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[Review] The Legacy of Torment

What can change the nature of a game?

  1. Keneth
    PSA: This is gonna be a long one, so grab some tea and biscuits before starting. Also, I won't be adding a rating to this game, but there's a TL;DR section at the bottom if you just want my quick opinion on the game.

    Planescape: Torment is one of those games that had some trouble pulling players in. It's dark, it's morbid, you're not the hero of some ultimate destiny, just a deeply troubled and deformed man stumbling around a world he doesn't understand. There's no elves and dwarves and swords and princesses (or worlds) in need of saving. None of the classic fantasy elements that people are so used to seeing in role playing games are there (at least on the surface).

    I've known a lot of people who simply couldn't get over the initial weirdness and discomfort and quit after the first hour or so, but everyone who actually played it begrudgingly admits that it's one of the best—if not the best—story-driven role playing games ever made. What made it great, however, is not the bizarre new environments and the narrative-heavy gameplay (although those certainly helped). What made it truly great were the heavy themes that resonated with people on a deep, emotional level: Pain, torment, regret, loss, and coming to terms with these concepts.

    Fast forward about 15 years, when inXile first announced that they wanted to make a true spiritual successor to the game, and I'm sure you can imagine the hype, elation, and a healthy dose of skepticism that came with the announcement. The game was instantly funded on Kickstarter, with many stretch goals achieved by the end of the campaign, and the company spent the next 4 years (more than twice as long as the projected release date) developing the game in an attempt to once more reach that lauded pedestal on which we keep our copy of Planescape: Torment.

    And have they succeeded? Well... no. If that's all you came here to find out, then I suppose you can stop reading now. If, however, you'd like to know more about the game and where I think the developers have gone wrong, bear with me for a while longer.

    The game is set in a (relatively) new setting called Numenera, designed by Monte Cook, along with the underlying system (aptly called the Cypher system). Since the Planescape setting has been discontinued in the last century, they needed to find something new and appropriate for the type of story they wanted to tell, and Numenera lends itself quite nicely with its weird and fantastic elements that are often reminiscent of Sigil.

    I've been a Numenera fan since the very beginning, so this news was quite exciting to me, and I was absolutely one of the people who voted to ditch the real-time with pause system in favor of the much more fitting turn-based system. Anyone who's ever played a game with the Cypher system will tell you this was the right (and only) choice, as using the RTwP system would strip out the most essential parts of the underlying game system.

    That was also the only thing I gave my opinion on during the entire course of the game's development, and now I wish I had done more because the final result is a pathetic imitation of Monte's well thought out creation. Whether the result of listening to ignorant people's opinions during the development process or just the sheer arrogance of thinking they were somehow "improving" upon the experience, they messed up the system to the point where it's all but impossible to salvage even if they wanted to fix it. I'll point out a few of the biggest transgressions, although they're just the tip of the iceberg.

    The health bars were a mistake. Although a very familiar concept to most role players, the Cypher system in its basic form has no health (or hit points) stat. The three core statistics—Might, Speed, and Intellect—serve both as a resource for all of the skills and abilities, as well as the health pool for the characters. By extracting health into its own pool, they completely destroyed the resource economy of the system and made it even more trivial to resolve any and all conflicts than it otherwise would have been. Since health is no longer part of the main three stat pools, those pools are lower. This might seem like an okay trade-off, but there's another, very important part of the resource economy and that's Effort.

    On every action a player character performs, the player can decide to invest an amount of effort (up to a certain maximum). This reduces the difficulty of a task, making it easier to succeed on your roll. In the base system, expending effort is worthwhile but expensive. To ease the difficulty of a task by one level, it costs 3 points from a certain stat pool and another 2 points for every level of effort after that. That's where Edge comes into play: Each of the main stats also has an Edge score and that number reduces the cost of each ability by the amount listed. The higher your Edge score, the more resources you can spend without actually spending any points from the pools. In the Cypher system, you can't raise your Edge score higher than 6. This is mostly true in the game as well, except that in their infinite wisdom, the developers decided that each level of effort will only cost one point from a particular pool, so each point of Edge effectively means a free level of Effort. You can imagine how that works out by mid-to-late game.

