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Torment: Tides of Numenera's Preview - Immersive Story With Miles to Go

TJ Hafer | 26 Jan 2016 16:00
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The dozen hours of Torment: Tides of Numenera's early access build made me feel like an important person in an intriguing, deep, wholly unfamiliar fantasy world... trying to fight off a hangover while navigating the dangers and pitfalls with angry badgers strapped to my feet. The quality writing you'd expect from the likes of Chris Avellone, Patrick Rothfuss, Colin McComb, and George Zeits is all there. The wonder and beautiful weirdness of Monte Cook's Ninth World is all there. But the build is, put bluntly, a technical mess. And that got in the way of almost everything I tried to do.

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To be fair, inXile is very up-front about this fact. I was warned before even rolling a character that many features, characters, and stories were missing. I was warned that the encounter balance and interface are at a "first pass", which definitely shows - especially in the latter case. Simply bringing up menus often caused the game to hitch for three to five seconds. Area maps were commonly off-center and full of transparency glitches. Worst of all, almost every item I looted failed to show up in my inventory, forcing my character to fight with bare fists and a t-shirt throughout. That is, until I ran into a bug where every combat would freeze right after rolling initiative, which saved me from being under-equipped for battle, but prevented me from being able to complete a lot of the content.

While there are things that don't work every step of the way, there are also, encouragingly, just as many things that do. For instance, the opening sequence put me through an entertaining, practical ordeal and a series of nuanced, hypothetical scenarios to determine my character's starting class, abilities, and alignment to one of Numenera's five Tides: overarching moral attitudes that exist in the world as literal, active forces.

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The Tides replace the old school Dungeons and Dragons alignment system used in the original, Planescape-based Torment game, and I like them quite a bit better. Rather than rating you on axes of "Good vs Evil" and "Law vs Chaos", each tide represents a more organic and morally relative attitude and approach to life. Red is fiery and passionate. Indigo and Gold both incorporate elements of sacrificing for the greater good. I ended up aligned most strongly to Blue, which is all about curiosity and gaining knowledge, and Silver, which is about changing the world and performing great deeds for the sake of glory. My character wanted to be brilliant, and make sure everyone knew just how brilliant. It feels much more natural and diverse, and avoids pigeonholing you into the archetypical "Chaotic Good Robin Hood" or "Lawful Neutral Judge Dredd" roles that tend to arise with the old system.

At least in its current state, the interface keeps your relationship to the Tides opaque. Dialogue options don't tell you which Tide they will pull you towards, and your character sheet has no indication of which Tides you embody most strongly. There is an ally character you can visit from time to time to get a sort of alignment check-up, but the information is not available on the fly. If this remains the case in the final game, I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet. On one hand, I do like the idea of simply making the choice I want to make, rather than looking for "the Red one" or "the Silver one", and seeing where the chips fall. On the other, such indicators can sometimes lend you a clearer idea of what certain dialogue options are actually implying, which can be a useful roleplaying tool.

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Considering inXile made Wasteland 2, a fantastic, turn-based tactical RPG, I had high hopes for the turn-based, tactical combat in Torment. At this stage, it feels more than a bit messy and annoying, but a large part of that came from my inability to equip items and the various bugs that cropped up. The silver lining is that, in true Planescape: Torment fashion, combat is almost always avoidable through diplomacy and clever skill use. There are also clear efforts being made to give non-combat characters something besides fighting to do in encounters (which are called "crises", instead of battles, to emphasize this point, and sometimes don't involve fighting at all), such as activating arcane devices to split the enemy party off from their reinforcements. But I spent so much time using my silver tongue to sidestep encounters before they got started that I didn't have a lot of opportunities to see this in action.

One of my favorite elements was the introduction of Meres - choose-your-own-adventure-style asides that allow Torment to tell "big budget" story moments through text and still images that wouldn't be possible to portray in-engine without a BioWare-sized war chest. They take your skills into account, and allow for a variety of outcomes and interesting moral choices. We saw a bit of this in Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity, but it was frankly quite underutilized. Torment takes the idea a step further, and gives you more of these scenarios to bite down on.

I had three, big takeaways from this build of Torment. First, I have full confidence that the writing and storytelling are going to be complex, diverse, engrossing, and exquisitely constructed. From the random, 10-minute sidequests I picked up from the various people, mutants, and sentient, technomagical constructs of Sagus Cliffs to the unfolding main arc (in which I have currently convinced an entire religion that I am their god, without leveling up or leaving the first area), I couldn't wait to see more.

Second, Torment's launch feels a long way off. With so many aspects of the game in such a rough state, I don't expect to see a retail release earlier than late 2016. And I certainly don't want to see it before then. inXile should take as much time as they need to round off all the jagged edges and get the systems flowing as smoothly as the prose.

Finally, I wouldn't recommend buying into Early Access at this stage if you're looking for a fun gameplay experience or a taste of how the systems are meant to operate. If you missed the Kickstarter and are just looking to chip in a few bucks to support the development, then by all means, take the plunge. I have full faith and confidence that the finished game will be satisfying to hardcore cRPG fans, based on what I've seen of the story alone. And if you want to set aside an afternoon to get a peek at the world, narrative, and character creation, this build will furnish that adequately.

If you're the type that wants to experience the whole game at its best, however, I would actively caution you to avoid this build. There are sequences missing. There is placeholder art. There are bugs that can very well halt your progress on multiple quests. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't want to have experienced the opening of such a promising and epic tale in this hardscrabble state. I won't discourage you from shelling out now to save a space for the final game in your Steam library. But for my two shins, the Ninth World can wait.

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