They don’t make games like this anymore. Bringing video games to a wider audience has its merits, namely making video games a more acceptable form of entertainment, but increased accessibility and multiplayer support has wreaked significantly more havoc than good in recent years. And it only looks to be getting worse. In an effort to make games that every Joe Simpleton can play and enjoy, developers have streamlined gameplay, simplified story, axed challenge, and watered down the single-player experience. Developers have thus spawned a landfill of shovelware and dreck so large it could contain every one of Peter Molyneux’s unfulfilled promises and save room for those from his next game. Everyone from Nintendo to BioWare has gone to the dark side, giving us pitifully easy Zeldas and overly streamlined Mass Effects.
There will never be another Planescape: Torment. Released in 1999, it is better than almost every other game in the last decade, better than perhaps all but one game released in the last five years, and certainly better than any RPG released during that time. Torment is as complex in story and characters as it is in gameplay, and we’ll never see anything like this again if the world continues to worship multiplayer experiences and developers continue to target an audience that includes everyone and their unborn children.
The story begins with The Nameless One awakening inside the Mortuary without a memory. And evidently, it’s happened more than once. That’s right. The main character is so amnesiaed-out that he can’t even remember his name. It’s the oldest trick in the book. It’s the most cobwebbed JRPG cliché and transgression in history. Torment takes what would be any other game’s weakness, however, and hammers it into a suit of full plate mail and dons it proudly. It armors itself in its weakness and turns it into its shining strength. As The Nameless One explores Sigil, uncovering past lives, discovering age-old secrets, and unraveling his lost selves’ actions like a somnambulist murderer, so does the player explore and learn. The player feels for The Nameless One. In this unparalleled genius, Torment tells one of the most brilliant stories ever told in a video game. Spectacular writing filled with obscure slang that gives the world absurdly authentic verisimilitude makes Torment all the more effective. The game has more words than Dragon Age: Origins, and over eight times as many as most novels. Prepare to read, but with each line of dialogue, prepare to fall deeper into The Nameless One’s world and his plight. Profound revelations, poignant tales, well-placed humor, and powerful dialogue ambush the player at every angle, turn, and portal of Planescape: Torment’s engaging setting.
The game takes place across the planes of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons world, mostly in Sigil, the City of Doors, a place where a portal may exist under an arch, a tree branch, or inside a cabinet. All one needs is the key: a knuckle bone, a whispered word, or occasionally something more sinister. The Nameless One’s adventures take him and his companions through Sigil and across the Planes. The setting allows for innumerable bizarre happenings, characters, and items, and no setting seen in a video game since comes close to the mélange of oddity and wonder created when the planes come together in one place. The art direction capitalizes on this as well, creating peculiar designs for everyday locations, such as a catacomb or merchant’s shop. The graphical engine is a version of the Infinity Engine modified to show more detail on characters and locales. The game’s CG movies no longer look pretty, but the level of detail in the environments and the grime and doom expressed by the use of color and design are excellent. Along with atmospheric music and sound effects, the setting comes to vivid life. Music can be eerie or as painful as a dirge. Clever sound design achieves new levels of realism as well. When The Nameless One walks into a bar, the player hears the patrons mumbling to one another or a drunk laughing obnoxiously at his own crass jest.
As a character, The Nameless One exceeds every video game protagonist to date. He is immortal, scarred, and tormented, and his every false death casts another inexhaustible shadow upon existence. He cannot die permanently. That means just as much for the player as it does for him. No Game Over screens. He is truly one of a kind. He regenerates hit points, he can change classes at any time, and he gains ability score points at nearly every level. And although his past is fixed, the player decides how he acts in the present, making this one of the best real role-playing games around. Dialogue options swarm the screen at times with a great level of personality customization. Having high Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma pays off with new and better dialogue options. Torment employs an alignment system that heavily complements the setting, but it never seems obtrusive the way moral systems often do. In the end, the player creates his own version of The Nameless One, but he isn’t the only unique character.
