Planescape: Torment

Developer:  Black Isle Studios
Publisher:  Interplay
Year Released:  1999

Review by Steve Metzler (November, 2002)

From the moment the first frames of Planescape: Torment's introductory sequence splashed onto my screen, and in the days which then became weeks of incessant playing that followed, there was a nagging feeling that I had visited this place sometime before. And then it finally hit me: the setting, the mood, the characters, the dialogue - in fact nearly everything to do with this game - had taken me back twenty years ago to the time that I read Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Black Isle Studios had done it again. For reasons that held meaning only for me (and you may find your own reasons), they had made a game I will never forget.

Of course, Torment isn't based on the fantasy world portrayed by Gene Wolfe, but rather on the Planescape Multiverse pen & paper RPG campaign. Whereas the Forgotten Realms of Baldur's Gate are populated with your typical fantasy fare of elves, dwarves and the like, the many different Planes and races that constitute the Planescape 'multiverse' are something far removed from all that. For the moment, let's just say that Black Isle took a rather long lunch break between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, and this is the welcome result.

City of Doors
Most of the action in Torment centres on the city of Sigil. It's known as the 'City of Doors' by the locals, the most remarkable feature of Sigil being that it contains portals to all the other planes in the Planescape multiverse. A portal is invisible until you approach it with the correct object, and each portal has a unique object that activates it. It could be something as innocuous as an old vase, or a piece of string! Many people have been stranded in Sigil for years as a result of not being able to find their way home without the necessary object to re-activate the portal they came here through. A unique aspect of the game play in Torment is that often you must first locate and then activate one of these portals in order to progress the story.

Your character is plonked right into the middle of this extraordinary setting. He wakes up on a cold metal slab deep in the bowels of a surreal mortuary. You are The Nameless One, and you are immortal. That's right. Every time you 'die', you just wake up shortly thereafter - but you can't remember who you are, or anything that you've done in your previous lifetime. Or, is it lifetimes? Carved into your back is a series of tattoos to remind you of certain things: like the fact that you keep a journal hidden somewhere. And that this journal you must now go in search of somehow holds the key to your past...

Even though you must play the role of The Nameless One (TNO hereafter), you have a lot of scope in controlling how your character develops. TNO starts out as a Level 3 Fighter, but just by conversing with certain key people throughout the course of the game, can switch roles to become a Thief or a Mage (and, he can switch back too). The character creation screen sees you beginning with 9 points in each of the following stats: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence (INT), Charisma (CHR), and Wisdom (WIS). You have 21 more points to spend however you wish. Want to eventually become a Thief? Then load up on your DEX. A Mage? Then it's INT, etc. WIS plays a much bigger part than in other RPGs. TNO has lost his memory, and a higher WIS will help him to recall important episodes from his past lives through dialogue with certain key characters. Also, a high WIS gains a bonus in experience points (XP) for TNO whenever the party gains experience through combat or completing quests. These bonuses allow TNO to advance through levels at a quicker rate than his companions, thus helping to negate the effects of splitting XP amongst all the members of a large party. Each time TNO gains a new level, you are allowed to spend 1 Character Point on a major stat like DEX, and to increase your Thief skills if you are playing such a character. As Mages gain INT, they can memorise more spells.

At this stage in the proceedings, I'd like to talk a bit about the game's role-playing framework. I for one have never played a pen & paper RPG, and often find the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to be somewhat bewildering with all those embedded references to dice with funky numbers of facets. I eventually came to grips with it, but... I'm delighted to report that Torment goes a long way towards 'dumbing down' the AD&D rules (it uses a version of the AD&D ruleset modified to suit the Planescape campaign) so the in-game stats are presented in a way that mere mortals can relate to them. For instance, instead of seeing: 1D8 (one throw of an 8-sided die), it will be presented as: 1-8. And your STR can't go from 18 to 18/33. It goes straight to 19. Armour class (AC) is about the only thing left in AD&D's archaic notation. It starts off at 10 and goes downwards (and can even go negative) as you acquire more armour; though TNO doesn't wear any armour per se, rather armour comes in the form of magical rings, earrings, and tattoos that serve to lower his AC. Attack-wise, TNO begins with a THAC0 (To Hit Armour Class 0) of 18, which means that for you to hit an enemy who has AC 0, the computer must 'roll' at least an 18 on a 20-sided die.

