Torment: Tides of Numenera Review
An excellent spiritual successor to Planescape that's let down by technical issues
For those of you who have played Black Isle Studios' Planescape: Torment, it shouldn’t be any surprise to hear that its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera, is a wildly weird sci-fi/fantasy epic that is as strange as it is interesting - in many ways, everything Planescape was. But, maybe it is a bit of a surprise. Backers who followed this game since it’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaign would be forgiven for having some skepticism over the game’s road to release. Tides of Numenera was delayed and then had a rocky early-access beta. Now that the final product is out, I find myself in a tough position. Part of me wants to write about how phenomenal and unique Tides of Numenera is, not only as a cRPG, but as a video game. I wish I could write a glowing review of how it sidesteps RPG conventions and expresses itself through more interesting means than run-of-the-mill combat systems. All that stuff is true about Tides of Numenera, and I’ll discuss it in more detail later, but it's also marred by the fact that this is one of the worst technical experiences I’ve had with a PS4 game in recent history. Tides of Numenera is buggy, unstable, and occasionally feels like a bad port. Yet, if you’re persistent and always remember to save your progress, there’s a one-of-a-kind experience to be had.
Tides of Numenera tells the story of the Last Castoff - that’s you. There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’ll do my best, but consider it worth your time to check out the story trailer for the game - it’s almost essential viewing to make sure you remember the very basics of the plot and don’t get lost in the early game overload of narrative, lore, and characters. This is probably one of my biggest criticism with the narrative - it can be hard to get into with so much front-loaded exposition. The set up is that in the far future, one man has finally discovered the key to eternal life by creating human-like bodies and downloading his consciousness into them, shifting from one decaying body to the next. However, these dormant bodies are coming back to life and are known as castoffs, of which there are dozens if not hundreds. The castoffs have formed a religion around their creator, calling him The Changing God. As you are born, crashing down through the stratosphere and into a strange temple, you are told that there is a powerful creature chasing The Changing God and the castoffs, known as The Sorrow. You are the key to The Changing God’s plan to defeat The Sorrow, but to do so you must find someone who can help you activate the machine called the Resonance Chamber.
That’s a lot to take in, right? And that’s just the opening minutes.
Tides of Numenera is a game with incredibly dense lore, each location boasting factions, characters, history, and secrets. Not only that, it’s pretty easy to get into the weeds with the dialogue. Half the time, I hesitated to ask about a certain character or location because the answer might be three paragraphs worth of information I read and promptly forgot - I can only allocate so much brain space to the minutia of Numenera’s invented world. The good news is that unlike some cRPGs, the game doesn’t punish you for skimming the text. You often have to cycle through all the dialogue to see if someone can help you with a quest, but if you skip over something important it will be recorded in your journal. There’s more to unpack about the world itself and how it changes with your dialogue choices - but really it isn’t all that interesting.
While I could take or leave the dense lore, what I really enjoyed about Numenera’s story is how well-told it is. Writer Colin McComb adapts another tabletop setting from designer Monet Cook after working on Wasteland 2 and it’s clear that he and the rest of the writing staff are happy to stretch their creative legs. It would be one thing if this high-minded tale about individuality and sacrifice was pretentious dribble, but Numenera bakes its ideals into a plot that is filled with genuine surprise and intrigue. I don’t want to spoil too much because peeling off the layers of the narrative is half the fun, but suffice it to say that the side quests, which most RPGs bring up and resolve completely separate from the main quests, factor heavily into some of the final reveals. It’s also excellently paced; Numenera never overstays its welcome, never drawing out its length with run-of-the-mill game filler. Just when a location might be maxed out, it shuffles you to the next plot point or location with sequences that continue to paint the world and its characters with dimensions rarely explored in video games.
The game’s desire to never overstay it’s welcome leaves it a little on the short-end, as far as playtime. My playthrough clocked in at around 25-30 hours and I explored the world pretty thoroughly. Still, I can’t overstate the strong the writing is - you may not ever like certain characters, but their motivations are clear, and their voices are heard. Not only was Numenera an engaging ride, but even the ending was a surprise, as I was a given a choice to choose an outcome I didn’t see coming, but one that totally satisfied me. This is a rare kind of narrative - and I loved the hell out of it.
Adding to the richness of the world are the interesting characters that populate the game. Most are organically introduced through side quests - which, in case the point wasn’t clear enough, are used to flesh out the narrative in Numenera as opposed to giving players busywork - and join up with you more out of necessity than loyalty. These are tortured souls and ne’re-do-wells, and usually they won’t willingly give up their lives without some convincing. Adding to the twists and turns are the journeys the individual characters take. As you work through the narrative, your companions become confronted with their haunted pasts and while your arc as a character will be complete by the closing credits, the damage done to your companions lead to fascinating and tragic ends. Unlike most recent cRPGs, there isn’t a safehouse where you can collect these companions, but rather you have to decide immediately if you want to take them into your party and who you want to dismiss to make room.
You also have your own character and while there aren't a lot of traditional character creation mechanics, you’ll still have create a build of your character classes of Nanos, Glaive, Jack, and Cypher. While these classes have an effect on your play-style, they don’t really force you into any sort of stat limitations. Your skills might change and your abilities are altered, but the roles don’t feel as rigid as many modern RPGs.
