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Torment: Tides Of Numenera – a worthyish successor

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Torment: Tides of Numenera is a game doomed to eternal comparison. Any game that attempts to don Planescape: Torment's kicks is bound to leave wiggle room in the toes, and it should come as no surprise that this holds true for Tides, yet it doesn't tell the full story.

Full disclosure on my failures as a “gamer” before we go too far: I haven't actually finished Planescape: Torment. I was certainly far enough through to understand deeply the nuances that make the game a classic, and — even unfinished — it is one of the most singular gaming experiences I've had. But alas, my save was erased in a moment of mysterious digital alchemy, leaving my journey through the planes without vinegar strokes, climax, or post-coital regret. Truth is, I'm never gonna finish busting that particular nut — that's just my nature.

This unsatisfactory termination of my relationship with Planescape has left me with an unresolved fetish for clever RPGs. Thus, after some meaningless trysts with Divinity's Original Sin games, and long, loveless pump-sessions with The Witcher 3, I wound up booting up Tides of Numenera in the hopes that I may finally find sweet release in its dense walls of text. What I found in the game's warm embrace was an eerily familiar-sounding question:

What can change the nature of a game?

The answer to such a question is never simple, but it's fair to say in the context of the Planescape games that the most obvious answer is the writing. I'm talking about that desire to tell a story that feels different, the elaborately-constructed multiverse that only feels vaguely Tolkien-derivative, the characters that seem to really contain multitudes, and — most importantly — that electric current that arced through every second dialogue in Planescape: Torment that was just as likely to shock you, make you laugh, or perhaps even contemplate HiGhEr IdEaS. You know, like, existence and stuff.

So, does Tides scratch that itch? The answer is a resounding, “…yes?”

Some of the magic is there. Moment-to-moment, the writing is oh-so-detailed and deals with a good range of fantasy/sci-fi tropes from unique and fun angles. The world-building is THOROUGH with a capital FUCK YOU to people looking for instant gratification. As a result, the first couple areas are underwhelming at first, but once you have a clear vision of what the game's aiming for you'll find yourself interacting with every clickable surface in the game, animate or its opposite, in a desperate search to uncover the world's — and your protagonist's — history.

This is the game's strongest pull. If you want to immerse yourself in the Ninth World by roleplaying as the conveniently-clueless Last Castoff, using his/her newborn status as a reason to ask intimate questions of everything that passes you by, Tides offers this experience in abundance. If this sounds like a bit of you, the game is well worth playing on this factor alone.

Where the writing loses a bit of its steam is in its characters, which is a sad and stark difference when put alongside what I experienced of Planescape. There are some interesting set-ups for a number of characters, perhaps the most interesting being Callistege's separation across realities, but — and this is particularly the case for your companions — these stories aren't really given their due. The amount of dialogue available between your and your companions is strangely limited, and there are very few occasions where they'll provide you with updates/insights on their stories. The best example of this phenomenon is Rhin. Much has been said about Rhin being “useless” in discourse following the game's release, but this criticism has been contextualised in gameplay/character stats, which I think misses the point of just how useless Rhin is as a character. Spoilers follow, but there's really not much to spoil (that's the point I'm driving at here).

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So Rhin is some poor, unfortunate orphan who you find in the rubble of a house who owns a rock that's also a God. She's also from another point in time, and has accidentally wound up in the current time. You learn this information in the first quest that involves her, and then (assuming you keep her in your party) her story stagnates until the last act. At this point, you send her home. She has a sweet, meaningless cameo at the end, where she is ten years older, and grateful for the time you've spent together. That's it. There was no greater mystery revealed, and no real arc to her character. Uh, I guess this could be considered subversive if you're peering at the issue through eyelids that are mere millimeters away from being shut entirely. Here's how: One of the major questions that Tides poses runs thusly: what is the value of a single life? With this context, the player's decisions regarding Rhin's wellbeing do hold some weight in the game. Are you willing to help the hopeless little orphan that is going to be no help to you in your main quest? An interesting question, and one that your companions may ask of you with a hint of derision ; your journey isn't exactly a safe one, therefore you're likely endangering her.

There's nothing wrong with this set-up for Rhin's story, and there's enough intrigue there to justify keeping her in your party. There are some fun questions we could explore within this narrative. The problem is that this ripe lemon doesn't get squeezed for its juice. It sits unused in the fruit bowl for long enough that it goes mouldy, and you feel nothing but bitter disappointment when you bin it. Beyond the roleplaying I was doing, I was given no reason to give a shit about Rhin after the first quest involving her came to an end, and the only option you have to be rid of her is to shove her through a portal to yet another time and hope for the best.

To a lesser degree, this conundrum played out for each of the characters I kept in my party (Callistege, Matkina, and Rhin). The ideas driving their storylines are never fully fleshed-out and confronted, making for an experience that feels incomplete. It's a bit disappointing that so much time and effort was put into making this world and its inhabitants so colourful and varied, yet not a lot actually seems to occur for secondary characters across the narrative's length. Tides feels like a game that could've had another 20 hours of companion quests tied into it without any risk of Black Isle Studios nerds saying, “Man, this RPG throwback is too long.” But hey, that would've taken more money and this shit was crowdfunded, so I won't dwell on that much longer.

The main plot doesn't suffer from the same neglect, and piecing together the sizeable chunk of narrative that separates (and connects) The Changing God and The Last Castoff is a good time. The Bloom is a setting that I'll not forget any time soon, and the various interactive flashbacks accessible through the merecasters provide some immersive context to The Changing God's personal journey. The labyrinth — it's totally like a maze in your mind, dude — is a cool idea that goes under-utilised. The last few confrontations between key characters feel a bit pulpy, and I thought that some of the choices presented near the end were kind of unclear in their implications, but I left the game quite satisfied with my experience.

Is Tides likely to be reflected on with the same reverence as Planescape? Absolutely not, but that's not really a fair question to ask. A fairer question to ask would be, does Tides take some of the essence of Planescape and utilise it to create a game with a depth that less and less games even bother to attempt? The answer is yes, with a caveat. Relative to your average contemporary RPG, the depth in worldbuilding is astounding without feeling excessive; but within the context of a game bearing the Torment label, the depth of its story/themes doesn't come close to the original. And I didn't even finish that game.

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