InXile Entertainment, the team behind the fantastic Wasteland 2 release, have teamed up with Techland Publishing to bring us a spiritual successor to one of the most revered computer role-playing games of all time – Planescape: Torment. Although Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn’t have the formers AD&D licensing, it does have the rights to Monte Cook’s fantastic Numenera setting, and like much like it’s predecessor, takes place in a world of technology and magic featuring outlandish concepts and bizarre, unnatural landscapes.
Torment is a game about discovery; choice and consequence. It’s a role-playing game with a specific focus, where the writing and story is absolutely at the forefront of everything it does, and item acquisition and even combat are secondary aspects. The plot begins with you falling through the sky, an unknown narrator chronicling your descent as the kilometres scream by. Inevitably you hit the ground but surprisingly survive, waking with no memory of who or where you are. As with Planescape, this is the point where the journey to reclaim your memories and find your destiny begins.
The majority of your time you’ll spend talking with NPCs, carrying out quests for them and discovering who you were – and are – through a novels worth of text. Dialogue trees have many branching paths, and the way you deal with the inhabitants of the world reflects on you as a person, and how your adventure will unfold. Torment: Tides of Numenera uses “Tides” to represent the choices and actions you take throughout the game, especially when making dialogue choices with NPCs. Each of these Tides has a specific colour and embodies several associated concepts: For example, being altruistic when helping another character may result in an on-screen message stating “The Tides have shifted! Gold Tide has risen slightly”. The composition of Tides a character has manipulated the most determines their Legacy, which roughly describes the way they have taken in life. Different Legacies can affect bonuses and powers certain weapons and relics provide, as well as give a character special abilities and skill enhancements. The key here is, unlike many other RPGs where the consequences of your actions have predictable results, you’re not immediately aware of how the tides work and what they affect. This deliberate design choice is a stroke of genius, as it means for at least your first playthrough, you’ll be playing using your own personality, making your own choices instead of the ones you think you should make.
Torment is the latest game to become part of a mini-revival of the old Infinity Engine games: Isometric CRPGs adapted from table top games, telling original stories within established worlds. Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale; essentially any pre-Neverwinter Bioware stuff was part of the original revolution, giving us the most revered RPGs of all time. A big part of the draw of these past titles was the maturity of the content, both in terms of intelligence and adult themes, and the unique ‘active pause’ combat. This utilised a real-time combat engine where you could click on characters and give them commands with which to attack the enemies, but allowed you to hit ‘SPACE’ to pause the flow of time while you did so. Bioware revived this technique with Dragon Age: Origins, and used it somewhat similarly throughout the Mass Effect series. This is why it baffles me that InXile have decided to go with pure, turn based combat. Sure, it’s what they know – Many of the key people behind Fallout 1 & 2 as well as the team behind Wasteland 2 worked on Torment – but as a spiritual successor to Planescape, which used the classic active pause system, it feels out of place. It’s a good thing, then, that combat hardly ever occurs.
You don’t get into battles as such. You have encounters, which the game calls ‘Crises’, and they can almost always be overcome without the need to fight. You know when a Crisis occurs because of visual feedback on the screen, and the switch out of real-time movement. In a second stroke of genius, instead of launching straight into battle as you would with Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin, you could be given the chance to hide, or use a contraption, or initiate a conversation. You can of course just click attack and go to town on the other party involved in the Crisis, but to do so would be missing the point: You don’t have to fight. If you do fight, it’s because you’ve chosen to do so – that is your decision, your own character coming out in the one you’re role-playing. On an initial playthrough, you won’t know the motivations or alignment of the characters which you find yourself dealing with, and an implied gesture of goodwill may actually be a huge mistake. The Tides will shift, and over time you’ll get an inclination, but again it’s the pure joy of discovery combined with trepidation of the unknown which make even a Crisis conversation as exciting as coshing someone with a club and watching them bleed out.
It has to be said that the game is a treat for the eyes and ears as well as being engrossing, well written and expansive. Torment uses an updated version of the ‘Pillars’ engine, developed by Obsidian as a successor to the Infinity Engine, and used on their games Pillars of Torment, and Tyranny. It retains the beautiful, isometric art style Bioware made famous with Baldur’s Gate, but was built-in Unity to support 3D characters, animations and shading whilst retaining the look of the classic CRPGs of yesteryear. The scenery is stunning, with great clarity and use of colour, and shadows and animations fill the locations with wonder. Unfortunately, Unity doesn’t run very efficiently on consoles, and even the most basic of games built using it can drop frames and chug along slowly, whilst games like Forza Motorsport 6 and Gears of War 4 manage much more fidelity and framerate. When fully zoomed out, Torment has a habit of slowing down, dropping to around 20 frames per second. Completely manageable and playable, and it’s the view which makes the games scenes look the most beautiful, but still an annoyance in busier areas like the City at the start of the game. The engine also affects responsiveness in the menus, with delays between button presses and visual feedback allowing minor, but constant aggravation. Thankfully, the visual design itself, accompanied by a fantastic musical score, keeps you from focussing too much on those irritations.
Unlike the click-to-move scheme which PC users will be familiar with, Torment on the Xbox uses a direct control scheme, with the left stick moving your party around, lead by the player character – similar to Final Fantasy VIII – and the right stick zooming the camera. It’s a scheme which works, and I prefer it on a controller to simulating a mouse and keyboard set up, but it makes interacting a bit of a chore. In games like this on the PC, you’d hover your mouse over various elements in the environment, including characters, and decide whether to click them or not. Here, you can click in the right thumbstick to see an icon over everything you can interact with currently within your screen space, but you then have to manually guide your character to it before pressing ‘A’ to use it. If, for example, there are several people in the same place and you wish to talk to a particular one, you can tab through nearby NPCs and interactive objects with the shoulder buttons before pressing ‘A’ to carry out the default action on that object. Despite the initially clunky feel to the control scheme, it does work well and I can’t think of a better way to translate the looser PC controls to a joypad.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is a bit of a slow burner at the start of the game, and the lack of action scenes and killing & looting may put some people off; I don’t blame them. That can be a huge draw in RPGS – It’s why I love Sacred 2. However, if you enjoy a well written story, outstanding dialogue and a huge chain of cause and effect with lots of choice and consequence, and you’re prepared to very slowly unravel the mystery of the world and it’s inhabitants whilst looking past a couple of technical issues, I highly recommend it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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