about you, but I hate when games give established concepts weird names for no obvious reason. In today’s example of pointless renaming, status effects in Tides of Numenera are called “fettles.” I have no idea why. Then there are numenera, which are interesting technology-magic trinkets as I mentioned earlier. These come in various flavors. First, there are oddities, which are usually junk existing solely to be sold for money (which is now called “shins” because reasons!), but a small handful of them can be used from the description screen and occasionally offer permanent stat boosts or new items. Then there are cyphers, which are usable magical items. These can have basically any effect in the entire world. Some give you temporary benefits to one or more skill. Others do damage to enemies. Then there are some that give you permanent boosts, or lift the fog of war (which is useful approximately 0 times in the entire game), and all kinds of other crazy things. Most of them either damage enemies or give you temporary buffs, though. It’s also worth mentioning that you have a limit to how many you can carry, and going over that limit gives you negative status effects. Er, fettles. Whatever. These continue to stack on top of each other (and can be immediately removed by either using them or giving the excess to party members), and if you go way beyond your limit, your character explodes and dies. Temporarily, of course, with it only really knocking you back into the Labyrinth, but it’s amusing all the same.

The tombs have a lot of interesting stuff, but it’s mostly hidden in objects that look
identical to backer-submitted nonsense, forcing you to search through it all
and see their stupid quotes. I really, truly hate Kickstarter sometimes.

Finally, there are artifacts. These come in two flavors, those being “bonded” and normal ones. Bonded artifacts can be equipped in one of a character’s two bonded inventory slots and confer both positive and negative effects, though the negative effects of anything equipped in one or both slots can be ignored by upgrading your Concentration skill. Normal artifacts are basically just better than average items that can be equipped outside of the bonded slots, such as weapons, cloaks, armor, and ornaments (which are usually rings, but can also be something weird like eyes). You can only equip armor and cloaks on the main character, though, so you really only have control of your allies’ weapons, bonded items, and ornaments.

That’s not the only part of the game that’s been stripped down compared to other cRPGs. Your abilities all revolve around three pools, those being your Might pool, your Speed pool, and your Intellect pool. All skill checks rely on one of the three, with your base chance seemingly dictated by the relevant skills. For example, leveling up your Lore: Mystical skill will allow you to have a higher base chance of succeeding at Intellect skill checks that use the Lore: Mystical skill. You’re also given the opportunity to spend points from your pools to increase your percentage chance of succeeding at individual skill checks. Since these pools are only refilled by sleeping or using consumable items and the early game is where sleeping is probably a bad idea, this creates some interesting situations. As in Planescape: Torment, however, you can get the most out of this game by playing as a mage (though mages have been renamed to “nanos”) since all of the truly interesting skill checks rely on the Intellect pool. Once your Lore: ____ skills have been raised a bit and you have companions better suited to smashing and stealing with Might and Speed (you can often—but not always—draw from their pools for better results), you can begin to round your nano out and succeed at pretty much everything from then on. This is mostly possible thanks to “edge,” which are free points to spend on skill checks that don’t come from your pools; if you’re sure to spread out the points and edge while first focusing on Intellect, you can eventually have your single character succeeding at every skill check with ease because they either have a 90-100% base chance to succeed or have so much edge that they only need to spend 2-3 Might or Speed points to succeed at most skill checks.

Leveling up and some combat stuff

Needless to say, the way all of that works is really weird, and level ups manage to be equally weird; when leveling up, you can choose from several different things to level up such as skills, combat abilities, increased stat pools, the ability to spend more points at once on skill checks, and edge, but the catch is that you can only choose each one a single time. Once all of them have been exhausted, your “tier” goes up, which is basically a better level up that gives you more stuff. This paces leveling pretty well, all things considered, though you cap out at tier 4 and I found that my nano who focused on skill checks ended up being far more competent in general than my second character who focused more on combat. And that brings me to the combat, which is awful. It’s like Halfway and XCOM mixed with Divinity: Original Sin and The Banner Saga, only taking the worst aspects of each and discarding the good entirely. First off, combat is incredibly rare, only occurring where specifically designed, so characters who excel at it will be useless for the vast majority of the game. That’s even more true when it comes to the few times you face The Sorrow, who has too many hit points to kill and evaporates castoffs with a simple touch. You’re not able to win these fights no matter how your character is designed, so combat becomes even more of an afterthought. Doubly so since talking or sneaking your way out of situations is both easier and more beneficial. You can turn enemies into allies, or even diffuse the situation entirely before it spirals too far out of control. The biggest problem with combat isn’t the fact that it’s slow and awkward (though it’s both of those things, even for a turn-based game), but that your characters have two action points. You can spend both on movement, but then you can’t actually do anything on your turn. The problem, then, is the large distances you have to cross to get places, so you’re often being attacked while slowly making your way across an area to get away or talk to someone, and the slowness of combat and awkwardness of movement causes problems to arise when you don’t know which skills something will require ahead of time.

