I have something of a bone to pick with the Numenera setting. By extension I also have something of a bone to pick with Torment: Tides Of Numenera – as is implicit in the name, this is a spiritual successor to the immortal Planescape: Torment that replaces the oddball worlds of Planescape for the even weirder reality-bending madness of Numenera. Planescape: Torment is considered by many to be the Best RPG Ever; I don’t go quite that far and merely consider it to be the best-written RPG ever, but nevertheless these are extremely large shoes to fill for Wasteland 21 developers InXile. The strategy equivalent would be trying to make a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri or Master Of Orion, and I’ve completely lost track of how many contenders have shattered themselves trying to ascend those heights over the last couple of decades. Doing something like this is all but setting yourself up for a fall, in other words, and so I’m not all that surprised that Torment ultimately fails to attain the lofty goal it has set for itself. What is interesting here is the manner of that failure, however, as it hasn’t fallen down quite the way I expected it to.
First, let’s tackle the setting. Numenera is set one billion years in the future, largely because that means they can put ONE BILLION YEARS IN THE FUTURE… on the back of all the sourcebooks. A world that is puportedly Earth is somehow still around and is the primary setting for the adventures of Numenera, however that’s basically lip-service because nobody calls it Earth; it’s referred to as the Ninth World and might as well be Narnia for all the relation it bears to modern-day Earth, as one billion years of technological advances and the rise and tumultuous falls of successive civilizations have left it completely unrecognisable. The base level of society is supposed to be very early industrial period at best, but as the inhabitants of the Ninth World exist on top of the ruins of the previous eight worlds there’s a lot of impossibly advanced technology left over for them to turn to their advantage – if they can figure out how it works.
This makes Numenera something of an “Anything goes!” setting. You want to hit somebody in the face with a sword? That’s fine, the world is supposed to be just about post-medieval anyway so nobody’s going to look twice. Of course, the hitting would be much more effective if your strength was being boosted by an advanced battle-armour exoskeleton, and that’s fine too – who knows how many of those things are still lying around after one billion years, after all. You want to go dimension-hopping, or even travel in time? There’s more than enough wiggle room in the fiction to allow for that, as Numenera takes the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic and thrashes it to within an inch of its life. Anything is possible here, which means the breadth of stories you can tell is only really limited by your imagination.
Which, incidentally, sets it up quite nicely to be used to tell a story that is in many ways a literal cut-and-paste from Planescape: Torment; InXile have managed to tie the setting in enough knots that it almost seems like a natural fit, despite many of the key beats having been copied across wholesale and only receiving the most superficial coat of paint to try and make them blend into a whole new game. You play the Last Castoff, the most recent vessel for a body-hopping entity known as the Changing God, and you represent his latest swipe at immortality. Every couple of decades when it looks like his bullshit is finally going to catch up to him the Changing God simply transfers his consciousness to a new custom-built body, which kind of sucks for the old one since it becomes self-aware the moment the Changing God packs up shop, with no memory of events leading up to that point. As the Changing God tends to use the body-switching trick as a get-out-of-jail-free card when facing some impossibly lethal situation this does mean his castoff vessels have a tendency to experience just a few short seconds of life before getting torn apart by whatever the one billion AD equivalent of wolves is. In your case you wake up plummeting through the atmosphere at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound, but fortunately for your the Changing God likes to build his bodies pretty robustly (he has to live in them, after all) and most of the time you can regenerate from wounds that would otherwise be lethal, which is a convenient ability to have when you subsequently smash into the ground at a hundred miles per hour.
So, much like the original Planescape: Torment, you’re playing a protagonist with amnesia who treats death as a minor inconvenience (most of the time, there are still some situations that can kill you), and who immediately starts trying to uncover how they ended up this way. And much like the original Planescape: Torment you’re being pursued by a malevolent entity called the Sorrow that really doesn’t like the way the Changing God is upsetting the natural order of things; even if you were entirely uninterested in your backstory you would still have to deal with the Sorrow, and since it can erase castoffs from existence just by touching them figuring out how to get it off your back is something of a pressing concern. One significant way in which this Torment does differ from the original is that the Changing God has been at this for thousands of years and has accrued a significant number of castoffs, many of which survived the circumstances that caused them to become castoffs in the first place and which now inhabit the world alongside the more regular population, who are all extremely familiar with the Changing God’s MO as a consequence.
This does mean that Torment loses the potential for some of the more impactful moments of the original (the tattoos, the tomb, the business with the Nameless One’s previous party) and the story is far less personal for the Last Castoff than it is for the Nameless One. Their companions too are curiously insubstantial – I think they’re a damn sight better than the ones found in Tyranny or even Pillars Of Eternity through dint of actually having backstories and personalities that evolve throughout the game, but the chances are that in five years I won’t remember any of them and that’s not good enough. This is why casting your game as the spiritual successor to anything is simply setting yourself up for failure, as it’s constantly being measured against the idealised version of that thing that exists in people’s heads and coming up short even if you do a decent job.
