Video game crowdfunding was dealt one of its harsher blows last year when Mighty No. 9 came out to critical, uh…well, it wasn’t acclaim, that’s for sure. Shockingly, people weren’t aware that throwing a lot of money at creative types without enforcing any accountability doesn’t always result in gold! As someone who’s always been skeptical at the idea of paying someone before their work is done, I’d managed to avoid that particular debacle until the game launched. Let’s not even talk about Star Citizen.
That’s not to say every crowdfunded game has been quite so disappointing, though. FTL: Faster than Light is solid, for instance, and while Shadowrun Returns’ initial release was middling, later on we got the extremely good Dragonfall and the not-quite-as-extreme-but-still-good Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Despite some hiccups and some questionable content exclusions, it looks like we’ve got another winner here in the read-’em-up Torment: Tides of Numenera.
You awaken in midair, plummeting uncontrollably, with no idea how you got there or why. Provided you survive this – and it’s entirely possible that you won’t, if you’re obstinate enough about dying – you’ll find yourself in a strange world fill with stranger individuals. The Ninth World, as its called, is built on the ruins of the worlds previous, and as such it’s filled with numenera: the magical and technological wonders of those worlds, ranging from weapons to medical devices to more cryptic creations with less-obvious uses. For your part, it’s revealed in short time that you’re a Castoff, the spawn of a transmigrating technologist called the Changing God whose centuries of existence have left a legacy that you’ll discover during your travels. You set out to find out who you are and why you exist, though the answers might not be what you’d expect.
In practice, this is essentially a visual novel with some light RPG trappings, much like the original Planescape: Torment. The majority of your time will be spent reading, be it dialogue or text-based descriptions of items or events. Tides’ strength lies in the fascinating setting you explore; the Ninth World is unique, to say the least, and exploring and learning about the people and objects around you is a treat. Each new area presents a smorgasbord of things to see and do, and I found myself eager to check everything out.
When you run into a situation that requires skill, persuasion or chance, you’ll be given the chance to expend Effort to improve your odds of success. This costs points from your three stat pools – Might, Speed and Intellect – in order to increase a percentage chance of things going your way. Failure isn’t always the required reload you’d expect from this kind of game, as dropping the ball on most challenges tends to be embarassing or inconvenient rather than fatal. Still, after you get a quarter of the way or so into the game, this system is largely rendered moot. It’s not hard to focus on a single stat pool to the point where you’re all but guarunteed success on any challenges using that pool…and your party members, who can help with tasks and who can focus on different stat pools, can take care of everything else for you. If you’re fine with reloading saves, the whole thing is rendered even more pointless, so one wonders why a chance-based aspect is incorporated at all.
This kind of task is fairly common, but while you’ll certainly be exploring some dangerous locations, outright conflict can be pretty rare. This depends on your playstyle of course, but as a character focused on investigation and diplomacy, I could count on one hand the number of times I had to fight throughout a 20-hour playthrough. Even then, several of those were plot-mandated battles that had solutions other than killing every opponent. When you do get in fights, they play out in turn-based fare using a similar Effort-expending system to determine attack success and damage. That means that much like the rest of the game, once your characters have some levels and specialization under their belts, combat becomes a piece of cake.
The bottom line is that to get the most out of Tides, you’ll need to be here for the exploration and discovery aspects of the game rather than conflict resolution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Planescape: Torment’s combat wasn’t really that game’s strength, either, but it’s still a well-deserved classic based on its setting and writing. Tides stays engaging throughout, though things do start to fall apart a little toward the end of the game, which includes a shockingly brief and unsatisfying ending sequence.
This is one of the poster children for video game crowdfunding, of course, so we should probably touch on that aspect of the game as well. It’s appreciated that your money isn’t worth any less to the developers because you decided to wait for the game to launch before paying for it; so far as I can tell you’re not locked out of any content if you weren’t part of Tides’ Kickstarter. It’s also appreciated that backer-submitted content is generally restricted to one particular area of the game. While it’s fun to explore that area and see what’s around, you aren’t forced to experience any of it that you don’t want to. Pillars of Eternity, a similar crowdfunded title, was jam-packed with immersion-breaking backer nonsense that you couldn’t escape from, so this is a step up by comparison.
That doesn’t mean that this is the perfect example of all that’s good about Kickstarter, of course. As mentioned, the game’s ending is surprisingly succinct compared to the rest of the adventure, suggesting that funding or time ran thin. What’s more, it’s no secret that several of Tides’ stretch goals – “ransom features” used as carrots to encourage further backing after a project has met its original funding level – were abandoned despite backers paying for them, as was at least one base feature in the form of Italian language support.
Losing Italian probably isn’t going to be missed by anyone reading this review, but the lack of a promised crafting system, major city area and at least one party member might be. Dropping promised features after funding is complete isn’t anything new for crowdfunded projects and shouldn’t surprise anyone – just look at Armello and its retailer-exclusive DLC – but it still happened and still merits mention.
Despite what was likely a limited budget given the game’s funding mechanism, Tides’ presentation is reasonably strong. The traditional Infinity Engine-styled isometric backgrounds are nice enough. Character models are less impressive; even characters who are central to the plot might not have an appearance befitting their stature, which is a little disappointing. This game lives and dies on its writing over its graphics, though, and it’s solid on that front. Don’t come in expecting Shakespeare, but Tides’ setting and characters are interesting enough that you’ll want to keep going. As an aside, this one’s available on console as well as PC; most of my play time was with the PC version, but so far as I can tell the PS4 version works about as well with slightly more awkward controls.
While it’s not exactly a swords-and-sorcery RPG in the same vein as something like Pillars of Eternity (though I suppose it could be if you really wanted it to), Torment: Tides of Numenera is a gripping RPG adventure that’s worth a look for those with the time and patience to read through its reams of text. As a game it’s not perfect, and it certainly adds more cautionary warnings about video game crowdfunding to that steadily-growing pile. Still, if you’re willing to overlook some quibbles here and there you’ll have a good time with Tides.