Each player-controlled character has pool of points for might, speed, and intellect, and those points are spent in battles, conversations, and taking actions in the world. What this does is place an emphasis on dialogue and other non-combat options that is equal to the combat itself. You can avoid a fight by pumping a few extra points into your might roll as you attempt to intimidate an opponent, saving you the trouble of having to enter combat. Instead of haggling for a needed item, you can attempt a speed roll with some extra points to pickpocket an NPC. Instead of completing a difficult quest for someone, use your intellect rolls to convince the quest-giver that it’s in their best interests to go home.
As your stats increase, you can add more points into these rolls, making your chances of success even higher; also you can add extra buffs to your overall stats or specific skills to improve your chances of success without needing to add extra points. This also helps with the balance of the game. If you’ve spent your small amounts of might and speed while trying to get through a dungeon, but have a large amount of intellect, you can likely talk your way out of an upcoming fight. It all adds to this emphasis inXile has clearly placed on making the non-combat moments of Numenera as exciting and interesting as the combat - which is actually the weaker aspect of the gameplay.
It’s almost impossible to talk your way out of all fights - and sometimes the actions you take to avoid combat are especially nasty - so you’ll like have to duke it out a couples times. Combat is similar to most modern cRPGs, but is particularly similar to Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin, though it lacks the refinement of those titles. Each character gets a move and action part of their turn; actions and to-hit rolls are based on percentages that can be improved by using points from your might, speed, and intellect pools, depending upon the weapon. Characters also have special abilities that they can use. You can feel Numenera straining against these combat scenarios, like a Game Master who is annoyed they have to pick up a rule book and take time away from their story to deal with the mundane task of violence.
For this reason, it’s rare that you’ll find the combat challenging - and most scenarios that you can’t talk your way out of, have special objectives that don’t require a body count. Numenera obviously wants to push the player out of combat as quickly as possible and that makes the battles tactically less satisfying. Numenera makes up for its lackluster combat by turning certain battles into narrative-driven spectacles. There’s a particular escape-sequence that occurs just past the game’s midpoint that left me on the edge of my seat - and don’t even get me started on the penultimate battle which involved four different factions chaotically fighting it out while I was forced to make one of the most important decisions of the game. When Numenera beautifully combines the combat and narrative, these moments feel singular in their execution.
These narrative-driven set-pieces provide fun visuals that keep Tides of Numenera from looking like the average low-budget RPG. The cRPG-look that a couple years ago felt refreshing is starting wear a little thin, but Numenera’s locations are so oddly unique, it never feels bland or dull. From a picturesque castoff haven to a living city that consumes its citizens, Tides of Numenera delivers one bizarrely wonderful locale after another. I don’t know if the attention to detail or majestic scenery rivals Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity, but it is definitely less traditional.
Now, as promised, here comes the bad stuff. First, to nit-pick, the looting system and general economy of the game is a little broken. I had more money than I knew what to do with by the final mission and had more healing items than I could ever use. It’s clear that this wasn’t a focus in the design of Numenera and they’d rather have you engaged in the story than scrounging for items, but the mechanic feels like it’s here to check off a box rather than to do anything interesting.
But, yeah, the real flaw here is that Tides of Numenera runs like a nightmare on the PS4. The loading times are far too long, and since you’ll constantly be moving between locations, it’s almost painful. The framerate can drop at any time, even when you are simply walking around - this was especially prevalent in the early areas. The game crashed half-a-dozen times, requiring me to close the application and restart it. But the most annoying issue was when a quick-save had a bug that prevented me from interacting with anything in a location - I couldn’t talk to anyone, couldn’t pick up anything, and I couldn’t leave.
These technical issues carry over to the AI, especially in combat. NPC turns can take ages as they move around the map without any thought to strategy or the rules your characters have to adhere to. The logic of enemies isn’t always clear and they’ll attack sporadically - sometimes they won’t attack at all. It’s easier to push these technical flaws out of your mind as you get deeper into the game and become more engaged in the story, but it certainly won’t help any newcomers to the cRPG genre. Hopefully, these issued are patched out in the future, but for now, my suggestion would be to save obsessively.
One surprise was how well Numenera’s control scheme worked on PS4. This isn’t the first time inXile has ported their cRPGs to console, but I was still impressed with how well the game played using a controller. I don’t know if it's great enough to be my first choice - I’m still a bit of a keyboard and mouse purist for this genre - but playing with the PS4 controller never felt like an inconvenience.
At its worst, the technical flaws of Torment: Tides of Numenera can be painfully frustrating. However, if you can be patient and stick with it, the game is one of the most creative cRPG experiences I’ve ever had. Its world is a bizarre work of fiction that ignites imagination and inspires wonder. Its characters are the three dimensional lost souls that speak to my heart. Its narrative is the high-minded work of an intellectual but delivered with the thrills and twists of pulp-fantasy. The focus on the actions and dialogue of the player are a welcomed change-of-pace to combat-heavy game design. In spite of the obvious flaws, I feel Tides of Numenera is a special kind of RPG - and I hope you can give it a chance.