With All Your Power
HIGH Stepping out into the Reef of Fallen Worlds for the first time.
LOW A bug that can lock the game up during its best sidequest.
WTF A delightful Easter egg in the Sagus Cliffs bar.
Planescape: Torment was an Infinity Engine RPG from 1999 that famously allowed players to sidestep most of the combat. In contrast to the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the era, Planescape put action in the backseat so it could focus on building one of the most detailed universes in videogame history. It confronted players with powerful questions about mortality and existentialism. Some games test reflexes, but that one tested the intellect. So, when I describe its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera, as “challenging,” understand that I’m not using standard videogame vernacular.
In fact, I can confirm that, outside of the tutorial, it’s possible to complete Torment without once swinging a weapon. Rather than standard measures of difficulty, the challenge comes from the amount of information that players are expected to process while piecing together this alien world and finding the outline of their morals. It’s a mentally taxing game – one that I endured with many cups of coffee – but as with its predecessor, it’s ultimately a puzzle worth solving.
Besides Planescape: Torment, the team was also inspired by a tabletop game called Numenera, set on Earth a billion years in the future, now known as the Ninth World. As civilizations have risen and fallen, the planet has become something of a landfill of ruins stacked on top of each other. The word “numenera” specifically refers to relics of old societies, enhancing modern life even though their origins and purposes have been lost to time. One character suggests that the very dirt we’re standing on is an amalgamation of ancient technologies, buzzing with mysterious energies.
With a billion years’ worth of history having piled up beneath their feet, the current society has developed an obsession with preservation and legacy. Various institutions have experimented with ways of retaining the memories of the deceased, and one man, the Changing God, seems to have thwarted mortality by continuously transferring his consciousness to new bodies. When an old host is disposed of, that “castoff” takes on a life of its own.
We play as the Last Castoff. He can influence others and access memories of his predecessors, and so, much like Planescape’s protagonist, he’s haunted by visions of countless previous lives. Prior castoffs still thrive in society, all coping with their own identity crises. Many have split into factions over their loyalty to their “sire” whose whereabouts are unknown, and their ongoing war takes a toll on the Ninth World.
Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle for most players will be Torment’s presentation. The project was conceived by a number of the original Planescape developers, who considered that story finished but wanted to design a new game that touched on a number of the same themes. Torment is unquestionably faithful, perhaps to a fault, as little effort was made to modernize the formula. The interface is convoluted and rather unsightly, and at least 90% of the player’s time is spent reading text. When a character so much as makes a gesture, that action is portrayed via narration rather than animation. As someone who grew up on BioWare and Black Isle games, this was only a minor adjustment for me, but I’d advise anyone unfamiliar with Infinity Engine titles to know what they’re getting into.
Real-time combat in the old Infinity Engine games was a messy affair, and developer inXile was wise to switch to a tactical turn-based system. It’s fine. Functional. Standard. But Torment’s draw is that it can be bypassed. The three basic stats that aid characters in combat can also be applied in conversation trees, often to more rewarding effect. Maybe speed can be used to pickpocket a person, or intellect can be exercised for persuasive purposes. Non-violent solutions can be found. Alternate paths can be opened. People can be manipulated.
As a result, I finished Torment without ever once attacking. I counted three or four instances in which I was forced into a combat scenario, but even in those cases, I could just run away. The battle system is even occasionally used for non-combat purposes. In one fantastic sequence, I had to coordinate a heist by distracting a security guard with one of my characters while another stole a valuable item, all using the turn-based interface.
The purpose of making combat optional, of course, is to turn eyes toward the magnificent world that inXile has constructed. The first area in particular is a treasure trove of oddities, where seemingly every NPC has a different origin story and a few juicy nuggets to add to Torment’s fascinating lore. Here’s a man who reproduces by amputating limbs; there’s a race of insect people who communicate by emitting scents. Every conversation is a new journey, and it all adds a tremendous level of context for the choices the Last Castoff is eventually confronted with in this strange place.
Throughout the adventure, players are pursued by a dark, tentacled mass called the Sorrow. Although initially assumed to be an apocalyptic force, the Sorrow poses no threat to most of the Ninth World’s inhabitants – it just wants to destroy the castoffs, and its motivation for doing so is unknown. In a universe overrun with absurdity, what about the Changing God’s ongoing experiment is so unnatural that it summons the might of a Lovecraftian horror to balance the scales?
As it turns out, the Last Castoff’s ability to influence people serves a greater function than simply allowing players to choose between multiple routes — it’s the result of the Changing God having continually improved upon his hosts with each transition, making the Last Castoff is his greatest and, potentially, most dangerous creation. Since the dev team has shifted their genre from fantasy to science fiction, we know that despite how outlandish the Ninth World is, it still abides by rules and actions spawn reactions. Torment‘s protagonist is defined not by good or evil, but by more realistic instincts – to be empathetic or just, to be driven by logic or emotion. We build our own character, and then Torment studies how this world benefits (or doesn’t) from being manipulated by such a person.
There was a recurring question that came up in Planescape: Torment, and Numenera has one of its own: “What does one life matter?” As we dive into the memories of other castoffs, we see how their actions have rebounded throughout history, and how our own might do the same. The game’s final encounter (which doesn’t need to be a boss battle if the player isn’t looking for one) invites rumination on the impact that one life had.
Numenera ended when the credits rolled, but in my mind, the story is still going. That wouldn’t be possible without top-level writing and world-building – the kind that sucks me into its universe regardless of technical shortcomings. In other words, it’s the perfect follow-up to Planescape: Torment, as thought-provoking, mature and challenging as its predecessor. For those who like their sci-fi more than a little weird, I can’t recommend it enough.
Disclosures: This game is developed by inXile Entertainment and published by Techland Publishing. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 31 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains blood, language, sexual themes and violence. This one is pretty mild as M-rated games go. There are a few bursts of gory violence that probably justify the rating, but due to the game’s archaic look, nothing’s depicted in explicit detail. I think teens can handle this one.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based and sound cues never play a vital role in the game. This one is 100% playable without sound.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.