Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Eat Tide

Well! I'm writing that follow-up post a lot sooner than I had thought I would. That's partly due to a three-day weekend, partly due to me suffering from a cold during much of that weekend and thus confined to indoor activities, and partly due to the game being shorter than I had expected. Torment: Tides of Numenara clocked in at around 30-ish hours for me by the end, on a fairly in-depth but not exhaustive playthrough. I was diligent about reading all available text and exhausting all dialogues I ran across, but deliberately turned down a couple of quests that I didn't feel up to pursuing.

"Shorter than I expected" is a good thing in my book! I'm increasingly wary of super-long RPGs; to this day I still haven't finished Divinity: Original Sin or Wasteland 2 despite putting in well over 50 hours on each of them. It's no coincidence that some of my favorite recent RPGs, the Shadowrun Returns series, clock in at a svelte dozen or so hours. I hunger for games that can efficiently establish a world and tell a compelling story without overstaying their welcome.

Torment: Tides does decently well on that front. I don't love this game, but I did enjoy it, and feel that I more than got my money's worth from my Kickstarter pledge way back in the dark ages of 2013. It delivers on what I was most excited about: untraditional gameplay, a game much more focused around talking than combat, and unusual mechanics and story elements that you can't find in most other games. The stuff that I was disappointed in is, for the most part, stuff that the game wasn't really trying to do or wasn't a focus.


I played as a Slick Nano who Brandishes a Silver Tongue. I almost always opted for non-combat skills and abilities, and usually avoided fighting. I've heard that it's possible to complete the game without killing anyone, or maybe just a couple of fights; I was pleased to see that this wasn't just a straightforward "peace good fighting bad" scenario. There were a handful of cases where I deliberately initiated combat because it seemed like the best course of action. It made me realize how much more compelling it is to give choices, even when fighting truly awful people: I think there's a temptation for game designers to make enemies that are so bad that they can safely assume people will want to fight them, but even in those cases, it's much more meaningful for players to actively choose confrontation rather than passively proceed through it.

Here's my build immediately before the end of the game:

The most annoying skill was Perception, which doesn't seem to have options to raise after character creation; I ended up using my Flex Skill amulet each day to bump it up to 2. I didn't mean to overcap the Lore skills, which I don't think are required for the automatic in-dialogue checks, but ended up surprisingly useful for a bunch of late-game effort checks.

My party composition was stable throughout: I stuck with Calistege after the opening (surrendering at the first fight), recruited Rhin a little later, and picked up Matkina near the end of my stay in Sagus Cliffs. There was a lot of overlap between my Castoff and Calistege, so I tried to give them distinct combat skills (though, again, my Castoff was light on combat in general). I built Rhin as a sort of stealth grenadier and healbot. She can't attack, but she can use cyphers, and later in the game she gets a useful (and fully unique) ability to reuse cyphers multiple times. Interestingly, she actually isn't very good at stealth to begin with; I improved that a bit, but honestly stealth doesn't seem all that useful to me except for characters who can directly use it. Speaking of which, Matkina was by far my heaviest hitter, with devastating single-target damage and very useful fettle infliction.

I was heavily Blue/Gold tides throughout the game (curiously enough, my high school's colors). I'm slightly skeptical of the Blue tide... you get that just by asking questions, which I suspect most players will do a lot of. Gold tends to be for stereotypically "good" actions. The tides represents qualities like empathy and compassion, and you pick it up when you act nicely to people, refuse rewards, or otherwise are "good". That said, I do really appreciate the complexity of the tide system, which provides a great deal of structure without being simplistic like Good/Evil or even Paragon/Renegade. You can be more focused on the bigger picture without being a "bad" person.

The main content things that I intentionally skipped included:
  • All companion quests apart from Calistege, Rhin and Matkina.
  • Giving research to the wannabe Aeon Priest.
  • Resolving the situation with the imprisoned biomechanical monster in Circus Minor.
  • Whatever was going on with that shepherd's crook in that grave place.
  • Recruiting attractive people in the Bloom. (The one I felt comfortable tapping was the Murdens' translator, but after avoiding combat with them I didn't want to fight just for that.)
  • Hooking up the memory addict in the Cirrugen's Swamp.
  • Opening up the human maw in the Bloom.
There may be more that I accidentally missed, though I was pretty thorough (outside of the catacombs).

