The legend of Planescape: Torment has dogged me for years. It is a game that is whispered of in dark corners, spoken about in hushed, reverent tones. The kind of game that somebody knows somebody who has played it, but is always lurking just out of reach.
As a fan of Baldur’s Gate, I have wanted Torment for a long time, but it never deigned to show its face in the shops. Even as a cult classic, I had never heard of it being re-released.
Minor spoilers ensue… Only minor, though. Since only about four of you will have ever set eyes on Torment, spoiling the whole plot would mean nobody at all would want to read this entry. Rest assured, I haven’t completed it yet.
It’s Not Baldur’s Gate
Big surprise there, home-boy.
Advertised as being built on BioWare’s Infinity Engine, on which Baldur’s Gate, its sequel, and other Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games are based, it’s got that classic top-down isometric gameplay. The problem with that advert is that the interface is considerably different than any other contemporary AD&D title Black Isle pumped out.
Most obviously to a BG veteran is that… Well, everything is crammed along the bottom of the screen. Your character portraits, access to inventories and spellbooks and the options screen (which you can’t seem to get to from the game’s main menu), the whole lot. I’m still not sure if I like this or not.
One thing the game does have is what can only be described as the far-flung ancestor of the vaunted radial menu — the “quick menu” that comes up on a right-click, allowing you to select all your generic orders as well as cast spells and use items. The item and spell quick slots a BG player is used to are squeezed out of the main interface and into this strange little device, so when combat occurs it’s the only way to get your powers into play. Not sure if I like it again; your mouse is generally where you want to issue the order, so a right-click tends to pull the menu up right on top of your intended target. Takes a little getting used to.
Aesthetically, it isn’t anything like Baldur’s Gate either. It has moved the perspective closer to the ground, so character models are considerably larger… I don’t think this works, because it means the architecture all around them is now also much larger — and when you’re locked to 800×600 or worse, you’d kind of rather you had a little bit more screen space. Outside in Sigil some massive archways don’t help to make it clear where is walkable and where is not, and naturally some large structures will always have a bit of the Fog of War clinging to them.
The most notable gameplay improvement is that characters can always run — there is no repeating the same character six times to get enough pairs of Boots of Speed for everyone (indeed, with character generation as stripped down as it is, there is no option to import an old character). Levelling up seems to be quite snappy, despite the 2nd edition rules that require you to hoard tens of thousands of experience points to get up; this could be due to the focus on questing rather than raw combat. Though Nameless One does seem to be running several levels ahead of everyone else, so I assume he keeps a lot of that quest experience for himself.
Because it really isn’t a game of combat. With, apparently, over 800,000 words of dialogue, Torment is all about talking to people. The attention to detail here is incredible — every single zombie in the starting area, for example, has a unique description.
Dialogue is pretty different from BG too. In that, well, it’s not all dialogue.
In your traditional RPG, speaking to somebody implies all the sundry greetings are dealt with and then you get on to asking them about your current quest. In Torment, a dialogue will often begin with a description of the person and what they’re doing, followed by the ability to say “Greetings” or to leave them alone. That’s quite a significant departure from normal expectations. And then as your conversation progresses, quite a lot of the actual dialogue will be punctuated by more descriptions of what the character is doing — Planescape: Torment is, in fact, a novel.
It’s Not Mass Effect?!
One thing that continues to perturb me is how much of Mass Effect is shamelessly harvested from Torment. Okay, same company, probably a lot of the same personnel too, but really guys — was Torment unknown enough that you thought you could get away with it?
Where can I start? Sigil, the city in which the game takes place, is basically the Citadel (or rather, the Citadel is… You know what I mean). It’s a big free-floating ring, on the inside of which is built the city. It has portals/Mass Relays to everywhere. The city consists of wards. The city is maintained by the enigmatic Dabus, who repair and rearrange it without explaining why to anyone. You can talk to them, but they won’t tell you anything useful, so they’re effectively the same as the non-speaking Keepers.
