Planescape Torment

Review by Scout
May 2005

What can change the nature of a man?

That's a loaded question if ever there was one. It's timeless and timely, a question meant to make you pause and reflect. It's as important today as it was, say, in Aristotle's time, and it will no doubt occupy a few of the better minds of generations to come. It also just happens to be the central conceit of Black Isle's 1999 CRPG Planescape Torment. It's not the only question you'll confront while wandering the streets, alleys, halls and crypts of this game, but it's the central one, the big kahuna, and there is a scene later on where you will be forced to answer it. Which of the many possible replies you choose will say as much about your worldview as all the actions you have taken prior to this point. This is pretty heady stuff for a computer game, more an issue for a philosophy class than an electronic entertainment, but since one of the game's creators was a philosophy major, this is also the stuff of Planescape Torment.

Don't approach this CRPG too lightly. It's the gaming equivalent of War and Peace, slow to start, frustratingly obscure at times, yet once that great narrative engine finally revs up, it moves the player along with breathtaking authority. I've only played it once so far. Usually I play a game twice before sitting down to review it, but I'm not ready to reenter the world of Planescape Torment just yet. There's something about this game. It's disturbing, haunting and heavy. I've never seen anything quite like it.

The game begins in one of the great settings of all time, a grisly mortuary reminiscent of the abattoir in Sanitarium but 10 times worse. Moaning zombies shuffle about, odd chaps in gray robes watch as other odd chaps vivisect corpses on bloodstained slabs, the dead bodies split open from crotch to jugular, the flesh and muscle pinned back to expose the rotting insides. You awake, blessedly intact, on one of those slabs. Floating next to you is a yammering skull. The skull seems to be talking to you.

Meet Morte, the disembodied, fleshless head who is your first and most steadfast companion throughout the game. Morte is a master of the wisecrack; a leering, lustful orb of bone with the nastiest set of chompers this side of the Styx. As he attempts to debrief you, you realize that you have no idea how or why you ended up dead on a slab. In fact, you have no memories at all. It's the oldest trick in the storyteller's book, starting out with an amnesia-afflicted protagonist. As trite as that might seem, it's not a crutch but the main thread that holds this wildly phantasmagoric narrative together. Since you have zilch, nada, no memory, you are called the Nameless One. You're little more than a hulking, wild-eyed savage in a loincloth, covered head to toe with scar tissue, trapped in a prison mortuary. Fun for the whole family, Planescape is.

Black Isle, developers of the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, know their CRPGs as well as anyone, but in this game things are a little different. First of all, you don't create a character; you are the Nameless One, end of story. You still have the usual ability to assign your character statistics and attributes at start up. You can pile up points in Strength to make a fighter, load up on Dexterity to make a thief and boost your Armor class or choose Intelligence if you lean toward a mage and are keen to recover your memories. But, unlike most role-playing games, there's no choice of race or gender, no elves, fairies, ogres or haughty mandarins to choose from. You are the Nameless One and you start out as a level three Fighter, period. To make up for the lack of an open character generation system, once you begin to collect your party, Black Isle lets the Nameless One shift between classes at will, moving easily from Fighter to Mage to Thief and back depending on the story's needs. As you advance in the game and start to level up, you will find yourself intuitively specializing. I spent most of my time switching back and forth from Mage to Fighter, sharpening my weapons skills and gathering cool pyrotechnical spells. About those spells ... While wading into a fight with your axe swinging is always therapeutic, there is little to compare to launching a ball of pulsing light into the air, watching it rise, rise and then plummet, pounding your foe flat into the cobblestones. In fact, except for a latecomer to the party, these missile-type spells are pretty much the only ranged attacks available.

