Planescape: Torment Review
Black Isle Studios
December 12, 1999
T / 16+
When you talk about the history of PC roleplaying games, there is no way past the Baldur’s Gate series. When it came out in 1998, Baldur’s Gate reinvigorated a genre which was thought to be past its prime; at a point when real time strategy and first person shooters dominated the market.
It also paved the way for two other titles set in the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse and based on Baldur’s Gate’s Infinity Engine: Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. Both titles were developed by Black Isle (publishing studio of the BG series) and both titles sit on opposite ends of a spectrum with Baldur’s Gate comfortably placed in the middle. Where Icewind Dale favours action-loaded tactical combat and a linear story over choice and in-depth side quests, Planescape: Torment does the opposite: Here the story is primary while combat takes the backseat. And it is this story and its characters above everything else which makes this game stand out.
The story begins in a Mortuary, more specifically on a bier which is shoved into the room by a zombie, but it gets weirder still: The main character, lying on the bier, is clearly not dead and is also cursed with some pretty whacky dreams. He’s a tall fellow, in good physical shape, but he’s not a beauty. His ash-grey complexion and the fact that this whole body is covered in scars gives you an idea of what a troubled soul he is. Turns out he doesn’t remember though, not his name, not anything. So the question is: How did this guy end up on a bier in a Mortuary? What is his name? And why is this floating skull talking to you? Yes that’s right people… a floating skull? You might say thereafter: “Turns out that this very short guy by the name of Morte is quite the talker” (what else is there to do for a skull) and is your sidekick on this adventure. And alas, he’s able to help you read your tattoos to get a clue where to start your journey.
This journey first takes you out of the Mortuary and into a much bigger and stranger place called Sigil, but don’t worry you get back to the Mortuary whenever you die. Did I mention you were immortal? Sigil is the centre of the planes, the limbo-like inter dimensional space that is connected to all worlds in the Dungeon’s and Dragons multiverse. It is inhabited by a variety of creatures – humans, zombies, demons and the like – and is ruled by an omnipotent protector called the Lady of Pain. While you explore this rather extraordinary of locations further you pick a party of up to six people (including you) While the choice is much more limited than in Baldur’s Gate, you can only pick from 7 different NPCs; every single one of them is worth it for their rich characters and expansive back story. To give you a taste, you will meet a chaste succubus, a pyromaniac mage punished to burn alive for eternity and maybe even rogue robotic cube with legs and a conscience. The deeper you dig the more twisted the story and the Nameless One’s past becomes. More and more you will feel like the people around him know much more than they led to believe. Be prepared for a few surprises.
Though there is combat in the game and it can be tricky at times, it is definitely quest driven and you can you can solve many of them without getting involved in fights, but by making the right decisions during conversations, and solving puzzles etc. What you say and do has an impact on the later game and the way NPCs react to you. The game makes use of the alignments (good, neutral, evil – law, neutral, chaos) which you might know from Baldur’s Gate or Dungeons & Dragons. These however play a much more important role than in BG and your alignment, set to ‘true neutral’ at the beginning of the game, will truly be impacted by your actions, to the extent that it takes some serious perseverance to become chaotic evil or lawful good. The dialogue is rich and well thought through. You always have multiple options to reach the goal, sometimes there are up to eight different replies to choose from.
Planescape: Torment used Bioware’s Infinity Engine, but you can easily see the difference. The UI looks more organic than in Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. In addition, the circle, perhaps a symbol for the story itself, plays a much more dominant role in the design than in the other two titles. Furthermore by losing the left and right bar and putting the whole interface to the bottom of the screen, the designers made more screen space available. The character models are bigger and seem more detailed than in the other two titles. This is helped by the option to view rendered images of every character you encounter in your journal.
Character creation is different to the other Black Isle titles in as much as you do not roll the dice. Instead you begin with 9 points for each attribute and have 21 additional points to allocate. You start as a level 3 warrior but you can switch your class to mage or thief and vice-versa later in the game. Additionally you will receive 1 attribute point whenever you progress to a new level and you can buff your stats through certain quests and items. Remarkably your stats will change the way you play the game. If you concentrate on your mental stats you will be able to solve many quests without getting into a fight, whereas if you neglect them, you will have less dialogue option’s and will more often have to fight your way out of a situation.
The inventory is also somewhat different from what you might expect: Some of the equipment slots will not be available for certain characters, a skull can’t wield a sword after all, and magical items have a much more important part to play. Some of your party members will only be able to for instance equip a certain type of weapon or armor, while others won’t have that option at all. This might be a stab to the heart of your inner looter but think of it as less is more; all these items have a place and a purpose in the story, whereas a +1 long sword normally is nothing more than an improved means to the end.
This game is a true gem. When it came out, it broke many a convention, and while it never had the commercial success of its contemporaries, it has remained a critically acclaimed cult classic. The story is one of a kind. The characters range from the strangely endearing, to the slightly deluded to the outright hilarious. The attention to detail and the depth of the scenarios and setting are nothing less than impressive. Sigil is designed beautifully and the soundtrack increases the level of immersion into this weird and often deadly environment.
Unless you can get hold of a hardcopy, you can get Planescape: Torment on GOG.com for $10, which would be 10 bucks well spent. In either case it is well worth looking at their section about mods for the game, which range from bugfixes and the option to play at a higher resolution to characters and quests that didn’t make the final version of the game.
If you’re into RPGs and you’ve never played this classic before, trust me, you’re missing out. So I’d suggest you get a copy. And if you have played it, I ask you: How long has it been? Might it be about time for another play-through?
- Brilliant and vast story
- Unique setting and array of characters
- Great soundtrack and graphics (for the time)
- Genre bending all-time classic
- If you love looting and look for a hack and slash dungeon crawl, you’ll probably need to look somewhere else.
- Likewise, if you hate reading, this might not be the right game for you.
Planescape: Torment got a near perfect review from Matthias. With Torment being a part of Baldur’s Gate, have any of you played this game before?