Party on, AI off
Through the course of the game, TNO will meet other characters who will join his adventuring party. You can have a maximum of 5 companions. Your very first companion, Morte, is a talking, floating(!) skull who is at your side from the moment you first awake, and serves as a useful guide at the beginning of your long journey. Morte fights with his teeth, and you can get him various teeth 'upgrades' as the game progresses. Is this game original, or what?

It is these companions that go a long way towards making Torment such a brilliant role-playing experience. In many other RPGs, I found these NPCs (Non-Player Characters) to be quite shallow. Not so in Torment, where there are less of them, and therefore the designers could incorporate into these NPCs more dialogue and opportunities for interaction with your character. Whereas TNO can only be a Fighter, Thief, or Mage, some of your companions are multi-classed (Fighter/Thief, Fighter/Mage), which helps to vary the complexion of your party. One potential companion is a Priest, whose healing spells and ability to identify items will be much welcomed. Although the default for Torment is to have Party AI turned on, thereby granting your companions a certain level of scripted intelligence during combat, I found it best to have this feature turned off, thus allowing me to micro-manage my party. For one thing, your Priest would otherwise be wading right into the middle of a battle to heal someone with only a scratch, thereby placing herself (OK, so I gave that one away) in great peril for no good reason.

Speaking of combat, it's in real time, but very well implemented in this game. Other games that feature a pause function during combat often have strings attached, like if you open someone's inventory then you're no longer paused. But when you hit the space bar to pause combat in Torment, it stays paused! Once the game is paused, you can cast a new spell on behalf of each magic user, sic one of your Fighters on a new target, retreat a severely wounded companion, pass around health potions, go get a cup of coffee, etc. You can truly micro-manage your combat as I alluded to earlier.

TNO and some of his companions get boosts to their combat proficiencies as they gain levels. TNO can spend his proficiency points by finding trainers in certain areas of the game that will train him in the weapon of his choice, like: Edged, Fists, Hammers, etc.

Of magic and other extravagances
A vast catalogue of spells is available to TNO should he choose the path of the Mage. In addition, three of your potential companions come equipped with their own indigenous spells. Some of these become available to you if you play your cards right. Unfortunately, the most powerful spells (at spell levels 7 through 9) only become usable towards the very end of the game. However, this can make the final battle very interesting indeed. Mages can only memorise a certain number of spells per day. You do this by copying spells from your catalogue of available spells into your 'memorised' area for each spell level. You can copy a particular spell more than once. Once you fire off a spell, that's it for that spell until you rest to re-memorise it. There are not many places in the game for your party to rest, so you must manage your spells carefully, and retreat to a safe haven after each difficult battle to recharge your Mages. Each 8-hour rest period regains all the memorised spells for each Mage.

Tattoos play a large part in Torment. TNO can purchase magical tattoos from a certain NPC, and can wear several of these at a time. Depending on the quality and nature of the tattoo, his AC could be reduced by 1, DEX increased by 2, etc. Even better than that, as the game progresses and TNO recalls more memories, then more powerful and varied tattoos become available that are based on these experiences! You can even purchase specially tailored tattoos for your companions to wear.

TNO also has the opportunity to join a faction of his choice. I believe you encounter at least six of these in the course the game (though the actual pen & paper Planescape multiverse contains many more). Each faction requires you to complete a series of quests in order to join, one or two also require you to be of a specific alignment, and you must choose your faction carefully, because you can only join one (well, there's an exception to that rule, but we won't go there). The factions are your primary source of powerful and exotic weapons, and each faction has a different selection for sale, with a distinct slant towards that faction's modus operandi.