A good tip, at least for your first play-through, is to load up on as much Intelligence as you dare. While this will automatically boost your spell-casting skills and push you toward all things mage-like, it also opens up the maximum amount of dialogue choices, which in turn speed the return of your lost memories. Normally, dialogue choices aren't such a big deal, but in Planescape Torment the word is a mighty thing. It's spoiling nothing at this late date to say that the Nameless One can as easily vanquish an enemy with a few well-chosen phrases as a quick thrust of a dagger. Later in the game, this comes into play in ways hard to imagine. Don't ignore Strength and Dexterity, as you will need them, but they will tend to build up as you progress. High Intelligence will help pave the way for the thinking player, and this is a thinking (and reading) player's game. Feargus Urquhart, Black Isle's division director for Planescape, hinted as much in a June 11, 2001 interview with Gamasutra when describing "the differences between the Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. All of the products use the same engine (the Bioware Infinity Engine), but all of them are seen as very distinctly different products. The way we think about them is along a line from adventure to hack-and-slash. Torment is almost an adventure game, Icewind Dale is almost a true hack-and-slash like Diablo, and Baldur's Gate is somewhere right in the middle."

Torment is almost an adventure game. While everyone and his grandmother likes to claim that his blood-soaked shoot-'em-up is really just a misunderstood adventure game, for once, there is some truth to this claim.

Indeed, one of the driving ideas behind Planescape is the opportunity to consistently use brains over brawn. You can react by force at the first sign of trouble, or you can puzzle your way through the dialogue, reading between the lines, divining the character's motivations, trying to persuade instead of pummel. To this end, there's a lot of extremely well-written dialogue to wade through and even more if you tilt your gameplay to exploit the game's adventure flavor. Many of the quests have a puzzle quality to them; there is a lot, lot, lot of reading and yet if you pay attention and listen carefully and act on your hunches, you'll be surprised how much combat you can avoid. NPCs will engage you in surprisingly deep discussions, especially those associated with the main quest. Even the one cathouse in the game is called the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts. The maidens therein engage their patrons in philosophical discussion and debate instead of sweaty, impersonal boot-knocking. Your own party is a gabby bunch, quickly falling into witty repartee if you ignore them too long. Some of the conversations are serious, some lascivious, especially those featuring the beautiful Fall-from-Grace as the topic.

Choices abound, and they're all yours to make. Your good/bad alignment is set to neutral at the beginning and, depending on your responses and reactions, shifts toward the light or the dark. A tip to the player wanting to play nice: Sigil, the Planescape city you start out in, is a tough neighborhood. Don't be afraid to practice some prudent self-interest, especially at the beginning. Grab what you need when you need it. The alignment needle moves slowly off its default slot, and you can get away with a lot of mischief before you start to register as a selfish rogue. You'll have plenty of opportunities to burnish your reputation later.

The interface is a bit complex but well thought out. For instance, when you enter combat, you can manually right-click anywhere on the playing screen to summon up a game-pausing World Screen Interface, basically a movable menu of action choices of which weapon to wield, spells to load, or special powers to implement. Also included are inventories, maps, journals, talk icon, stats, and portraits to allow you to move from member to member and assign tasks before launching your attack. Once the bookkeeping is finished, return to the main screen and then click on the enemy. All of these options are also permanently available at the lower left corner of your screen. The choice is yours, though I found myself using the World Screen since I didn't have to cursor down off the playing area to set up my attacks. Movement is strictly point-and-click and reminiscent of Baldur's Gate's navigation scheme, though when you depart a building, your party automatically follows instead of remaining behind.

Many of your encounters, if handled wisely, will trigger flashbacks for the Nameless One. As well as filling in the blanks about his enigmatic past, these flashbacks give him skill points. What is different in this game is you are retrieving skills, not building or learning them. The Nameless One has lived countless lives, fought countless battles and has been-there-done-that times ten. What the player is doing is tracking down and uncovering a mystery instead of building a character to save the world.

