Torment: Tides of Numenera

This game was advertised as a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, made by the same people. Let’s see how it holds up.

The story takes place in the far future. Millions of years have passed, great civilizations have risen, one after another, creating impossible wonders of technology, exploring space and other dimension and infecting the air with nanites. In the end, all of them have fallen, leaving behind only ruins and barely working remnants of their machines that nobody can understand any longer.

The current era, which is called the Ninth World, is but a pale shadow of the former glory of any of the dead civilizations. Social structures reverted to more primitive, the scientific understanding tends to be pretty patchy and focused more on recovery and repurposing of existing technology rather than understanding the underlying principles behind its construction and attempts to replicate it (though such attempts are made as well, the world lacks the industry to fully support them). Life is harsh, and old tech brings disasters as often as it brings miracles.

In other words, it’s a fantasy world with your kingdoms and warriors and mages where forgotten technology took place of magic (in fact, local mages, who are called nano, are people capable of limited manipulations of nanites in the air), and I actually like this take on the blend of fantasy and science fiction. The world feels old and well-lived-in, every science fiction scenario you can think of probably happened at one point and left its mark on the world. You have knights walking alongside mutants and transdimensional aliens among the ruins of fallen civilizations, and it’s weird and confusing in the best way.

The game is big on exploration and tinkering with various pieces of technology, which naturally leads to a lot of scenarios where you’re confronted with wonders you can’t quite comprehend but that feel like they had a purpose, once.

Basically, if you like flavor text being everywhere, you would like this game.

Now, to the plot. You play as the Last Castoff of the Changing God. The Changing God is an ancient nano who has found a path to immortality by way of crafting new bodies for himself and transferring his consciousness into them. His old bodies, however, don’t die or become vegetables but gain minds of their own while retaining basic understanding of the world around them along with a couple of skills inherited from their sire. You are, naturally, the last in a long line of such castoffs, born during a fall from a moon station. You survive the fall because the Changing God builds his bodies to last and survive pretty much anything, which means you can’t actually die outside of some exotic circumstances like being devoured by Lovecraftian monstrosities and such.

Well, the bad news is that one such monstrosity, called the Sorrow, is hunting you and other castoffs and managed to invite your mind. The Specter, a reflection of a person you once knew that exists in your mind, tells you of a way to defeat the Sorrow that the Changing God has devised: activate the resonance chamber.

Unfortunately, you kinda fell on it and broke it to pieces, so first you need to find someone capable of repairing it, which is not a trivial task.

Thus begins your journey.

Those familiar with Planescape: Torment would notice quite a few similarities between the plots, of course. Aside from the Last Castoff’s general situation and effective immortality, there is also a city of portals you would visit later in game, the Bloom, an enormous predatory organism which tendrils reach to different world and can transport people inside itself and back. It even has a mechanic familiar to us from Sigil: its maws must be fed some specific thing (like connections between people or regrets or what have you) in order to open them and travel around, much like Sigil portals can be opened only by specific keys.

To Tides credit, I do think the game succeeds in being its own thing, however, Despite various similarities, the core conflict goes into a different direction, it’s less about your personal quest and more about castoffs’ place in the world as a whole (which bears more similarity to Exalted, actually, what with them being empowered semi-immortal beings that shape a lot of major events and often change the world for the worse while at the same time gifting it with miracles), the setting is original and well-crafted (even the Bloom, while it bears resemblance to Sigil, is still its own thing, what with it being a capricious predator instead of just a weird multiverse hub) and various characters have their own stories that don’t really have anything to do with PT.

That said, I do think the comparison to PT harms this game. PT had a very strong central theme about the nature of a man and what can change it, which was prominent both in the main story and side quests. By contrast, TToN’s theme can be described as legacy. You have to deal with machinations of your siblings and your sire’s sins, while the rest of people live in a world built by people they can’t understand, surrounded by machines which purpose they can barely guess. Mind, it’s an interesting theme in itself, and the world does work well with it, especially since the game provides plenty of opportunities for exploration, but it does mean that a lot of quests deal with people discovering some weird technology and being affected by it in various ways. There is less focus on ideals, different worldviews and individual beliefs and more on external forces intruding upon our lives, which, I feel, holds less of a universal appeal and overall less insightful.

Taken on its own merits, TToN is pretty good: consistently solid writing, interesting setting, colorful characters. Compared to PT, however, it has less to offer. I doubt I would replay it often.

Then again, without the connection to PT it’s debatable if TToN could have gathered enough funds to be made and attracted enough buyers, so there is that.

