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Torment: Tides of Numenera Review.

Posted in games | March 2017

Dungeons & Dragons has a long, storied history in gaming. The classic pen and paper game has had several successful digital counterparts,and its approach to role playing has influenced and been repackaged as everything from Final Fantasy to Skyrim. If you’re only familiar with modern role-playing games, you could be forgiven for assuming that they’re all about crafting and loot, leveling and growing stronger. In truth, D&D’s many progeny have simply sidestepped what makes role-playing games one of the most powerful, affecting genres.

Torment: Tides of Numenera seeks to take role-playing back to its roots. Gone are the bombastic power fantasies. Gone, too, are cluttered inventory screens and complex crafting. Instead, Torment is about you taking on the role of another. Reductive as that might sound, the distinction underscores what modern RPGs have been missing for so long–actual role-playing.

Set more than a billion years in the future, Torment blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy. While everything is ostensibly technological, it’s often so advanced that it might as well be magical. It’s against that backdrop that your character pops into existence. You’re thrust into the body of the Last Castoff, a husk of a person created by a god seeking a perfect vessel. You begin your new life falling from space, with only a few broken memories ripped from the god who made you.

Character creation comes as a series of scenarios that encourage you to choose not just who you are (i.e. your gender or class), but what kind of person you want to be. Your backstory is set, but you can choose how to respond and explore the alien world into which you’ve just been born. From the outset, Torment encourages you to internalize motivations for your character.

When you play an RPG, you’re shaping the experience as much as the game’s developers did. They’ve authored the text and crafted the structure, but from those pieces, you construct your own adventure. It’s a blessing, then, that Torment’s pieces are phenomenal. Its environments are rich and detailed, packed with strange creatures and wondrous animated effects. Surreal, atonal music billows from these far-future locales, setting an uneasy tone. Torment’s true strength, though, is its writing and the beautiful twists it brings to classic RPG concepts.

This approach to crafting role-playing games pays dividends–it leaves room for thought and reflection. While RPGs often tout that you can do just about anything to just about anyone, Torment tries to break down what your actions mean.

Each area introduces at least a dozen characters–each with their own stories and relationships. Torment encourages you to indulge your curiosity and talk to everyone you see. That can cause the game to drag in places, as you might find yourself pushing through a thousand lines of text before you move on. Aside from the few parts where the sheer amount of text can be a little overwhelming, florid descriptions pour onto your screen describing everything from the subtle body language of alien creatures to finer details of your surroundings. Torment’s rich prose hits wonderful highs. It’s easy to slip wholly into the game’s world, losing yourself amidst the strange, unknown features of Earth a billion years from now.

Torment captures the essence of huddling around a table with your friends playing a campaign. It may not be as free-form as a true tabletop RPG, but Torment manages a believable illusion of endless possibilities. It drops the maps and simple, one-step quests of contemporary RPGs. Exploring these lands is an active process: You ask questions, you piece the mysteries together, and you find your own, novel solutions. With such developed characters and dense worlds, you’ll often think you’ve missed something, but this actually works in Torment’s favor, as more often than not, you’ll be left thirsting for more.

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Even when you’re done with one small segment of the game, Torment begs you to wonder how things could have played out. That’s difficult for a scripted game, as it relies on blocking just enough from the audience that it inspires curiosity, while tilting the hand just often enough to show that what’s hidden is substantive. Torment walks that line perfectly, giving each scenario believably different outcomes with effects that can ripple throughout your playthrough. At the same time, these distinctions never feel arbitrary, you aren’t selecting between “the good option” and “the evil option.” Instead, your choices center around the tone and spirit of the character you want to play — quests then are paths to your character’s development, not rote tasks with clean mechanical pay-offs like more money or better gear.

This approach to crafting role-playing games pays dividends–it leaves room for thought and reflection. While RPGs often tout that you can do just about anything to just about anyone, Torment tries to break down what your actions mean. At one point, you’ll have the opportunity to resolve a fracture in time. Working through it could be seen as an effort to heal and help, but you’re just as likely to cause a section of time to collapse, killing another character. Carelessness breeds instability–which, in turn, causes suffering. Similarly, kindness isn’t universally rewarded. Torment nudges you to think carefully about how you want to express yourself in this world.

Torment wants you to dig through its hamlets and delve into its dungeons on your own. It isn’t about cutting down waves of foes, it’s not about being the one true hero, and it’s not wish fulfillment. Narrative is an end in itself.

Here, pulling any one thread without understanding its connective tissue is the greatest sin. And this allows Torment to explore broader questions in ways that are human and relatable. You might be dealing with a woman who’s split between several dimensions or an all-consuming, amorphic maw that streaks across the landscape, but this is dressing for the more fundamental reflections on what it feels like to have your mind spread too thin and how people grapple with slow-moving disasters.

While the bulk of your time with Torment will, no doubt, be spent navigating dialogue trees, that’s not all there is here. You’ll also have three pools of points that you can pull from to perform extraordinary feats–might, speed, and intellect. The size of each can vary, so you could have nine points of speed to cash in and only three of might, but they’re all spent in similar ways. For example, if you come across a boulder that blocks your path, you might be able to shift it. You can attempt this without help, leaving the outcome largely to chance, or you can spend a few points of might to dramatically increases your odds–possibly even guaranteeing success.

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This comes at a cost, though. Each of your point pools are difficult to replenish, so extraordinary exertion can leave you too weak or cognitively taxed to do much. You’re never powerless, though, and Torment goes out of its way to make every outcome interesting. Much like its almost infinitely sprawling tabletop inspirations, Torment flips the idea of failure on its head. Should you ever “fail”, you might meet someone new or discover a secret you wouldn’t have caught if you had succeeded in the initial task. Everything you do and don’t do in Torment is rewarded with more world-building prose and intrigue.

Torment wants you to dig through its hamlets and delve into its dungeons on your own. It isn’t about cutting down waves of foes, it’s not about being the one true hero, and it’s not wish fulfillment. Narrative is an end in itself. Story is the everything, and the play that backs that story, while minimal, gives the experience a weight that’s too often lost in other games. Torment defines itself as codified opposition to current trends, but that’s also not all it is. Using pools of points to set limits on its players and driving player expression through curiosity are novel additions to one of gaming’s oldest genres.

Taken together, Torment is far more than just a phenomenal role-playing game. It’s a challenge to restore the depth and nuance for which the genre was once known.

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