By Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Senior Editor
Though many remarkable roleplaying games stuffed my shelves in the late 1990s and early 2000s, none lingered in my memories quite so strong as Planescape: Torment. In retrospect, I’m not sure why: the setting was more grimdark and sci-fi than I cared for at the time, and the writing was equally as eloquent as the Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate series. My best guess is that it was the first game that managed to worm past my defenses and find what little sense of humor I had at that age. All the same, “Torment” stuck with me and many others who cherished video games with a focus on narrative storytelling and complex decision mechanics that eventually fell out of favor in the mainstream.
Naturally, when inXile Entertainment (the studio behind the original Bard’s Tale, another fantastic RPG of the era) announced its desire to create a new game based on all the goodness of the original PlaneScape: Torment, I began salivating nostalgically. Of course, there were many things to be concerned about, including the developer’s choice to look to crowdfunding on Kickstarter. I’ve seen some amazing things come out of Kickstarted projects, but I’ve also watched projects crumble through silence, deception, and poor planning. Torment: Tides of Numenera has survived the entire process and now launched a game that has been earning great acclaim as an homage to that bizarre narrative landscape of Planescape: Torment.
Tides of Numenera is not a remake of Torment; it’s only set within the same Dungeons & Dragons: Planescape universe. All the same, there is a hint of déjà vu as Tides of Numenera begins with a protagonist who, like the original, suffers from a hard case of amnesia. Rest assured, this is a different story. It’s just that PlaneScape games appear to have a fondness for hunting for memories in a thick, murky soup of character introspection and expositional revelation.
The truest connection between Tides and Torment lies in the narrative, verbose and rich with depictions of nightmare-inducing creatures and haunting thoughts on the nature of reality. There is no sacrifice to the storytelling, whether it be through small things in the environment that can be examined to the multi-threaded dialogue that changes based on your interactions, influences, and character skills. Your choices in conversation, for instance, can influence the Tides, a special ‘force’ that represents five aspects of self, so to speak. More than that, however: the power of conversation allows you to find multiple paths through situations, including avoiding combat or earning special boons.
In fact, combat is sparse, limited to a handful of encounters – some of which are entirely avoidable. There are far fewer encounters than you would expect in a more modern RPG like Dragon Age, which means the combat hungry will walk away feeling starved. However, these encounters also play out far more like a tabletop experience, offering opportunities to utilize the environment and engage enemies in more ways than simply bringing down a maul on their heads. Known alternatively as a “Crisis,” the encounter system features turn-based movement and action. Each character has the chance to both move and act in a single turn, utilize character skills, or simply pass and hope no one notices them lurking in the corner. These encounters are also integrated as part of the area the party is in, which means that other nearby NPCs may react and dead bodies will linger. Unless you throw them into a canyon, of course.
Almost all actions in and out of combat rely upon an effort system. Instead of the traditional D&D stat system, each character has three stat point ‘pools’ – Might, Speed, and Intelligence. During actions, characters can spend points from these pools to enhance their chance of success (or, in the case of combat, the damage they deal). These points are then spent until the party rests. Of course, resting can also forward the plot as some events are time-based, a lesson that cost one of my favorite NPCs their life.
As with any good RPG, there is equipment and loot to be had. In Tides of Numenera, there are two crucial forms: weapons and cyphers. Weapons are assigned classes based on one of the three primary stats, making it easy to differentiate which of your characters should get the big smashy hammer and which should get the little pointy daggers. Cyphers, on the other hand, are a special form of equipment. These often have limited uses, although some permanent boosts do exist. Many offer powerful attacks that can severely cripple and wound enemies, which is perhaps a boon considering how little combat experience your party would otherwise earn.
Your characters do gain experience, however, though it comes unevenly in tiny dialogue skill checks interspersed with occasional hefty experience dumps meant to actually progress the party. Characters level up in segments called ‘Tiers.’ Each level within a Tier allows the character to choose one enhancement from a select list, but only once per tier. This means that you can choose which enhancements are most beneficial to you first, giving a little more choice in character growth.
There are, of course, other little systems that I can stop to explain, but they do little to add to the core experience of Tides of Numenera. Instead, let’s move on to discuss the game’s flaws and concerns.
It’s been four years and $4 million in Kickstarted funds (only part of the total funding) since Torment: Tides of Numenera was posted on Kickstarter. As can be expected, there are dissatisfied backers who have brought legitimate concerns to the table. Of the nine promised companions to the Last Castoff, only six made it to the game. Likewise, though more Foci were planned, no more than the original three from alpha were ever added. Areas shifted and changed in focus. These, of course, were all viewed as ‘promises’ from inXile based on their Kickstarter campaign, and changes are made over the course of time. inXile stands behind their choices, although they have seemed to admit their lack of communication to backers about certain choices.
However, I find Tides of Numenera’s greatest flaw to be how aged the game feels. Looking past the niche gameplay of an RPG that more often than not plays like a D&D visual novel, T:ToN offers a certain low-fidelity and lack of crispness and detail in character models and environment. A few hours in, I realized how disappointed I was that the world not only lacked the dark, gritty atmosphere of Planescape: Torment, but how low resolution and indistinct the characters felt in their world (see above). And while the sound design of the game itself is fantastic, the sparse and unpredictable voice acting leaves much to be desired.
All in all, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a great game for what it aspired to be: rich in story-telling and true to the Planescape setting. True, it lacks the charm and wit that the original had (we’ll never forget you Morte), as well as innovation. While it may not live up to the pen and paper rulebook, and may fall short of backer expectations, Tides of Numenera still stands as an excellent tribute to the CRPG.