Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What greater power can one possess than the ability to cheat death itself, to escape the sharp edge of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, time after time? Such is the power of The Changing God, the main antagonist of inExile’s Torment: Tides of Numenera (TToN), a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment. As a Nano of unmatched skills, The Changing God discovered an ancient method of transferring his mind into new bodies of his own design, each faster, smarter and stronger than the last. Like a snake shedding its skin, a cast-off was born each cycle, a new consciousness occupying the now-discarded, unwanted vessel. You are the Last Cast-off, the latest of The Changing God’s creations, you’re plummeting through the atmosphere at terminal velocity, slowly realising the severity of your predicament, and you’re about to discover a painful truth - just like your master, you are immortal, facing an endless existence of torment. Brace for impact, as it will take more than just crashing into the Earth’s crust to end you.
Welcome to The Ninth World!
Much like the original Torment, TToN uses a tabletop RPG setting, in this case The Numenera, also known as The Ninth World, created by Monte Cook, a legend of D&D. What is The Ninth World, you might ask? Why, it’s Earth, except a billion years into the future. Many civilisations have risen to power and gone extinct over the course of time – nobody really knows how many, but nine is the general consensus. Each grew on the ashes of their predecessors, gradually changing the Earth’s landscape into a hodgepodge of mysterious technology, collectively called numenera. Naturally most it has fallen into disrepair, the original purpose of each device is usually unknown, but the current inhabitants of Earth make use of them in their own, creative ways. The entire setting draws heavily from Clarke’s Third Law – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and magic is probably the most apt word to use in reference to the numenera. The Ninth World’s societies haven’t progressed beyond the medieval stage, many of them are still tribal, and at the same time, they have access to untold wonders of technology that are so powerful they almost seem alien. Such a mishmash has drawbacks, of course - many people suffer from mutation due to exposure to unknown pathogens or genetic defects caused by the technology that surrounds them. Some make the best of their unique abilities and appearance resulting from such mutation, others are much less fortunate. The Ninth World is an incredibly interesting Sci-Fi Fantasy setting – to put it bluntly, in this world, anything goes. Not to look far for examples, the very first city you visit seems ordinary enough until you venture deeper into it and discover that it’s built upon the remnants of a crashed spacecraft and draws its power from its engines which are still running underground, in the Underbelly of the city, where the poor castes of society try to make ends meet by working under the guidance of ancient Artisan robots whose AI’s are fully functional, but their motor skills non-existent due to millennia of rust and crud gathered in their joints. Each location is unique and memorable, and each feels alive, each is teeming with NPC’s eager to chat and send you and your group of adventurers on quests and each changes depending on your actions throughout the game. If you’re looking for a setting in which anything can happen at any time, The Ninth World should interest you.
Like a Snake Shedding its Skin
The game begins with the scene of your birth, and it couldn't get any more climactic. You're falling from the sky like a shooting star, wind whizzing in your ears, and you can't help but think that this predicament may be hazardous to your health. As you progress through this introduction paragraph by paragraph, the game asks you questions on how you wish to proceed, and although your efforts are more or less futile, it allows the game to probe you a little bit and learn more about your character. Of course, all things that go up must necessarily go down at some point, and your body is no exception - eventually you crash through a glass dome of an unknown structure and wake up in a wholly unfamiliar, almost alien chamber. You don't know it just yet, but this is no ordinary cave - it's your own mind. As you traverse it, you make decisions which shape who you fundamentally are before you awaken in the real world once more. You see reflections of yourself, potential "you's", out of which you find the one that's closest to your idea of a hero. I have to say that I was quite impressed by this unusual character creation system, and although this segment is shortly followed by a standard points-by screen just to give you some extra freedom of choice, I must admit, TToN was pretty accurate in its estimation of my preferred character traits and proposed a hero that I almost immediately found attractive, which is a good sign. That being said, your mileage may of course vary, so your character will probably need some adjustments.
