Planescape Torment: A Retro Review

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Back when I was a kid, I used to look at games very differently: they weren’t just fun experiences or a means of escaping daily troubles, but rather they were gateways to different worlds. I was discovering something new, something greater, something beyond all this. As time went by, however, fewer and fewer games would get me into that state of mind. But recently I rediscovered it through a game that, coincidentally, has a lot to do with gateways to different dimensions. It’s called Planescape: Torment, and you most likely know about it. I’ve heard RPG fans talk about with reverence, making it sound like something almost mythical. Two close friends of mine belong to that category of fans, and after finally getting tired of their relentless praise, I decided to have a go at it.

Disclaimer

This is a review of my first ever experience with the game. My view of it is in no way tainted by nostalgia. This is important, since it’s a piece of work that has cemented its position in the collective consciousness of gamers since its initial release back in 2001, and it’s easy to understand why, even after just a few hours of playing. That being said, I do have my issues with it, but more on that topic later.

The Premise 

For a game that is so widely praised, Planescape: Torment builds upon a trope that has been thoroughly used and abused in most mediums, be it books, movies or games, and that is amnesia. You, The Nameless One, wake up on a metal slab in a nightmarish place you quickly learn is called the Mortuary. Apart from being dead, your head is hurting, your body is covered in deep scars and all of a sudden a floating skull is talking to you. Of course, you have no recollection of where, who or what you’ve been before. What sets the experience apart, though, is how it reels you in. You’re shoved into a world you know nothing about, dragging with you a strange band of companions that you meet along the way. Everywhere and at any time, you find clues about who you once where. Tattoos on your back tell you to find a man named Pharrod. A woman approaches you in the street and hands you a scroll that someone once told her to give to you, without any further explanation. As you continue to stroll through the city of Sigil, you hear talks of a rebellion that happen years ago and it all sounds so familiar. All these disjointed pieces of information create a strange kind of narrative mosaic that gets you emotionally invested in the story. You rarely get the whole picture, so there’s plenty of room for your imagination to fill in the blanks. From this very limited information, you have to make choices. This is where the lines between The Nameless One and you are blurred.

The Choices

In an age where it’s, apparently, all about decisions in gaming, it’s a bit tragic to see that a 14+ year old game as of the time of this writing still blows a lot of the competition out of the water. Here, the game tells you what but never how, to get the job done. Lying, stealing, brute force, diplomacy are all feasible ways to complete quests, even though you don’t always get that full range of alternatives in each case. But it isn’t the amount of choices that sets the experience apart. After all, the choices wouldn’t matter if they didn’t feel important, and here, they do. The way that Planescape: Torment pulls this off is through its writing. The game makes you care about the people you meet, through the descriptions of the characters, to the way they speak, or the problems they present to you. The actual presentation is very bare-bones, with a dialogue-box and rarely any voice acting for NPCs. This means that if you don’t have the patience for a lot of reading, you won’t have much fun. If you do take the time, you’ll notice a striking attention to detail. This forces you to think about what you say – making an accidental vow to someone can, and probably will, backfire. Even when you do read through all of it carefully, the game doesn’t cut you any slack if you make a bad decision. Again, like I said before, good information can be hard to come by. Unless you’ve made a character with very high Intelligence and Charisma, it’s hard to stay ahead of the ball game. Even if you do have genius-level intelligence, you’re still a walking corpse in a world you know nothing about, and just like in real life, you can’t always predict what consequences a decision will have in the end.

The best comparison I can think of is the first Bioshock game. You trot around in a weird and foreboding place, collecting items, powers and weapons, not exactly sure what your motivations are. Slowly, you begin to understand your place in the world and it is scary. And that’s just the past, mind you. When you start to see the consequences of your choices throughout the game, it gets even tougher. The truth hits you with full force and you get defensive: “How was I supposed to know? I don’t even remember saying that! I didn’t think it mattered!” Oh, but it did.

The Characters

You would think that a classic, D&D-style alignment system would mess up all the nice little gray areas, but it doesn’t. All of the characters, including you, have their respective leanings toward good or evil, chaotic or lawful but feel like actual individuals. So of course there will be conflicts. It’s almost impossible to keep a party of six to even get along all the time. They bicker and they talk behind each others backs. You don’t get the friendliest answers from them by virtue of being the main character, either: They keep secrets from you, yell at you or outright lie to you. Choices you make will upset them or please them.

The Mechanics

For all its storytelling, Planescape: Torment is still a game. Specifically, it’s a top-down, old school RPG in the vein of Baldur’s Gate. In this case, it means you have to suffer through a clunky interface, messy point-and-click combat, and item hoarding. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t bother with it if the game was more combat oriented. Most of the time, it ends up being more of an immersion breaker than anything else and it’s by far the biggest issue that I have with it. Luckily, most fights are avoidable.

Graphics

Something that’s harder to look away from is the graphic quality. It’s not exactly easy on the eyes, but to be fair it could have been worse. It’s important not to forget the difference between dated graphics and bad design choices. Planescape: Torment usually falls victim to the first problem.

Torment also needs fixing up before running it: there are plenty of good mods out there, to help with everything from the interface, the glitches and even for adding extra quests, but taking care of that takes some time and not everyone has the patience for it. Unfortunately, even after all that work, you can still encounter some infuriating bugs.

The World

Going back to that feeling of discovery that I mentioned earlier, something that every good game needs (and most other games lack) is the element of surprise. This is where Planescape: Torment shines. Enter Sigil, the City of Doors where almost anything can be a literal portal to another place or even dimension. This is where the game starts off, and you’ll be stuck here for hours, probably by choice. It’s a hub where creatures from every place in the multiverse come together and because of this, things get crazy pretty quickly. Just to give you a taste of some of the things you can encounter: a pregnant alleyway, horned beings that only speak in rebuses, a succubus that runs the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and a man with a peculiar curse that makes him fart profusely.

