I love role-playing games more than any other genre, but as someone who’s been playing them my whole life, it’s pretty easy to predict how situations are going to play out sometimes.
For example, when my party comes across a scene of some members of the city guard verbally sparring with a group of mutant ruffians in a bad part of town, there’s only one way this is going down. If it’s a certain kind of RPG, maybe I can choose between the mutants or the guards, but at least one of these groups is getting taken out.
Sure enough, when this exact situation happens during my demo playthrough of an area deep into the campaign of InXile’s upcoming RPG Torment: Tides of Numenera, I quickly realize that I can make a choice which group to side with and which to fight. But Torment also offers an alternative option: Rather than solving the problem with violence, I can use words to deescalate. I can, if I’m careful, allow everyone in this situation to walk away with their lives.
“It’s why it’s taken us three-and-a-half years,” InXile CEO Brian Fargo explains, referring to the time passed since Torment was successfully funded via Kickstarter. “We think a greater focus on conversation would be interesting to push the RPG genre forward. From playing roleplaying games our whole life, we always look to find what we can do that’s a little different. How can we push the art and craft of it?”
In the case of Torment, that art and craft is being pushed via a unique setting. Despite its otherworldly look, Tides of Numenera is actually set on Earth — but an Earth one billion years in the future. This far-flung future world has seen thousands of civilizations rise and fall, leading to a bizarre planet full of relics of cultures gone by. Those relics are known as “numenera.”
“Because this stuff is so advanced, people essentially consider it to be magic,” says Torment lead area designer George Ziets. “But it’s actually all based in technology. With all these different kinds of technology, it gives us justification to do pretty much anything we want to do.”
And what is it they want to do? Avoiding RPG cliches seems to be at the top of the list. For example, Ziets makes it clear that InXile wants the plot of Torment to go in a different direction than many roleplaying games.
“It’s not a story about saving the world,” he says. “It’s a story about you, the player. It’s a personal story about the choices that you make.”
You’ll be making those choices within the role of a character known as The Last Castoff. In the world of Torment, a figure called The Changing God discovered how to become immortal by creating bodies and moving from one to the next. However, when The Changing God abandons a body, that flesh and blood achieves a consciousness of its own. As The Last Castoff, you’re the most recent ex-shell for The Changing God, and you find yourself on the run from The Sorrow, a mysterious creature whose existence is devoted to hunting down The Changing God and all of its creations.
In my demo, set just over halfway through the game, my party and I have just escaped the The Sorrow by leaping through a strange portal. That portal has led us to The Bloom, a city built within the guts of a massive creature. This creature has tentacles that anchor it in multiple realities and dimensions, and I spend the next several hours exploring, discovering the political intrigue of the area and, when I have an opportunity, hopping through a portals just to see where they take me.
It’s within this strange setting that I eventually stumble across the situation mentioned earlier. The guards who keep order in The Bloom and a faction of mutants in one section of the city have had a mounting tension for weeks, and we just happen to wander in right as things are primed to explode.
Since you don’t actually need to fight, Torment has a unique approach to how it handles what could be combat situations. At these points in the game, the words “Crisis Initiated” flash across the screen. Actions then become turn-based, with both party members and NPCs trading off. We could choose to launch directly into an attack here, but we can also spend each party member’s turn talking. And since we’re trying to talk both the mutants and the guards down, we need to devote our best speakers to the task and spend our turns carefully.
Meanwhile, the NPCs spend their turns talking as well — only they are bickering and threatening each other. We’re essentially given a natural time limit: Convince them to back down before they push each other to violence, or else decide which side you want to take in the ensuing fray. After a few rounds of sweet talking, I’m able to talk sense into the mutants.
While combat is, of course, an option, Ziets also promises that focusing on dialogue — persuasion, intimidation and more — is a legitimate way to get through the entirety of the game.
“You can have a serious hardcore persuasion character right at the beginning,” says Ziets. “That’s a viable path through the game. It will force you to make choices during certain situations because you won’t have put points into combat.”
This extra layer on every combat scenario adds a lot of complexity to Torment. Part of InXile’s approach to this problem was simply scaling back the number of potential fights you can get into in the game compared to the average RPG. Ziets calls the “crisis” points in Torment “much more set piece” as compared to other similar games.
“There are fewer combats, but we make them much more in-depth,” he says.
The next “crisis” I encounter is even more intense. One of the portals on The Bloom takes me to a spaceship floating near a strange planet. The ship’s inhabitants are kind enough, but another quest has tasked me with accessing a part of the ship they don’t want me touching. So I either need to fight them — not a great idea, given their high-tech weaponry — or trick them.
I choose to trick them. I ask the character guarding the door to the section of the ship I want to access to give me a tour of the ship. He happily agrees. Each turn of the crisis, the tour inches one step closer to completion, but while one party member stays behind to break into the locked area, the others can follow along on the tour and attempt to keep the tour guide distracted longer.
The whole encounter is a brilliant, complex scenario, and it ends — fittingly — in my party getting wiped out. But in Torment, death is not the end.
Outside of a few specific instances, The Last Castoff cannot actually be killed. Rather than saving non-stop and reloading whenever you make a mistake, InXile wants players to accept when things go bad and watch the fallout from those decisions play out.
“We think of failure as a choice,” Ziets says. “One thing we committed to was paying off on as many player choices as we could, even ones that seemed pretty obscure.”
In the end, Ziets, Fargo and the whole crew at InXile seem to have a primary goal of creating something extremely unique in the RPG space. Torment is of course heavily inspired by the cult classic 1999 RPG Planescape: Torment, but in my time with it so far, it clearly has a feeling all its own. And it’s a feeling I desperately want to experience more of.
For Fargo’s part, he is extremely confident that InXile can deliver on that in the final product.
“This is not like any other game you’ve probably ever played before,” he says. “If you really spend the time, I think it will be like when you get to the end of Return of the King, and you turn the last page, and you go, ‘That was f**king great. I wish I could erase my mind and read it again.’ That’s what I want to happen here.”
Torment: Tides of Numenera will be released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PCs on Feb. 28. Stay tuned for more coverage of the game on Polygon closer to that date.