Planescape: Torment Review
9.6our score

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.

Planescape Torment 1

Every blood knows to keep their hands on their jink in this place… and that goes double for your brain-box.

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.”

Planescape Torment 2

Being scragged by Shadows is enough to make any cutter wish they hadn't taken so many berks for a ride.

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.”

Planescape Torment 3

Hard to keep yourself out of the dead book in this place.

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.

  • Evil Tactician

    I would agree that from a story perspective Planescape: Torment stands head and shoulders above pretty much any other RPG – even today.

    But I do remember a couple of slight nuisances, and would like to think that general usability and controls have come some way in recent times. I quite like Dragon Age: Origins for its UI and Controls and would say it is a little better than PS:T in this respect.

    Beyond that, I couldn’t agree more – I’d still give the game a solid 9 as well and would recommend ANYONE who hasn’t played it to buy it and play it as soon as possible. You cannot leave this world without having played Planescape: Torment and still consider yourself a gamer or even a moderate fan of RPGs.

    In fact – go and force your children to play it too. That’s right, you’re grounded until you’ve played through this game. AND YOU WILL ENJOY YOURSELF.

  • Teronfel

    Best RPG ever

  • Zyle

    I’d personally have docked it a little for interface as I find the abilities “wheel” thing a bit unwieldy – it wasn’t so bad at the time but UIs and interfaces have come on a bit since…1999, I think?

    Other than that I couldn’t agree more – awesome, awesome RPG. The script has more words in the script than the freaking bible; that’s a hell of an achievement. I’ve heard complaints from some who’ve not played it before that they found the beginning in the mortuary and the initial Sigil areas a bit slow – if you do find that, I’d advise you to push through regardless as it gets incredibly awesome shortly thereafter!

  • Alratan

    Quoth myself:

    People keep saying about the interface, but I still love it. The ease of the radial menu on right-click just seems incredibly simple to me, and I never worried about the lack of keyboard shortcuts. It also might be the minimalist part of me that likes it, as it is somehow nicer than vast lines of icons at the bottom of the screen.

  • Silvade

    Brilliant review, I understand how Planescape is the best RPG ever. But I just can’t get used to the gameplay, I guess it’s because my first RPG was Oblivion. I tried it once, but couldn’t stand the gameplay, I might someday give it a second chance and hopefully I will fall in love with it just like I did with Fallout 2 and 1.

    But one thing I have no doubt, when people says that Planescape story is the best, I believe them :)

  • Alratan

    I can understand that – it’s definitely a very different style of RPG than Oblivion. You could try dipping into Dragon Age: Origins as a stepping stone, as that has a far more tactical/party-orientated style, and then going onto Planescape: Torment afterwards.

  • Matt Walalce

    Note that it was not a “Bioware Offering” – it used Bioware’s infinity engine under license, but otherwise Planescape was entirely the product of Black Isle studios. (Black Isle also published the Baldur’s Gate games for Bioware, was a divison of Interplay. Interplay was acquired by Infogrames, and Infogrames renamed itself to Atari after buying the dregs of the “Atari” assets, mostly for the name.)

  • Alratan

    Very true, the wording was unclear before. Altered!

  • Zas

    What can change the nature of a man?

  • Bob K

    I’m playing Torment for the first time right now and it is frustrating me (trying to manage 6 characters fighting in real time is a major PITA – I came across this article searching for how to better handle the characters). I think Arcanum was a similar but much better game in most ways (Torment has more creative characters, but other than that, I think Arcanum is better).

    • Evil Tactician

      The game was released in an era where it was widely accepted that one would pause in such combat. Whilst it is real-time – the engine behind it handles everything in turns, with dice rolls, as a ‘real’ D&D game would.

      Pause a lot, issue orders and make liberal use of the auto-pause settings. Without that, you’ll struggle.

      • Bob K

        Thanks. I’m doing that now. It is definitely much better now, though I’d still prefer total turn based combat. Don’t get me wrong – this is a great game and I’m glad I stumbled upon it. Hard to believe it is almost 15 years old – I’d rather play this game than most modern games. I wish they still made games like this.

        • Evil Tactician

          I’d recommend checking out Torment: Tides of Numenera, as it is exactly what you’re looking for. You’re not the only one with this desire, which is why the developers picked up $4,188,927 with their Kickstarter campaign.

          We’re going through a pretty golden time for nostalgic gamers right now. :-)

          • Bob K

            Thanks – I’d seen little blurbs about that from Torment google searches, but I just assumed it was a pipe dream that was never going to happen. Pretty exciting to see that this is the real deal!