A droll floating skull. A peaceful succubus who runs a brothel for the intellectual. A man turned into a conduit to the Elemental Plane of Fire for his crimes. A construct from the lawful plane of Mechanus gone chaotic. If The Nameless One is the best protagonist, his followers are the best supporting characters. Each is intelligently crafted and one of a kind. Special rules govern each of their statistics and abilities, and conversing with them reveals not only heart wrenching backstories, but new powers as well. While I would have preferred more inter-party dialogue, the amount that is present is amusing. Several characters don’t get along, and that’s always fun. It doesn’t match Baldur’s Gate II’s quality, but it’s done well nevertheless.
The majority of playtime in Torment involves talking to NPCs. The 800,000 words in the game demand to be read. Quests are common, and most of them are actually memorable, given by memorable characters, putting most modern RPG side quests to shame. Almost every NPC within the game features an interesting perspective, conversation style, or physical appearance. One NPC might babble on forever at a simple request. Another might only speak in magical curses. And many NPCs are just nuts. Interestingly, an enormous portion of Torment is optional. There are entire segments of the game the player can bypass if he just wants to play through the main storyline. Some of the best moments are optional, however, including the acerbic hack ‘n slash satire, the Modron Cube. Sigil begs to be explored, and the game certainly rewards those who take the time to do so.
Torment isn’t all woolgathering and sophisticated discourse, however. Legions of tanar’ri and baatezu, cranium rats and wererats, vargouille and zombies, and the ubiquitous thugs all line up for their chance at sort of killing The Nameless One. Like any Infinity Engine game, combat plays out in real-time with space bar pausing and infinite possibilities. Hence the name. Strategy is central to success: character placement, effective use of abilities and spells, and timing can make or break The Nameless One’s back. Since Torment can be said to focus on story instead of combat, not every battle is an intense challenge, especially compared to something like Baldur’s Gate II. Difficulty exists, largely in the second half and during optional quests, but in proportion to the relatively low volume of combat.
Torment’s gameplay elements weren’t ignored in favor of storytelling, however. Mistaking Torment for a combat-light visual novel type game is a big error. Combat is complex, as are the game’s magic spells, items, and quests. One ability has Morte the floating skull taunt a foe with a string of insults, and every time he hears an NPC utter a profane barrage of curses in dialogue with The Nameless One, the ability becomes more effective. So much detail for just one ability – that kind of industriousness is unknown today. Even enemies are more complex than they first appear. The game’s answer to the sewer rat is more powerful in groups, for instance. With hive minds, cranium rats are stupid alone, but intelligent in groups – so intelligent as to be able to cast spells. Should The Nameless One come across a pair of cranium rats, he’ll have no problem dispatching them. Should an entire pack appear, however, they’ll start flinging abdomen-splitting lightning bolts.
Quest and dialogue mechanics are just as complex, requiring specific lines of questioning and careful selection of dialogue options to trigger the best experience awards and side quests. Items often become useful long after the player acquires them, and a careless inventory cleanup can cause a missed opportunity later. Equipment is well designed as well, and the pacing of the power level is superb. Every item seems to have a use, every character seems to have something to say, and every location is of importance. One gets the impression that the game has an infinite number of quests and dialogue options to offer, and that no matter what one does, the game will never reveal them all in one playthrough.
A host of bugs and imperfect pathfinding may be the only two complaints Torment suffers. Also, the final stretch of the game feels ever-so-slightly rushed, being combat-focused and thus less full of the profound moments that make the game so fantastic. Torment finishes strongly, however, with an end that is both bittersweet and thought-provoking. Torment has few flaws. Even hack ‘n slash types can find something to love here, especially considering that much of the dialogue is optional. Slide the difficulty up, and Torment becomes a more combat-heavy game as the player spends more time in combat strategizing and overcoming hordes of enemies.
With Planescape: Torment, Black Isle created one of the most engaging and powerful story-based video games ever made. Even today it is almost unbeaten. Even beyond the story and characters, however, Torment offers a rich and satisfying gameplay experience, proving that the game has more than one strength. Competent graphics and effective art and sound design create an atmosphere as unique as The Nameless One.
Planescape: Torment asks the question: What can change the nature of a man? The game may have other ideas, but my answer? Games like this. They send a clear message after a decade’s aging that something has gone terribly wrong. After playing this game and seeing what could be done in 1999, I’m sick of putting up with garbage in 2010. So developers, cut the crap, go play Planescape: Torment, and remember what video games are capable of being.