Anyway, while the hook of the Last Castoff’s individual story is a little duller this time around, it’s compensated for somewhat by the exploration of the Numenera worlds being at least as in-depth as Planescape managed. It’s in the locations, sidequests and vignettes that Torment shapes up best as a true spiritual successor, as it successfully captures much of the essence driving stuff like the Sensorium, the Godsmen, the golem inside the siege tower etc. etc. and distils it into new forms that feel fresh and original while also sharing something in common with their inspiration. In the first city I wandered into a bar populated by the few remaining veterans of a psychic war, one of whom I persuaded to gift me with an attack meme that destroyed an entire civilization2. Outside I met one of the city guards, automatons created by each citizen donating a year of their lives to one of the mysterious technological marvels dug up by the Aeon Priests, but this one was upset because the particular year used to create him was an extremely bad one. Underneath the city I ran into a man selling meat that grew back as soon as he carved it from the dead animal carcass he had roasting over the fire; he told me he’d used yet another mysterious device to trigger regeneration in the carcass, but the one time he tried to use it to heal one of his own injuries he ended up with some… unpleasant side effects. None of these things has anything to do with the main plot, but all of them display precisely the sort of imagination required to build a convincing world out of Numenera’s catch-all setting, and all of them are backed up by a lot of very good writing that lends a significant amount of colour to what could otherwise have been some very dry fetch-quests.
Torment feels like it gets more and more comfortable in its own skin as it goes on. Or perhaps I was getting more and more comfortable with Torment and its setting, but I did find it interesting that the first area — which is something like Sigil in that it’s the setting’s take on a traditional RPG city — came across as being a little weaker than the bulk of the rest of the game, and that the third area, which was the most alien of them all, was the one that I enjoyed the most by far. The more Torment embraced the range of possibilities enabled by the inherent weirdness of the Numenera setting, the better it got, and I was more than happy to play through to the end of game based on the setting alone. Why, then, did I say I have a bone to pick with it in the opening line to this review?
Well, it’s because while the anything-goes nature of Numenera makes it an excellent place to tell a story (for the right writers, anyway, which InXile do seem to have), it is a really, really shitty place to try and apply any rules to. Unfortunately when you’re cooking up an RPG system that is precisely what you have to do; if you don’t want to turn it into pure interactive fiction you have to come up with stats and skills and mechanics to support the game-y part of it. The moment you try and impose any order on this madness it suddenly becomes far less interesting, as walking around in a suit of living Maw-flesh with a miniature interdimensional portal swirling in the centre of your chest is abruptly boiled down to having an armour value of six and a resistance value of eight, rendering it far more mundane.
I’ll reserve the bulk of the kicking for the combat system and associated mechanics, but I will say that I did find the way you make use of non-combat skills in Numenera interesting, if also completely broken. You have the usual set of skills — Quick Fingers, Persuasion, Intimidation etc. etc. — and you’re given the opportunity to try and use them in a given situation via a special dialogue prompt as you’d expect. However, success is not determined by comparing the difficulty of the task against the level of your skill; instead this merely determines the baseline chance of success, and you’re then given the opportunity to improve that chance by burning points from one of your stat pools as extra Effort you make on that particular attempt. You have three pools — Might, Speed and Intellect — and a check on a given skill will require you to invest Effort points from that skill’s associated pool — so a Quick Fingers check will require Speed, Smashing will require Might and so on. Each Effort point invested raises the chances of success by 20%, so by spending enough Effort you can pass any skill check. The catch is supposed to be that you only have a limited amount of stat points to spend on Effort, and by spending too lavishly you’ll run out before you get to other important skill checks later on. Unfortunately the problem with this system is that it’s trivial to refill the stat pools either through the use of common consumable items (which refill 3 or 6 points from a given pool) or by resting, which refills every pool to the maximum, and this means that in practice you just spend as many points as are needed to get the chances of success to 90 or 100%. If you run out you can fall back on your companion’s stat pools (this might even be preferable if they have a better skill level than you do) and if those run out you just spend a couple of minutes running back to the nearest inn. I completely understand the intent behind this system and I actually think it’d be a good idea if you weren’t able to refill your stat pools so casually, but in practice it amounts to automatically succeeding on every single skill check you’re called on to make, which is no fun at all.
