There’s a certain kind of RPG playing nerd who get all misty eyed when you start talking about a game called Planescape: Torment. Released back in the distant past of 1999, it was developed by the PC RPG equivalent of the A-Team and focused on the personal journey of an extremely forgetful man and his group of bizarre friends. It eschewed the tropes of RPGs and instead focused on complex world building and characterisation delivered via a steady onslaught of pure imagination and an avalanche of text. The sort of auteur experimentation that led to tremendous critical praise but poor sales, consigned to cult appeal status. I’m quite fond of P:T, not so much as to have played it through a second time admittedly, and hearing the news that a handful of people who worked on it were coming back to make another game like it and had been given 4 million dollars on Kickstarter, my expectations were set to cautious positivity. Now this new one, Torment: Tides of Numenera, is finally out (well, proper out not Early Access out) I’ve given it a bit of a play and here's what I think.
It’s not really very good.
The best analogy I have to pithily summarize Torment: Tides of Numenorians is that it’s the P:T tribute band, playing a medley of all the classics whilst trying out a few new things of their own. The stuff you know isn’t done as well as you’d like and the new stuff just doesn’t sit right at all. I’m in that uncomfortable betrayed fan position of cursing all the stuff that’s the same as being uncreative and all the stuff it does differently as being shit because of Reasons, and nobody wants to go onto the internet and be that guy. It’s embarrassing enough to think that strangers give a shit about my opinions as it is without debasing myself further going down that path. But when discussing a nostalgia reboot like Torment: Tides of Numanuma I feel it’s important to establish just where one stands.
I should probably describe what a Torment is for the 98% of you who have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. Alright, so it’s an RPG that looks like it came from the 90’s- 3d animated characters on a 2d background with half the screen dedicated to text and UI buttons- set in the future of the future. That is to say, humans live in the preserved ruins of previous civilisations that were incredibly technologically advanced and whose gadgets still remain operational. Nobody quite understands how they function so they’re treated as if they’re magical so the game can still be a Fantasy RPG, just with a coat of techno paint. The player takes the role of the Last Castoff, a Castoff being a body previously inhabited by a fella known as the Changing God who every decade or two assumes a new form and throws the old one down to Earth after wiping its memories. Unlike the other Castoffs the Last Castoff is resurrected upon each death unless that death comes via a giant demon monster called Sorrow in which case you get sent to the Load screen. Your main quest is to figure out how to stop the Sorrow once and for all by doing Fantasy RPG things like passing skill tests, navigating dialogue trees and winning combats.
If that last paragraph seemed both overwhelming and dull then welcome to about 85% of the dialogue in Torment: Tides of Nananana. You can’t go three feet without tripping over someone completely fucking mental who’s just dying to tell you their life story and that of their people in immense detail none of which you really need to know. In a normal RPG all this bullshit would be dumped in an ingame encyclopedia so as not to get in the way of the drama. Good writing demands you weave as little exposition into the text as possible, give the audience the barest amount to understand the world, the characters and the motivation and then let the drama play out. Stopping every 15 minutes to cram a novella down the player’s throat is not how you do it.
There is an overarching theme in the narrative about discovering the meaning and value of life, in how these things do not really have set answers and that it’s all what you make of it. The eponymous Tides of Numenera represent an invisible force that connects humanity and responds to their actions. There’s five different tides corresponding to five different outlooks on life and the game notes which one you favour the most. First problem I have is that this doesn’t seem to affect gameplay at all so why are you telling me about this? Second problem, which I fear uncomfortably reveals how much of a massive fucking nerd I am, is that having a five sided, colour coded alignment system feels like it was stolen from Magic: The Gathering. Oh look the Tide that’s about intellect is coloured Blue. The one that’s about impulsiveness is coloured Red. The one that’s about the greater benefit of society as a whole is coloured Whi- well no it’s Indigo but it might as well be White. Really my qualm is that I don’t like when games try to make character alignment a mechanic as it gets in the way of immersion. When I’m pondering a dilemma I’m supposed to project myself into the game’s world, not going over each option wondering how a game designer has mapped it outt.
As for the raw gameplay itself, well it kinda sucks too! There’s three attributes in the game (Might, Speed and Intellect, natch) and your characters have a certain number of points associated with them which are expended when performing kung fu moves in combat or performing a skill outside of it. The more points you expend the higher a chance that your actions succeed and you replenish points by resting which costs a bit of money. This system works fine for a few hours until you’ve gained a few levels and some travelling companions at which point it becomes completely trivial. Skill tests? More like… Skill… Jests. Actually what I do like about the combat is that it’s surprisingly infrequent and whenever there is a punchup there’s firm context established for who you are fighting and why which is a respectable alternative to just chucking handfuls of Orks/Bandits/Justin Bieber Fans at the player. Often you can find a nonviolent alternative to combat too, which is kinda neat. I guess.
Honestly I can forgive the mediocrity of Torment: Tides of NewmanEra’s mechanical systems. It’s the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment and that game also had notoriously janky combat. Probably has something to do with having a development period the length of a lunch break and the budget of about half a Toblerone. To get to the heart of the matter the single issue that eclipses all others is that Torment: Tides of Numberwang exists at all. P:T was a game that relied heavily on being unlike anything you’d ever played before. Making something that’s almost identical in many respects- even going so far as to recycle a few names, quests and characters- utterly dismantles the unique sense of mystery that is essential to the entire experience.
However this does lead me to a curious supposition. This game didn’t work for me but I suspect it might work for someone who has absolutely no familiarity with Torment. So I end with a possible recommendation to anyone who might have wanted to play Planescape: Torment but struggle to appreciate an 18 year old game. What I find delightfully ironic is that Torment: Tides of Neimoidian was funded through Kickstarter, quite enthusiastically to boot. The game was bankrolled by the fans and, perhaps predictably, the subsequent result was something geared to play entirely to that sense of familiarity. Normally that would be fine but in this case it undercuts the most vital aspect of the whole experience, which is a damned shame.
Alternatively if you want to play a throwback style RPG you could just play Tyranny instead, a much better game.