    Another huge flaw is the lack of foci. In the Cypher system, every character consists of three main features: Their Type, which is sort of like a class in other systems, a Descriptor, which is a neatly wrapped package of perks and quirks, and a Focus, which can completely change and drive the nature of your character. For instance, you might select the Bears a Halo of Fire focus to gain control over flames and fly around on wings of fire, or you might choose Fuses Flesh and Steel to play a cyborg-like character, or Rages if you want something like a barbarian warrior. In the base system, there's around 30 different foci (and plenty more outside of the core rulebook) which give your character a very unique and flavorful feel. In T:ToN, there's a total of 3 you can choose from and they're all incredibly bland.

    Speaking of customization, if you were hoping for any, you'll be as disappointed as I was. The only thing you can choose from is your gender. Race, looks, portrait, voice, name, everything else is predefined. That's not necessarily bad, you had no real way of customizing The Nameless One either, but I don't believe anyone will quite come to love The Last Castoff as much as we did that old zombie. It feels sterile, a blank slate, which makes sense within the story, but if that's the goal, locking all other aspects of customization makes little sense, especially since there's no real narrative reason for you to be locked into those choices.

    Okay, so the system sorta sucks, but this is a Torment game, right? Who cares if the crunchy part of the game is good, it's all about the story and the art! So let's put aside the specifics of the system and the engine for a minute and talk about the juicy parts of the game. The parts that we bought and played the game for. I'll do my best not to spoil things too much, but we will need to go into some of the details. It's been well over a year now, so the time for screaming SPOILERS at every turn has passed.

    First, let's get one thing out of the way: The music is amazing. It's subtle throughout most of the game, but very much reminiscent of Planescape: Torment and gives the game a wonderful ambience.

    The painted backgrounds on all maps are also absolutely beautiful. Everything else that's happening on the maps, aside from maybe the various special effects, not so much. Although I wasn't quite as bothered by it as some people, the character and creature animations in the game can be a bit awkward. They move around with an odd amount of momentum and their movements don't feel particularly natural. Also, as far as I can tell, there are none or almost no female models. I don't know if they ran out of time or if it was a design choice, but virtually none of the female models actually look female, they're just men with longer hair. This is compounded by the fact that none of the NPCs have portraits and there's next to no voice-over for the text, so you're forced to rely on their description and the models that you see on your screen.

    One of the main features of T:ToN is the sheer amount of talent involved with the game. With such a staggering amount of talented people, I expected the game would either turn out insanely good or reach critical mass and implode upon itself. In truth, it was neither of those. In Planescape: Torment, the many interesting people and stories you encounter on your journey almost always somehow reflect back on you. In Tides of Numenera, you certainly encounter a lot of interesting people and stories, but hardly anything relates directly to your own character or evokes any emotions or thoughts beyond, "Huh. That's cool, I guess." It feels gimmicky; It's weird for the sake of being weird. Weirdness is a guiding principle in Numenera, but if you're trying to convey a powerful narrative, there's got to be more to it than that. The mishmash of unrelated stories that you're constantly bombarded with feels more like you're reading a book written by a dozen different authors, who keep trying to take it in their own direction, and in a way, that's exactly what you're doing.

    The companions you can take along on your journey feel mostly the same way. They're interesting people, but not really to the point where you get invested in them. Near the end of the game, one of the characters who's been with me for the entire ride expressed a desire to "ascend" into the Datasphere and I honestly couldn't think of a reason to say no. I didn't need her help to finish the game and there was little more she could have contributed to the game narratively. In Ps:T, every single companion is deeply related to you, whether you've scarred them in one of your past lives or they're willing to commiserate in their torment with you and you can appreciate the company. In T:ToN, the only time I was even remotely invested was with Rhin. She's almost worthless to you mechanically and does nothing but take up a party spot for most of the game, but her anguish and eventual resolution felt impactful. The game needed to put more emphasis on bonding with your companions beyond simply flashing "X's opinion of you has improved." above their heads.