Also unique to Planescape is the small fact that the main character cannot die. Your party members can snuff it permanently, but the Nameless One suffers no such fate. When he falls in combat, he returns immediately to the game, inventory intact, first back in the Mortuary and later on at particular points depending on where he is in the game world. This is a stroke of brilliance on the part of the developers, an organic solution to one of the central paradoxes of gaming, reloading after the main character dies. This is something I've resented since I met my first grue in Zork, the sudden dump to the menu so that you can reload your last save. Developers are aware this is a sore point, and many automatically return the main character to a prior load point, but still there's something inherently cheesy about using the die/reload strategy to get through a game. It's become such a tradition that most gamers barely notice it. But in Planescape Torment the Nameless One cannot die. He can only be temporarily put down. No matter the damage, no matter the foe (with one very special exception), he will revive. In fact, death often works to the Nameless One's advantage, advancing the story at some points and even functioning as a fast mode of travel at others.

All of this merriment runs on the same engine used in the original Baldur's Gate, Bioware's now-dated Infinity Engine. Unlike Fallout, with its strictly tile-based engine, the Infinity Engine allowed (forced?) the artists to deliver fully rendered backgrounds onto which maps could be laid and then the whole thing tweaked and retweaked for maximum effect. In Planescape, the artists really gave their imaginations free rein, conjuring up one beautifully deranged area after another. Buildings jut out at crazed angles, carved stone pillars that serve no possible purpose rise high out of sight, web works of cables stretch from roof to roof, stairs are built of rotted boards or carved from living stone, underground crypts glow with jewel tones, pathetic creatures hide out in gigantic skulls, robot-savants tinker endlessly with a viciously lethal maze.

As gorgeous and fitting to the concept of the Planes as all this is, for the player it's a little like moving half-inch high people through the world's most psychedelic carpet. Due to this strict 2D, isometric viewpoint, the amount of detail can be disorienting at times, and it takes a while to get a feel for how to get around in this lavishly rendered multiverse. You need to keep a sharp eye on the screen just to get from point A to point B. Later, when the maps open up, it gets less tedious to move around. There's a reason the developers didn't let you utilize the maps at the outset, though. It's important for you to physically accompany the party as it cruises Sigil, engaging in a hundred minibattles and chatting up the denizens, running their quests so that you can uncover and utilize the skills you'll need for the later, more challenging parts of the game. There are countless nooks and crannies in this game, and exploring the different areas is half the fun. You would be cheating yourself by skipping across maps too early. Mind-melding rats, a pregnant alley, weeping stones, riddling skeletons, a prostitute who specializes in heaping foul insults upon her tricks, a madman mourning his lost fork, a crazed hag who will literally thrust her claw into your guts and rummage around inside ... these are only a few of the encounters that await the thoroughly snoopy player.

Your own party is hardly the picture of normality, either. There is Morte, of course, who is with you from the start. His mouth is his weapon, his curse and his gift. Much like Grumpos in Anachronox, Morte has the ability to befuddle a foe with a burst of taunts. This is especially useful against powerful mages who cast devastating missile spells. Turn Morte loose on one and watch the enemy's spells fizz and misfire time and time again. Almost as powerful are Morte's chompers. He can often chew through a small gang of lesser foes all by himself while the Nameless One stands aside and watches. Dak'kon, an ancient Githzreal warrior, is a bit deceiving. Mysterious and hypermoral, he is trained in the martial arts and yet is oddly vulnerable to attack. I often found myself healing Dak'kon in the heat of battle while sturdy little Morte battled on unfazed. Still, Dak'kon is valuable if only for the fact that merely talking to him allows you to shift from Fighter to Mage and back at a moment's notice. There's much more to Dak'kon than that, much more to all of the party members than can be covered here. Spend as much time as possible talking to and interacting with them, and you'll be rewarded.

The third indispensable party member is Fall-from-Grace, a winged succubus of one of the feuding demon classes responsible for the endless war raging beyond Sigil out on the Planes. Fall-from-Grace, sold into sexual slavery by her own fiendish mum, subsequently freed herself through her wits and went on to operate the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts. She's a stunning if ultimately platonic beauty with a cool aristocratic bearing, a heart of gold and an unerring judge of character. The Nameless One could do worse than to listen to her wise and compassionate advice. She rarely steers him wrong. She's also a powerful healer and a decent warrior. I kept her near at all times and came to depend on her feedback, savvy and healing powers. Having her with you at the last part of the game results in some surprising revelations as well.