The story of me and a terrible combat encounter

Combat is technically called a “crisis,” but that’s dumb and I refuse to accept it, so this is the story of me in a combat encounter that had no combat. It managed to be the worst thing in the entire world anyway. This story will cover everything wrong with the combat-and-non-combat mechanics because I faced them all in this one section. Okay, so my characters had followed a portal to a spaceship, and I had found a helmet beforehand belonging to one of their members. There was something on the helmet that implied that it could be used to get the spaceship back to the home they’ve been searching for a way back to for hundreds of years, but they refused to let my characters access their fancy technology-magic sphere to analyze it. The only way I could see to help them was to have my other characters accept a tour from someone near the door, then have one character break in and analyze the helmet. After that, they can go home and everyone’s happy. The encounter started well enough, with my main character getting through the door, but unlocking the sphere turned out to be required to analyze the helmet, and unlocking it was a three-step process (which takes three turns, obviously). In addition to that, another character has to confirm each step on a computer on the other side of the ship. I sent Callistege because she had a high Intellect and “computers = Intellect stat” seemed like a pretty obvious connection. However, it turns out that what she actually had to do was rely on her Speed pool. Meanwhile, I had Matkina trying to distract the tour guide to keep him away from the door, but those were Intellect checks and she was a character with a high Speed pool. Having them switch places would require losing a turn and coming that much closer to being caught, though, so I tried it anyway. Callistege failed a few skill checks and I decided to switch in desperation, but both characters’ limited movement caused them to only make it halfway. Thinking I wasn’t interested in the tour anymore, the guy went back to the door and I failed as every single person in the ship became hostile, all because I couldn’t magically divine that the computer would rely on the Speed pool.

You can’t save in combat, either, so this was a total do-over situation. Yet again I went through positioning everyone, only this time I had Callistege and Matkina switch places. I got through all the skill checks and finally unlocked the thing and scanned the helmet, at which point the objective changed to “escape with the thing you took.” That didn’t make much sense to me, but it didn’t give me any other options, so I slowly—so slowly—escaped with it. When I went back to tell them what I learned and return it, however, they wouldn’t let me in. I guess they had a mutiny or something? Needless to say, I was pissed. Was I supposed to talk to the captain while leaving and explain myself? I’ll never know, because that long non-combat combat encounter crashed when I tried to do it again using the speedhack in Cheat Engine. It’s incredibly talented at crashing when speeding things up to a more bearable speed. The moral of the story is that letting you save in combat would allow players to work around not knowing what skill checks are where ahead of time (thus making it easier to avoid sending the wrong characters to the wrong spots in the first place). Another thing I’d love is if a character could spend both actions running to a computer and then be allowed to actually use the computer instead of having the option grayed out, forcing them to stand beside it like an idiot for a turn while every enemy in the entire world decides to gang up on them. At the end of the day, though, these encounters are beyond saving.

The graphics and music are bland

Finally, we have the graphics and music. I loved the art in Planescape: Torment and the way it added to the experience, and the bland, dark-metallic UI in Tides of Numenera can’t hold a candle to it. The prerendered backgrounds are decent enough, if a bit blurry, but the character models are really ugly. The game only becomes remotely visually appealing when you zoom out as far as possible, and even then, there are moments where it zooms in completely randomly for dialogue that has no visual effects. I still don’t know if that’s a bug or what, but loading a save and having it default to being zoomed in as close as possible serves as a constant reminder that this game doesn’t look as good as it probably should. Then there’s the music. I can see what it was going for, capturing the same kind of driving-percussion vibe that was ubiquitous in Planescape, but PS:T also had moments of unexpectedly beautiful music that contrasted those tracks and forced you to pay attention. I remember sitting around in the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts listening to Fall-From-Grace’s theme over and over, and several other characters had similarly great themes. There’s nothing like that in Tides of Numenera to grab your attention. It’s just the driving background nonsense throughout the entire game, and I eventually tuned it out entirely.

Torment: Tides of Numenera

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