A brief introduction of the three main classes gives you a pretty good idea on which will be most appropriate to your playstyle
TToN features three basic character classes - Glaives, Jacks and Nanos, which are The Ninth World's equivalents of knights, rogues and mages. Those descriptions are not entirely accurate, but they're sufficient enough to understand. I personally went for a Jack, as I've always enjoyed playing characters who can get out of any situation, even if they're not "the best" at anything in particular. That, and I was planning to "talk" my way through TToN, and the game did not dissapoint, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Each character has a set of three core statistics - Might, Speed and Intellect, which describe the character's physical and mental aptitude. Each of those stat pools also has a degree of Edge, which translates to natural talent towards using certain skills which decreases the amount of Effort required to complete tasks. Effort is an interesting beast, as it flips the way combat normally works in video games on its head. Essentially, every action you perform in game, every attack or skill, requires you to spend points from your stats pools. For instance, a basic attack will cost you a point of Might or Speed. The Effort system allows you to spend more than one point from your pool in order to increase your chances of success or damage. This makes using your stats pool a highly strategic matter, as spending two points to get a high chance at hitting your enemy and causing additional damage may turn out to be a better move than hitting your enemy twice, but with a significant probability of missing and ultimately dealing less damage. Once your stats pools are set, you get to choose your abilities, skills and finally your descriptor, an adjective which narrows down exactly what kind of Glaive, Jack or Nano you are. TToN is very heavy on role-playing, so you need to plan ahead and imagine exactly what kind of a character you wish to become. For instance, if you want to be a Glaive, increasing your Might or Might and Speed stats pools and focusing on weapon-oriented skills rather than intellectual pursuits would be the obvious path to choose. Not that there's anything wrong with a smart Glaive - that could work too if you want it to work - the game gives you plenty of freedom to try out different builds. Don't worry - no matter what kind of character you create, TToN's gameplay allows for many different paths of progression, so let your imagination soar in this stage. Just as you finally manage to put your mind back together, you're immediately attacked by The Sorrow - your sire's mortal enemy who wishes death upon not just him, but all of his creations as well, and that includes you. This is your first encounter which lets you test your character and get used to the game's rather interesting combat system... which often times allows you to avoid combat altogether.
This one aspect of the game took me by surprise. When playing RPG's I tend to choose characters with a silver tongue and always attempt to avoid direct combat. TToN took this kind of approach to a new level, one that really played into my strengths, as within the first 15 hours I was in combat a total of three times, two of which were scripted battles which were unavoidable. That's not to say that I didn't get the opportunity to deal some justice (or injustice, if that's your preference) with the edge of my blade - I had plenty, I just talked my way out of them. It's really surprising to see a video game that allows you this much freedom in conflict resolution, and it makes sense why the creators used the word "crisis" instead of "combat" - dangerous encounters really are crises, and how you resolve them is entirely up to you. Most battles are preceeded by lengthy conversations with your would-be adversaries during which you can negotiate using your skills of persuasion, deception or intimidation, so if you're a player like myself, the game will most certainly give your charm a chance to shine. I found bloodless conflict resolution very satisfying, but even a sharp silver tongue needed to be accompanied with a sharp dagger. Actual combat is the standard turn-based affair, with each character having a chance to move and to attack or use their abilities, items and Cyphers, the game's equivalent of magic scrolls. You would think that as an immortal combat would be an exercise in wasting your time, but this is not the case - the outcome of many battles influences the in-game events. That, and under certain conditions you can in fact reach a Game Over screen - the fact that your body can regenerate does not mean that your mind cannot be obliterated, so don't feel comfortable with your deathless existence, as The Ninth World has fates worse than death in store for foolish adventurers. Overall the Crisis System is very competently made and satisfying, giving you ample freedom to resolve conflicts exactly the way you want. Although combat can become a bit of a chore at times with the game often throwing mobs of enemies at you, the multitude of available choices keeps it entertaining and challenging enough to hold your interest.
