Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:inXile Entertainment
Release Date:2017-02-28
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Torment: Tides of Numenera is the latest role-playing game from inXile Entertainment, and it's being listed as a "thematic successor" to Planescape: Torment.  What does that mean?  If you remember the old analogy questions that used to appear in the SAT, then I'd say that Torment: Tides of Numenera is to Planescape: Torment as The Force Awakens is to Star Wars.  That is, Tides is a newer and shinier product that borrows heavily from its predecessor, but it still manages to do enough things differently to keep everybody satisfied.

In particular, Tides takes place in the Ninth World, a region where numerous (probably more than eight) civilizations that have come and gone, and have only left ruins and technology behind.  There isn't any magic in this world, but the machinery and nano-technology (called numenera) are so good that it's tough to tell the difference.

The world has also produced somebody called the Changing God.  He's not actually a god; he's just a man who figured out a way to make himself immortal.  He creates hosts for himself to use, and then when one is about to die, or if he just wants a change, he transfers his consciousness to a new one.  Interestingly, when he leaves these hosts, they gain a consciousness of their own and become independent people -- just more powerful than regular folk because of how they were created.

In the game, you play as The Last Castoff.  You're tough and you have impressive regenerative abilities, and while you don't have any memories of your own, you sometimes remember things the Changing God has done.  That is, you're an immortal with memory issues and a fixed title, which is just one example of many of how Tides is similar to Planescape: Torment.

Characters

Torment: Tides of Numenera handles characters uniquely.  You earn experience points in the game for the things that you do, but everything else is likely to be different from what you've seen before.  For starters, there aren't any classes.  Instead, characters are defined by an archetype, a descriptor, and a focus.

There are three archetypes: the Glaive, who solves problems through force; the Jack, who solves problems through skills and diplomacy; and the Nano, who solves problems through technological devices and esoteries (think spells).  Reading between the lines, you might recognize the archetypes as being Fighters, Rogues, and Mages, which probably not coincidentally were the three classes available in Planescape: Torment.

There are over a dozen descriptors to choose from, including Cautious, Clever, Mystical and Strong.  Each descriptor gives you a bonus and a penalty of some sort.  As an example, the Cautious descriptor gives you bonuses to the perception and stealth skills but inflicts a penalty to the initiative skill.

For focus, there are only three choices: "Brandishes a Silver Tongue," which makes you more persuasive; "Breathes Shadow," which improves the damage you do when hidden; and "Masters Defense," which improves how well you use shields.

Characters also have unusual statistics.  Instead of a collection of attributes like strength and dexterity, they have "pools" for might, speed and intellect.  These pools don't represent how strong, fast or smart you are.  They just give you points so you can expend extra "effort" for certain tasks.  For example, in combat the game calculates your chance of hitting an opponent.  But if you're using a might weapon and you spend some of your might pool points, then you can increase this chance.  As you develop your character, you can also add "edge" to each pool.  Then you get your edge points added automatically to the task without having to subtract them from your pool.

Even character alignment is odd.  Instead of good versus evil or lawful versus chaotic, your actions are rated based on five tides: blue (wisdom, reason, enlightenment), gold (empathy, compassion, sacrifice), indigo (justice, compromise, greater good), red (passion, emotion, action), and silver (prestige, power, renown).  This spectrum is a little more difficult to keep track of, and sometimes you earn points at odd times, but it's sort of fascinating nonetheless.  The only problem with the system is that even though the game keeps track of your tides and tells you which two are your most dominant, they have almost no bearing on the game.  Supposedly they can influence conversations, but I never noticed this happening.  After a while I started thinking that the game should have used your tide colors for the interface (which is currently fixed at blue and indigo), so you'd get some sort of visible response to the character you're playing.

More straightforward is the collection of skills and abilities available to each character.  These depend on your archetype, descriptor, and focus, and they include exploration skills (like deception, perception and stealth), combat skills (which improve your weapon use and defenses), and a host of active and passive abilities (like Warcry, which causes enemies to attack you; Flash, which deals damage in a small area; and Practiced in Armor, which reduces the penalty for wearing heavy armor).  Interestingly, there are over twice as many exploration skills as combat skills, which is the opposite of what you usually see.

Finally, instead of levels, characters have tiers and steps.  Steps are minor advancements, and they allow you to pick from a selection of possible bonuses (like adding extra effort or edge).  Then every four steps, you ascend to the next tier, where you get a more substantial bonus, usually in the form of new abilities.  The level cap for the game is tier 4 step 4, or level 16 depending on how you want to think about it.