One thing TToN does better than PT is its treatment of female characters. No more ridiculous outfits here as far as I can remember. The party is also gender-balanced, with three female characters to three male ones. In general, there is a lot of women around filling vastly different roles. Party members, quest givers, villains, allies, merchants, minor NPCs, some random enemies, etc. And they’re treated as characters, with their own stories and personalities and flaws and weird shit they have to deal with, with gender being mostly incidental to them. Overall, I didn’t find any major issues on that front.

Game’s take on LGBT people is.. less stellar. Let’s talk about it in detail.

The most prominent LGBT character (bisexual, to be precise) is Tybir, one of your potential party members, and he gets around. Like, really gets around. He has a lot of dialogue about his sexual misadventures, and if you contact him through an artifact that allows you to recall party members you left behind, you would find him in the middle of an orgy. Every time you call.

That’s a shame since his story is reasonably well-written and revolves around his rocky relationship with his old lover that started back when they both were soldiers in an Endless Battle (a major war between two factions of castoffs both of which have time-reviving devices), which he fucked up majorly. It’s not a bad story about how our fears can drive us and turn us away from what we actually want, so it’s doubly unfortunate that Tybir’s characterization plays right into the negative stereotypes about bisexual people.

Then there is the Changing God, who is “funny” in that he picks the gender (and, for that matter, species) of his bodies more or less at random. The game actually comments that it’s a notable trait of his, but then just kinda shrugs and leaves it at “well, I guess he’s just that way.” Not sure what to think about it.

There is also a woman who had a relationship with the Changing God back when he occupied your body regardless of what gender you picked for it. Nothing wrong with her, she’s mostly a “For Science!” type stock character who sends you on a quest to clean up a curious piece of technology from hostile drones for her. It does come across as less a piece of characterization and more player-centrism, though. You wouldn’t know she’s into women if you don’t play as a female character yourself.

I don’t remember any more LGBT people in the game, though I could be forgetting someone.

Overall, it feels that the writers did make an effort to be inclusive but stumbled upon a few rather common pitfalls. At least there is no malice.

Now, before I move on to gameplay, let’s talk about the eponymous Tides. Tides are basically a local equivalent of alignment system with a twist. They come in five colors, one or two of which would be your dominant Tides. What those Tides would be is determined by your actions: acting in accordance with the ideals associated with a specific color gives you appropriate points.

They’re as follows:

Blue Tide stands for wisdom, knowledge and mysticism. It’s a Tide of people who always seek to expand their horizons.

Red Tide stands for emotion, passion and zeal. It’s a Tide of people who want to live the life fully, throwing themselves into every moment.

Silver Tide stands for ambition, fame and greatness. It’s a Tide of people who seek glory and want to leave a visible mark on the world.

Gold Tide stands for compassion, altruism and sacrifice. It’s a Tide of people who want to help others even at a cost to themselves.

Indigo Tide stands for justice, compromise and the greater good. It’s a Tide of hard people making hard decisions while hard.

It’s an interesting take on the idea of alignments that attempts to move away from the simplistic dichotomy of good and evil and general incoherency of law and chaos and focus more on philosophy of living, on what you consider important in this world, what mark you want to leave with your life.

It’s not exactly a unique concept (Pillars of Eternity, for example, have a mechanic where you get descriptors like cruel, clever, selfless and so on based on your actions), yet it’s still an interesting idea that even ties somewhat with the main theme of the game in that your dominant Tides partially define what legacy you will leave behind.

Buuuut there is an issue: you’re going to be Blue/Gold unless you go out of your way to avoid it because the game disproportionally awards their points.

Basically, the issue here is that blue points are awarded for things like asking questions, tinkering with various pieces of technology and generally trying to understand the situation as much as you can before acting. Which is, oh, only the entire point of the game. Plus, it often yields additional exp and items, so even if you aren’t into reading flavor text (in which case, why do you even bother with this game?), there is still an incentive to click through all dialogue options each time.

Gold, meanwhile, is the designated good Tide. So long as you do side quests without being a dick about it, you’re going to get gold points. Some quests, in fact, have no resolution that doesn’t award you gold points, which is hard to counter without going full murderous sociopath on the world.

So, yeah, good idea, flawed execution.

Which happened to describe the rest of the gameplay well enough. The game attempts to do something interesting with its spin on RPG mechanics but also something kinda stupid.

