Black Isle Studios, a division of Interplay, has garnered a reputation recently for some of the finest PC RPGs of the past few years. By creating and publishing such titles as Fallout, Fallout 2, and Baldur’s Gate, they have almost single-handedly spurred the RPG revival for the computer. While the Fallout games were loosely inspired by the GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) system created by Steve Jackson Games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment are AD&D games – the former being set in the Forgotten Realms, and the latter being set in the Planescape universe.
Given the strong background of the developers, does Planescape: Torment live up to its pedigree? Yes, and in the process, may be one of the best RPGs of 1999.
“I hope you don’t lose your memories this time, Chief.”
The game revolves around Sigil, known as the City of Doors. It is a fitting nickname, for there are doors everywhere – literally and figuratively. In the Planes, anything can be a door to another world. A painting, a window, an archway – any could be the ticket to another world – another plane. Experienced Planewalkers speak of the beauty of Mount Celestia, and the boundless evil of the plane of Baator – along with thousands of other worlds. Finding a way there is the hard part – all doors need keys…
Is this your typical RPG world? No, it is unlike any you have seen.
In what seems to be a RPG cliché, the main character – known as the Nameless One – has amnesia. Unlike most RPG heroes, however, the Nameless One is an immortal, his body covered with scars. On his back is a message carved into his skin, telling him to find his journal, and to seek a man known as Pharod. With these goals, he begins his quest – but Sigil is just the doorway of a grand journey.
The interface of the game is a modified version of the Baldur’s Gate engine. While seemingly complex at first, it takes little time to get used to controlling the world. The cursor allows easy movement of the party, and also allows appropriate interaction with objects and people – whether combat or dialogue. Hotkeys allow quick access to the inventory, spell book, options menu, and other useful screens. The game is in real-time, though it can be paused by pressing a single key to plan strategy, use items, and otherwise determine the best course of action. Formations can be chosen to keep your party in order, and the view can stay locked on a character or be free-scrolling.
“By the will of Zerthimmon, I have become stronger.”
Character creation is quick, especially for those knowledgeable with the AD&D character system. While the player has no control over which class the Nameless One begins as (a fighter), a number of points can be allocated to six statistics – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom. Once the points are spent, the game begins. While the Nameless One is a fighter by default, he can be trained additionally in the arts of thieving and sorcery by various teachers, switching at will. This flexibility is welcome, as you aren’t forced into approaching a situation in any one manner.
The statistics of the characters play important roles, true to the AD&D system. A low statistic will have a negative impact on the character’s functioning, and a high one will bestow bonuses in the appropriate areas. A high strength allows more combat damage and more weight to be carried. High dexterity makes the character harder to hit. Perhaps most importantly are the effects of high Wisdom and Intelligence, in that both open a number of dialogue paths that can radically change the way the game is played.
“With some help, you sever the optic nerve and remove your eyeball…”
If you plan on picking up Planescape: Torment, pick up some reading glasses. The game has an incredible amount of dialogue. Nearly everyone has something to say, and most information in the game is presented as dialogue. The strengths of the system are obvious – the amount of depth present in the game-world and the Planescape universe can be explored as much as the player wants. The devoted player can learn about the City of Doors, Sigil; the mysterious Lady of Pain; the epic Blood War; and the Nameless One’s past. With high Intelligence and Wisdom skills, more topics and responses appear, and an intelligent character can get opportunities that others may not. With all the reading comes one fundamental problem, however, and that lies in the dialogue tree system. To trigger some quests and events, specific dialogue entries must be read – but to get to them, many other entries have to be read – sometimes multiple times. While it’s nice to see such a fully developed world, it’s not quite as fun to hear the story of the Blood War for the 15th time – and there’s no real way to avoid it, short of missing potential quest opportunities.
Fortunately, you don’t have to take notes. The in-game journal stores all the important information, including a listing of all the characters and monsters, a listing of quests (both assigned and completed), and brief summaries of different plot events and pieces of information relevant to the quest. Not sure what that important character said? Look it up!
The characters are nice as well. There’s a rather limited selection, but they’re all useful – and unique. Whether it’s Morte, the skull; Fall-From-Grace, the succubus; or Ignus, the human fireball – they all have their place in the world. They’re not just extra attackers, though – each has a background, their own personality (very few of your companions are fond of each other), their own abilities, and their own quirks. Very few RPGs allow the main character to have an in-depth discussion with their companions, and important information can be learned from one’s allies.
“Can I get some help over here? My jaw’s about to fall off.”
