A look at a Classic CRPG and the modern CRPG it inspired.
The Games in Question
Planescape: Torment was first released in December 1999 as a PC game. It was loved by critics, mostly ignored by gamers, but developed a cult following among CRPG aficionados like myself. I played it when it was released and I remember liking it very much. It is a Dungeons and Dragons game, using a loose version of the second edition rules, and set in the Planescape setting. I’ll dive into that later, but suffice to say, it is weird! It was recently re-released in an “Enhanced Edition” for a number of platforms including mobile devices.
Torment: Tides of Numenera was a Kickstarter project from inExile in partnership with Monte Cook games that intended to create a “spiritual successor” to Planescape Torment. It was released in February 2017 for a number of platforms from Windows to the PS4 thanks to the magic of the Unity Engine on which it was built. It is set in the Numenera world, a game setting created my Montey Cook and uses modified rules from that game for its combat encounters.
Just to be clear, I’ll refer to the older game as either Planescape or Torment, and the newer title as Tides or Numenera.
Where I’m coming from
I love CRPGs, I love Dungeons and Dragons, and I love Planescape. I played Planescape Torment back in 1999 pretty much the moment I could get my hands on it. My memories of it were fond ones as I first discovered that inExile was going to make an homage to it. It was actually my wife that signed up for the kick starter back in 2013 but I was the one more eagerly awaiting the day it arrived.
When it did finally wrap up, I jumped onto my wife’s Steam account to play it. It took me about 4 weeks to make my way through it and for the most part, I very much enjoyed playing it.
When I saw, only a few weeks after finishing Tides, that the old Torment was just re-released and that I could play it on my i-pad while lying in bed, I was beside myself with pleasure. Now I could compare Tides not only to my memory of its spiritual father but to a full play through with Tides fresh in my mind. And do it while lying in bed no less. Fabulous!
What they have in common
Playing the two games back to back, I can say that without a doubt, the folks that made Torment: Tides of Numenera, very much succeeded in following the spirit of Planescape: Torment. These two games have a great deal in common with one another.
Both games are computer RPGs, based on pen and paper RPGs set in fantastical worlds that are worlds apart from classic Tolkein fantasy tropes. Textual Dialog is the backbone of the storytelling and gameplay in both titles. Each probably has more dialog and description than a typical novel and you will spend much of your play time reading.
Both include combat gameplay, and both keep that as a secondary aspect of the game, subordinate to the story telling and dialog. The graphic representation of the world is an isometric plane, with an overhead view of the action and sprite animated 3-D rendered characters.
Each game features a main character that is effectively immortal but has lost their memory of who they are. Both games allow your hero to collect a motley band of curious allies who accompany you on your journey. And both stories are one of the hero discovering and determining the meaning and purpose of their unusual life.
Beyond these central themes and styles, there are a great many small homages in Tides that parallel or honor Torment. From the fact that dying advances the plot to the quirky magic items you find, to specific lines of dialog. It is clear that the makers of Tides studied the original, loved it well, and wanted to make a game in its honor.
How do they compare?
Planescape and Numenera are both weird and arcane worlds where very little is familiar to us. Both are filled with the strange and wondrous around every corner. But they are none the less very different from one another in detail.
Planescape is centered in a place called the city of doors. It is a sort of steampunk-gothic city of high magic populated as much by monsters of every possible description as it is by human beings. It is the airport of the fantasy universe where a pack of devils might be having high tea with a contingent of angels.
Numenera is a sort of post-post-apocalypse science fiction setting out to demonstrate the notion that sufficiently technology is synonymous with magic. The setting is the Ninth World, an unrecognizable version of Earth that has been through the complete rise and fall of humanity at least nine times. Every inch of the world is littered with the remnants of civilizations scarcely imagined. But it’s heart is fantasy, an untamed world of mystery waiting for bold explorers to discover it.
Both games dig pretty deep into their world but the approaches are different. The original Torment offers up its world on a platter for those who care to read the many dialog options that explain it, or who browse the encyclopedia that is populated as you play. It has some secrets, but mostly it lets you drink as deeply of the lore as you like.
