8.25
10

Planescape Torment was two things. It was a game set in the weirdest, most wonderful setting where steampunk meets fairy tales, but it's not completely either of those things. A world where if you can dream it, it becomes real. But more than the setting, it was also about characters that go deep, and respond to one another, and feel real. All this, back at the turn of the century. 

Gamers loved it, and continue to wax lyrical about how groundbreaking, inspirational and just plain lovable it was. Stretching the Infinity Engine in glorious new ways to create something that only resembles stuff like Baldur's Gate in the loosest way, it showed us how thinking outside the box was possible in games development and RPG design. It was also a setting with thinking boxes. And worlds of pure thought. And worlds filled with floating boxes. 

But anyway. That was then, and this is now. Claiming that your game is the spiritual successor to Planescape Torment is like making a movie and claiming it's the follow-up to Citizen Kane. Of course, it helps that many of the creative team involved in Torment: Tides of Numenera and the tabletop RPG upon which it is based are the same people who designed Planescape Torment and the RPG upon which IT was based. 

 In some ways, this comes through strong. Really strong, like it's almost a carbon copy. There is a chap who speaks in cant, dwellings in a giant ribcage, and a law-obsessed faction who unlock secrets through deep study - all features of the Planescape setting. Your character is special and can't truly die, and he's facing off against an unimaginably powerful enemy, which will sound like familiar tropes to anyone familiar with the original game. And the writing.

Oh, the writing. Because if Pillars of Eternity seemed a little thin on text for your taste, or perhaps a little simplistic and combat-heavy... well, here's Torment. There is so much text it'd perhaps be better reviewed as a work of literature than as a videogame. Some of this text is quite simply some of the best I've read. Not just in videogames, but in anything. Poetic, thought-provoking and intense, occasionally it drew unprovoked groans of amazed pleasure from me in a way other games really haven't. Characters are deep in ways that most other games can't really match. Even the fun, one-dimensional NPC companions who accompany you through the game have incredible depth and are never, ever quite what they seem on the surface. Torment doesn't so much have plot twists so much as that the entire thing writhes. Nobody tells you the whole story. Certainly at first this can be draining and challenging - you'll really understand next to nothing in the first couple of chapters, and are forced to piece together the past and present from unreliable pseudo-memories, biased accounts and the classic storyteller's device 'show, don't tell'. In fact, for a game so dense with worldbuilding and history there is very little reliance on in-game books and encyclopedias to explain what's going on. You discover it by investigating the artifacts of bygone civilisations firsthand. 

The world itself is intriguing and certainly allows its imagination to run wild, but I must confess I didn't find it moved me quite as much as the Planescape setting. You mileage may vary, as I am something of a Planescape fan. 

That's where the world of Torment: Tides of Numenera differs from the fundamentally fantasy setting of Planescape. Set in the Ninth World, the setting of Tides of Numenera predicates on the aphorism that all technology, if sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. Set a frankly ridiculous billion years into the future, the Ninth World is what is left after eight other major civilisations have come, spammed the world with weird technology, and then gone. While the world has now regressed to a level of tech not really much beyond the typical fantasy RPG world, there are many weird and whimsical things pretty much everywhere for you to puzzle through. As much of this strangeness is communicated through text, sometimes it can be a little difficult to understand exactly what you're looking at. When a character is described as 'not exactly there', you certainly have a little cognitive room to move. This feeling of confusion is, I believe, part of the charm and a conscious design decision. 

So as a work of interactive fiction, it's sublime. As a videogame, it has a few issues. Torment has taken the brave and frankly long overdue decision to portray most combat encounters as something more than just bashing your enemies. As well as some quirky new combat techniques (I particularly love causing my enemies to suffer transdimensional damage - I mean, what does that even mean?) there are often ways to complete a crisis (which is what Torment calls fights) without fighting. Sometimes it can be as simple as having a certain character talk it over with the enemy leader, other times you may be able to use the environment to distract your enemies. Or, you know, try to get them to an area of the battlefield where an unknown, disembodied mouth occasionally appears and sucks them in. Whatever. While this is a great idea and allows non-combat characters plenty to do as well as converting each encounter into a kind of slow-burn puzzle, it's not always handled in the perfect way through the interface. Judging how far your character can move and where exactly everyone is in the battlefield can be unnecessarily confusing, and sometimes the special features that make each combat encounter special are not incorporated in a wonderful way. Even straightforward combat encounters could have maybe been polished a little. 

But if you're playing it for the combat encounters... Well, it might be time for a rethink. This is a weighty, memorable paperback novel of a game, not a lightweight action RPG. Make sure that's something you understand before getting into Torment. 

Once you understand that, however, I've not got much bad to say. Time will tell if it hits the market with the impact that Planescape: Torment had. I would guess not, just due to the games industry being a different beast these days. But in quality of writing, and in its ability to make you care about characters and force you kicking and screaming to actually think about things like good and evil, and the value of life, Tides of Numenera is every bit on a par with its illustrious ancestor.