Look up any “best RPGs of all time” list and right near the top you’re guaranteed to find the title Planescape Torment. It was the weird cousin to games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, way more content with reading books and doing drugs then any of that classic dungeon crawling or monster slaying. It received endless accolades, even if its sales were less than fantastic, and remains a favourite of many hardcore RPG fans to this day. Now, nearly 20 years and one very successful Kickstarter later, we have Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritual successor brought to us by some of the people that worked on the first game. Is this a true heir to the weird throne, or is it as painful as the name suggests?
The very first moments of Torment set the stage for the rest of the game in spectacular fashion. You’re assaulted by two things: first, the walls of text you’ll need to read through to understand the game, and second, your impending death from hurtling at the ground from space. After that you’re introduced to the world of Torment; and it’s a weird one. You are the latest Castoff of a man known as the Changing God. Basically thousands of years ago this guy discovered a way to transfer his consciousness between bodies, granting him immortality. Only thing is the body he leaves then grows its own consciousness, as well as also obtaining a measure of his immortality for themselves. There’s an evil presence known only as The Sorrow chasing you down because of this, so now it’s up to you to stop it and save every Castoff created by your errant father.
If that paragraph sounded dense then strap in because this is a bumpy ride of a game. It is easily one of the most plot-heavy RPGs in a while and it revels in it. Every NPC, every party companion, and a good chunk of the scenery can be interacted with or talked to and there’s a mountain of text around every turn. Get some reading glasses because that’s likely what you’ll be doing most of the game. Thankfully the writing is excellent pretty much across the board, and characters are memorable even long after you’ve moved on. It was never a chore to remember who you were talking to or what your objective was and the writing was so fascinating that it was easy to get lost just picking out every piece of info lying around. There is a mountain of lore to digest in this game, and here’s hoping for a sequel because the world they’ve created is absolutely compelling. It’s just a shame the game didn’t include an encyclopedia function like Tyranny did to reference things later; but that never really hindered the experience.
It’s a good thing the writing and storytelling are so good, because the rest of the game honestly isn’t. The most obvious weak spot is the combat, or “crises” as the game dubs them. Combat can be a rare experience, and this is one of the few times that a playthrough is likely to be more engaging when playing non-lethally. During combat each unit can move and perform an action, or move twice—pretty standard RPG rules. That action might be anything from swinging an axe to opening a gas valve, using an item, or even occasionally trying to talk things through. The system works well enough, but it’s far from engaging, and the balance just doesn’t seem to feel quite right. A lot of that has to do with the stat pools system.
Every character has three stats: strength, speed, and intelligence. Actions and attacks require use of these pools, with success rates on the action depending on how much of the pool is spent. This works well outside of combat, mostly because you can usually use all four party member’s pools, but while fighting you’re constantly going to be draining these pools. So either your attacks during combat are going to hit less often and deal less damage, or you’re going to have a harder time interacting with the world. The only way to replenish these pools is either by sleeping or using healing items, the latter which cost money, and the former which may mess up quests if you sleep too much. There are also a few times where neither rest nor replenishment items can be had until an area is completed, meaning that if a fight completely drains your party, you might have an incredibly hard time progressing. It’s never possible to completely break the game, but it is possible to become stuck for extended periods of time as you try to figure out the obscure alternative to the obvious solution.
To further complicate combat, the AI can be incredibly dense at times. There are a lot of pathfinding issues, and characters regularly get stuck on the environment or each other. They also tend to attack the nearest target, regardless of whether that strategy makes sense or not, and rarely pay any mind to environmental hazards, charging through fire or acid with abandon. Even winning a fight never totally feels satisfying as it often leaves your party drained until you can rest up and continue. The only positive thing about the combat was the narrative dissonance it created for me when the 10 year old girl in my party accidentally became my most deadly unit due to her incredible accuracy with an energy pistol.
Outside of combat the game is largely talking to people, then going to a different location and talking to someone else, then maybe a puzzle or skill test, then more talking. Unlike Pillars of Eternity or Tyranny, Torment is mostly linear, which actually helps to move the story along really nicely. There are plenty of opportunities for sidequests, which should be experienced if only because their writing is so good, but the game plays out on a straight path through about five chapters over approximately 20 hours. One of the more interesting ideas Torment plays with is that even failure has an outcome, and failing a skill check will often have interesting or humorous side effects, and not all of them negative. It’s a great way to largely eliminate the idea of save-scumming for the best result and it really helped the game to feel more like a proper pen and paper experience.
Graphically, Torment is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand the environments show an insane level of creativity, from the city inside of a giant organism to the weird techno-anarchy of a world that’s lived through eight apocalypses. This is easily some of the most interesting and unique level design in some time and it’s definitely worth zooming in for a closer look. On the other hand, animations and character models are barebones at best, looking just the same as they did in Pillars of Eternity, and those weren’t exactly amazing. The animations in particular are pretty rudimentary and there are only a few dozen, maybe, for the entire game, relying more on text boxes to display character actions. Still, the game is clearly meant to be looked at on a wide scale, and that means mostly looking at the amazing world design and marveling at the alien beauty of it all.
In terms of audio Torment falls pretty flat. Music is serviceable, but there’s nothing totally memorable. It’s a weird mix of synth and traditional sounds that fit well with the world, but it all sort of blends into the background most of the time, only rising during combat. Sound effects are totally barren, with most seemingly ripped off a SFX CD or royalty free website. Combat seems to only rely on one or two hit effects, so get used to that wet watermelon splash over and over again. Voice work is pretty great, the few times it shows up, with your companions having a lot of personality to them. It’s just a shame there’s not more of it for other major characters, something games like Baldurs Gate had nearly 20 years ago.
A recommendation for Torment: Tides of Numenera comes with several major caveats. First, you need to be able to accept the weird, because this game seems like weird incarnate at times, and occasionally it can be grating trying and understand the world. Second, you need to be more interested in reading than fighting, because the writing is amazing and the combat is not. And third, you need to be able to put up with frustration, because this game offers that in spades with buggy AI and occasionally boggling design and balance choices.
We’re somewhat spoiled for cRPGs theses days, and if you’re thinking about getting into one, here’s a quick breakdown. Pillars of Eternity is Metallica, outside the norm but fairly easy to digest and a lot of people will like it. Tyranny is Tool, way outside of average, but if you attune yourself to their wavelength, the experience can be enlightening. Torment: Tides of Numenera is Captain Beefheart; you have no idea what it is, no idea how to process it, at times it annoys you, and yet it mostly kind of works. This isn’t a game for everyone, and even the people it is for might not totally get it, but if you’re looking for a story-rich RPG that rewards you with a good read and an interesting world, then this is definitely the game for you.