Your adventure begins in the Resonance Chamber, where you meet your first two companions, Aligern and Callistege. Although initially surprised that you’ve survived the fall, their demeanour changes once they notice the tattoo on your face, the mark of a Cast-off – that seems to explain everything. For them, not for you – you’re just a newborn with no understanding of what just transpired. This unlikely duo give you a quick brief on your sire and decide to help you find your bearings, creating your very first party. It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that the two hate each other and sooner or later you will have to choose who to side with, if anyone, which is a good introduction to party mechanics. Your companions have personalities, and with personalities come opinions. If your actions do not reflect their worldview, they begin to despise you and conversely, if you act according to their expectations, they will cherish your companionship. You can speak with them at any time, learn more about their past, their dreams, even their opinions on other members of your party, which comes in handy when creating a well-knit adventuring group. The game features a total of 6 recruitable companions, all of which can be encountered in the game's first location. Recruiting your preferred companions is incredibly important, as upon leaving Sagus Cliffs you will not be able to return, so choose wisely!
A World Dense with Content
From this point onwards you are free to explore The Ninth World with your companions, and my word, is it a joy to explore. As I've mentioned before, the game takes you on a wild ride across The Ninth World, and if you think you've played crazy games before, you haven't played TToN yet. To give you an example, one of the major in-game locations is a giant, carnivorous snail which harbors an entire populated city and features gateways, or should I say "maws", which require sacrifice in order to open - often times this entails human sacrifice. I am not joking. TToN is a game in which you can literally traverse the digestive system of a snail one minute and be on a space ship in the next, and for whatever reason it doesn't come across as jarring as you play. Many RPG's these days feature huge maps that are mostly barren - not TToN. inExile developers chose a different approach, creating smaller, but incredibly rich environments full of talkative NPC's, interesting quests and interesting backstories. I was a little surprised at how small in terms of sheer dimensions the first city was, that is, until I realised that I've spent over a dozen hours completing varied quests, none of which came across as the dreaded "fetch quests" of modern day. Almost every quest feels like a small, self-contained story within a bigger, overarching narrative, and finding out that many of them are in fact interconnected was incredibly satisfying to me. TToN rewards players who enjoy exploration, as there is something to find or someone to talk to in every nook and cranny. Technically you can rush right through the game by focusing on your main quests, but... how could you? There's so much to do and so much to see that I personally couldn't force myself to just ignore the wealth of content that I knew was in there ready to uncover, and even despite my best efforts I've a few bits here and there - I'll have to come back for a second serving.
As you explore the world, converse with NPC's and complete quests, your actions will affect the state of the titular Tides. The Tides are ripples in humanity's collective psyche, and as a Cast-off of The Changing God you are capable of not only sensing their fluctuations, but affecting or even controlling them with Tidal Surges. They function as the game's alignment system are divided into five colours, each representing different virtues and emotions the Blue Tide represents wisdom, the Red Tide is reflects passionate action, the Indigo Tide refers to justice and the greater good, the Gold Tide stands for charity and sacrifice and the Silver Tides indicates power and admiration. The Tides work as a background force and alter the world around you as well as the way you are perceived by others. Initially I was worried that rising the level of one Tide over another would be detrimental to my experience, but through gameplay I figured out that the game plays best if you stay true to your character and simply let the Tides flow. Personally I hoped that their significance would be bigger than in the final product as I didn't really feel their impact all that much, but perhaps it takes several playthroughs in order to see the difference they introduce to story branching.
