A Tale Slowly Unfolding for Those Willing to Wait
inXile Entertainment's Torment: Tides of Numenera is a new story that carries on the legacy of its much beloved older sibling, Planescape: Torment. Long considered one of the most, if not the most, beloved RPGs of all time, Planescape: Torment has left a mighty footprint behind it, one that Torment: Tides of Numenera hopes to fill and then some.
In many ways, this is a difficult preview to write due to the nature of the game itself. Unlike ARPGs, a game like Torment: Tides of Numenera is one that is best left to be discovered and to be savored. It is not a game for those in a hurry or who crave min-maxing characters and leaping into battle with fearsome cries. It is a game that is more closely related to the intricate unraveling of a fine mystery novel than it ever will be to any of the more modern RPGs in the world today, even the richly honored The Witcher 3. T:ToN is more closely related to Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity, though having played both, I would still set inXile's entry into the narrative RPG on another level altogether as was Planescape: Torment before it.
Without revealing spoilers, the basics of the story have been known since the KickStarter launched in 2013. The story centers around the player character known as the Last Castoff, the discarded shell of the Changing God, born when he opted to find a newer, better host. The story reveals itself from there and explores themes including Legacy and the value of a single life; Abandonment and how it affects those to whom it happens; Mystery and the acquisition of truth and finding answers. All combined, these elements bring a "deep, thematically satisfying story".
What is abundantly clear from the first moments in Torment: Tides of Numenera is that this is not a standard story-driven RPG in any sense. The only recognizable portion of character creation is the selection of a player's gender. From there, the story truly begins with players arriving in a literally black and white world. More or less a tabula rasa, players are prompted by the initial interactive story arc to rediscover and reclaim a fractured memory gained in...well, that is best left to be discovered.
Completing the first room, however, still does not give a true picture of exactly who the Last Castoff is in terms of traditional roles. There are vaguely stated activities that help the character recover memories that can produce boosts to intellect or might or speed, but the creation of -- no, more accurately, the discovery of -- one's character still has a way to go before entering anything resembling a "game world".
Landing in a room with several containment tanks and someone called "The Specter", who is there as a companion of sorts that assists the Last Castoff to become attuned with the five tanks in the room, finishes the creative process for the player. As with the earlier room, these tanks help the player gain some basic stats, though each attunement comes with an interesting story attached to the creature that floats within. Players are given choices each having a significant bearing on the final stages of character creation.
Sounds easy enough, right?
After attuning to the first tank, a series of events take place that require strategy and not just a bit of luck to complete. I will admit to having had to replay this particular scene many more times than once to complete it successfully. While save-on-demand is generally present in the rest of the game, it is not in this particular room and it is easy to "fail" the combat portion without a bit of study beforehand.
How DARE a game make me think!
That is, of course, a facetious statement but it does bring home the point that Torment: Tides of Numenera isn't going to hold anyone's hand. There will be times when scenes will need to be replayed, either due to faulty combat or simply to change the answers given to the extensive scenarios to be read, pondered and decided.
Be sure to get those eyes checked!
Which brings me to my next point, namely that T:ToN requires a lot, a LOT, of reading. As said earlier, it is more closely related to, I believe, an interactive novel. The writing is beautifully and intricately done, though I will further admit that becoming invested in the story took a few hours due to the abysmal failures I experienced creating a darned character and the 20-minutes long battle that took place nearly the minute I exited into the wider game world. Once those were out of the way, however, I found myself engrossed in learning about the city where we had emerged, finding out more about the companions that I'd met on landing in the world, and in finding out precisely who this character actually is. Everyone and their brother in the city has a theory or seems to know the Last Castoff...except the Last Castoff.
For those who remember the amazing companions from Planescape: Torment -- Falls From Grace, Morte, Ignus and the others -- and the extension to story they brought to the game, rest assured that there is more of that coming in Torment: Tides of Numenera. The companions, at least so far, are fascinating, each with his or her own story to discover and motives to discern. They argue and jibe and joke with one another. They offer advice and direction and even heckle decisions made. The writing for each rivals that of the main story itself.
And this is the beauty of a game like Torment: Tides of Numenera -- it is a story slowly told, exquisitely revealed over time. I found that I needed to force myself slow down and to temper the impatience I felt to get on with it already!. I needed to remind myself that storytelling of this ilk is a remnant of another era in RPGs, one that, at the time anyway, was like opening portals to new worlds, worlds that I wanted to explore and devour, though with painstaking slowness, not with the speed and over-reliance on action combat that many embody today.
Are there issues with this beta presentation? Of course there are. I ran into more than a few bugs and I found the "first pass" UI to be intrusive and often times frustrating as the text I wanted to read would disappear requiring scrolling to read. As mentioned earlier as well, there will be many, many who think that they want to play a game like T:ToN who will be unsatisfied with the way the story painstakingly unfolds or who will miss the D20 dice rolls from more traditional DnD games.
For those, however, who remember the best days of RPGs, games that told stories and allowed the player to discover organically how their story would unfold, Torment: Tides of Numenera will be a find that might just stand alongside its predecessor, Planescape: Torment. Though I only had the opportunity to experience a tiny portion of the game, I can clearly see its potential and I can't wait to finish my Castoff's journey.
What about you? Will you be playing Torment: Tides of Numenera? What are you most looking forward to when it launches? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.
Disclaimer: The key to experience the backers' beta was given by PR representatives of inXile Entertainment, though I am a backer from Day 1.