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Pt. 2—Torment’s main story can’t live up to the thrills hiding in its margins

Screenshot: InXile Entertainment
Screenshot: InXile Entertainment

Welcome to our ongoing Game In Progress coverage of Torment: Tides Of Numenera. Over the next several weeks, William Hughes will be making his way through InXile’s ambitious spiritual sequel to cult-classic RPG Planescape Torment and occasionally reporting in to review what he’s seen. This second installment covers the areas between the game’s first and second hub cities. As always, we invite you to play and comment along as he makes his way through the Valley Of Dead Heroes and the placid sanctuary of Miel Avest.


The tricky thing about reviewing a game like Torment: Tides Of Numenera, one with so many potential stories embedded within it, is that I can only tell you mine. My character build, my chosen party members, my moral choices. I can’t give you the full picture, because I don’t have it. Don’t want it, even, at least not while I’m in the middle of experiencing that story for myself. In preparation for this installment of Game In Progress, I replayed a section of the game this morning—from my arrival in the Eden-like castoff sanctuary of Miel Avest, through a major conversational “boss battle” with one of the central characters of the game’s futuristic mythology—because I wanted to know how much give and responsiveness there was in the story’s structure. That’s an important thing to know in a game that prides itself on respecting player choice, but even so, I could feel the process sapping some of the joy from Torment’s beautifully executed writing and thoughtful moral questions. As I saw all the game’s possibilities laid out—and not just the ones I’d personally chosen—it stopped being my story and started being the story instead.

And I learned that story can be distressingly narrow in places. Replaying the section as a loutish, self-serving hedonist—the exact opposite of my character’s normally bookish and kind demeanor—did very little to alter the outcome of any of my encounters. I took a little damage and pissed some people off, but the end results were distressingly minor. In a sequence that contained some of the most dialogue-rich portions of the game’s main story, including repeated warnings about the importance of my decisions, and a verbal duel with one of its primary antagonists, my choices amounted to almost nothing in the end.

Admittedly, some of those choices were meant only for my own introspective benefit, to help me define who my version of The Last Castoff is for me. This is the sequence that offers up “What does one life matter?”—Tides’ take on Planescape Torment’s famed “What can change the nature of a man?” The answer to that question has to matter more in my head than it does in the game’s code. But when Tides puts such an emphasis on the resource management required to “win” conversations, railroading these plot-critical moments into an inescapable win is an irritating reminder of how little the player’s choices actually matter while they’re standing in the middle of it unspooling its long-term plot.

The game handles things better in the short-term, at least; there’s a massive boss battle/rescue attempt/desperate escape at the end of this week’s block that finally shows off how successful Tides’ Crisis system can be. With fires burning all around, and the game’s other Big Bad making a sudden, dramatic, and highly destructive appearance, the player’s choices crystallize into the quick and the meaningful. Fight off the smaller monsters or run for the exit? Risk yourself to rescue an unnamed NPC or leave them to suck up a few hits and die in your place? It’s tense, dangerous, and thrilling, even for characters not spec’d for combat. It’s also one of the first times the game’s battle system earns its “Crisis” name, giving the player far more to do than just whale on enemies or cast their psychically explosive spells.

And while the main plot can frustrate with its linearity, the side quests are still full of delightful branching weirdness. The first half of this week’s coverage, The Valley Of Dead Heroes, is essentially all side-quest. Ignore the piles of plot hooks left in your path, and you can clear the entire area in roughly five minutes. Do so and you’ll miss a trove of riches, like a three-faced man looking for a fourth mind to join his collective existence or bizarrely battle-scared veterans of an endless war in which time travel erases every win. There’s also an array of hundreds of tombs, mostly empty, but several with specific encounters hidden behind code-locked doors. The tombs, specifically, feel like a microcosm of the game’s occasionally claustrophobic scale, cramming tons of interesting content into areas that feel like they’d be more spread-out and sprawling in a game with a bigger budget or team.

The core of the Valley’s story is The Children Of The Endless Gate, a cult of pain worshipers who’ve taken the hive of tombs as their temporary home. The quest to break their control is Tides at its best, mixing detective work, moral philosophizing, and the potential for a staggering amount of violence in roughly equal parts. It doesn’t take long to determine that the cult’s leader, Inifere, is a castoff—a former body of the enigmatic Changing God, tossed aside when he was done with it—just like yourself. The game’s best side-quests (like the memory-haunting ghost woman from Part 1) always circle back to your mercurial progenitor and his lingering legacy on the world, and here, it comes in the form of a creature whose body was designed by its master to be in a state of constant suffering. Inifere’s unintentional martyrdom has earned him a crew of zealous followers, not to mention the attention of a host of demon-like beings that inhabit the Gate from which his group takes its name, and which threaten to break free and devour the world itself. Talking him down from his destructive planning is a long, thrilling duel of words, one made all the more exciting because of the potential for failure.

Most of the actual “fight” happens in a Mere—memory recording devices that break the game’s usual interface to play like text-based Twine games or a Choose Your Own Adventure-type book. As you move down the halls of Inifere’s greatest shames, the entire encounter feels like you’re walking on a razor’s edge, one where a single mistake could doom the fragile peace stopping you from getting sucked into a dimension of agony. It’s a marked contrast to the safety of the game’s main plot, where a similar conversational duel insulated the player from failure and the interesting new directions it could bring. Instead, the game’s side-quests remain open to the intoxicating thrills of fucking up, which is why Tides Of Numenera’s greatest pleasures live in the margins and not the center of the page—at least, for now.

Torment: Tides Of Numenera
Developer: InXile Entertainment
Publisher: Techland
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
Reviewed on: Windows
Price: $45 for PC versions, $50 on consoles
Rating: M

Purchase Torment: Tides Of Numenera here, which helps support The A.V. Club.


Stray observations

  • That wraps up this week’s coverage of Tides Of Numenera; next week, we’ll head into the Bloom, its second major hub area, and a biologically hostile area the game has been teasing since its opening hours. Hope to see you there!
  • For reference, I’m currently playing through as a Blue-Gold Tides Nano (which is to say, a nice-guy wizard who likes to ask a lot of questions). Per the game’s non-standard leveling system, I’m currently at Tier 4, a major power boost that’s shaved a lot of the rougher edges off of the game’s punishing combat.
  • I’m currently rolling with a party that includes the roguish Tybir, deadly assassin Matkina, and Rhin, who remains an 11-year-old girl. Sadly, Tides continues to underwhelm me with its surprisingly flat and static companions. Rhin is still my favorite; I dismissed her at one point during my “asshole” playthrough today, and her sobbing and begging not to be let go was one of the most emotionally evocative moments of the game so far.
  • My Best NPC Of The Week award has to go to the trio of adventurers you meet at the entrance to the tombs, one of whom—a villain so incompetent at evil that he always ends up doing the right thing—feels like a successor to Planescape’s miserably helpful demon Fhjull Forked-Tongue.
  • Reading minds remains incredible, and I can’t imagine playing the game without it.