Anyway, the combat. It’s the usual turn-based two actions, one attack deal popularised by XCOM. Enemies have ranged or melee weapons. You have ranged or melee weapons. There are magic spells in the form of Nano abilities. Armour blocks physical damage. Resistance blocks magic damage. The various technological marvels of the Ninth World are, in combat, reduced to Cyphers, which are limited-use items that are essentially equivalent to scrolls in D&D, albeit with unique effects not replicated by the Nano abilities available to you. You heal mid-combat by spraying yourself with Synthflesh, which totally isn’t a healing potion, honest. In other words, combat in Torment is almost exactly like combat in every other RPG under the sun (bar one astonishing omission that I’ll get to in a second), when that’s exactly what it shouldn’t be. For starters, are you seriously telling me that the suit of technologically advanced reactive plate armour I am wearing can block all of 3 points out of the 12 points of damage that was just dealt to me by the cultist dressed in rags and wielding what appears to be a rusty knife? That the transdimensional blade I am wielding, that I can use in special conversation options to slice open the very fabric of reality, will itself only do 4 points of damage, plus 3 for every additional point of Effort I invest? Shit, just give me whatever that cultist was using since it appears to be far more effective. I pick up a cypher that says it’s a bloodsucking seed that takes root in the body of whatever enemy I throw it at, but the in-game effect is that they take 9 points of damage now plus 3 points of bleeding damage for 3 rounds afterwards. This is absolutely criminal: Torment takes all of this fascinating esoterica you pick up during your travels through the Ninth World and transforms it into the most boring numbers game possible. I know a lot of people hated Planescape’s combat (although curiously I’m not one of them) but that at least gave you some very entertaining spells to throw around. Torment doesn’t even have that.
Still, to be merely boring would be a step up for Torment’s combat. In practice it’s borderline offensive because for some absolutely inexplicable reason it doesn’t have any concept of zones of control, where front-line melee tanks can control the area around them by making free attacks on any enemies who try and move past them to the squishier backline members of the party. You are always outnumbered by your enemies, and the baddie AI will usually pick one of your party members and focus them down, running straight past your impotently flailing tank to shank the mage. Or, even worse, the player character; while your party members will get back up if they’re downed and you win the fight, the Last Castoff getting taken out means an immediate restart as their “death” and regeneration is represented in-game by your party being teleported back to the start of the area. In the areas where you can die, the Last Castoff getting alpha struck in this way results in an instant game over. I had one fight where she didn’t even get to move before being swarmed and stabbed to death. It got slightly better during the late game as I managed to stack enough items on her to get her evasion to 135%; the rest of the party would often get taken out in two rounds, but she’d just keep on going as her enemies missed her again and again, and even soloed what I assume was supposed to be a challenging optional boss (you get an achievement for killing him) without dropping below half health. I shouldn’t have had to effectively break the game in order to make the combat bearable, though; before I’d managed to set her up like that I was genuinely afraid that I might have to give up on Torment altogether purely because I couldn’t face dealing with its godawful combat system.
Interestingly I think InXile are very aware of how weak that combat system is, as evidenced by my having to deal with it precisely four times in the opening nine hours of the game. That it managed to frustrate me to this degree even though I encountered it so infrequently is a pretty damning indictment of it, but it does also speak well of Torment’s general approach to resolving a crisis as there is almost always a non-violent solution. It might require some work, and some judicious reloading after you realise you’ve gone past a point of no return without the magic word required to defuse the situation, but you can usually avoid a fight. This leaves you more-or-less free to soak up the ambience in the process of running down the Changing God, which means you’ll probably have great fun with Torment for about 18 hours before discovering it suffers from a malaise that’s becoming all too common where modern RPGs are concerned. I ran into it in Mankind Divided, I ran into it in Tyranny, and now that I’ve encountered it in Torment I suppose I should give it a name: No Third Act Syndrome. That is, I completed what I assumed was the middle portion of the game, moved one step closer to discovering the secrets driving the main plot, and was ready for a third and final act where it would be resolved in a comprehensive and satisfying manner… only to discover instead that there was less than an hour of gameplay remaining after that point. Torment rushes its revelation, condensing most of it into two Choose Your Own Adventure segments and then having you talk to an NPC to pick which ending you’d like.
That was the surprising thing about Torment, for me, since up until that point it was actually doing a pretty good job of living up to the extremely lofty expectations invoked by the name; it never had a chance of equalling Planescape’s accomplishments, but it could have at least called itself a spiritual successor without me laughing in its face. Torment does do quite a lot that’s admirable, or at least well-intentioned, and makes good use of its setting to build a world that’s leaps and bounds beyond any other RPGs I’ve played recently. As several prominent RPG developers have learned to their cost over the last few years, though, stuffing up the ending like that does rather tend to retroactively ruin everything that came before it, and it turns out that even 4 million dollar Kickstarter success stories aren’t immune from running out of resources and having to push out a final product with a conclusion that feels more like an amputation. At least I assume that’s what happened, and that it’s not just that there’s nobody left in all of games development who knows how to properly structure a story. Whatever the reason, Torment concludes with a wet fart where it really needed a crescendo to push it over the finish line, and that’s something that puts me off ever playing it again.