You’re standing in front of a mechanical goat. Flames pour from every orifice and from deep inside it, you can hear a strange mouse-like squeak for help. Do you: plunge your arm up to the elbow inside the goat to pluck out the mouse? Throw your remaining Pepsi Max over the flames? Or do you ignore the situation entirely and move on to a PS4 game that combines all the beloved traits of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or an old Text Adventure wrapped up in a staggeringly good RPG?
Just to be clear, there’s no goat. I made that bit up. You are the Last Castoff, the last body inhabited and discarded by the Changing God, a being who has harnessed immortality by creating living vessels that he can posses. The game begins with you falling from the sky with absolutely no idea why and who you are. See, the problem with the Castoffs is that when the Changing God switches to a new body, a separate and new consciousness is left behind. That’s your basic story, but everything else becomes about legacy. Your legacy. What will you do with your life? Who will you be? What does your life matter?
Torment: Tides of Numenera is very much a story-based game. To give you an example of this, I took thirty five hours to complete the game and in that time I could count the battles I fought on two hands. Why? Well, partly because the game is geared towards story, but also because that’s how I chose to play it. I mentioned Legacy earlier. This new body is yours and if you want to avoid a fight, generally, there will be a more peaceful solution. I didn’t want my Last Castoff to be remembered as a fighter.
How you act affects the Tides around you. The Tides are unseen forces that inhabit the world, and the choices you make not only shape your legacy but they affect how other characters react and behave around you. There are five Tides that represent reason, empathy, passion, justice and power. If you take action and draw your sword the red passion Tide may begin to swing in your direction. If you help a child, spare a life or perform an act of charity or selflessness, the gold empathy Tide will begin to kick in. These Tides build up over the course of the game and your dominant Tides will form your final legacy.
Tides can only shift when you make a decision yourself and pretty much every interaction you make will give you choices. Think about the decisions you make in the Telltale games. Should you sneak, should you tell a lie, steal, deceive, intimidate, kill? Imagine all those decisions and then times them by a few hundred. While the story does follow specific paths, how you walk down them is entirely up to you from the beginning right up to the very end. Everything is your choice. Be a bit of shitbag who betrays his friends (or even kills them), if you want. Be greedy and hungry for fame. Be a selfless being who puts himself or herself last. Or, if you really fancy it, be all of those things. Life isn’t black and white and neither are the choices on offer. Play however you want, watch the Tides shift and by the end you’ll see what kind of life you really had.
If you’re looking for a lot of action, you’re not going to get it from this game. Every click of the X button feels like the turning of a page in a fantasy novel. The writing is sublime. Have a look at some of our screenshots here and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a level of depth here that I have not seen before on the PS4. Every character you meet has a background, a story, and something to add to the world you are exploring. It’s easy to spend hours on just a single area purely because there’s so much to learn, and all of it brilliantly written. If you like your science fiction and/or fantasy novels this game is heaven on a glowing nano staff.
If, of course, you’re not expecting to read an entire novel while you play, you might be forgiven for thinking the pacing is rather slow. It’s not for everyone, but if like me, you like your story above all else, the pacing will feel just right. The game does a great job at letting you do your own thing, unravelling the mysteries of the Changing God and your own purpose in your own time and in your own way, but at the same time it keeps the narrative flowing ever forwards. Now considering the sheer amount of side quests and dilly-dallying you can do, this is somewhat of a miracle, but one way that it successfully controls the flow of the story is by shutting off areas once the main story is done with them. You will be warned that you cannot return, and then all undone side-quests that rely on a particular area will fail as you move forwards. At first this does seem disappointing, particularly if you’re a side quest junkie, but what it effectively does is leave behind anything that’s now irrelevant. Think about it, why would you still be trying to find and return a silly borrowed book when you’re in the midst of a world-defining moment of decision making. As the narrative moves forward, so do your priorities. It works.
Torment’s combat is of the turn-based variety. There’s no grid and you can move your characters wherever you want within their own limits. It does feel a little imprecise at first and because the battles are so few it can take quite some time to truly master the best way to tackle them. Depending on what type of character you’ve chosen and which companions you’ve decided to take along for the ride, your tactics can vary enormously. For example if you’re a Nano (a sort of sci-fi wizard) your strength is in the numenera, the ancient technologies left behind by previous civilizations. If you’ve found or bought Cyphers (handheld numenera weapons), these can be used with devastating effect in a combat situation. However, they are single-use, so it’s extremely important to use them tactically. Nanos are also pretty good at using the environment to help them in battle.
Battles, while fun, can be a little slow. Some enemies seem to take an age to decide who they are going to pick on, and when you’ve got around fifteen characters involved, the time it takes to wait for your turn can feel frustrating. When combat is initiated, it’s important to remember that attacking isn’t always your only option, and actually the game is careful to call this exciting moment a Crisis, rather than merely FIGHT. Even with your characters all lined up for a barney, you can still sometimes talk your way out of it. If you check the objectives on the screen it will tell you what you need to do to resolve the Crisis. If you haven’t got much of a silver tongue but you’ve built a more techy character, it’s also sometimes possible to settle the Crisis via some button-pushing, stealth or quick and decisive movement. Crisis, doesn’t always mean combat.