Okay, let's break down my reaction.


Flavor text. I'm impressed at just how much thought and care went into the bespoke "vendor trash" items you pick up during the game, and always enjoyed reading through them. 

Cyphers. The "cypher sickness" fettle and limited slots provide one of the best solutions I've seen yet to encouraging players to actually use items instead of letting them collect in your inventory. I was also impressed at just how varied and useful they were: a couple are just grenades, but a lot of them have very unique and interesting abilities. I do wish there had been more non-combat cyphers, things along the lines of Charmpaste were compelling and had their own tradeoffs.

Visual design. Some spots in Sagus Cliffs looked a little generic, but even those areas were really pretty. In contrast, the Bloom was nicely disgusting, making up for all the gross macabre stuff I'd remembered from PS:T and hadn't seen in T:ToN. The best, though, were the planar-type maps, with stunning starfields or other fantastically surreal backgrounds.

Enemy design. Well, this is really just for the Sorrow, but it is so well-done and awesome, with a much more impressive reveal than most AAA villains.

Leveling system. It took me a while to get used to it, but I ended up appreciating the level-versus-tier distinction, which provides a finer-grained upgrade path while still giving a nice sense of accomplishment at rarer intervals. It feels slightly annoying to need to pick through less-useful upgrades before you can get back to the good ones again - Edge is so much more powerful than almost anything else - but it ends up working out fine, and after following it through the game I think it works well.

Economy. Shins balloon a bit near the end, but for most of the game the economy feels nicely tuned, and I was able to buy all the stuff I most wanted without having much leftover cash. I think it was a good idea to limit many (but not all) equipment items to be for the Castoff only, which simplifies ordering and loadout.

Sleep system. I touched in this in my earlier post, but I really like the rhythm that this lends to the game. It would be hard to adapt to other games, since it requires so much specific writing for individual quests to implement the penalties for time passing, but I'm glad that they pulled it off for this game. I probably erred too far in avoiding sleep, especially near the end of the game, avoiding it out of habit even when it seems clear that the game wants you to take advantage of the refilled pools.

Plot. The story is set in a vast and far-ranging universe, but the core plot is nicely comprehensible. It unfolds well, with a good pace of revelations and some interesting wrinkles along the way.

Endings. It's a vintage Obsidian approach, with slideshows and text explaining the variety of outcomes your decisions throughout the game have made, which is one of my favorite ways to end a game. I ran through several of the "big choice" endings, and saw that most of the slides ended up the same, but there were some cool and nicely reactive changes based on the state of the world which impacted some of those smaller stories.


Meres. I really liked the idea behind these, and the storybook-esque presentation was really nice.  The interface was a bit annoying: this is the one place where you can't hit the number keys to make a choice. It felt weird to be using your real-world stat pools while in someone else's memories, and it was annoying to not have access to your items and cyphers while doing it. I liked the flavor, but was ultimately confused by what, exactly, they did: early on it seems to imply that you can actually change the past (or maybe switch into another universe?) by the choices you make, but that seems to be totally dropped in the later meres, which makes me think I misunderstood the point.

Companions. They ended up feeling a lot like the ones from Pillars of Eternity: generally interesting and distinct, but shallow, with very limited personal interactions and basic banter. I did appreciate how involved they were in dialogue with third parties; Matkina, in particular, has a lot to say to other people in the Bloom and with other Castoffs. No romances, either, but I was expecting that. They were simultaneously one of my favorite parts of the game and an underwhelming part.

Combat. The system seems cool, with tons of strategic options and tactical positioning and special abilities and fettles and stuff. Honestly, though, it seemed over-designed considering how little I actually used it. The fights were all pretty easy, except for one that was intentionally impossible. The conflation of combat and non-combat skills and abilities was a little annoying, since I always felt compelled to take the non-combat ones; I found myself nostalgic for Inquisition's elegant separation of skills and perks.