No matter how much dialogue you go through, however, you will have to fight at times. Combat can get very hectic, which is why pausing the battle can be so useful. While there are some unique weapons (new sets of teeth for Morte, the severed arm of one of the Nameless One’s older incarnations can be used as a club, etc), there doesn’t seem to be much variety. Part of this is the scarcity of long-range weapons – battles often just turn into a matter of surrounding an enemy and having everyone hit it. Magic helps in this regard, with later spells being both powerful and well animated. Combat is entertaining because of the mix of fighting methods, but the fact that it is relatively limited is a good thing (though the combat oriented can certainly fight as much as they want).
Death isn’t the end of the world as it is in some games. Since the main character is immortal, death has no lasting impact. Party members can die, but reviving them isn’t too hard. Unlike what would be expected, however, this does not mean that the game lacks challenge. Death may not be permanent, but that doesn’t make it any less inconvenient. Merely choosing a less-combat oriented path in order to avoid dying might not be enough; actions taken towards individuals are often irreversible, even if your untimely demise can be remedied. And the Planes themselves hold creatures of such power that…well, immortality isn’t flawless.
The music is good – very atmospheric. The overall gloominess of the atmosphere is enhanced by the eerie music, yet the upbeat music in taverns contrasts well. Unfortunately, some songs are played too often for my tastes (the normal combat music). Ambient sounds are terrific, as the bustle of a marketplace reflects the on-screen crowds. Individual conversations can even be picked up on occasion. Voice acting is good, from the Nameless One’s deep growl to Morte’s wise-ass remarks and Ignus’s hissing. Combat sounds as it should, with the clashing of weapons, the howling of the wounded, and the booming of magic. EAX sound is supported for those with the appropriate hardware.
“What can change the nature of a man?”
Quests are an important component of the gameplay. Aside from the mandatory quests that must be finished to win the game, there are many side-quests available, with rewards ranging from money and items to experience. Some quests are typical fetch quests, others are combat related, but some involve solving riddles and accomplishing other, unusual goals. While many quests can be skipped, side-quests are an integral part of much of the game, and help add more detail to the world.
The game can be divided into two halves. The first half is mainly exploratory, with a large number of things to do and places to go – very non-linear in its approach. Later, however, the game becomes much more focused and concentrates more on the plot and the history of the Nameless One and his allies. The number of side-quests drops, and goals are well defined – though they can still be accomplished in a number of ways. The somewhat slow pace of the game escalates into a series of rapid events and sequences – while they have no actual time limit, there is a sense of urgency and intrigue that helps propel the game to its climax.
As a result of the number of side-quests, the game seems short. It’s not – I estimate I spent over 50 hours playing the game, which is respectable. Moreover, I know I missed a number of quests and side-areas, and I could easily re-play with a different style. The game just leaves the player wanting more. It’s a testament to the quality of the atmosphere that the great deal that is present just isn’t enough to satisfy.
“Succubus, I want nothing to do with ye!”
Aside from the small flaws mentioned so far, though, there are a few larger problems.
Large is a good word to describe the install size. The only available install size is 640 Megs – the entire first CD (People with too much hard drive space can also do a full-install of all 4 CDs, details are available on Interplay’s Website, at www.interplay.com). Even with all that hard drive space, the game ran somewhat slowly. On a system that barely met the minimum specs, I found that while it generally ran decently, it tended to become very slow when the action increased. A Pentium II-266 is recommended, but the higher the better.
A few interface problems popped up. Items sometimes stacked properly, and sometimes they didn’t – there were several occasions where I thought I couldn’t hold any more items, but by combining similar items I freed up much inventory space. Try as I might, I also couldn’t seem to get information about each character’s special abilities – only through experimentation did I find out that Morte’s Skull Mob ability does damage. In a game where right clicking on just about any item or spell gives full information, a lack of information about a few special abilities was annoying, particularly since there wasn’t anything else like them.
Like any PC game, there are bugs. One major problem many people seem to be having is a slowdown bug. (As such, I’m not sure if the slow performance on my testing machine was due to the overall slowness of the machine or due to the bug). Some quests seemed impossible to complete, though that could be due to missing one specific dialogue option (another problem). Occasionally, the game would lock up while switching areas – yet a reload from the automatic save fixed the problem. Hissing static would sometimes occur when saving a game, yet reloading again fixed that problem. While Torment seems to lack any crippling bugs, the overall lack of polish does detract from the total package.
Yet with a game as unique and entertaining as Torment, it doesn’t matter that much. Perhaps it ran slowly, and a few quests weren’t entirely resolved. Despite that, it kept me up playing until 3 AM every night until I was done, because I wanted to know more about the Nameless One. I wanted to improve my party, to see how they’d react in new situations. I watched them become more powerful, and I was drawn into the world of the Planes.
Isn’t that what gaming is all about?