Character-building is always a favourite part of an RPG, and Torment’s stat system feels original, nicely complex and hot diggity damn spiffing good fun. It is, unfortunately, a little unintuitive. Even with the tutorials, it can take a while to get the hang of what you’re doing. It’s very different to any standard RPG affair, but once you’ve cracked it, you’ll realise what genius it is.
At the beginning of the game you can chose whatever character build you want. Nano, tough guy Glaive, adventurous Jack, male or female. You can also add a personality type such as clever or charming etc. These choices will allow you to pick different skills that you can can train in. Perception, intimidation, quick fingers, running, machine or natural lore, heavy weapons. One of my chosen skills allowed me to read the minds of anyone I was talking to so that I could gauge lies, needs and a better idea of how to deal with that individual.
Depending on your character type you will be assigned different amounts of points to three stat pools: Might, Speed and Intellect. These pools are vital to making a successful choice. For example, if you want to quickly steal something from right under a character’s nose, you can spend Speed points which will determine your likelihood of swiping without getting caught. As you earn XP points and level up through a system of Tiers you can add points to these pools, gain maximum Effort (which is how many points you can spend at once) and gain an increasing Edge (which allows you to increase your chances without needing to spend quite as many points).
It’s a fun levelling system and, unusual for an RPG, it doesn’t require any grinding. I know, shocking! There are only four Tiers to progress through and each time you fill a quarter of a Tier with XP points you are allowed to choose an upgrade from improving skills and abilities to adding extra Effort or Edge to a chosen pool. When you hit a new Tier you can choose some new abilities to learn. As you progress you essentially build your character in whatever way you want in order to play how you want more successfully and carve out your own legacy. Levelling up isn’t necessarily about becoming physically strong. If you’re not a fighter but a talker, you can stack your abilities to match with no worries that you’re going to come unstuck later in combat. Even the final ‘boss’ Crisis can be talked through if that’s the way you want to play it.
While Torment looks, and in many ways behaves, like an RPG, in reality it has just as much in common with the point and click genre. You talk, you investigate, you look for items and people and you immerse yourself up to your neck in a story. There’s no such thing as being underpowered. You should be able to tackle any part of the game at any time. Torment doesn’t want to kill you, and in fact if you do die or fail, it could turn out to be beneficial. There are always other ways, and your status as an immortal Castoff means that you never truly die. When you are cut down, be it by a sword or drinking too much Bloom Juice, you re-appear in a construct called the Labyrinth. I won’t say too much about this place, but death does have a few advantages and adds a new dimension to your adventure.
A single playthrough took us thirty five hours. This included undertaking many side quests and exploring every nook and cranny. Still, that’s thirty five hours at “reviewing speed” which is always a little faster than normal. If we were playing purely for pleasure with our feet up and our pyjamas on, we’re confident we could have added another ten hours. This is definitely one of those games that at the end makes you want to start all over again. Torment has huge potential for replayability. Every playthrough can be tackled differently and you’ll consequently experience a different game and choose a different outcome. Nothing forces you down any path. You make your own life and live with what comes next.
Performance-wise, we did experience some a few disappointing framerate issues. Do bare in mind we played the pre-release version so hopefully these drops can be sorted with a quick patch. In any case, it’s not a deal-breaker. You’re spending most of your time reading text anyway, and anything in-between is very much secondary. In our thirty five hours we experienced four crashes (always in combat, interestingly). The game has a frequent Auto Save system so any crash, while annoying, won’t break your soul in two. You can also save separate files whenever you like, and we would recommend you do that as a precaution. We experienced an issue with the autosave in the very last section of the game. An on-screen message frequently informed us that the file was corrupted and it was unable to autosave. After a brief heart attack it seemed that this corruption was not gamebreaking, nothing crashed and we were able to save manually as per normal. Phew! Talk about turning a girl gray!
The graphics, while not state-of-the-art, are pretty nice. You can zoom in and out and the text can also be made bigger or smaller depending on your needs. Each new area you visit looks very different from the last. A lot of care has been taken to extend the world-building from the written page into the environment around you, and there’s no environment more freakish, outlandish, yucky and yet enticing than the Bloom. Although I wouldn’t want to go there for a weekend mini-break, it was a fun place to explore and its a testament to the writers and the graphic artists and programmers that the Bloom is so bizarrely believable.
Even with its colourful and reasonably up to date graphics, Torment has a distinctly old school feel at its heart. It’s a throwback to the text adventures of the eighties, when gameplay was literally all about the story and the player was in total control. Torment: Tides of Numenera has breathed new life into this genre proving that even more so than the Changing God, the text adventure is truly immortal.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is an essential RPG for anyone who likes a lot of story. Every click of the controller feels like the turning of a page in a novel. Its depth is staggering and the story beautifully written. It’s like stepping into the worlds of Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov or Ursular K Le Guin. The beauty is in the tiniest of details nestled within a huge backdrop of history and lore. The world of Torment: Tides of Numenera is a stunning world brought to life.
SJ Hollis Rating – 9/10
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