Tides likes to keep its mysteries close to its chest. It doesn’t tell you that this is earth, or why things are how they are, or who all these strange peoples and factions are. It makes slow reveals in the course of the storyline and doles out questions and answers as part of the gameplay.
In a novel, I think Tide’s approach is better. It preserves mystery and wonder, putting you in the shoes of a stranger in a strange land. But in a game, the result is you are often left looking at strange creatures and places without any context for what they are or what they mean. It is overwhelming and in the end, instead of fascinating it can become meaningless noise for the player.
Another big difference in the settings, or in the game’s treatment of the settings, is the theme or force at the heart of each. In Planescape Torment, philosophy and spirit are at the heart of things. Morality and emotion drive the multiverse and your quest is about coming to terms with that.
In Tides of Numenera, the journey is much more about understanding what you are, how you work, and what actions you can take that change the world around you. While there is undoubtedly a spiritual element, it always has the feeling that some kind of technology is at the root of what is happening and that thinking rather than a feeling is how you resolve your character’s dilemma.
Winner: Planescape Torment, buy a rather biased smidge.
If you want to dodge story spoilers, Dodge this section because I’m going to talk about the conclusion to both games in a way that reveals a fair bit about each.
The journey in each game is different in many respects, but the feel and scale of are very similar in both games. They present you with a detailed city that you begin in and then branch out to lots of little locations around it where the plot matures. The main characters and their central motivations are much the same. Find out about my past and origin while deciding what kind of person I want to be in a world full of challenges and mysteries.
The outcomes are pretty different in an interesting way. In Torment, the stakes are surprisingly small in scale. The world and the universe are in no great danger. Your companion’s fates are only on the line in so much as they have decided to travel with a strange man with a clearly violent past. The ultimate decision you make at the conclusion is about what fate you choose for yourself and how that impacts your loyal friends. Ultimately you are both protagonist and antagonist, beginning and end of the story.
In Tides, you have a much more traditional fantasy narrative where the fate of the world hangs in the balance and you are the fulcrum. Which way you push will determine what happens not only to you, not only to your allies but also much of the world. It is not quite apocalyptic, but it does have a more classic heroic scale to it. And while there are echoes of the idea that you are protagonist and antagonist, it doesn’t feel so wholistic or poetic as the original.
Winner: Planescape Torment by virtue of the path less traveled
On the crunchy side of life is the combat. The spiritual underpinnings of each are not that different, but the game mechanics are a big departure from one another within the scope of both being traditional RPGs.
Torment uses a real-time combat system, that flows pretty smoothly from walking around talking to people, into fighting with them. You can pause the game when you like and order your character and their allies to attack, cast spells, or run away. Unlike many RPGs, running away is not only possible, it is pretty easy most of the time.
The two main types of fighting are swinging weapons at close range, and casting spells at a distance. Spells are far more interesting but are a finite resource that is only restored when you get a chance to rest in a safe place. As a result, you spend most of the game just telling your minions to smash face and then watching them do that. Spells tend to be somewhat ineffective except against large groups that you can catch by surprise.
Frankly, I find the combat in Torment to be pretty bad by the standards of the CRPG genre. I can’t think of many games that do it worse except a few with systems so tedious they drive you to tears of boredom. Character building doesn’t really reward you much, and combat balance is iffy at best.
Tides, on the other hand, is a turn-based system with a fair bit of tactical complexity. Here you have the more traditional trifecta of Spells, Melee Weapons, and Ranged weapons available to choose from. Since it is turn based, you have a lot more opportunities to exploit the spells to full advantage.
Combat is also a lot more formal in Tides. When you are in combat, time stops, and orderly turns procedure. Combat continues until one side has achieved victory and running away is neither easy nor encouraged. That said, Tides does something wonderful in that it’s combat encounters also support opportunities for dialog and actions normally reserved for non-combat situations. In the midst of a fight, you can use a character’s turn to try and barter a truce to the fight or trick an enemy into changing sides. It is very unique and a very welcome addition to the genre.