Along with your main character, there are also six possible companions in the game, any three of which you can have in your party at the same time.  The companions have different specialties (one uses might weapons, another casts esoteries, a third can heal, and so forth), but unlike most role-playing games, you're not required to fit them into certain roles (like "tank" or "trap-springer").  Any group of four should work just fine, so you can pick the companions you like the best.  The companions also advance just like your main character, so you can tune them to fit into your playing style.  Unfortunately, the game isn't friendly about swapping companions in and out of your party.  Only companions in your party earn experience, so if you have to replace one, you suffer a significant downgrade, especially if it's late in the game.

Overall, I liked the character system.  It's different enough to be notable without being so different that it's confusing, and it gives you lots of ways to build characters.  I used a "paladin" for my playthrough -- that is, a strong glaive who favors defense, with blue and gold tides -- and everything worked pretty well, even though the campaign isn't really set up for a combat character.

Gameplay Mechanics

Despite featuring 3D characters and environments, Tides of Numenera is played using a fixed isometric view.  You can zoom the view in or out, but you're not allowed to rotate or change the pitch of the camera.  By default, the camera simply follows your character around, but you can also use the WASD keys to pan the view to other areas.  This system makes it easy to explore your surroundings, especially since the tab key highlights interactive objects, but it's sort of awkward in combat.  Sometimes you can't move to a location because somebody is in the way (and they block you from clicking on the ground), and sometimes it's difficult to target area-effect abilities because you can't tell who they're going to hit (my character had an ability called Fell Swoop, which hits enemies in an arc, but I so rarely hit multiple enemies with it that I eventually gave up using it).

Controlling your party in Tides is easy.  You left-click where you want to move, and you left-click to interact with objects or other people.  I don't remember right-clicking doing anything.  Your character always leads the party; and your companions simply follow along behind you.  There aren't any formations or anything like that.  This works fine when you're exploring, but it can be annoying in combat if you're not playing a frontline character, since combat always starts with your character closest to the enemies.

During the exploration part of the game, you talk to people and interact with objects.  Both cases are handled through dialogue, where for people it's an actual conversation, and for objects you're given a description of the object plus a list of things you can do with it.  Sometimes the dialogues are simple, where you just need to pick a response, but in other cases there are challenges involved, where you have to use a skill and perhaps a stat pool to succeed.

As an example, early in the campaign you come across a strange tree, and you're given the option of breaking off one of its limbs using the Smashing skill.  If you're successful, then you gain a club that is probably better than your other melee weapons.  But if you fail, then the tree stings you and you gain an extra hit point.  That's right, in this case the better reward comes from failing, so the game can be tricky to play.

For most challenges, you can use anyone in your party for them, so as long as you specialize your companions in different ways, it's not too difficult to pass them.  But for other challenges, like trying to remember things about the Changing God, you have to complete them by yourself.  Luckily, for the latter challenges you're usually allowed to try them again if you fail, just with a penalty of some sort.

For combat, the game switches to turn-based play.  During each round of the fight, each character involved gets to take one turn, with the order being determined by the Initiative skill.  On each turn, characters can make a move and perform an action -- or just make one really long move.  Actions include things like weapon attacks, abilities, and interactions with objects.  If enemies get killed, then they're dead, but your companions only get knocked out (and wake back up after the fight is over), and if you die then you wake up in your mind and have to take a portal back to where you were.

Not all fights have to be fights (which is why the game calls them "crisis mode").  For most fights you can do something beforehand to avoid them (like talking your way out of them), and for others you can do things during the fight to avoid combat.  For example, in one early quest you have to take over an infected computer system in a building.  The infected computer uses drones against you, so you can either fight the drones normally, or you can hack terminals to deactivate the drones.  In combat as well as other parts of the game, you're usually given lots of options, which is nice.

After a fight, you typically find piles of loot.  The loot might just be money, which is always useful, but it might also include some equipment you can use.  Equipment comes in the form of body armor, a cloak, two bonded items, an ornament, a weapon, a shield, and multiple cyphers.  There aren't any special equipment classes or set items, and there isn't any crafting.  There also aren't any tattoos.

Your companions have fixed armor and cloaks, so you never have to worry about those items for them.  Bonded items have positives and negatives attached, but if you learn the Concentration skill, then you can ignore the negatives.  Cyphers are powerful, limited-use machines, but if you have too many of them then you start to feel sick, so you either have to use them or sell them.  There is also a Cypher skill that allows you to hold more cyphers.

Like in Planescape: Torment before it, Tides of Numenera doesn't put a lot of emphasis on equipment.  For most wearable items, there are just enough options in the game to cover your party and give you a slight amount of choice, but nothing more.  For example, my character used medium might weapons, and I'm pretty sure I only saw 4-5 during the entire campaign.  The exception to this is the cyphers, which are plentiful.  Unfortunately, since most cyphers can only be used once, I always saved them for special occasions, and then I ended up never using them.


