"...Torment offers a harsh world with imaginative people and technology, but not much else."
Torment: Tides of Numenera is an epic, glorified choose-your-own-adventure-style computer RPG. Kind of. Through its mechanics and interface, it screams of CRPG elements akin to Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Pillars of Eternity. The combat varies from its brethren and boasts praiseworthy new ideas. However, the central focus of the game's design and how it plays out might be contentious for onlookers and fans.
Torment opens with the lead protagonist barreling towards the ground from some absurd height. At around this time, the player decides who they want to be, and while the character creation asks fascinating questions, the combat-oriented choices don't matter. Much. After blasting through the roof of a high-tech lab, the Last Castoff — our lead — meets two potential companions who ensured his relatively safe landing that basically destroyed the lab. Although intellectually aware and equipped with basic faculties, the Last Castoff enters the world as if a newborn, ignorant to any history or how this world functions. This is because he's the creation of the Changing God, someone who frequently creates bodies to inhabit until he's done with them and moves on to the next. Basically, he's immortal.
The central plot focuses on the Last Castoff's journey to finding the Changing God, which is essentially a macguffin to lead him down a path of gradual answers about who he is and why he's just oh-so-special (More special than the other castoffs, anyway.) Who the Last Castoff is and how he conducts himself is up to the player, as players will immediately discover that the plethora of dialogue choices influence the color of tides dominant within him. Each color means something, which isn't clear at all unless players pay close attention to the loading screens. Regardless, several dialogue choices change these tides, which alter how others regard the Last Castoff. What's most impressive about this is just how much dialogue is in the game and the sheer amount of choices.
Torment is essentially an interactive novel. If the player wants, combat can be almost completely avoided, which turns Torment into a series of dialogue choices with a vast array of fascinating NPCs in a world full of imagination and strange occurrences. What makes Torment's world so compelling is that it truly takes advantage of its sci-fi/fantasy setting. The denizens of the world call this the "Ninth World," suggesting that eight other worlds existed prior to this one, each with their own incredible civilizations and artifacts. These artifacts, which litter the landscape and cities, are called "numenera." Some numenera don't do much, while others, called "cyphers," have specific one-and-done uses.
The writers take full advantage of the fact that basically anything can happen in this universe. Want a ferocious general who's been trapped in armor that keeps him alive forever, but prevents him from acting violently towards others? What if that same person was also forced to answer any and all questions asked of him? What do you think he would act and talk like? Well, Torment's got you covered with a seemingly endless string of dialogue options and questions that characterize the wizard that enslaved him, how he ended up in that situation, and how he feels about it. It might take several minutes to go through every single question and option, but at least it forwards the plot in a significant way, right? Or does it? No, actually, it's all just flavor for you to enjoy with little bearing on the actual plot. One might argue that this character's story helps develop the world the player's just found himself dumped into, but if one never spoke to the poor general, then one would be none the wiser.
Much of the game carries on like this. The first city will likely take over ten hours to completely explore if one chooses to talk to everyone and satisfies most of the quests, but, in truth, only a few need to be completed in order for the central narrative to continue forward. Though, in that case, why are you even playing this game if not for the world? Perhaps nigh-endless strings of dialogue and exposition aren't what you bargained for, or perhaps you just wanted more combat to balance out the story. In truth, Torment is about the writing, and as excellent as the writing is, it can be a little rambly and excessive. I believe I read all or as close to all of the dialogue as I could with single-digit fights occurring in total. This was pure joy for me; I loved the world and the writing, even if I sometimes lost focus and had to read some paragraphs two or three times. Is this for everyone? Certainly not, but if a terrifying, strange world with a healthy helping of text is what you seek, then this is your bag.
If combat's what you're after, Torment has a unique system to experiment with. Although its enemies provide little in the way of challenge, the player has a whole host of toys at their disposal with which to dispatch them. Cyphers, as previously mentioned, are one-and-done big ticket items. These are meant to be used. Remember how old Final Fantasy games kept throwing elixirs at you, and many people never used them until the final boss (who totally wasn't the final boss you expected), and maybe not even then? Not here. While that temptation exists, battles become exceedingly difficult, especially early on, if cyphers aren't used. Furthermore, characters can only carry so many cyphers, or else suffer "cypher sickness," which grants the wielder some small debuff for each cypher over their limit. The penalties were oftentimes just annoying enough to make me want to either sell some cyphers or make sure I used them in the next battle. This is an excellent system, as using cyphers makes battle so much more fun, and oftentimes the quirky abilities they have demand thoughtful consideration before use. What makes them even more exciting is that there aren't any copies — that little rod you put on the ground that sometimes damages the nearest enemy? None like it. Of course, not all cyphers are that
unique, but enough are to elicit intrigue.
I mention cyphers first before anything else, because they're the best part about the battles. The way in which combat flows is turn-based wherein each character acts in the same order with a point of movement and action. Actions can involve generic hitting or shooting, spells or abilities, or items or cyphers. That's about it. Hit the bad guys until they all fall down. Since cyphers are in limited supply and most characters can only hold less than four of them, players won't be lobbing bombs or doing mass heals every turn, but every cypher use is pure dopamine.
However, if you're planning on playing a tough guy who prefers to solve problems with violence, be prepared for a pretty simple system. Some story battles offer more fascinating objectives, like saving a village and escaping, or talking to the enemy to convince them to see the error of their ways without killing them, but these are so few and far between.
For the more loquacious character, might, speed, and intellect are finite stats players can use to solve problems. Oftentimes, dialogue will make these moments explicitly clear. Once a player begins one of these options, he can choose to expend a few points of a stat to have a higher chance of success. The loading screens frequently mention that failing can sometimes be more interesting than succeeding, and I ran into a few of these instances, but I rarely wanted
to fail. I could have chosen a weak ally to address the challenge and expend fewer points, but choosing an option and then opting to fail was oftentimes antithetical to my goal, so I frequently gave myself a 100% chance of succeeding, or close to — and I was almost always content with the outcome. I do wonder what would have happened if I had failed on purpose during some dialogue, though. Maybe on a future playthrough.
The Ninth World is a beautiful hell of relics and broken technology. The people who live in it, less so. By that, I mean the character models are pretty gross. Unless one impractically zooms in all the time, the character models are difficult to look at. What's more, they animate strangely as the developers tried to create a sensation of picking up speed as one goes from standstill to a gentle jog. However, this results in stunted movement and mild frustration, as getting anywhere takes seconds longer for each instance of movement. On paper, this doesn't sound annoying, but, in practice, it grated on me initially. I eventually got used to this movement, but it took several hours. Musically, Torment doesn't offer much in the way of grand, orchestral arrangements or emotional tunes. The voice acting, while capable, is insultingly infrequent. Of course, Torment's about the writing and the pictures the words illustrate, not necessarily the presentation.
I could go on for twice as long about how Torment was a thrilling, engrossing 55-hour excursion for me. After exhausting this world, I still ended the journey wondering what I could have done differently, and what outcomes might have resulted from an entirely different mindset. Unfortunately, Torment will likely be inaccessible to many gamers out there, as even the most literarily-inclined friends of mine wince at the idea of this interactive novel. As a whole, Torment offers a harsh world with imaginative people and technology, but not much else.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.