Then we get to the matter of Cranium Rats. These are creatures that get cleverer the more there are in the one place — hello the Geth. Except that in Mass Effect I completely never noticed them being “more tactical” when there were plenty around, while I have been privy to those vermin casting bitchin’ spells when there are a lot and not casting bitchin’ spells when there are few.
I bumped into a man who said “this one” in the manner of the Hanar. To be honest, by now I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran into a character that spoke like an Elcor during my next session. I ran into a blue-skinned chick too, but that’s probably generic enough to be allowed to slip.
There are at least six different kinds of dagger, for example, from a slew of 1-3 damage pieces of poo to the choice between 2-5 and 1-6. With descriptions ranging from a rusty iron nail to a delicate stiletto.
But most of the game’s item variety doesn’t even come in the likes of weapons and armour; there are loads of little consumable “charms” to boost you during combat, there are artefacts you can wear, there are tattoos and earrings and bracelets… And that’s just items that are any use to you; there are even more worthless junk items. Or quest items, that again come complete with bizarre histories.
My favourite item so far has been a little toy action figure; by activating it, I was able to play with it, making one of my companions rather jealous. More awesome dialogue, and it made me feel so warm and fuzzy inside.
Companions commenting meaningfully on your situation is a frequent occurrence too. Not just the interchangeable quips of Mass Effect, or even the odd Jan Jansen interjection of Baldur’s Gate II, but actual dialogue. For example, my Githzerai companion told me not to talk to a Githyanki, and one recent acquisition had some past history with a shopkeeper that resulted in a bit of a cat-fight. Morte, the floating skull you acquire immediately on starting the game, is incredible banter at all points.
If you’ve played Baldur’s Gate, then you’ve been introduced to the more mundane elements of the Dungeons & Dragons experience. The high fantasy with all the usual elves and dwarves and giant spiders and rats and wolves and ogres. Torment delves into the more far-out end of the universe, taking place as it does at the “centre” of the planes. There are demons wandering the streets, there are Githzerai around, all the women are extremely scantily clad, there are tieflings (half demon… ish) everywhere…
The architecture is no less forgiving. Buildings are not traditional olde worlde wooden structures or stone castles of recognisable design; they’re all a mad jumble of strange shapes. This is not just the beautifully slick side-step of leaving Seyda Neen and finding that the trees are actually mushrooms in Morrowind — this is straight up bizarre. Then again, Sigil does have access to every plane in existence and it is sort of shaped by thought; you can kind of understand everything being a bit weird when you’ve got so many different species of creature wandering around.
Your main character starts life as a Fighter. All you choose are his attributes. Don’t be put off by this; pump up intelligence and wisdom and charisma so you can get all the extra dialogue options and succeed at the talking. As you wander around Sigil, you will encounter characters who are willing to train you in exchange for quests or money, and they will allow you to change your class. I have so far found Mage and Thief trainers; naturally, with my int-heavy build a Mage was the more optimal choice.
A major departure from the Baldur’s Gate style is that you get attribute points to spend every few levels, so you will get physically better over time.
However, rather than the infrequent Tomes that allowed you to upgrade your attributes in-game in BG, completing side-quests will also often have good effects on your body — from a couple of extra hit points to a permanent attribute boosts, or a permenant reduction (that’s good in 2e, remember?) to your armour class.
I am thoroughly enjoying myself. The narrative was a little bit slow to start; I ended up just pumping side quests for a while before it got going (half the side-quests reveal tid-bits that will help the main anyway).
It is a game of reading. If you like reading, then Planescape: Torment is definitely for you — it is beautifully written. If you’re willing to take the time to press characters on everything they’re willing to say, you will be rewarded with an incredibly rich and detailed background.
Combat isn’t particularly difficult (at least, so far), so if like me you’re crap at strategy you won’t have too much trouble. There isn’t no combat, but there’s not half as much of it as Baldur’s Gate. Oh, and did I mention it’s one of those games where you can’t die and just insta-revive somewhere else? Yeah. As far as I am aware, there’s absolutely no penalty for it either.
If none of that appeals to you… It seems to have romance options?