Alright, so the gist of it is that you have three stat pools: Might, Speed and Intellect. You also have a number of skills you can pick by leveling up, buying certain special class abilities or through unique interactions with the setting (each skill only has two ranks). During conversations and interactions with technology and other important objects, you’re occasionally presented with an option to make a check of one of your skills. Such tasks have a base chance of success modified by your proficiency in a given skill. Furthermore, you can improve your chances of success by investing effort in the task, which depletes one of your stat pools (which stat is determined by the nature of the task. Disarming a bomb may be a Lore: Machinery check using Speed, while reprogramming a construct to obey your commands may be Lore: Machinery using Intellect). You can also get free levels of effort by buying stat edges when you level up. Each edge gives you a free level of effort in all tasks using a given stat. You can gain four edges maximum distributed among stats.

So, you may have an option of convincing some person to resolve a conflict peacefully. Let’s say it’s Persuasion task using Intellect. The base difficulty may be 50%, if you have one rank in Persuasion it would be 65% instead. You may invest a point of Intellect into the task, which would give you 80% chance of success, or two points to raise your chances to 95%, or three points to max it at 100%. If you have an edge in Intellect in this scenario, the base difficulty (before taking Persuasion into account) would be 65%.

Oh, and usually you can also ask your party members to do the task for you. So if someone else is more skilled in machinery than you, you can leave it to them to repair a piece of technology and the like. There are exception, mostly revolving around recovering the memories of the Changing God locked within you and fending off psychic attacks, but such situations are relatively rare.

Now, on paper it looks good. My explanation may be a bit awkward, but in the game itself it’s pretty intuitive and easy to grasp. You have this neat little system of resource management which makes you think about how badly you want to succeed in a given task and whether it’s better to go all-in now or save some of your stat points for later.

However, there are three problems with it:

  1. It all basically works on a honor system. There is a reason most RPGs use flat checks instead of probabilities (you either have enough points in a skill to convince someone or you don’t), and that reason is save-scamming. As it stands, nothing really prevents you from saving before an important conversation and attempting the task again and again without investing any effort. So long as the base chance of success is not zero, you’re bound to succeed eventually. Granted, doing so can be boring, but I’m always wary of games that use players’ boredom as means of balance.
  2. Even if you do value honesty in single-player gaming and won’t try to abuse the system, it’s actually not hard to get the means of recovering your stat pools before every important interaction, so you would be able to invest maximum effort every time. You recover stats by sleeping, and every major location has a place where you can rest. Now, normally, it costs money, which can serve as a deterrent against abusing it, but there is also always a quest you can do that allows you to rest for free. It’s somewhat hard to do in the first city, since it requires you to clear one of the main quests and possibly do a side quest as well, but in the next two major locations such quests are available from the start or close to it and take very little time to do. And, once you get the ability to rest for free, you can basically do it every time you have to spend even one stat point. In theory, there is a deterrent against it in a form of timed quests: sleep too much, and a man would be executed, some houses built on unstable ground would collapse, burying a quest giving NPC under them, etc. In practice… well, it can work if you don’t know which quests are timed. If you do, on the other hand, it becomes trivial to finish them quickly and then go back to abusing the system.
  3. The system kinda breaks down late in game, when you get close to maxing your level cap. At that stage, a lot of tasks presented to me had their success chance maxed at 100% without me investing any effort into them. I suppose it depends on your build and party. Without a character invested in Intellect, it would have been much more difficult. Speed was important too. Might was less important but had some uses. If you have some holes in your party specializations, the game may be more challenging. As it is, however, the late game was a piece of cake for me.
  4. Speaking of Intellect, mages (well, nanos) still rule. Intellect rolls are much more prominent than that of the other two stats and cover the majority of lore and social tasks. Since buying an edge in Intellect is as effective as having a level in skill for a given task, playing a character fully focused on Intellect is objectively the best choice. Especially since Anamnesis (memory recovery), Concentration (resisting psychic attacks, attacking psychically when you can and related stuff) and Tidal Affinity (affecting the world in various ways through your Tides, like breaking mental bondage) tasks can be done only by the main character and always use Intellect. (Notably, it’s less prominent in the TRPG on which this game is based. A level of effort costs not one but three or two stat points, and edges only lower the price by one, not give you effort for free. So you need three edges in a given stat for one free level of effort, five for two, seven for three, etc. I get why the game changed it, the current system gives a more strong sense of progression, but it did bork the balance in the process and made actual skill ranks less important.)