These examples don’t necessarily show off what the game is all about. Sure, there’s a lot of humor here, but also plenty of drama, horror, mystery and everything else. Even though it may have aged badly in some ways, it’s also from an era where developers took a lot more risks. They made room for those weird ideas that perhaps a lot of companies today would have thrown away. It’s all that wonderful strangeness that made me get up from my seat, go over to my roommate(one of the two friends mentioned before), and go: “You won’t believe what just happened”.

Somehow, they make all of it feel cohesive and huge. This way, the world is no longer a place where everyone is patiently awaiting the The Nameless One’s next decision. On the contrary, you feel like you are part of something larger, like a page in an infinitely huge chronicle.

And while every game has its limits, this one sure doesn’t feel like it. As I’ve already made clear, you don’t have to choose between your typical cut-and-dried Paragon or Renegade options. It’s all in the nuances and it makes it all the more immersive – but also time-consuming. I never want to leave any stone unturned, but in this case that ideal is almost impossible to follow. Every map is riddled with quests and when you think you’ve completed them all, a new one pops up. This makes for an amazingly rich experience, but sometimes this backfires. All that content is crammed into such small areas that it sometimes becomes tiring to complete the quests. The many stories of the NPCs may be interesting, but when you run around in the same old areas with the same background music, it spoils a lot of the fun. That being said, the game world is truly fantastic and its uniqueness is hard to deny.

Conclusion:

Yes, Planescape Torment is a brilliant game, but that doesn’t mean that everybody should play it. It may be timeless when you look at the writing, story and characters but games don’t age the same way as books or even movies do. It has dated graphics, and the game mechanics that are tolerable at the most. Once you’re past that, though, you find a story that demands time and energy. This is not an instant gratification type of deal, which is one of its greatest strengths. It’s epic in the classical sense, with plenty of weirdness squeezed in to make sure you never know what’s next. It is not one, but many gateways to different worlds, and different lives.

Developer(s) Black Isle Studios
Publisher(s) Interplay Entertainment
Distributor(s) Wizards of the Coast
Producer(s) Guido Henkel
Designer(s) Chris Avellone (lead)
et al.[1]
Composer(s) Mark Morgan, Richard Band
Engine Infinity Engine
Platform(s) Microsoft Windows
Release date(s) December 12, 1999
Genre(s) Role-playing
Mode(s) Single-player
Distribution CD, DVD, download

 

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One Comment

  1. It’s better that the game was reviewed by someone new to it than someone who’d played it when it was new, such as myself. I think the basic gist would’ve been about the same, though – It’s good, but it has its flaws.

    Unfortunately, the whole “ZOMG WE USE 2ND EDITION D&D RULES!” was a big deal at the time, and honestly, 2nd edition rules simply weren’t all that good without a dungeon master to fix the myriad of flaws with such. When you have a computer for a DM… well, it’s not so great.

    Combat was boring, as stated, and there’s some real flaws with some of the controls. The glitches only get worse with age as it grows harder to run on newer machines, and there’s an awful lot of reading.

    Then again, the reading’s the part I like about it. Torment was clearly a labour of love, and they had some top notch writers in charge of things. One of my favourite scenes is a large temple with many different individuals preaching about their various faiths, and you can speak to each of them. One of these individuals you can get into a rather heated debate over immortality; he claims there is an afterlife, you can claim otherwise… and then snap your own neck, killing yourself… and get up 30 seconds later, tell him you proved your point, now it’s his turn…

    The writers truly went to great depths to learn the history, the various races, and to showcase them as being truly alien – you even meet the letter “O” – no joke – who provides some interesting tidbits of philosophy before disappearing. You hear stories from demons and devils, a centaur whose accent you can compare to the sweedish chef’s and a pyromancer who’s obsessed with fire until the only way he could be happy was to be literally set on fire, and you can even learn spells from him by having him burn your organs to cinders, trading off stats for new fire spells.

    In each and every case, the individuals feel like, well, individuals, and I’ve always loved Torment for that. It has a living, breathing world, where everyone is just living their lives, whether you’re there or not, and you won’t come across entire maps with a single pack of wolves and some trees in it like Baulder’s Gate. The maps are small in comparison, but vastly more densely populated with things going on so that it feels like you truly are within a city populated by every possible being in the known multiverse, and then some.

    The gameplay sucks, the graphics woefully outdated, but the writing is about as good as it comes in games. The story’s good, the characters amazing, and the world incredible.

    My specialization is in world design, and even I can’t quite reach the bar set by Torment, yet. Someday, but not today. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling, an interactive book, really, and a great one at that. It’s just not that great for gameplay. =P

    So really, I have to agree with your assessment. Planescape: Torment deserves to be spoken of with reverence because of how well it handles its world and draws the player in. It just isn’t on par with the graphics, gameplay, nor bugfixes of most modern games is all, and if you don’t care about plot, you’re probably not going to be interested in it.

    Even if you can poke an ice sculpture imported from the elemental plane of water, freeze your finger off, lose 3 max life, and kick your severed, frozen finger under the sculpture’s stand hoping no one noticed.

    If you think that last paragraph was hilarious, Torment may be for you. If you hated that it was a whoooole sentence to reaaaad, then maybe you’d be best off avoiding Torment. =P

    Anyway, I think you basically hit all the major points on it, Nils, and thanks for the review! Sorry for going all nostalgia trippy, but I dooo lurves me some good writing, especially when it asks, and answers, a rather interesting question…

    What can change the nature of a man, after all?

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