Campaign

At the start of the campaign, you learn that you're one of the many castoffs of the Changing God, and that a creature called the Sorrow is hunting your kind.  Your only hope against the creature is something called the Resonance Chamber, which unfortunately is broken and needs to be repaired.  So your goal during the campaign is to find somebody who can fix the chamber so you can save yourself and your kind.

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot to the main questline.  Each time you find somebody who knows something about the Resonance Chamber, they just send you to somebody else, and so you spend the entire campaign jumping through hoops without accomplishing anything. However, as a byproduct of this, you visit a few of the major landmarks in the world, where you meet lots of people with lots of quests.  And these quests tend to give you threads of information about the Changing God, the Resonance Chamber, and the Sorrow, so when you reach the final confrontation at the end of the campaign, you know what's going on and what's at stake.

My least favorite kind of campaign is the side quest campaign, which is what Tides provides.  I'm self-centered, so I want my quests to be about me or my companions, or at least get me closer to my goals.  The more I have to complete odd jobs for random people, the less involved I become -- and the Tides campaign has odd jobs aplenty.

Tides also has a problem with telegraphing its ending.  From about the halfway point on, I had a pretty good idea about how the final confrontation was going to go, and it wasn't anything that I really cared about.  There isn't a bad guy who's trying to destroy the world, or who wants to kill your family, or who is in league with demons.  There's just something that needs to be done, and you're the most capable of doing it.  In other words, the campaign is far more intellectual than emotional, and emotional works better for me.

Luckily, the writing in the campaign is excellent.  You don't meet any cardboard characters who are simply quest-giving billboards.  All of the characters have depth, and if you don't understand their motivations right away, you usually learn them over time.  The writers do an impressive job of feeding you snippets of information in unlikely places, where you see situations from different perspectives, or peel back layers from people to learn why they're doing the things they do, so that everything comes together nicely by the end.

As an example of the quality of the writing, in the first major area of the game you can rescue a 12-year-old girl.  If you want, you can immediately sell her into slavery or shuttle her off to a random family, but since I was playing a paladin-ish character, I wanted to get her back to her parents.  The problem with this is it meant I had to invite her into my party, where she was no help whatsoever.  So I spent a lot of time early in the game grumbling about the party slot she was wasting.  But the longer I kept her with me the more useful she became (she's the only companion who can heal), and the more I liked her -- and so when I finally found a way to send her home, I didn't want to do it at all.  I've never had a turnaround in feelings like that for a companion before -- most companions I can swap in or out and not really care -- and the shift impressed me.

There is also a subtle quality to the writing.  Because very little of the text is voice acted, the writers were able to make small changes here and there to reflect things you've done or how people feel about you.  The companion interjections also flow better than I've seen in other games.  Instead of companions just interjecting a line that everybody else ignores, the person you're talking to responds to the dialogue and it becomes a part of the conversation.  I also liked how you're able to repeat questions to people, and instead of the person spewing out the same response as before, they give you a shorter, summarized response so it's easier to review important topics.

Finally, just like in Planescape: Torment before it, the campaign in Tides is way more about dialogue than it is about combat.  There is very little combat in the game -- to the point where I started picking fights just to try it out -- and almost all of it can be avoided.  So if you buy role-playing games to kill things and look for great equipment, then Tides might be more neap than spring for you.  Er, that is, you might want to look elsewhere.

Technical

I spent roughly 40 hours playing Tides of Numenera, and it worked pretty well for me.  The engine is polished, the load and save times are pretty fast, and while I experienced a handful of random crash bugs, nothing serious happened, which isn't bad for a game that hadn't seen a patch yet when I played it.

About the worst thing I can say about the technical side of Tides is that the game doesn't allow you to create any sort of profile for the character you're playing.  So all auto-saves and quick-saves get saved to the same place, which can cause problems if you have multiple people playing the game, or if you're playing multiple games yourself.  It's surprising to me how many games today have unfriendly save systems, when a better one probably wouldn't be much more work.

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed Torment: Tides of Numenera, but I didn't love it.  It's a solid game with excellent writing and lots of polish, but I found its campaign to be a little on the dry side.  It doesn't include a bad guy that you really want to defeat, or anything else to keep you playing when you really should be going to sleep.  There are just lots of quests to do because they're there.

I'm also skeptical about the game's replay value, despite what inXile says on their web site.  From what I saw, your choices have consequences -- but only locally, and nothing changes the main storyline.  So one playthrough is likely to be much like another.  Of course, I only earned 42% of the Steam achievements, so maybe there's a lot of stuff that I missed.

Tides also has a lot of text to read through, which might be a positive or a negative depending on what you're looking for.  But my guess is, if you like interacting with characters and objects more than fighting enemies, or if you enjoyed Planescape: Torment, then Tides is likely to be a worthwhile game for you to try out.