The system fares better during crises. Crisis in this game is basically any prolonged situation where time is of the essence. Usually, it means battles, though there is a couple of situations without fighting that count as crises, like a tense stand-off between mutants and mafia thugs that could escalate into a fight if you don’t resolve it peacefully, or a con where you have to distract a character while you steal a valuable artifact behind his back.

During crises the game switches into turn-based mode. The order in which characters act is determined by their initiative (which is based on Speed stat). During each turn, each character can perform one movement and one action. Movement allows you to, well, move your character around, attempt to go into a stealth mode which would hide you from enemies as long as you don’t perform any actions, or use some of the special character abilities and some of the consumable items. Actions are attacks, use of other consumable items, use of most character abilities and certain important actions like attempting to persuade someone, tinker with machinery and the like.

In such conditions, it’s not exactly productive to reload every time your attack missed, you face a lot of tasks in succession, which can deplete your pools fast if you aren’t careful, and nanos are less dominant on account of being kinda fragile and less protected compared to other types of characters.

There is still an issue of late game since my chances to succeed in an attack were still maxed, but even that was less prominent since the most powerful abilities cost stat point just to use them. Edges help with that, too, but they first go into lowering the cost of abilities, without rising the chances of success, so I still had to occasionally spend a few points on it.

An interesting aspect of crises is that, even when they do revolve around battles, defeating your enemies is rarely the goals. The point of any given crisis is to reach your stated objective. That objective can be killing everyone around (and killing all of your enemies typically does end the crisis), but more often it’s something along the lines of reaching the exit point, getting the item you need, reprogramming a piece of technology and the like. Ignoring the enemies or distracting them with summons or inflicting some negative status effects on them is a valid tactic.

Even when crises do revolve around killing your enemies, there are usually some point of interest around the field, like an acid cannon you can utilize to inflict lasting damage on a couple of enemies or a teleporter allowing you freer movement around the area. Once again, the focus of the game lies in interaction with the world around you rather than in simply hoarding your power.

Speaking of hoarding, another interesting aspect of crises is cyphers. Cyphers are helpful items that you can usually only use once. (Technically, they aren’t connected to crises specifically since some of them have effects like rising your chances to succeed in non-combat tasks, but most of them are stuff like bombs, temporary protection and such, so crises is when you’re most likely to use them.) By themselves, they’re not special. Many RPGs have things like scrolls, potions and various other consumable items. What makes them interesting is that each character has a very strict limit on how many cyphers they can carry safely (the idea here is that their inner workings are not fully understood, so they can interact with each other in unpredictable ways if stored improperly). Go beyond it, and you get various negative effects like a penalty to one of the stat pools or your chances to succeed in any task. Go way beyond it, and you’ll die (which, granted, is not that big of a deal in this game) and will lose all your cyphers, including safe ones (which is a bigger deal).

It is a rather obvious anti-hoarding mechanic intended to make you actually use the damn things instead of saving them for a rainy day that will never come. It’s a good and clever idea, though there is an issue: the crises are relatively rare and can often be averted by various means. Given that cyphers are common rewards for quests and exploration, that means they still tend to accumulate even if you aren’t afraid of using them. Plus, since there usually are various other important actions you can perform during a crisis, you may end up not using cyphers in some of them due to that instead.

It’s clear that fights aren’t the heart of the game (that would be exploration and narrative). Still, aside from some minor issues, they’re not badly done. There isn’t anything ground-breaking to be found here, and they’re not big on clever tactics, but they’re enjoyable, don’t drag and, most importantly, aren’t the embarrassment PT fights were. Definite improvement here if only by comparison.

One last thing about the gameplay: your party members don’t gain exp unless they are actually in your party, and, while you can find an item that allows you to contact and recruit them even after you leave the original location where you first meet them, the game rather clearly labors under assumption that you’re going to pick three out of six characters in the first town and stick to them. Some personal character quests (most notably Tybir’s) cannot be progressed unless a character was in your party during a certain event, and many of them require you to take your party members to the game finale in order to complete.

I rather dislike this structure as it’s a clearly artificial way to increase replayability. I much prefer Bioware’s current setup where having characters with you all the time does give you unique interactions, but you can still complete their personal stories even if they spend most of their time on the base of operations, and they still remain useful if you decide to add them to a party at a later point.

I mean,I get that TToN’s approach is “old school” or whatever, but there is a reason why some gaming conventions are dropped in the name of convenience, and I think it applies here.