Speaking of story branching, it's very complex. Every decision you make, from small selections in dialogue to bigger choices like your party selection influence the outcome of future events. On many occasions I found my companions throwing in their two cents in coversations or causing NPC's to react to their presence, and on one instance I encountered a quest that wouldn't even be triggered if I had a different party setup. The metagame goes so deep that sometimes failure at a given task yields better results than success. To name one such instance, I was fighting some cultists for the greater good and was bested in combat. You can only imagine their surprise when I got up shortly after dying, prompting them to worship me as a God. This gave me more than enough time to approach one of their leaders and... quickly snapping his neck before he could assess the situation. As you can imagine, the other cultists ran away, frightened, and thus I scored an unlikely victory that I thought was going to be a bitter defeat. This is to be expected, as the game was created by legends of the industry and its excellent writing shines through the game's imperfections, making it extremely captivating despite its text-heavy nature. It's clear that TToN is a game with a high degree of replayability and if you're into classic RPG's, you're bound to play it over and over just to experience the multitude of outcomes it offers.
Too Many Bugs Spoil the Broth
Lobotomised children? Check. Random NPC's who exist only to insult you? Check. Karate masters? Check. Lords of Carnage living in dark realms filled with otherworldly horrors? Check. Yup, this game has everything
Of course the game is not free of its shortcomings. TToN is a Kickstarter project and it's impressive to see a great game created with a limited budget pulling itself above the competition by its bootstraps, but it's also very clear that the main platform it was developed for was PC's. The interface on consoles, in my case the PS4, is cumbersome and unintuitive, which is detrimental to the overall experience. Rarely do I ever accidentally dispose of an item rather than using it or fail to scroll through a quest journal simply because the interface lacks adequate methods of input. The shortcomings go so far that on occasion text is overlaid on-top of other text or icons, making it completely unreadable. It takes a significant amount of time to get used to all the button inputs required to navigate your character sheet, inventory and journal, and even knowing all the inputs won't help with scrolling menus that are unresponsive or way too fast to control. The bugs don't end there - one of my party members had a tendency to randomly get back up after dying in combat just to stand there as an undying reminder of my poorly implemented strategy for the encounter. One time a Crisis Initiated indicator stayed on-screen after I was defeated in combat and used a save state, and getting rid of it entailed reloading my save state. I can only hope that future patches will fix these issues and that I experienced them only because I played a pre-release copy, but the issues were repeatable enough to become a concern. A shame, as they spoil an otherwise excellent game that's worthy of praise.
Another issue I had with the game was the relatively small number of equippable items. For starters, the armor worn by your companions cannot be altered - they can only equip shields, weapons and artifacts, so their appearance cannot be altered in any way. I suppose it lends to their individuality, but some form of upgradeability would've been a welcome addition. Most items you encounter in the game can only be used by the Last Cast-off, and even those are few and far between. The game focuses on the storytelling elements, so weapons and items are a bit of an afterthought, but the selection felt lackluster. This issue was supposed to be countered by the introduction of Cyphers, however those too are limited in supply, at least in my experience, and I found myself hoarding them rather than using them to my advantage. Perhaps I wouldn't feel this way if I didn't save items for a rainy day at all times, but still, I wish I had more to choose from.
An Unending Adventure for the Inquisitive Player
TToN delivers on its Kickstarter promises. Games like this wouldn't be made if not for crowdfunding, and I'm happy to see that projects like this get to see the light of day. This game is classic in every sense of the word, and it doesn't just emulate the games of the olden days - it takes advantage of new hardware while staying true to its tabletop roots, recreating the experience of role-playing right on your screen. Rather than just being yet another game about a hero saving the world, it's an adventure that focuses around the main character. You're not a hero per-se, you're just one of many, and you're simply trying to survive, which is a refreshing change. With its beautiful and rich environments, great music score and excellent writing, TToN deserves a spot in your library of role-playing games, and although it might be a little challenging, even intimidating for players new to the genre, it's well-worth a spot in your collection of RPG's. What kind of an immortal are you going to be? Is The Changing God a hero or a villain? What is The Sorrow, and how can you save yourself? Will you put the good of others over your own or will you be selfish, concerned with your own survival? The game does an excellent job depicting the struggle of an undying character facing near-certain oblivion, and it's worthy of carrying the mantle of Torment, continuing the legacy of its predecessor. The game poses an important question - "What does one life matter?", and it's your job to find the answer. What does your life matter? Make the best of it and find out.