Other, lesser (at least for me) party members were Annah, a young Tiefling, half-human, half-demon with a bad crush on the Nameless One. A thief by trade, she is handy at the onset but tends to be a liability in the tougher battles. Of course, I chose to leave her behind a lot, so she had little chance to build her stats. I've read of other players successfully building her into a formidable opponent. In Planescape Torment, it's the choices you make as a player that shape how game unfolds, not the game shaping how you play. Ignus, a mad mage literally consumed by a fire fetish, can toss a mean fireball, but he was too unstable and unlikable for my tastes. There's funny, cool, geeky Nordom, a rogue computer/robot you find at the end of a grueling quest. He's a delight to talk to, and his stats will rise just by interaction with other party members. He is the only one who can use ranged weapons, so if you feel especially in need of a talking, crossbow-wielding box on legs, make it a priority to find and use Nordom. His hyperlogical observations on the effects of Fall-from-Grace's sexuality on adjacent males are priceless. Finally, there is Vhailor (who I confess I missed altogether), a dead Mercykiller who is haunting his old armor. Apparently, he's a tank and a half with a rigid moral code, and though he is worth his weight in a battle, be sure you don't commit a crime while he is around or you'll quickly find yourself fighting for your life.

As in any CRPG, there's a vast arsenal of spells and weapons at your disposal. You can earn them through quests or by stealing them, buying them or finding them. Armor doesn't play a large part in this game, though. In fact, my main character spent most of the game in a ragged loincloth, only once donning a robe and only then as a disguise in the Mortuary and not as a protection. I think there was a cracked breastplate available to the Nameless One, but all of the rest of the armor was for other party members only. Fall-from-Grace, due to her healer status, and Annah, a vulnerable thief, had the most armor available to them. The Nameless One gains some protection through rings and bracers and tattoos (more on those later), but mostly he survives by his wits and his wisdom. If your idea of role-playing is to create a creaking tank of metal with which to plow through ranks of enemies, you'll have to do some rethinking for Planescape Torment.

Not to say that cultivating fighting skills isn't essential. But fighting is merely one tool among many. This is one of the few games where magic is as attractive to the general player like me as melee action. Some of the spells are just dang cool. Work your mage abilities up to level 8, then stand back and watch Mechanus's Cannon in action. I won't spoil it for you, but this spell is to opponents what Sherman was to Atlanta. There is the lethal Deathbolt, the dazzling Meteor Bombardment, and the crème de le crème, the Rune of Torment itself. Sure, you can kill foes with weapons, but with some of the higher-level spells, you can level every creature on your screen, serving up 100 points of damage with no chance of the baddies making a Saving Throw. This makes taking the path of the mage more attractive than usual.

I found I used magic more and melee less in this game than in any other CRPG I've played, mostly because of the fireworks associated with casting a spell. The shield and protection spells work so well that I found myself casting every one my party had before entering the bigger battles. Due to the underlying intricacies of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons system of gameplay, I lacked a firm grasp of the nuts and bolts of exactly what was happening with saving throws and such, but the head designer, Chris Avelone, and his staff did such an excellent job of converting this system to compelling gameplay that I didn't feel the need to address the finer nuances. It was the characters I was interested in, them and the epic story in which they moved.

There are factions to join in Planescape Torment. Before you can join up, you have to fulfill a series of quests to prove yourself and in doing so prove to the faction recruiter your worth and belief in their system. Dustmen, those robed figures you meet at the beginning of the game, are dedicated to the True Death, the final cessation of all emotion and attachment. Sort of like a cross between Goth and Buddhist, they strive toward peace through death of self and death of body. Then there are the Godsmen, super Dale Carnegie types, believing in the power of positive striving. Stoic, good-hearted workaholics, they hole up in a big foundry, which is like moving to Pittsburgh for the air, but it seems to work for them. By the way, you can get a lot of goodies if you are a Godsman. The Sensates were more my style, though. They believe that life is best experienced by ... well, by experiencing it. They throw themselves into the raging sea of sensation and build their bodies and spirits by interacting with the multiverse around them. The Anarchists are sort of the unfaction, dedicated solely to doing away with all factions. They are attractive in that they have the ability to infiltrate any other faction. Become an Anarchist and you have access to several factions at once, though you don't get the special abilities, just the lesser perks. Finally, there are the Xaositects or Chaosmen. As the name suggests, they aren't much for Robert's Rules of Order. They drift through the Planes doing whatever occurs to them. I imagine them skateboarding around Sigil at night, tagging walls with runic symbols.

