Review: Planescape: Torment03 May 2017 2
Review: Planescape: Torment
Released 11 Apr 2017
It is never a good thing to wake up in strange surroundings, your entire body covered in mysterious tattoos. Actually, it sounds like the repercussions of one very rowdy stag night. This is how we are first introduced to our hero, The Nameless One. It turns out that he cannot even remember his name –must have been some party! Things go from bad to worse when the aforementioned surroundings turn out to be a mortuary. Luckily, help is at hand in the unlikely guise of a floating skull named Morte, who turns out to be a friendly, if rather smart-mouthed chap. Morte is soon offering advice and reading some of the more difficult to reach tattoos - these turn out to be reminders to find a man called Pharod. So begins a journey through the heaving streets of Sigil, into the mysterious Outer Planes and even into the depths of Hell itself.
Upon release, at the very end of the last millennium, Planescape: Torment was not a major commercial hit; although it did receive wide-ranging critical acclaim. However, the game’s quirky plot and oddball characters meant that the game attracted a loyal following, and it is now spoken of in hushed tones of reverence in the Role-Playing Game Hall of Fame. This new version has been handled by experienced developers, Beamdog, with the help of the original lead designer, Chris Avellone. The result is an enhanced version, with remastered sound, interface refinements, improved graphics and bug squashing.
If you are the sort of gamer who clicks through dialogue sequences as quickly as possible, then Planescape: Torment isn’t likely to be the game for you. You see, much like a meeting of the Women’s Institute there is much chatting and relatively little bloodshed. Of course fights still do occur (especially when the vicar’s wife disses Mrs Perkin’s extremely popular Victoria sponge), but many potential conflicts can be resolved through dialogue or avoided altogether. This means that the game, more often than not, feels like an epic slice of interactive fiction rather than a traditional RPG. Some may find the masses of text a bit off-putting, but like any great writing, it has stood the test of time extremely well. There are a mindboggling number of paths that your conversations can follow, which means an incredible amount of text, which helps explain the game’s large 1.79GB footprint and fifty hour playing time. Everything about the world seems to have been considered and written about in detail, the characters in particular feel fully fleshed out (even the skeletons) with their own personalities and beliefs.
When you finally manage to escape from the mortuary, and take in the sprawling city of Sigil for the first time, you are likely to feel a little overwhelmed. The city buzzes with masses of inhabitants of all shapes and sizes, all going about their business, and you wonder just how you are going to find the elusive Pharod. Having to constantly absorb so much information means that, much like two shy zombies on a first date, Planescape: Torment is a slow moving affair. Like that first date there are a few initial fumbles and awkward moments, as you get used to the interface and array of tiny icons. You really need to play this game on as big a screen as you can muster.
A really impressive aspect, for a game of its time, is just how open and rich the world feels. It turns out that The Nameless One is actually immortal and ‘death’ generally results in a painless respawning to an earlier location. The result is that Planescape: Torment encourages you to experiment without fear. And there is plenty of opportunity to experiment. Your character begins the story with a clean slate and a neutral alignment; it is only through your decisions that this will evolve. Help an old lady across the road and you will become a nicer person, push her under a cart and your evilness will increase. But beware, your reputation goes before you and non-player characters will respond to The Nameless One in a manner that reflects not only their viewpoint, but also your past deeds.
In many ways Planescape: Torment represents a fitting finale to the Western-style isometric RPG’s that were so popular in the 1990’s. It was obviously produced by a team at the top of their game, with the confidence and self-belief to push the genre in new interesting directions. You really do feel that this is a RPG where you are actually playing a role, rather than mindlessly hacking and slashing your way through dungeons. The designers have gone out of their way to defy convention. Stereotypical fantasy races are avoided; the outcome is that the good guys are not distinguished from the bad guys by race or appearance alone. Your travel companions are an equally diverse bunch, ranging from a chaste succubus who can kill with a kiss to a confused crossbow-wielding cube. Incidentally, the main characters are further enhanced by some first class voice acting, which accompanies the already impressive use of sound.
However, there are still times when it feels like Planescape: Torment has been shoehorned, rather than tailored, to fit the touchscreen format. The interface, despite improvements, feels clunky and often unresponsive; selecting and directing characters often requires several taps. Some of my initial concerns were eased by fully exploring the options. At first, you may feel that your character’s movement is sluggish, and that items and exits are hard to spot. Then you discover that there are options to deal with both of these concerns.
Having not played Planescape: Torment before, it took a while for the game to really get its hooks into me. It all felt a bit too sprawling and slow moving, and the complicated interface did not help matters. Then you get into a fight and discover that watching the tiny, blurry characters take laboured swings at each other is hardly the stuff of legend. But keep playing and eventually something magical happens, as your character and supporting cast spring to life. My advice is to put aside any initial negative impressions and throw yourself into this engrossing story, with its excellent characters, strange happenings, intelligent plot twists and even a smattering of philosophical debate.