I can't be impartial when it comes to Torment: Tides of Numenera. I backed the Kickstarter campaign and I have a book about the role-playing game on my shelf. I'm also a huge admirer of the work of Monte Cook and his ability to create distinctive role-play scenarios that focus on narrative. Maybe that's why I loved Planescape Torment so much back in the day;it was an RPG that, even though it shared gameplay elements with Baldur's Gate, was enjoyed in a different manner. It was more thoughtful and reflective, and the items we picked up mattered less, instead focus was on the development of the story, the characters, and creating a unique atmosphere.
When InXile launched the Kickstarter and said that they wanted to develop the spiritual successor to Planescape Torment, I celebrated, but I was also full of questions: would it not be an overly complicated project? How would they be able to reproduce the atmosphere of the original? These fears have endured for the past two years, despite all the sounds coming out of the company suggesting they're heading in the right direction. The first musical pieces by Mark Morgan implied that the melancholic mood was still present, the first illustrations continued with that undefined, eclectic style, where all sort of things can happen. Of course, delving into the Numenera books and novels was important in order to helping me understand a little more about what they are doing at studio with the millions of dollars they accumulated via their crowdfunding campaign.
The end result is that I got into the beta of Torment: Tides of Numenera earlier than others, with an expectation that I have rarely felt throughout my career, but it also meant that my critical senses were turned up to eleven. I knew Torment past and Numenera present, and this game had to live up to my expectations. The only thing I regret about my experience thus far is that there is still a little more time until we play the final, polished game with all the features and options available. Because InXile has done it again.
When discussing Torment: Tides of Numenera we have to talk about Numenera, the role-playing game which it's based on. The first Torment Planescape was inspired by Planescape, one of the most interesting Dungeons & Dragons campaign scenarios, which was created by Zeb Cook. Monte Cook and Colin McCombe took over the setting after Zeb left, and Cook would end up being one of the creators of the 3.0 system of D&D, acting as a godfather to Pathfinder and eventually getting $900,000 on Kickstarter to create his own RPG: which turned out to be Numenera. This ensures that there is some consistency in both games, such as common elements and connecting points.
Numenera is a unique role-playing game, with an original setting and a game system focused on exploration and discovery. It takes place in the so-called Ninth World; the Earth in a billion years. Continental drift has led to a new Pangea, the stars have changed and, over the ages, eight major civilisations have come and gone. It is known that at some point, our planet was the core of a galactic empire, and some of the races that coexist with humans today are of alien origin... yet the people of the Ninth World live in a pseudo-medieval era, brimming with the technology of these extinct peoples.
All this technology, whether it's monoliths in the middle of nowhere, former research laboratories, photographic cameras, personal computers, psyonic crystals, portals to other worlds, chemicals, revolutionary medicines, nanomachines, genetic modification, artificial limbs... All this is generally referred to as Numenera. The Numenera are the ruins of eight worlds that existed before, ruins that are thoroughly explored by the people of the Ninth World and that the most ignorant or superstitious associate with magic or religion.
In the Ninth World anything can happen, there is no limit to the imagination of the narrator. This philosophy fits in with the nature of Dungeons & Dragons, where creatures and magic behave differently, where the land can be endless. It's in the Ninth World where there is a being called the Changing God, a creature that has been traveling from body to body for a millennium, experiencing life after life, creating empires and destroying armies, experimenting with reality. Every time it leaves a body, a new soul finds it and is born. In the Ninth World we are The Last Castoff, the last of the bodies used by the Changing God.
We're newborn and Torment begins by showing us memories, past experiences that are hidden in the recesses of our memory, something we have not experienced ourselves, but that of the selfish and manipulative God. Thus, we begin our journey in the game discovering fantastic stories, making choices that, gradually, will shape our personality, our powers: who we are. This is one of the constants that we have seen in the beta: everything has a narrative justification and it's intended that the decisions of the player, even those that are as cold as assigning a number to a property, have their meaning within the history.