Your alignment starts out Neutral, but is heavily influenced by your dialogue choices and frequent 'alignment tests', so it can change a few times during the course of the game. Some items can only be used by say, a Lawful Good character, so you often find yourself being especially nice (or evil) for a while in order to be granted the use of a particularly powerful aligned item.

There is an interesting twist to thievery in Torment which I thought kept the game well balanced from an economic standpoint. Traditionally, rare stolen items can be sold to merchants for a high price, thus skewing the game's economical system somewhat in favour of thieves. This is not the case in Torment. Anything you or one of your party members steals cannot be sold to a merchant because they instantly recognise it as stolen goods. So don't bother to steal anything you can't use.

A world apart
Torment is beautifully illustrated, the entire game consisting of sumptuously pre-rendered 2D backgrounds - no tiling in sight! Even though it uses the Bioware Infinity engine first employed in Baldur's Gate, the engine got a bit of an overhaul and the viewpoint is much closer to the ground. Thus, I would estimate that the size of the characters portrayed on screen is one-and-a-half times bigger than in Baldur's Gate (which was one of my major peeves concerning BG. The characters were just too small).

The spell effects are phenomenal! Some of the higher level spells, like Meteor Storm Bombardment, even feature their own video sequence. This one cuts away to high up in the stratosphere to show you the meteor storm forming, and then centres the camera in-game on the unfortunate soul who gets rained upon by a series of meteors.

There is a handy automap built into Torment (very much like that in BG). Each area is completely blacked out with the standard 'fog-of-war' as you begin there, but then becomes gradually visible with exploration. Points of interest are marked with red pegs, but you can add blue pegs with your own comments any place you like. A journal records all your quests in detail, and they are automatically filtered as uncompleted/completed. The journal also holds lavish illustrations of all the monsters you have fought, and the people of the many races and walks of life that you have met.

I especially enjoyed the music in Torment. Some of the area-specific mood pieces, though short, are extremely catchy. I even copied some of them off the CD and converted them to MP3, they were that good. Be on the lookout for 'Bones of the Night', and 'Fall-From-Grace'.

The voice acting is well done for the most part, and your companions have a lot of spoken dialogue. Sheena Easton even plays one role, though no doubt the Scottish folk out there will find some way to fault her performance. Ach, te hell wi dat I say!

It's all in the story
I've tried to save the best for last: the quests, the dialogue, and the story. There is incredible depth and scope on display here! To begin with, the quests are inevitably of the fetch-me-that variety but then increase in complexity and difficulty and soon have you traipsing across multiple areas and interacting with many characters in pursuit of a solution. The experience to be gained from quests is typically much higher than that gained from combat, so you'd be well advised to try talking before drawing your sword in most instances.

The dialogue is superbly written, and it's important that you save the game before each conversation as your dialogue choices are determined by your INT and CHR; thus, you may have to explore the many branches of a particular dialogue a few times in order to obtain the best response possible in a given situation. Of course, it is this degree of complexity that makes the game really interesting from the perspective of RPG and adventure fans alike, and also gives it a high replayability value.

Torment boasts a thoroughly enjoyable story line, and I can pretty much guarantee you won't be guessing how it all ends up with any degree of accuracy. This game has very few weaknesses, and predictability is certainly not one of them!

So, where does that leave us? Torment is a dark journey into the soul of The Nameless One, a soul that is seeking release from the immortality that binds it to this forsaken place. If you don't like your games on the heavy side (laced with pathos and wry humour), with lots of dialogue and lengthy descriptions of characters and places, then it may not be for you. For me, this has to be one of the best RPGs I've played to date, perhaps the best. Hopefully what I've written here will help you to draw your own conclusions.

See the Planescape Torment walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Pentium (or compatible) 200MHz with MMX (PII 266MHZ recommended), 32MB RAM (64MB recommended), Windows 95 with DirectX 5.0 or later, 650MB hard drive space (800MB recommended), 8X or faster CD-ROM, DirectX certified video card with at least 4MB of video RAM (8MB of video RAM recommended), DirectX certified sound card, keyboard, mouse.