Become a castoff body of a god who hops from person to person, fighting to escape the vendetta of an Eldritch horror in this classic-style Role-Playing Game.
Planescape: Torment has an interesting legacy. Which is to say that, until recently, it hasn’t really had one at all. In the eighteen years since its release, Black Isle’s existentialist RPG has been widely acclaimed and held up as an example of the medium’s finest storytelling. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that has tried to replicate its style of dialogue-focused gameplay and philosophical musing since.
In the age of Kickstarter however, every fondly-remembered cult classic gets a belated sequel decades down the line. Two such fundraising campaigns have aspired to pick up Planescape’s mantel, and I threw money at both of them in the classic nostalgic fool’s effort to recapture what I loved as a child. But while Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity rivalled most court cases in being an endless, soporific slog, InXile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera hits closer to the mark.
Of Gods and Changing
The similarities with Planescape are evident right from the start. You play an amnesiac waking up in an unfamiliar city with eldritch horrors in hot pursuit, and you must track down earlier incarnations of yourself to survive. You can survive death, have strange tattoos on your body, and find yourself playing with immense powers that come naturally to you for reasons you don’t understand.
After this opening, the game starts to diverge. Your character turns out to be a castoff body of “The Changing God,” a man who cheats death by transferring his consciousness into other bodies. Unfortunately, a tentacled horror from beyond space and time is displeased by this arrangement and wants all of you dead for good. So you must track down your creator and the other still-living castoffs to find a way to avoid your looming, inevitable fate.
Legacies of the dead
The narrative tackles a number of themes, the most prominent being trying to find a sense of identity and meaning within a deeply corrupted and abusive system you were born into. The earlier castoffs ended up at war with their creator, and this Endless Battle has ravaged much of the world and even spilled into other dimensions.
As a result, many people you meet will revere or fear you for your nature. Claiming that you share no responsibility for this whole mess won’t help; merely earning you a strong rebuking from others. Tying into the Changing God’s attempts to cheat the reaper, strong themes of the legacies of the dead recur throughout as the player trawls through mausoleums and the remains of the last billion years of civilisations.
Although Tides of Numenera’s writing is generally compelling, players won’t always feel the impact of the story’s big ideas. For one, the Endless Battle feels entirely distant. Characters discuss it, but you never see it or its influence first-hand. It doesn’t help that the game often forgets to establish things until after you need to know them. The Endless Battle only gets talked about in vagaries throughout the first half of the game, and by the time you learn concrete details you’ve already participated in a pivotal conversation and been required to give your thoughts and opinions on it.
Dialog and dying
Tides of Numenera’s focus on dialogue over violence, while refreshing for a genre that typically relies on unleashing your inner angry white boy, is not without imperfections. Most dialogue with NPCs is strictly expository and unnatural. It’s that common and supremely awkward Western RPG variety of discussion in which the player keeps asking strangers invasive personal questions and gets rote answers back.
Quest-related conversations also tend to be quite basic. Taking the diplomatic approach to solving them usually just means picking the sole dialogue option marked [Persuasion] or [Intimidation] and then passing an embarrassingly easy skill check. Very little thought or skill is required for most quests, and solutions are just given to you, except for a few egregious moments in which players aren’t allowed to carry out obvious solutions implied by other characters.
For example: one early quest had me help a woman who was fated to die before she turned twenty. Another NPC had already explained a way she could possibly escape her doom: using a life-draining machine to remove the year in which she would die (skipping her forward to the next year). I owned such a machine, but couldn’t find a way to use it to solve her problem.
Tides of Numenera also borrows Planescape’s innovative way of turning death into a game mechanic, by making it something players can exploit to their advantage. But unlike Planescape, Tides has an afterlife realms of sorts.
Every time you die, you awaken in a place called The Labyrinth inside your own mind, where you can explore and meet earlier castoffs. It’s an interesting and promising concept. But ironically for a Western RPG, unless you actively seek out combat, you don’t get enough chances to die to really explore it. And unlike Planescape, the player is rarely allowed to creatively exploit their immortality.
Compared to its inspiration, Tides of Numenera falls a bit short. Planescape’s great strengths were its vibrant personality and the depth of its writing; the vibrant, breathing world of Sigil and a cast that burned themselves into your memory the second you met them. While Tides of Numenera has a lot of imagination on display, it just can’t match up to this.
The cities feel small, and with one or two exceptions, the characters aren’t that memorable. The writing is also much shallower, with less nuance in conversations and fewer opportunities to define your character through your words and actions. Which is not to say Tides of Numenera is a bad game. It tells its fairly compelling story quite competently, but it won’t stick with you long after you’re finished.
Having played Tides of Numenera, I wonder whether my nostalgia for Planescape can ever truly be satisfied. After all, nostalgia is a craving not for the thing you enjoyed in the past, but for the experience you had with it at the time. Perhaps games trading in nostalgia, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint compared to those gilded, halcyon memories of years gone by. And in that case, maybe Tides of Numenera isn’t as big a step down after all.
Torment is available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam. Review based on the Steam version of the game.