Tides of Numenera combat does feel a little rough around the edges, and some character development choices are incredibly powerful compared to others such as to “break” the balance of the system. But in a game so focused on its story, these weaknesses are no great distraction from the overall game and the innovations outweigh the rough edges.
Winner: Tides of Numenera by a country mile!
Since both of these games are chock full of writing this might be the most significant category to compare the two. It is also the most directly competitive because it is not so much what choice they made in the design, but how well they executed the choice they made.
Both of these games are trying hard to have good writing and both deserve praise for what they have achieved. The stories are rich, the characters are vibrant, the ideas are unique. The sheer volume of text in each game is epic.
Planescape Torment has a writing style that is both at once quirky and mundane. It is mundane in that the language used is generally mattered of fact and to the point. They are not trying to be poetic or lyrical in their descriptions. It is quirky in that the things they are describing are completely gonzo. They are focused on the content rather than the language; with one exception.
The Planescape setting was originally created with its own slang vocabulary based loosely on cockney British English. In the printed game they also used a very strange font to give it an exotic and alien feel. Thankfully the font is nowhere to be found, but the “cant” as it is called in the game, is present in much of the dialog.
Numenera sometimes suffers from trying too hard to be cool. There is a lot of ‘bitter scent of despair’ and ‘tangible darkness’ that might make good song lyrics but don’t work so well as descriptive text. They come at you right from the beginning of the game and feel both unearned and distracting. fortunately, these overwrought flourishes are not consistently used. When the writers avoid them, the style and content is of professional quality and fairly engaging.
Numenera’s biggest weakness in it’s writing is also Torment’s biggest strength. Torment is funny. It is loaded with contextual humor and whimsy. With the world as strange as Planescape and characters ranging from a man on fire, a floating skull, and an angelic succubus there are huge opportunities for situational comedy. Planescape Torment exploits them often to good effect without hurting its overall tone.
I can only guess that the creators of Numenera made a conscious decision not to go down this path because there is very little humor in the writing or plotting of the game. The world is just as bizarre, and the characters just as ripe for amusing conflict or awkward misunderstanding, but they just leave those opportunities on the table at almost every turn.
Winner: Planescape Torment, with good humor and solid style.
The dialog between the main character and the people he meets is the driving force behind both of these games. Planescape Torment represents the standard mechanisms for this mechanic, ones used in innumerable RPGs both before and since its 1999 release. Only rarely do games deviate from these systems. Mass Effect is a notable example of an effort to re-imagine the mechanic to mixed success.
Tides of Numenera doesn’t try to re-invent the way dialog is done, but it does add a number of new ideas to the mix. Tides action pool system is used to good effect to allow character building to impact dialog in a very tangible way. Some dialog options require a skill check which includes the option of deciding how much of your available skill pool you want to invest to ensure an outcome. The interface tells you what chance you will have based on how much you invest.
It isn’t the first game to include skill based dialog options, but it is the first that tells you your odds of success and gives you some measure of control over that. This makes it the first to include some measure of tactical gameplay in character dialog. Coupled with its use of dialog inside of combat encounters and you get a very nice, integrated game system.
Tides don’t stop there. It also has vignettes that are essentially small chose your own adventure stories. These take place when your character interacts with memory devices that let him see into the past, and in doing so, make changes to it. Not only is it a cool story device, but I enjoyed the little retro gaming opportunities. The inspiration for these may simply have been a lack of budget to render these parts of the story in engine, but I liked them none the less.
Winner: Torment: Tides of Numenera, for its successful innovation
These games are largely not about graphics, sound, and UI design so I’m going to lump all this together into one category.
Planescape: Torment was a triple A game of its day and Tides of Numenera is an independent studio effort. As a result, I’d expect Torment to have the advantage in most respects. That said, Torment was released more than a decade earlier so we would expect some advantages to skew to Tides.
