Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
This review will avoid major spoilers.
Torment: Tides of Numemera launched as a Kickstarter campaign back in March of 2013, was funded in only six hours, and would eventually go on to become the highest-funded videogame Kickstarter ever. Part of its success can be attributed to the general nostalgic hunger for isometric RPGs that drove Pillars of Eternity to crowdfunding success (and is doing the same for its sequel), but there's one important difference. Where Pillars was invoking roughly "mainstream" fantasy games like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, Torment: Tides of Numenera is explicitly a "spiritual sequel" to Planescape: Torment, a 1999 cult-classic D&D RPG which featured one of gaming's all-time greatest stories and most interesting settings.
So between its Kickstarter success and the weight of nostalgia, Tides releases with significantly more baggage than your average RPG. Fortunately the game succeeds in far more areas than it fails, and the result is a title that is worthy of discussion alongside the original Torment—and that's an enormous compliment.
An immortal hero exploring strange worlds
Due to legal weirdness, the Tides team (which includes several people who worked on Torment) was able to secure the rights ot the "Torment" name but not the Planescape setting. Fortunately, someone had the bright idea to set Tides in the stunningly creative Numenera setting from Monte Cook (one of the designers of the Planescape setting), which is every bit as satisfying and surprising to explore.
Players in Tides take on the role of "The Last Castoff," the latest body created by a powerful being known as "The Changing God." The world is full of Castoffs, bodies created and then abandoned by this mysterious figure, and they're all being pursued by a sinister creature known as The Sorrow, which seems determined to kill the Castoffs permanently.
Tides does a great job of echoing many of the major story themes of Torment in a new way, and we get sort of a Bioshock/Infinite lighthouse vibe from the "immortal protagonist seeking answers about his past while fleeing deadly supernatural forces" plot. There are some smaller references to Torment spread throughout the game as well (including NPCs who refer to your character with the name "Adahn") but you won't feel like you're missing anything if you never played the original title.
Though...you should totally play Planescape: Torment. Seriously. Why haven't you done that yet?
There are only three main "hub" areas in Tides, which leaves it feeling a little cramped compared to the multiverse-spanning adventures of Torment, but the areas all boast outstanding visual details, plentiful sidequests, and mountains of lore. Most of the game's final third unfolds in a city inside the Bloom, which is a gigantic nightmare organism made up of flesh, teeth, and tentacles. This area features the game's very best content, and will probably be what people remember most years down the line when they talk about Tides.
Say goodbye to Dungeons and Dragons
For all the weirdness of the original Torment, its core rule system was actually a stripped-down version of the same Dungeons and Dragons ruleset that drove Baldur's Gate and similar titles. Tides, on the other hand, is based on the Numemera tabletop game, and as such features a character creation and advancement system that might be a bit hard for new players to grasp.
Characters in Tides have three main stats, Might, Speed, and Intelllect, and players can spend points in these different stat "pools" to help increase their odds of success in various tasks and during combat. There are also skills and abilities (which each have varying levels of mastery) that you select from and improve as you level up. The total pool of different abilities to choose from isn't enormous, but it's large enough that you're not going to see everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough.
Traditional RPG classes of Warrior, Rogue, and Wizard become Glaive, Jack, and Nano in Tides, and this translation is an example of the barrier to entry the game presents which might make it a struggle for new players. The story of Tides unfolds in a world most players won't be familiar with at all, full of strange vocabulary. That vocabulary also shows up throughout the rules of the game, which means you'll need to learn that "esotery" means a magic spell and a "numenera" is basically a magic item when it refers to an object.
Other items, called "oddities," have so much lore attached to them that they all seem important, but it turns out they are mostly just for selling for cash. These oddities are infinitely more interesting than the standard vendor trash you pick up in RPGs, but realizing you are just supposed to sell them is another patch of learning curve you need to overcome.
There will be quite a few gamers who play the first hour or two of Tides and just bounce off, overwhelmed by its weirdness and unengaged by its charms, which can take a while to show themselves. This is the kind of game where you have to discover how to kill your main character in each new area you explore, in order to explore the Labyrinth space that exists in your immortal character's mind. That's the place you go in between deaths, and there's at least one object in each hub world that you can interact with to send you there, but before I figured that out I spend a few hours frustrated with the game, wondering why there wasn't just a "Kill self" dialogue option always available.
So it's a weird game, is what I'm saying. And by the end I was loving its weirdness, but it took a little while for it to grow on me.
An RPG that actually allows you to avoid combat?
