A First Look at Torment: Tides of Numenera

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What struck me first about Torment: Tide of Numenera was how much fun I was already having during the introduction. Presented with lost “memories,” I was given a variety of textual choices to make in each scenario. They were all well-written – interesting flashes of lore and story sucking me into the ambiance of the game right off the bat. The second thing I noticed was the immediate set-building. The game mentions machinery, magic, nanotechnology, psychic abilities, underwater breathing, and more all during the first half hour.

Kickstarted within the first six hours of its announcement in 2013, Tides has been on my radar for four years now. I was wary at the start – anything calling itself the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment has an awful lot to live up to. I was made especially wary by my unsatisfying experience with Pillars of Eternity, which promised me a revival of games like Baldur’s Gate, but instead left me adrift on a tepid lake of lukewarm plot hooks and repetitive questing.

Strange detritus washes up in the Reef of Fallen Worlds

I’m still playing the game, but the first five hours of Tides already has me hooked. So far, the Tides team has done an excellent job creating an esoteric city composed out of the detritus of scattered, long-gone worlds. As a love-song to the atmosphere of Sigil, the City of Doors, Tides has already succeeded. What’s even better is that Tides has taken the concept of a city composed of chronological and planar driftwood, and created an original setting, with an atmosphere distinct from Planescape: Torment.

Shortly after starting the game, I’ve encountered a variety of fascinating set-pieces, each with their own nugget of lore. For example, the fountain in Government Square bubbles upwards into a column, as water in a fountain ought to. Instead of water, however, it spews purple wriggling fish-like creatures that constantly babble in a thousand dead languages. Naturally I used some skill points to grab one and keep it. Duh.

Tides presents an interesting take on stats and skill points, one that endeared itself to me quickly. Each character has three stats – might, speed, and intellect. As your character grows, you may allot additional points to these pools of stats. When faced with a challenge, you may choose to spend a certain number of points from your stat pool to make the task easier. You can recover these points when you sleep, but circumstances in the world may change as you rest. It presents an exciting balancing act of deciding when to best spend your stats. Should you dump a bunch of points into talking your way out of a situation, or take a risk with a 60% success rate instead, and save them for later?

The game urges you not to worry about failure, however. Losing a challenge can present just as interesting a scenario as success, it states. This is excellent design, and so far, it’s upheld its promise. This sort of attitude is precisely what I want out of Tides. I want narrative, I want lore, and I want challenging choices, several of which I’ve already been faced with.

I’ve decided to lie to an entire cult, telling them I am indeed the incarnation of their god. I’ve taken it upon myself to save a man from being crushed to death by the fleshy, rope-like physical manifestation of his own death throes in a frankly bizarre method of public execution. I’ve befriended a woman whose form flickers and weaves around her in physical space, a result of her having bridged the gap between every possible version of herself in every possible reality.

Visions made flesh during a public execution

Tides has presented me with something interesting at every turn. I’ve been reading dialogue and narrative for five hours straight, with only one combat instance – required of me in the introduction – and I am nowhere near bored or burned out. If it weren’t so late, I’d keep going.

Tides throws a lot of text at you in huge chunks very early in the game. It can be daunting at first, but the quality of the writing brought it home for me. It’s a game that focuses heavily on narrative, worldbuilding, and story. It’s not a game about combat, and so far, it seems to be almost equally about the world around you as much as it is about you. My only gripe in this respect is that it feels as if Tides focuses almost too hard on making the protagonist a blank slate for the player. It succeeds in forcing the player to create personality in the game, but there’s very little oomph to the character itself to start with – it feels like a lack of vitality, almost. However, I’d rather have a blank slate than a pre-determined set of ideals and principles that I simply drive across pretty backgrounds.

Let me revisit the lack of combat so far – I cannot stress enough how happy I am that I haven’t been forced into combat scenarios. I’ve been able to talk or reason my way out of every conflict. Tides does an excellent job of offering branching options, clues, and ideas that can lead your character to alternative solutions for each problem.

Tides is also notable for not forcing you into a morality scale. Instead of alignment or morality points, Tides grants you a shifting affiliation with various things called, well, tides. Tides are an assessment of the sort of personality you’re presenting to the world, what that personality might typically strive for, and what sorts of people embody that personality.

For example, I’ve been locked into a combination of blue and silver for some time now. Blue means I seek and pursue knowledge and its power, while silver indicates a desire for renown and respect above all else – a bold presence demanding respect. This has no direct impact on your stats, quests, or dialogue options, though it effects how people interact with you on a more subtle level. This is a good thing. Games have a horrible habit of latching onto a morality scale and then forcing you to play in a very binary fashion. What if my concept of morality, or my character’s, doesn’t line up with the game’s extremely black and white scenarios?

Luckily, you can tell Tides is a world where things are never only just heads or tails. There seems to be several faces to everything, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tides is creative. It is creative in setting, in narrative and lore, and in mechanics and gameplay. I’m enchanted so far, in case it wasn’t apparent. Here’s hoping it continues to live up to the first five hours. The beginning has been a chaotic and beautifully crafted hodge-podge of science fiction, Grimm’s fairy tales, and the strangest fringe of pulp fantasy, and I’m eager to see more of the same.

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