A device unique to Planescape Torment is the use of tattoos. Tattoos come in two flavors, Stat Tattoos that make you tougher or faster or smarter and Event Tattoos that do all that as well as document your journey through the Planes. You can buy Stat Tattoos anytime if you have the cash, but you can only purchase an Event tattoo after you have completed a specific quest. For example, you get access to the Tattoo of the Joining, which brings you more friends, only after you have completed a quest to bring two would-be lovers together. You get the Tattoo of Trist's Savior, a tattoo that protects you against paralyzing attacks, when you help a slave gain his freedom. All but one tattoo can be purchased from Fell's tattoo parlor in the heart of the Hive. Fell is a fallen Dabus with a bit of history of his own and, depending on which party member is with you when you go to him, your visit will be either uneventful or tension-ridden. A Dabus, by the way, is a supplicant of the Lady of Pain, the invisible, statless goddess who rules Sigil and keeps it separated from the rest of the Planes. Cross her once too often and no matter how powerful you think you are, you will pay the price. The robed, floating Dabus do her illogical bidding, moving buildings and streets at her whim. Fell has left her service and gone into business on his own and for some reason escapes the Lady's famous wrath.

Only the Nameless One, Dak'kon and Annah can wear tattoos. Since there is little to no armor in this game, tattoos act as a substitute, imparting myriad abilities and some weaknesses to the wearers. It's especially compelling to return to Fell's shop after several completed quests and see his inventory stocked with new tattoos reflecting your actions during the interim. It would have been easy to just use generic armor in an RPGs-R-Us approach, but the developers put in the extra work and creative muscle-flexing it takes to rise above the pack and in doing so created something special.

Planescape is very, very special. Some might say it's too bizarre and weird, but I found it a refreshingly deep and thoughtful interlude in an otherwise cookie-cutter world of Samegaming™. There's much more to this game than I have described, so many locations and creatures, quests and odd dialogues that it would take 10 reviews to cover them all. There's the sound design, the writing, the cutscenes, the voice acting, all of it top-notch, first-rate. For the hardcore AD&D gamer who loves nothing more than to carefully gauge each move based on that famously complex system, there is plenty to chew on. For those, like me, who just want a great gaming experience, there is little to compare to this game. Fallout 2. Morrowind. Even those towering achievements don't approach the sheer imaginative scope and depth of Planescape Torment. If computer games developers ever hope to stake their claim in the mature artistic mainstream alongside painting, music and literature, it won't happen by coming up with ever more capable engines, sweeter eye candy or addictive gameplay, though it won't happen without them either. It will happen by drafting all of the above into the service of compelling characters such as these, characters who make you care about them, characters who send you pawing for the reload command because you simply cannot possibly conceive of moving another inch without them. Planescape Torment accomplishes all this and more, capturing the player's heart and intellect, taking him on a long, fraught journey through one of the most unique settings I've experienced in any medium and wrapping it up in a stunning, jaw-dropping finale.

So. What can change the nature of a man? The answer to that is for each of us to discover on our own, but by the end of this game you'll have a good idea where to look. Yeah. It's really that good. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Black Isle
Publisher: Interplay
Release Date: 1999

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 200 MHz with MMX (Pentium 266 MHz with MMX recommended)
Windows 95 or 98
32 MB RAM (64 MB recommended)
650 MB free hard drive space
DirectX 6 or higher
DirectX certified sound and video card
4 MB SVGA video card

Where to Find It

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.