When I first picked up Planescape: Torment in the winter of 2000 I had no idea how well received it had been. All I knew was it was a cRPG, used the Planescape setting and had a weird looking dude on the front cover. For someone unfamiliar with the setting it was an extreme bit of shock to step into that world. Anything you thought you knew as a Dungeons & Dragons fan was out the window. Devils and demons are hanging out in the bar. You spend the beginning of the game in a city that seems to be growing and devouring itself at the same time. Reality itself bent to the thoughts of its occupants. It was a hell of a thing to experience.
But at the same time Planescape: Torment did use a lot of elements that were familiar to your average D&D player. If you'd ever rolled some dice, or played one of the video games, many of the elements to the game would be familiar. Most importantly it used the core mechanics of D&D so even if it twisted the rules it was at least somewhat familiar. It also used monsters you might have seen in other games so there were at least some familiar elements. Torment: Tides of Numenera has none of that immediate familiarity. As soon as the game starts up you're assaulted time and time again by how bizarre this setting is. The PC comes into a world that he has little familiarity with so everything is as strange to him as it is to the player. Humanity isn't divided by various skin colors anymore. No, entire sub-species have cropped up that don't appear remotely human. While the game is set on Earth this Earth is so alien that calling it that seems almost academic at this point. This insanity sets the games mood well.
Once you start playing the game it feels familiar to anyone who has played an RPG of this type. The isometric view, the basics of gameplay – the whole thing feels very familiar. Then you get into a fight and it all goes into “What the hell is going on territory?” once again. The system used in the tabletop game, Numenera, is a complicated system. It isn’t the sort of thing you pick up and learn . Since it hasn’t been in a video game before it lacks the familiarity the Dungeons & Dragons games have. You're jumping into the deep end here so… good luck!
Tides of Numenera has a very simple setup. You are an amnesiac trying to discover your true nature. But every step beyond the basic setup is quite surprising. Foremost is that your character is immortal beyond a few very specific situations. Should you die then you reappear in a mental construct known as The Calm while your body fixes itself. Thus, you cannot die and may even choose to kill yourself to advance the game in some fashion. The game even opens with you splatting to the ground. It’s part of character creation.
Character creation may be one of the most interesting part of the experience. Your tutorial has you explore a blackened chamber. Here you will make decisions that shape what character the game suggests. Are you deceitful? Are you a front-line fighter? Do you use magic to get your way? Answers to these questions will give you a character that you can then tweak to your liking. It’s a unique and rather enjoyable way to make your character feel like your own.
From a rather cliché amnesiac hero opening the story goes to interesting places. You begin your exploration in the Sagus Protectorate, a city perched on the cliffs. Here you come across rumblings of the Endless Battle and an entity known as The Changing God. As you learn more about yourself, the storyline weaves to many locations across the world. Each trip reveals more back story as well peeling back what the hell is going wrong in the world.
One of the most successful elements of Torment: Tides of Numenera is without a doubt the story. It’s well written, well thought out and accounts for many possibilities. One of the most notable examples of this occurs in the second section of the game. Here you will come across a monster that can be just stab in the face in a very tough battle. Or you could talk your way through it and peacefully get him to leave. Another option is using an object called a Merecaster so that he died in the past and thus is no longer a threat. Each option has variations and they all impact the quest resolution and consequences. Some choices can even leave the area worse off than it was before you came there so you’ll need to be smart about it.
A lot of these choices are made by using your skills to influence people or complete tasks. This is where the oddness of the Numenera system comes in. It’s a complicated system that figures out task difficulty via your stats, skills you’ve learned and equipment worn then compares them to a base difficulty. Then you can spend temporary stat points to increase your chances of success. There are limits to how big your stat pool is and how many you can spend. But since these are used for all tasks, ranging from conversation to combat, you’ll need to be careful. They only recover when you sleep or use expensive curatives so it's not like you can just throw them around freely.
Problem being that this is one of the areas where the game wasn’t very well thought out. Since combat is so ineffective your best bet is to never bother with it. I had to abort my first playthrough since my Glaive, a melee combat class, was so useless. He was fine when fights did break out but he couldn't handle any non-combat tasks. This left me using his allied NPC’s for non-combat tasks but that left them drained for the next fight. Even in the storyline fights that were unavoidable I found that the best way to handle them was to either avoid combat by hiding or to head straight for the exit. This lead me to a simple realization: never bother with combat. Spec to avoid combat in every single means possible. By doing this you can break the game completely. Every time you level up put your points into non-combat skills and other bonuses that aid you. Ignore anything that buffs you in combat unless you must. Doing this you will grow in power until you will never have any problems doing anything you want.
Of course, this leads to another problem – there’s no reason to ever fight. In Planescape: Torment a pacifist or warmonger playthrough were both possible. Both were valid approaches in that game. In Torment that doesn’t feel like it’s the case. Combat is not enjoyable. Fights are slow, plodding affairs that are prone to glitches, bugs and crashing. Even things like determining line of sight can be very tricky and slow down the fighting even more. Since you can’t save in the middle of a fight, and fights take forever, this becomes a deal breaker very fast. I almost had to stop playing because one mandatory fight in the middle of the game would freeze up every time. Twenty minutes lost every time that happened.
What’s strange is that this leaves Torment feeling like a visual novel and not a successor to Planescape. This is even highlighted when you use a Merecaster. This pulls the game into full on visual novel mode. You look at a still images while reading descriptions of what's going on. But it makes almost no difference in how you play the game. If the whole game had in this style they wouldn’t have had to change anything. You can even use your skills and abilities in this mode. Hell, if they had made the whole game like that they could have given us better views of the NPC’s we interacted with as opposed to the zoomed out view we get now. It might have improved the experience and been an innovative take on the cRPG genre. Instead it’s meh.
Another issue encountered here is that of the quality of writing for the companions. There isn’t very high quality writing you would expect of an RPG like this. The developers ruled out romance because it doesn’t fit the games themes. But I’m convinced the real reason is that if they included romance they’d have had to put some actual work into the NPC’s. The problem is that these characters are unremarkable beyond their basic concepts. They have a few minor interactions throughout the world where they chime in on your decisions. Other than that, you can make one major decisions with them per chapter. Then in the finale you help them reach one of two outcomes. That’s it. Only one of them seems to have any real quality put into her and that’s Rhin, a young child you can take along for the ride. Unfortunately, she’s also the worst companion in the game. So you must gimp yourself for much of the game to see the one well written story. I like the writing for her quest but it almost doesn’t feel worth the effort.
What this means is that while Tides of Numenera is a well written experience it has glaring issues. How these issues hamper your experience will vary depending on who you are and how you play your games. If you’re of the mind that combat is unimportant and the writing compensates for the weakness of the NPC’s, great! This will be a winner for you. But if you’re someone who likes having combat as an option and well written NPC companions? You're going to have a more critical experience. Even that said this is an experience any cRPG fan should have at least once. The experience, warts and all, is well worth giving it that chance.