Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

By Kevin Tavore, 2 years ago
Books and novels tell stories with the intent of sweeping away one’s imagination to new places with new people. As we explore these places and get to know the characters in the stories, we form bonds with them and even come to love or hate them. We see into the core of these characters, their motivations and we see them make both frustrating and triumphant decisions. The connection we get to the world and its characters is of course entirely in our imaginations — we can’t see villages and people nor can we hear the sounds of a city and the conversations between its residents. But we can feel it all as the author’s words guide us along the journey and the sweetness is something no other medium can capture.

Games, on the other hand, can struggle far more often to tell a story primarily thanks to player agency. For that reason it’s rare we get a game that tries to capture the feeling you get from reading a good book. It’s rarer still we get a game that evokes a story so thoughtful and expansive that it truly feels like a great book. Torment: Tides of Numenera goal was always to tell that beautiful story without sacrificing the agency that makes games what they are. The result of its efforts may not be a great book, but it’s certainly a good one and worth every moment spent in its truly unique experience.

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The world of Torment is Earth set nine billion years in the future. In that time species have evolved into monolithic civilizations and subsequently fallen eight times. This ninth Earth is inhabited by humans and other sentient creatures alike but the previous civilizations include many other species, including aquatic ones. As you explore you’ll discover more about the world and its ancient history. The game blends the lines between magic and technology so that they are often indistinguishable and it adds a sense of wonder to the game while staying grounded in the idea that this is something that could happen nine billion years. It’s a setting that lends itself well to the game’s story and the characters that live in it.

Torment’s heart is its story and it really does feel like a book. The story is rarely told through cutscenes and even more rarely through actions. Instead, the bulk of the story and the gameplay is simply read in text. The game’s intro sets the tone perfectly: you’re falling and you hear the sound of the wind. As you fall you make decisions. What do you look at? What do you consider? Why are you here? How can you save yourself? Your fall will inevitably end with you hitting something but where and how and with what knowledge will be entirely under your control. Each choice you make receives an answer that’s described to you but not shown — never once do you see the hero falling, but nevertheless you know how it feels and what’s happening. Your imagination carries you the rest of the way just like any good book.

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Games and movies are different than books in that they can show you the scene. Imagination plays less a part in it than simply looking and understanding. Where a game will set the scene with each detail filled in, an author must decide which parts must be described and what’s safely left to imagination. Torment aspires to be akin to literature and so it removes setting the scene much of the time. On many occasions the screen will simply be black or the text will be set to the backdrop of artwork. In any other game this would be awful, but Torment’s worldbuilding is done in major part through text as a novel would and it works. The black screen occurs when there’s a memory. A memory doesn’t need to be shown — if it’s instead described then the player will imagine it alongside the hero of the story who’s remembering it at the same time. In this way it feels more real than setting the stage for the player ever could.

Agency plays a major role in Torment. The main hero has a quest but is otherwise a blank slate. While there’s no character creator beyond choosing gender and the starting class and stats, it’s nonetheless easy to connect with the hero because you can choose what to do. These choices are more complex than those in something from Telltale or even BioWare. In Torment you’ll often have an array of choices that can fundamentally change the way the game progresses. For instance, you’ll have the option to buy a slave at one point. You can pay outright or haggle for the price. Next you’ll choose whether to use him as your own personal thief or to give him freedom. If he’s a thief he could truly die or he could bring you riches. Setting him free can see him working almost a dozen different jobs and ultimately one of those jobs could see him making a significant impact during one of the game’s scenes. Alternatively, you could never talk to the slave dealer and you’d never know the slave even existed. Torment is full of dozens of these small quests and interactions and each of these decisions can relate to each other in unexpected ways to create a story that’s more of a tapestry than a linear progression.

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When making these choices, a connection to the character is formed. The options are never outlined as either good or bad. Sometimes it can seem obvious, such as urging a character to commit suicide, but when you don’t she’ll tell you about the anguish she’s in and you’ll reconsider if you can’t find some other way to solve the problem. The morality system in the game is the Tides and each of the half dozen colors symbolizes ideals. When you make a decision that lines up with one or more of those ideals, the Tides can rise for your hero but the colors are never shown beforehand and you’re never locked out of conversation options based on the Tides with which you’re more attuned so in effect they only serve as guidelines so that you can see how your character changes throughout the game.

