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A screen grab from Tides of Numenera.

Game review – Torment: Tides of Numenera is much more than a nostalgic tribute to predecessor

The spiritual successor to Planetscape: Torment, which raised almost US$5 million in crowdfunding, focuses more on information gathering than fighting and is complex game that will need a few plays to get the full effect

Video gaming
Torment: Tides of Numenera

inXile Entertainment

4.5/5 stars

Torment: Tides of Numenera exemplifies that most modern of creative success stories: the Kickstarter smash hit. Developed by inXile Entertainment (the team behind Wasteland 2) it was launched on the crowdfunding platform in 2013 and reached its full US$900,000 target after only six hours. By the end of the campaign it had raised almost US$5 million.

Why such fervid interest? Torment: Tides of Numenera is the spiritual successor to the renowned 1999 role-playing game Planescape: Torment, which, alongside other classics such as Baldur’s Gate, helped redefine the genre.

Its narrative took in a multiverse of coexisting dimensions, it featured a rich cast of well-drawn characters and an emphasis on dialogue rather than battle. As you’d expect from that game’s spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a bizarre mishmash of worlds and themes.

The player is the Last Castoff, an outsider with a past they had no control over, on an uncertain path of self-discovery. The titular numenera are the remnants of past civilisations which dot the Ninth World, a battered and bruised Earth set six billion years in the future. The Ninth World has seen the rise and fall of countless civilisations and races in that time, but all of them remain unknown to the current denizens, who have been left only with their equally mysterious and often extremely dangerous numenera.

Torment (for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC ) is unapologetic in how much it tells the player; there’s no encyclopedia or tool tips to guide you in dialogue. You’re expected to read and learn as you play. The sheer mass and detail of the lore is overwhelming and hard to digest at first, though this seems deliberate based on who you are in this setting.

As the Last Castoff you play the latest reject of a powerful entity who switches bodies to remain immortal; when the entity switches to a new body the previous body becomes conscious. You begin the game as one of these husks. You are abandoned, confused and uncertain, and the scraps of knowledge you pick up become as important as the scraps of technology you scavenge to survive.

The player is given the option of recruiting companions who can assist in dialogue skill checks and in combat. Companions are fleshed-out characters with their own motivations and reasons for helping you.

A screen grab from Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Much like Baldur’s Gate, if you take a course of action that your companions disagree with there’s a chance they may leave your party for good or even attack you. In terms of dialogue, the writing is superb, evocative and ranges from lighthearted sci-fi jokes to a terrifying dissection of existence itself. And it’s a good job, too. There’s a lot to read and Torment expects the player to visualise all the intricately written and structured descriptions it uses. This isn’t a game where you rush through text to get to a fight.

Combat is less important than in other RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity or even Baldur’s Gate. It occurs during crisis points and features a turn-based system similar to Divinity: Original Sin. During these sequences, you can use the environment around you or even attempt to talk your way out of the fight entirely, using persuasion. There are no random encounters; in many ways you have to go out of your way to trigger physical fights, but those options are open if that’s how you want to play the game.

Unlike Pillars of Eternity from which it borrows some technology, Torment is a sci-fi RPG, though the line appears to blur at times. There are machines and robots, and the user interface itself evokes a sci-fi feel with smooth metallic designs and glowing blue borders, but then you find yourself speaking to ghosts or following gods and other mythical items. But then here, ghosts aren’t fantasy and nothing is magic; it’s all part of the pan-dimensional science that is commonplace in this distant future.

During character creation, the player can choose between a nano (mage), glaive (warrior/rogue) or jack (balanced), giving a rough outline of a player class, within those subsections are various abilities and traits you can select. One of the more notable of these was “scan thoughts” which outlines an NPC’s true thoughts in a few sentences at the end of their dialogue. While a lot of the skills and abilities are basic stat boosts or traits, abilities like “scan thoughts” seem to change how you play the game at a fundamental level, to the point it’s hard to imagine playing without it. It allows you to see whether companions are truly loyal or not, whether strangers are trying to attack or trick you.

Torment is designed to be replayed – you can’t fit six billion years into one play-through and expect to see everything. The sheer mass of stories and lore is impressive, and with less focus on combat, you can build characters that are designed for exploration and dialogue instead. The game is less a hunt for fights and gear and more a philosophical journey into what identity truly means. This is an intriguing, altogether different approach to storytelling.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is more than a nostalgic homage to Planescape: Torment – its own innovations will mark the genre as much as its spiritual predecessor did.