Story-first role-playing games often like to boast about how players can talk their way out of fights, or how combat is just one of the many exciting things you can do, and blah blah blah. Regardless of intentions, you still spend a ton of your time fighting in most role-playing games.
That's not the case with Tides. I don't think I've ever played an RPG that de-emphasized combat as much as this game does. Even the original Torment was packed with fights compared to Tides. And even when fights do break out in Tides, they unfold using the game's "Crisis" system, which often allows for dialogue, item use, or environment interaction that's more important than simply whacking your enemies with swords.
One Crisis, for example, involved sending a few members of my party along with a tour guide to ask questions and distract him while my other characters attempted to steal a valuable item. If things had gone poorly a fight would have broken out, but instead it was simply a tense, skill-focused, non-combat Crisis.
Most quests involve some combination of social interaction, puzzle solving, and skill use, rather than combat. I encountered around twenty "Crisis" moments during my twenty hour playthrough of Tides. And while there could have been more if I had played differently (my Intellect-focused character often found a way to avoid conflict) or pursued every sidequest in the game, the game is still going to be too combat-light for some tactical RPG fans.
Get ready to read!
Just like the original Torment, Tides is a game that requires a lot of reading. Voice acting is rare, and limited to the game's main character and companions, so your eyes are going to do be doing the work as you learn about the world and your character's place in it. This will require some adjustment for many players, as you'll need to fight against your tendency to skim and select responses too quickly, but the game does a good job of noting most quest-cirtical information in your journal.
Philisophical questions of identity are at the center of Tides, and play out in the game's innovative morality system. Your choices raise your character's rating in one of five different "Tides," which reflect priorities such as independence, peace, and justice, rather than "good" or "evil," and reminded me of the different colors in Magic: The Gathering. Your Tide rating never prevents you from taking a specific action in the game, but a loadscreen tip screen advises that your dominant Tide may cause some events to play out differently.
The biggest issue with Tides' story is that it can be hard to follow, both because there's so much lore to sift through and because so many of the characters you encounter have some sort of amnesia or identity crisis. Many characters, including the Last Castoff, aren't quite sure which of their memories are real, and once you take into account mutiple personalities and memory-storying devices which have the ability to alter the past you have a plot that can border on confusing at times.
But things straighten out for the game's home stretch, leading up to one of the most intriguing ending choices in game history. We'll avoid spoilers here, but in much the same way as the original Torment it's hard to call any of the endings of Tides the "good" ending, since everything about the game's central conflict is so morally grey.
After making my final choice I was left thinking about it for hours afterwards, unsure if I had done the right thing. The ambiguity was a little unsatisfying at first, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this uncertainty was exactly what you want from a game as thought-provoking as Tides.
Tides ends with text descriptions of the larger impact of the choices you made throughout the game, including paying off many sidequests. I always love to see this in games, and I'll be interested to see the different ending permutations people get as they make their own paths through Tides.
Minor bugs and missing content?
The pre-release version of Tides I used for this review had some technical hiccups, including a handful that stopped the game in its tracks or prevented quests from being marked complete in my journal. Fortunately the game's frequent auto-saves meant I never lost any significant progress, but it was still annoying when it happened. The game will have a day one patch that will hopefully fix many of these issues, and if the game changes enough to warrant an update to this review I'll do just that.
It's also worth noting that another writer playing the pre-release code on the PS4 experienced significnatly more technical problems, including frame rate issues and lengthy load times. We'll have to see if those technical problems are addressed with a day one patch or not, but it seems as though the console experience for this title may be significantly worse than playing the game on PC.
Because Tides was a Kickstarter game, the question of promised vs. delivered content is something that should be addressed (and something that was already in the news in the months prior to release), but for the review score below I'm judging the title purely on what's in the game, not on what may have been planned before being cut.
Some areas of the game do feel a little shallow. My experience with the Castoff's Labyrinth didn't seem anywhere near as richly detailed as what seemed to be planned during the game's crowdfunding campaign. The pool of possible companions feels a little small too, though each one is unique and offers interesting gameplay and story possibilites (especially Rhin, a young girl you can effectively adopt who has significantly lower skills than any of the other companions).
All things considered, though, Tides feels like a complete, if strangely assembled, game. You'll find surprising depth in some areas while other aspects aren't developed quite as much as it feels like they should be, but the total package is a huge success. Commit to learning the game's vocabulary and don't let yourself get overwhelmed by lore at the game's beginning, and you'll be richly rewarded.