I began as an intellectual who simply wanted to know more about the world in very objective fashion. Slowly but surely I moved to a more subjective, charitable stance as I found my place in the world and the companions along my side helped reshape that mold. In this way the hero became me in a way Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard never could have been. This ability to form a connection with the hero is likely the game’s biggest success.

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The one aspect of the writing that did miss is unfortunately the companions. There are seven companions in total who you’ll meet near the beginning of the game and each has his or her own backstory. The issue is that these backstories aren’t fully fleshed out to the point that even some generic side quests can offer more depth. One companion completes his “side quest” by being in the party and talking to one person in a major city. That’s it. There’s no journey. Another has basically no backstory at all other than a brief conversation in that same city until the very end of the game where you make a major decision on a whim without any setup whatsoever. Some of the companions do have “full” arcs, but even then these only feel extensive relative to the other companions. With the rest of the writing being of such high quality, the writing of the companions stands in stark contrast.

The game’s greatest failure is certainly its combat which is frankly terrible. It’s a simple turn-based RPG where each character has one movement point and one attack point. You’ll have abilities but very few of them and most won’t be particularly good so ultimately you’ll just choose an enemy and focus on nuking it down with your strongest attacks, moving on to the next once it’s dead. Meanwhile you’ll be swarmed by enemies in most battles who take upwards of 30 seconds to take a turn each for literally no apparent reason. By the second or third minute waiting until your turn as you watch enemies walk around in circles before finally attacking you you’ll be thoroughly frustrated with the experience and doing everything you can to avoid combat.

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Luckily, thanks to the player agency you can do just that. In my 25 hour playthrough I engaged in combat less than 15 times, about half of which could have been avoided had I said the right thing. Almost every battle, called crises in the game, can be avoided by talking. Even once you enter a crisis it’s possible to spend your turn talking with your enemy rather than fighting to illicit a bloodless outcome. The game’s strong focus on dialogue is on full display here and it creates a setting where using your words truly is a viable gameplay strategy. Even the game’s final boss battle can be avoided if you manage to say the right thing. It lends itself well to the experience and your ability to tell your story.

Unfortunately the game does have numerous technical issues that make it a bit worse than it could have been. Framerate in crises can often drop significantly. Text will occasionally not display properly or even at all in the menus until you re-open them. Actions in crises can fail for unknown reasons leading to your death. I even encountered a bug which broke one of the endings of the game and deprived me of an achievement. Replaying events can fix many of these bugs, including the achievement, but it’s still an irritating issue. The developers have made good on bug fixes for previous games so it’s a reasonable expectation that many of these will be fixed, but for now at least the game lacks the polish needed to call it excellent.

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The achievements in the game are fairly standard for an RPG. You’ll level up, defeat (or not) the big baddie, and make decisions relating to your companions. Many of the options in the game have their own achievements and some are mutually exclusive, but it’s easy to see most of them coming so you can save and then reload if it’s an outcome you didn’t want. At this point it’s not clear whether a second playthrough will be required if you follow a guide, but based on my experience I believe it likely will be thanks to achievements requiring everyone love you and everyone hate you. I unlocked one of those only near the very end of the game.

Summary

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a game unlike many others. In many ways its tale more closely resembles a book than a game. Much of the content in the game is told through text, from descriptions of the environment and the world to the deepest feelings of the characters. The writing creates a story worth discovering which captures your imagination and leads you on its journey. As a game it's also a success, allowing players to make real choices with an array of major and minor effects. Through making choices, you can shape your hero to be someone who truly resembles how you feel which allows you to connect with the hero on a deeper level. The only negatives are the lack of substance to the companions' stories, dismal combat that you can luckily almost entirely avoid through savvy conversation choices, and performance issues. Ultimately, Torment is a game for anyone who's a fan of a good book, an epic tale, or that simply wants a fresh take on RPGs that consoles have never seen. It may not be a great novel, but it's certainly a very good one.
4 / 5
Torment: Tides of Numenera
Positives
  • Story is told in a beautiful way that sparks your imagination
  • Player choice plays a major part in the game's story with real and tangible impact
  • The hero can be customized to truly connect with the player through customization and choice
Negatives
  • Combat is very poorly designed and far too slow
  • Companion stories are not well-developed
  • Multitude of bugs and performance issues
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 24 hours playing through the game reading, making countless decisions, and ultimately saving the world. He collected 42 of 52 achievements for 825 Gamerscore. An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.