    And then there's the main storyline. Although it tries to emulate Planescape: Torment in many ways, it's not really a story of personal discovery and coming to terms with who you are. Instead, The Last Castoff is more of a classic hero, the chosen one upon whom falls the task of saving all his brothers and sisters and potentially the world. The idea of torment and sorrow isn't so much a central theme as it is a byproduct of the narrative. In fact, it's quite literally a byproduct of the castoffs' very existence, as we learn later in the game, rather than a consequence of your actions, which makes it feel even more forced. The failed attempt at imposing this central theme and the constant white noise of random side stories, as well as a distinct lack of finality at the end of the game, where you can simply do whatever the hell you want, means that the game has very little impact on the player and leaves one wanting for more—just not more of that.

    Before I reach the conclusion, I want to talk a bit more about the other parts of the game and its development cycle. I know you're probably tired of reading this tirade at this point, but I'll be done soon, I promise.

    One of things that bothered me quite a bit is the fact that game does not use world maps. Although it's a very linear game, there a couple of large cities where you repeatedly walk from one side to the other. Constantly having to load maps where you have no business is a pain in the ass and could have easily been solved with world maps for fast travel.

    Another pet peeve is the lack of resting places. In the Cypher system, each character gets four recovery rolls each day with which they replenish their stat pools. These are not present in T:ToN, which means you need to either use consumables (which I guess were created to offset this need) or find someplace to rest (which completely replenishes your pools and health). Places where you can rest are far and few between and usually cost a large amount of money (which can be a bit tight at the beginning). To make matters even worse, there are a bunch of quests which are time-sensitive, so you're either forced to push through with impaired characters or face the consequences of sleeping through events.

    A major feature of the game is the so-called "Labyrinth". Something of a mental pocket plane in your mind that you were supposed to be able to explore when you died or when in a trance. The problem I have with it is that it's not really a labyrinth. It's just a stronghold where new rooms and people (very) occasionally get added. There's nothing particularly exciting about "exploring" it and there's not much in there to warrant spending more than a few minutes in it a handful of times during the entire game. A pretty huge letdown considering how much hype there was around it during the Kickstarter and development.

    Another thing that bothered me somewhat is the obfuscation of game details. Maybe I missed it somehow, but there's no way to review the chat log or the combat log or even activate any meaningful information that would be displayed there. Likewise there's no real way to gauge your current alignment with the Tides. You can see your two dominant tides and that's basically it. I like seeing what's happening with my character and I don't appreciate being treated like a toddler and hiding everything from me.

    Finally, let's talk real quick about the Kickstarter campaign and the course of development. People who were following the campaign closely will quickly notice that there are a lot of unfulfilled promises there, including two missing companions, a major outpost, crafting system, and a bunch of other content. The developers later apologized for the missing content, but it's still particularly irksome, especially since the team announced sometime during late 2016 that the game was "feature complete" and instead of working to improve and integrate the unfinished content, they instead decided to go for a simultaneous PC and console release, which they explicitly said they would not do. I can only imagine this was a business decision and aimed at making money rather than making a good game. When the game is being developed for more than 2 years longer than projected and is then still released with a slew of gamebreaking bugs, crashes, freezes, typos, and missing content, and it barely breaks the 40h gameplay threshold, it clearly shows to a lack of proper managing skills and misplaced priorities.

    If you've read this whole thing and you're still here, I commend your efforts. As emotionally invested as I was in this project, I could probably keep going for quite some time, but I think it's best not to waste any more of my time or yours, so here are my closing thoughts on the game.


    All in all, this game and its development cycle are a study in poor business decisions and bad management. The team lacked a clear vision of what the game was supposed to be and, somewhere along the way, they've forgotten what made Planescape: Torment truly great. It's not even close to the game it was trying to imitate, but if you judge it on its own merits, it's entertaining enough to warrant a playthrough if you can afford to spend the time. Despite all the ragging I've done on it over the course of this review, it kept me immersed and invested from start to finish. And if nothing else, it brought more attention to Numenera and the Cypher system, which they certainly deserve. If you get the chance, I would absolutely recommend playing a tabletop game in any of the wonderful Cypher settings.
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