Alright, I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to say about the game for now. So, to summarize: the plot is solid, the world is old and vast and broken and just plain cool, the characters are interesting and make you want to learn more about them (especially if you can read their thoughts, another reason to play as a nano). The female characters are treated fairly and don’t raise any complaints from me. There are, however, some issues with LGBT presentation.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is kind of a mess. Plenty of good ideas, but the execution can use a lot of polish. Playable, but not impressive.

So, the conclusion is rather obvious: if you like story-heavy games with a lot of flavor to immerse yourself into, TToN is a game for you. If you prefer fun gameplay and tactical battles, you’re better off trying something else. Pillars of Eternity seem promising on that front, though I’d need to get deeper into it to form a coherent opinion.

That would be all.

10 Comments

  1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

    Okay but like, just saying, Rhin is my precious daughter and I will protect her from anything. Including your criticism.

     edit: Actual thoughts time: Like you, I did like TToN the most when it wasn’t trying to be a Torment spiritual sequel. The setting of Numenera is frickin’ incredible, and the game was made by folks who are really good at that kind of worldbuilding. 

    One specific thing that I wish had been explored more were the Meres. A big deal was made about how special you were for being able to adjust the past through them, but the choices you were able to make through them tended to make little difference in the future. Maybe the devs don’t believe in butterflies, but I wanted *something*. 

    The Bloom was really nice. Sagus Cliffs was still my favorite area, though. It just had the most going on and felt the most developed. My honestly biggest gripe about the game though, was that you can’t return anywhere after you’ve left. PS:T had this in a big way, too, but like you said, it’s been 20 years and we as gamers have moved past that. There were like 4-5 quests I had end in Sagus Cliffs with blokes swearing vengeance on me and then it was like nothing happened. Let me come back and face foul consequences!

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      Rhin’s ending was kinda underwhelming. “Hey, nice to meet you again, it’s me, future Rhin! Imma gonna help you with the endgame! OK, was nice seeing you, by!” I don’t know, felt like it lacked proper closure, could be better if she were to find you (or your grave) only in the epilogue.

      Meres are indeed mostly just side reading. I actually get why you aren’t allowed to make more waves: too much to code, too many possible forks for quests. Still, expanding on it would have been nice.

      The later parts of the game are clearly less polished than the early ones, yes. The game can clearly be expanded, it’s actually pretty short for this kind of RPG as it is.

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        I mean, I consider the Future!Rhin thing as more of a bonus, really. Her real ending was getting sent home. Though I did appreciate how circular her story was. You find her in the beginning, she finds you in the end. Her first god is Ahl, a god of hiding and solitude, and the god she gives you at the end is a god of friends and finding. It just felt like a very clean narrative arc, bolstered by the fact that her character was so damn lovable. If I was ever going to do an evil run of that game, I’d need to not travel with Rhin at all basically. 

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  2. Xander77 says:
    I bounced right off PoE despite liking Baldur’s Gate / PS:T quite a bit. Heard a lot of impressions from people in the same boat, and many of them were into Torment.

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      Well, I only played a bit of it, so I don’t really have much of an opinion yet. It seems… OK? Clearly modeled after old school games, the gameplay seem to be better than BG (mostly because BG gameplay was kinda meh to begin with).

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        Somehow I also only played a little of PoE and then haven’t returned to it. I’ll eventually finish it after replaying the shit out of Dark Souls 1-3+DLC.

         

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  3. Nerem says:
    Why is it that the only good character Patrick Rothfuss has ever written isn’t involved in his own books at all.

     

    Actually, that may be why.

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    1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

      Name of the Wind has some good side characters in it. The reason it flounders is because 99% of it is a skillcheck for Kvothe “Max Stats Max Skills Max Level” Kingkiller.

      When he writes a character the story isn’t supposed to revolve around and isn’t based on having max stats, he seems to do just fine. It’s a problem a lot of authors, new and old, have.

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      1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

        I don’t know, while not writing about his pet Mary Sue helps, I wasn’t exactly impressed with his side characters and can’t actually remember more than a general archetype of some of them.

        I guess a part of it could be creative boundaries. By necessety, Rhin’s screen time is heavily limited, so he was forced to think about how to deliver maximum information with minimum words, which is generally helpful in writing.

        Plus, he played in a setting not of his own, that could have provided him with a foundation he needed to get out of his set patterns and think up something creative.

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        1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

          I liked Elodin, but that might be because of all the shit he gives Kvothe giving him more brownie points than he deserves. Similarly, I liked Kvothe’s friends more than the kid himself, Devi especially, because, again, people who give Kvothe shit. 

          No, I guess you’re right. I really only remember the people who give Kvothe shit. 

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