Torment: Tides of Numenera Review

When I finished Torment, as the credits were rolling and the game was telling me what became of the characters whose lives I had touched during my time on the Ninth World, it was as if time had stopped. It was quiet, with the game’s music playing in the background, with me going over my choices in the game and just … processing.

It’s difficult to talk about what I was processing without giving away too much of the game’s story but, in the interest of being as vague as possible, I was thinking about my favourite party member, the choice I made at the end, and a handful of people that I either couldn’t or didn’t help.

It’s also been a long time since I felt this way after a game was done. These moments of thoughtful silence don’t come often, because not all games are designed to conjure them. But certain RPGs in particular, games in which it feels like I spend a whole lifetime in someone else’s shoes – those games leave their mark on me.

I remember feeling this particular quiet at the end of Mass Effect 3. At the end of The Witcher 3 as well. And now, Torment. To say the very least, Torment: Tides of Numenera is in excellent company.

What is this rambling nonsense?

It’s important that I explain the feeling of having finished Torment, because this quiet thoughtfulness is something that permeates the entire game. Torment is not a game that invites you to play it rip-roaringly fast. Every single one of the gorgeous, isometric maps has dozens and dozens of points of interest – people you can talk to, objects in the world you can study, other objects that you can interact with, little puzzles that you can solve.

Torment invites you to walk slowly and carefully through the world that it presents to you, listening to everything, talking to everyone, learning more about all of the myriad curiosities that seem to dot every corner of the landscape.

A big part of this invitation to engage comes from the design of the world itself. It’s very intensely science-fantasy, with technology so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic. But it is also a world that it steeped in history, built obviously and visibly on the triumphs, the ruins, and the detritus of countless civilisations that came before it.

References to these older civilisations, their ways, their traditions, their technologies, are scattered everywhere – both as information in dialogue and as physical objects with detailed, lovingly written descriptions. There’s so much information everywhere about almost everything that it feels almost consistently overwhelming – and that feeds very nicely into what I imagine was a very deliberate story choice for the player character.

The Last Castoff

You play as the Last Castoff, and in the interest of avoiding all spoilers I will say no more about who you are and what that means. But, like its predecessor, Torment puts you in the shoes of a blank slate, a character with no personality or memories before you assume control, meaning that the character is entirely what you make of it, and wholly yours in a way that not all RPGs can successfully convey.

And in much the same way that I periodically felt overwhelmed by the experience, I imagine it’s probably how the Last Castoff feels as well. To wake up in this strange world, surrounded by strange things and strange people, with no past or future, not really knowing who they are, but full of questions and desperate for answers. At the very end of the game, my tendency to incessantly ask questions was actually commented on by an NPC – but whether that’s the result of choices I made or a fixed line of dialogue is difficult to say. Regardless, it felt personal.

That sense of really inhabiting the Last Castoff extended to my relationships with my party members as well – a woman named Callistege, a thing named Oom, and a girl named Rin. Rin’s story was especially beautiful; I got teary-eyed at a moment when I thought her story ended and then, in an entirely unexpected way, I was given an epilogue of sorts – and I was just really, really happy to have that time and that closure with a character that felt genuinely like a friend.

And unlike many other RPGs that I’ve played, because combat feels trivial in Torment and can be avoided nine times out of ten, I assembled and traveled with a party of people I cared about rather than a crew whose skills would prove useful down the road. Two characters in particular felt mostly useless in combat, but I kept them around because I was fond of them. When I lost one of them and my party size dropped from four to three, I didn’t find someone else to take the open spot because I saw no reason at all to replace a missing friend.

This – this exactly – is how I want an RPG to make me feel.

Are there flaws? Yeah, probably.

I don’t know if I’m not really feeling their intensity because of the warm glow of having finished Torment, but there wasn’t anything particularly egregious about the experience. The most irritating thing that I experienced on the Xbox One X were surprisingly frequent crashes to the home screen. The only solution that I’m aware of is to quicksave often.

Combat was probably a flaw as well, because encounters felt clunky – but whether that’s because I played a lot of Divinity recently (which is a trash RPG but with excellent combat) is difficult to say. Battles never really felt engaging in the way that the rest of the story and character experience did; I played a Nano, which is the game’s rough equivalent of a mage, and had one singular spell that I would use repeatedly when I was forced into a fight that I couldn’t talk my way out of. My only reaction to the combat was to long for it to be over so that I could return to exploration and conversation, the two things that made me fall in love with Torment in the first place.

The character UI (specifically the journal, character sheet, and inventory) on the Xbox felt clunky as well, but I also imagine that these sorts of RPGs translate poorly to a console experience and Torment in particular has a great deal of information that it wants to make available to you.

And finally, the amount of information that Torment throws at you, while overwhelming in a character-building sort of way, can also be a lot to process at any given time. After a couple of especially long days at work, for example, I couldn’t play more than an hour or so of Torment just because of how much I needed to concentrate to read and remember things. But on days when I was relaxed, when I could really throw myself wholesale into the world, I loved every moment of the experience.

What am I trying to say here?

Torment is the most intensely role-playing-focused RPG that I’ve encountered in a very, very long time. The setting is unfamiliar, so unlike traditional RPGs, that it immediately invites curiosity and exploration and investigation. There is so much to learn and the more you learn about the world and the characters in it, the more you appreciate the depth and richness of the place, the more you realise how much you don’t know, the more it feels like a world you actually live in for a brief time.

It is a fascinating, wondrous place that often defies understanding, but is very, very easy to fall in love with. And, I suppose, if I had to sum up Torment: Tides of Numenera in one sentence, that would be it. Fascinating and wondrous. Sometimes confusing and overwhelming. But very, very easy to fall in love with.

So, to sum this up …

If you like RPGs, if you’ve played Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity – if you have any interest in these sorts of games at all, it’s worth checking out Torment: Tides of Numenera. It is a game that you will either completely dislike from the earliest hours of your time with it; or it will draw you in, completely and utterly, until the credits finally roll and all you have at the end is a long, slow silence, in which to think about how you changed an entire world simply by passing through it.

Trevor Coelho

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