Failure. One fascinating aspect of the Effort system is that even failing at a challenge can often yield an interesting result. In some cases, though, that failure is much better than a success: in one early example in Sagus Cliffs, succeeding in a Smashing test will yield a small amount of shins, while a failure will provide a permanent boost to your Might pool - which is vastly more useful! I kind of liked the idea behind this, but it ended up being frustrating to not know if I'd be better off succeeding or failing.

Music. It wasn't bad, but was pretty forgettable.

Voice acting. I liked what little of it there was, but there was very little.

Philosophy. The philosophical talk was pretty light: there are a few factions and cults with interesting beliefs, but they're very closely tied to specific Ninth World issues and not particularly resonant. You get a couple of "What do you believe?" questions along the way, but not much of a background for compelling choices. That isn't necessarily a problem, games don't need to be philosophical, but there was less than I remembered in Planescape: Torment and less than I was expecting.

Message. Along the same lines, the central question of "What does one life matter?" didn't resonate with me as much as "What can change the nature of a man?" did in PS:T. That's very likely due to differences in me and not in the games, but I also feel like PS:T did more work to set up and explore its question.

Stakes. The Castoff's situation is unique and interesting, but partly because of that it felt bloodless and not particularly relatable. You're dealing with vast, metaphysical consequences unlike anything you will encounter in real life. On the one hand, that's cool: it's fiction, so we get to experience something we'll never experience otherwise. On the other hand, though, I didn't really feel especially invested in the outcome, apart from the impact on one or two characters. On the whole, the big decision here didn't feel nearly as compelling as the lower-stakes final choices of the games I've been playing lately. I think that it's hard to write for characters operating at near-god-like power levels, but it might have helped to have stronger analogues to "real life" scenarios instead of being so fantastic.


Callistege's ascension was interesting. I'd supported her research throughout, and initially thought I'd messed up when she left my party after I aided her in merging with the datasphere. I thought it was really cool how she popped back up again in the various endings, and behaved differently in them depending on what was happening in the world.

As for the big ending choice: I'd initially mis-read "sever the tidal connections" option. I thought that it would remove the Castoffs' immortality and their tidal abilities, but hadn't realized that it would actually kill them, so I audibly "Whoops!"'d once the Sorrow asked me to justify my choice. After seeing that play out, I went with restoring Miika, which seems like the most "good" ending to the game. (Sidebar: I really liked the delayed revelation that the Changing God was the Ghostly Woman's father; that's especially good game design, as it had been presented as an optional side-quest that I'd closed the book on, so having it resurface so late in the game was really cool.) After that I tried collecting our consciousness in Matkina, which was one of the lower-key endings but still interesting.

My last action was to refuse the Sorrow and destroy it. I'd assumed that this would lead to an optional final battle, and had hoped that it would unlock some better endings. Miika had suggested earlier on that there might be another option for restoring her to life besides eliminating the castoffs, and I only had the Sorrow's word for the consequences its destruction would incur. Instead of a triumphant battle, though, everything plays out the way the Sorrow said, with what seems like a clear worst ending. I'm glad that they included this option, and in general I'm pleased that there's no one "best" / "perfect" outcome (at least as far as I know; I'll spoiler myself as soon as I post this). Trading off between flawed alternatives is a lot more interesting. That said, as noted above, I didn't feel especially invested in these endings, beyond a general desire for Matkina, Rhin and Calistege to be all right.


Well, it's been a long time coming! It doesn't sound like T:ToN has been a big success, so it seems unlikely that we'll see a sequel to it or other games set in this universe. Still, the original PS:T was also widely recognized as a failure, and it managed to inspire legions of devoted fans, so who knows what the future might hold for this legacy. I enjoyed this game: it won't be joining my ranks of favorite games, but it's a great palette cleanser that shows other possibilities in how we can make and play RPGs. Even if I'm not particularly eager to play this game again, I suspect I'll be citing aspects of it as examples of good game design for quite a while.

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