Both games have very good art design that has been well rendered with the available technology. The tools and technology available give the edge to Tides here. While I may prefer the gothic style of Planescape’s art, the fidelity and varied color palette in Tides makes it the prettier game.
Torment takes the crown in sound as it simply has a lot more of it. Tides has only the tiniest amount of voice work, while Torment frequently highlights dramatic moments with well-performed dialog. Neither game has a truly exciting soundtrack but Torment clearly spent more money on music for their game.
UI design is kind of a wash. Both games are a little clunky when it comes to UI, something typical of most RPGs. Managing your inventory is something of a chore in both titles. The enhanced Torment should get some praise for making such a game very playable via a touch screen. Targeting enemies in combat can be a bit frustrating, but overall it was easy to control.
While both games are relatively small by RPG standards, Planescape feels like the more complete of the two titles. Backers of Tides of Numenera were disappointed that the scope of the game was cut back significantly from what was initially promised.
Winner: Planescape Torment, it may be older but its triple-A pedigree shines through, especially in the enhanced edition.
The companion characters in Torment are one of the things the game is famous for. Morte, the disembodied skull is your initial guide in the world. From there you can recruit a half demon girl, a chaste succubus, a man on fire, an alien warrior monk, a mechanical cube creature (modern), and an animated suit of armor. Beyond just being weird, they all have their own unique outlook on life. And of course, there is the Nameless One himself, an immortal man covered in the scars of a thousand gruesome deaths. Now half man, half zombie.
Tides of Numenera honors the strange cadre of characters but tries to take a more subtle approach. Most of his companions are human beings. They are not without personality but neither are they so wildly inventive and diverse as in the original Torment. A stand out from Tides is Rhin, who is a female child you rescue from slavery. What makes her strikingly unique in RPG games is that she truly has little value in combat. She can speak to “gods” and can help in social dialogs, but takes up a place on your team that could otherwise go to someone with meaningful combat abilities.
While Tides takes pains to make their characters interesting, it is simply hard to measure up to the crazy cast of Planescape Torment. If the Torment characters were just skin deep, that would be one thing, but each of them is well fleshed out and interesting to interact with. Tides of Numenera sets a high mark for interesting companions, but Torment pretty well defines the peak of the scale.
Winner: Planescape Torment
The Winner Please
While the student has done well and surpassed their master in some areas, Planescape Torment remains the greater of the two games. It’s strong and unusual story, it’s clear and focused writing, its gentle humor, and its crazy rich world are hard to beat.
Tides of Numenera easily surpasses its predecessor in its combat system and gameplay innovations, areas that Torment never made any effort in. With some refinement, it would make a truly great underpinning for future CRPG games and I commend the inExcel team on their innovations.
Tides is a very worthy successor, but it crippled itself with its lack of humor and a setting that just can’t offer up the bizarro wonder of the Planescape multiverse and its city of doors. It makes a good try at it but falls just a little short.
Conversely, if Planescape Torment had a core game system as strong as Numenera it would be a much-improved game. That’s something to say for a game so widely loved. I think it’s incredible strengths in character, setting, story and writing so overshadow its weaknesses that it looms large in the memory of anyone who played it.
Having played both recently, I’d still very much recommend both to modern CRPG fans, though with the caveat that if you don’t like games where you spend most of your time reading, give them a miss.
Some folks have pegged Planescape Torment as the greatest computer role-playing game of all time. I do not agree. It may tell one of the best stories, and it may have the most imaginative setting, but its flaws are pretty glaring and modern RPGs have made some incredible achievements since.
Of the games I’ve played, I’d have to give the nod to Witcher 3 as the pinnacle of RPG achievement. It combines impeccable writing, strong game systems, and state of the art technology to create a real masterpiece in every dimension.
My final judgment on Tides is that it was a strong game, true to its design goals, but not one that will linger through the years in my memory the way its inspiration has. I do hope that some of its innovations will carry forward and enrich those inspired by its worthy efforts.