The RPG gameplay in Numenera is simple. All the actions that we undertake - from dealing out a stab wound, shooting a blaster, attempting to convince a mutant merchant, or even bypassing the circuits of an ancient robot - have an assigned difficulty from one to ten (which is then multiplied by three to make a throw with a twenty-sided dice). Our skills can reduce the difficulty to make it more affordable, and adversaries can make the situation more complicated. There are even small random elements (in the case of the role-playing game these are direct and impromptu interventions from the Game Director) that hamper specific actions. This system has been respected as much as possible in Torment: Tides of Numenera, retaining both the system's minimalism and the clarity of presentation. Whenever you execute an action that depends on a "dice roll" you know the difficulty beforehand and thus you can freely decide to chance it or not.
This system is deeply interwoven into all elements of the game. Of course, combat (tactical and turn-based) is determined both by these dice rolls and the difficulty of your enemies, but the truth is that Torment: Tides of Numenera is not a game that focuses on fighting, but on missions, on the narrative, on the discovery of stories and characters. Like its predecessor, this is a game with a huge amount of text. The quality of the writing is very high and when we found spoken fragments, the voice actors do an outstanding job too.
Both the stories seem enjoyable and the mission structure breaks with what we are accustomed to seeing in an RPG. Maybe the game that comes closest is The Witcher, with its ambiguity and twists on familiar scenarios, but the world of Torment: Tides of Numenera is much more varied and allows for more powerful and shocking scenes.
In the city of Sagus Cliffs, where we started our adventure, there is a peculiar way to execute criminals. They are taken to the gallows in the main square and there they're given a powerful drug that makes them hallucinate. These hallucinations acquire physical form and they extend tentacles which they use to slowly choke themselves. While the prisoner is tortured with nightmares caused by his own mind, these nightmares are killing him physically. When the sentenced party dies, a member of the Order of O'hur Dendra will devour the body to absorb their memories and experiences.
In our game we were able to talk with one of these corporeal nightmares and even touch it. As we are an old body of the Changing God, a particularly powerful one at that, we were taken to the Temple of Dendra O'hur, and there we received a shocking proposal. They wanted permission to eat part of our flesh and thus absorb part of our experiences. To this sect we are an unimaginable delicacy, full of life experiences that take many years to assimilate. But they will not kill us, it's not their style, they're not actually evil.
Indeed, we can refuse and go quietly on our way... or we can agree to be the main course of a macabre feast. If we agree, we will have a permanent physical defect, but at the same time we'll get some unique memories, special allies, and some other advantages. But the important thing is not that we get this or that power, it's what we live, the experience, the underlying story. It is a morbid example, disgusting perhaps, but it's reminiscent of a Planescape: Torment mission where we let an embalmer delve into our guts in search of an antique ring. It is the kind of thing one expects to see in a Torment game, and we have seen it again and again in Tides of Numenera.
The narrative of this game is based on the written word, on the literary text. This can feel somewhat contradictory in a video game, as it has visual tools to tell us stories. If a character combs his beard you don't have to write about it, you animate the character doing it. Not here. The graphics are merely an interface between the player and what he or she wants to do, the visuals merely provide information about what is really happening. They are a stage, a backdrop, there to put you in the moment.
The interior of the Order of Truth (a bunch of mystic masters of Numenera) is full of monitors and electronic equipment, test tubes, energy sources and crystals. In the middle of the Sagus Cliffs square there is a huge clock that exists in several time periods simultaneously, in front of the courthouse there is a source of slugs who speak thousands of long gone languages... We can interact with some elements, which almost always leads to mysterious memories, but most are there to create atmosphere, to immerse us in this fascinating world.
Torment: Tides of Numenera has proved to be a game that looks set to fulfill all the expectations that were placed on it. There are still small problems to fix, polish is required elsewhere, and the beta lacked certain customisation options (for example, there was no access to any merchants). These there are the things that one has to endure when playing an unfinished version of a game. Howeve, based on what we've seen and enjoyed, it seems that this is a game that exists on another narrative level, and it's one we still have to play for many more hours before being able to decide what we think of the combat system.
For the moment, fans of Planescape Torment can rest assured, Torment: Tides of Numenera has all the elements that made it's predecessor great. It also has a background, Numenera, which is equally mysterious and as powerful as Planescape. Keep it on your radar, for this is one could well be one of the greatest games of 2016.