Planescape: Torment Review aka “What can change the nature of a man?”
Planescape: Torment is a very unlucky game. It suffered from a terrible box design – an ugly man’s face – and seemed to have almost no marketing devoted to it, from what I remember. Only those who played Baldur’s Gate or were otherwise hardcore RPG fans were likely to pick up the next offering using Bioware’s Infinity Engine,this time from Black Isle, and everyone else went on none the wiser.
I have immense sympathy for those people who did not play it at the time. Whilst now an old game, Planescape: Torment remains a cult classic. If you are at all curious as to why it is still a favourite amongst gamers, please allow me to explain.
Story and Immersion aka “Balance, in all things.”
Planescape: Torment is probably the most immersive and rich game with the best story ever made. Ever made. Its setting is Planescape, a confusing multiverse of devils, demons, angels, burning men, talking boxes, floating skulls and people created from the power of imagination. Not familiar with it? Neither was I when I first played it.
Despite the overwhelming strangeness complexity, and its own slang – the Cant – the game manages to immerse you fully within its bizarre world, and you pick up what is going on quickly. And then, just as quickly, you start caring about the floating skull next to you trying to flirt with corpses, or the empty suit of armour lecturing you on the nature of mercy.
The story itself is also slightly different from standard fare. It’s not a big spoiler to say that in Planescape: Torment, your character can’t really die. If you do die, you revive shortly afterwards on a slab in the mortuary, ready to try again. In a game where the protagonist is immortal, the story really needs to be engaging in order to justify that, and it is.
There is a lovely, holistic nature to Planescape: Torment. Pretty much all of the quests are linked to each other in some way, and one can quickly become embroiled in the politics of the various factions within the city of Sigil (pronounced Sig-il, not Sij-il) without really realising it. This holistic nature also serves to subtly teach the player about the world, so you can learn an awful lot without really feeling like you have sat down and read a synopsis.
Lots of this subtle teaching comes from the NPCs, who remain the most colourful cast of any game I’ve played to date. In my Baldur’s Gate Review, I praised the game for the lifelike nature of even the most fleetingly encountered of NPCs. In Planescape: Torment, this praise is even more deserved. All of the characters seem to have their own reasons for being where they are, and their own take on the world and what is going on around them.
Being Planescape, these characters aren’t your regular, run-of-the-mill fantasy elves and dwarves. In addition to the afore-mentioned floating skull and empty suit of armour, there is a chaste succubus, the embodiment of the letter ‘O’, triple-agents of planar wars, and shades of your own being. These wonderful characters are all believable in their own right, so much so that it almost seems normal.
And that’s where the beauty lies. This game introduces you to one of the most bizarre game worlds around, sucks you in and then wraps you in an all-encompassing cocoon of wonder. If you are not sucked in by this game, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Gameplay aka “Chief, we’re being followed. Just look natural, uh… casual.”
The next two paragraphs of my review are very similar to my Baldur’s Gate Review. This is not an accident or coincidence, as they both run off the Infinity Engine, and Planescape: Torment was released only a year after Baldur’s Gate.
The Planescape: Torment game engine runs off an adapted version of the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rules, using a quasi-turn based method. You can pause at any time, institute automatic pausing every 6 seconds (the length of a combat round) or play it all in rule time. As the player, you directly control a party of up to six members, normally including your player character (the protagonist) and 5 NPCs.
The amount of control available in combat is truly impressive, as you can leave the AI to control everything, control every single action manually or a great variance in between. Controlling a 6-member party of characters with a large variety of different options in combat makes it an incredibly tactical experience. This is further emphasised in Planescape: Torment due to how different the possible party members are – not a single companion plays the same as each other, or the main character.
When it comes to customisation, the topic becomes quite complicated. It is not possible to choose the appearance, sex, or name (or lack thereof) of the protagonist, for reasons that become clear once the game begins. Whilst this can be quite constricting in some ways, and is certainly a change from the norm for Western RPGs, it manages to work incredibly well in Planescape: Torment.
Most of the customisation that is present occurs during gameplay and not in the character creation screen. For example, whilst the player starts as a Fighter, options come about that allow you to switch to a Thief or Wizard, and back - and later on, back and forth changes are possible. Also, the player character’s statistics have quite a large effect upon dialogue choices, such as a more intelligent character being able to solve puzzles and a more dexterous one being able to snap the neck of some particularly annoying individuals.
In addition, the player’s moral and ethical choices can effect a number of things throughout the game in subtle ways. While there may not be some outward change akin to Fable or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you will gain horns and an ominous aura for being evil, you can pervert the lives of those around you – or even will them into or out of being, in some cases!
The dialogue is also spectacular, and aside from its depth and high quality, it also has an awful lot of options present within it. There are only three areas in the game where one absolutely must take part in combat, as dialogue (or running away) is possible – and sometimes even preferable – in every other situation!
The one failing of the gameplay is for those who are addicted to ever growing challenges. The combat encounters in Planescape: Torment are generally not very difficult, especially for the experienced player. This might disappoint those who are always in search of higher difficulty limits, but is probably not a consideration for most players.
This is made more evident by the fact that, as mentioned, it is very difficult for the protagonist to permanently lose. This is actually held up throughout the game; it’s not that you are immortal, but every enemy is an expert anti-immortal assassin. Lots of the time, death is merely the beginning of another attempt.
Graphics and Audio aka “I forge weapons by which the multiverse will be unmade.”
Once again, Planescape: Torment suffers from similar problems to reviewing Baldur’s Gate due to the age of the graphics, and due to it not being a standard of games of the time that all dialogue be voice-acted. Also like Baldur’s Gate, the graphics are primarily high quality 2D graphics, and so it is not that noticeable once you are used to it, and the voice-acting and music are of very high quality, rendering a lack of total voice-acting less problematic than it might otherwise be.
Unlike Baldur’s Gate, the game has a very particular and slightly weird style, as befitting the weirdness of the world itself, and thus the game’s age is probably even less of a hindrance, as you probably won’t have played anything quite like it anyway.
The music in particular has a haunting quality to it, and really adds to the immersion within the game.
Conclusion aka “Time is not your enemy, forever is.”
Play this game.