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03 April 2015 @ 03:46 pm
Game Review: Planescape: Torment  
Alright, let me get this out of the way first:

Other possibilities: Being Chaotic Neutral, the Deck of Many Things, Dual-Classing, or Polymorph Other.

I'm not actually sure why I never played Planescape: Torment back when it was current. I certainly knew about it, since I was hugely steeped in the Infinity Engine games and I loved (and still love) Baldur's Gate to pieces, but I never picked it up. Thinking back on it, it honestly might just be that my sister never bought it. She was the one who asked for a lot of the video games that we ended up owning, and I leeched off her purchases and finished more of those games than she ever did. I'm not sure she ever got very far at all in Baldur's Gate II, but I know that we owned it and the expansion even though I was the one who got the farthest and that was only to halfway through Act IV.

Checking the Wikipedia article on 1998 in video gaming, I was probably playing Starcraft I with sephimb and uriany, or playing Might & Magic VI, Baldur's Gate, or Fallout 2, or Homeworld. Regardless, I've known I had missed something for a while, and since I finished off my highly-modded Baldur's Gate playthrough earlier last year and since I hadn't played a good traditional WRPG in a while, and since I had friends who have been suggesting Torment to me for months, it was time.

This is not your standard RPG.

The main draw of Torment is the setting. My favorite D&D settings are Dark Sun, and to a lesser extent Birthright, but from my time on the internet I can tell that Planescape is one of the most well-loved. I never really knew why before, but then again, before Torment my main exposure to Planescape was through owning a copy of the Planescape Monstrous Manual (which had awesome DiTerlizzi art) and through articles in Dragon Magazine, neither of which did much to explain who the factions were, what Sigil was, or why everyone was speaking in this weird jargon.

Now I can see why. Planescape is a kitchen sink setting that works. It allows everything to exist but doesn't destroy the setting in doing so, since while there's always some part of the multiverse that might have what you're looking for you have to find out that it exists and then find out how to get there. It actually makes sense of D&D's ninefold alignment structure and then adds a few more planes on top of that to cover the shades of grey. It has the belief-creates-reality component that makes Mage: the Ascension such an interesting universe, and all that provides a wonderful basis for Torment to weave its story together.

As an example, your character is called the Nameless One, because he's forgotten his name. But when you meet people, it's possible to give them a false name. Say, Adahn. And if you tell enough people that you're called Adahn, across a wide enough swath of existence, you can actually go to a bar in the City of Doors and meet a man named Adahn who wasn't there the last time you visited the bar. They talk a lot about jink in Sigil, but in the planes, belief is the real currency.

Where belief is power, the nameless amnesiac is unbound by any chains.

The most interesting part of Torment specifically for me is how it straddles the boundary between what are usually considered the bondaries between WRPGs and JRPGs, especially as they were in the 80s and 90s. Like WRPGs, you start with character creation and get to define yourself, but like JRPGs you're always playing a specific character with a specific backstory. Like WRPGs you recruit a party to accompany you in your adventures, but like JRPGs the party spends a lot of time talking amongst themselves and with you. Like WRPGs there are dialogue choices available and plenty of tactical considerations in combat including positioning, but like JRPGs the battle and story sections are poorly integrated and make basically no sense when put up against one another. Zing!

More on that later. One of the things I knew going in was that Torment is quite possibly the only D&D game that has ever occurred where the most important stat for any class is Wisdom, and where Charisma is more important than Dexterity and Strength combined. Wisdom governs how often the Nameless One can recover the memories of his previous lives, and Charisma helps with the talking. And oh, what talking there is--there are around 800,000 words in Torment, about as many as the Bible, which isn't a bad comparison when the Nameless One can get into philosophical debates with both angels and demons. The conversations are really where Torment shines, and the first part of the game that lets you loose in Sigil to run around and talk to everyone is definitely the best part.

This is definitely an appropriate time for an  photo emot-iceburn.gif

You can resolve a dispute between a psychic gestalt composed of thousands of semi-sentient rats and a group of peaceful undead who are annoyed that their bodies are being stolen. You can intervene in a gang war, debate with the prostitutes of the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, help a pregnant alleyway give birth, buy weapons from a golem dedicated to destroying existence, and shift the beliefs of an entire town. You can join a half-dozen factions, or join the Anarchists who hate all the faction backbiting and want to bring the whole system crashing down.

You can learn what it is that can change the nature of a man.

Torment is certainly the most expansive RPG I've ever played in the variety of what you do. I mean, just look at the words "pregnant alleyway" I wrote there. That's really not an exaggeration, nor am I making a joke. That definitely happens. In the infinite expanse of the Great Wheel, anything can happen, and usually it will at some point or another. With all the games that tread well-worn paths out there, Torment is a great counterpoint. It uses the worn-out trope of the amnesiac protagonist, but it does so in order to allow the player to interact properly with the nonstandard setting. It's not elf-dwarf-orc fantasy, but the player can ask nearly everyone out there what is going on, and talking to everyone is a great way to pick up quests, which leads to talking to more people, which leads to discovery. Torment is quite possibly the second RPG I've ever played after Morrowind where being told to go talk to someone else actually made me excited about what I would learn, rather than annoyed that I had to trek across the map instead of just completing the quest now.

"It had no wings but still, it was unmistakably an angel."
-Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Alright, now here come the problems.

The first is that Torment really drove home to me what an incredibly bad fit for Planescape the rules of AD&D Second Edition really are. This was true of several of the famous settings--Dark Sun works a lot better with something like Runequest or Exalted mortals level, for example--but Planescape, with its focus on belief changing reality and the infinity of the multiverse containing nearly everything, fits a lot better with something like Mage: the Ascension, as indeed someone already realized.

That's the high concept level, but the way the rules are implemented in Torment are also odd. D&D relies on an equipment treadmill, but the only party member who can meaningfully replace most of their equipment is the Nameless One, and even then he can't really find much new armor. Black Isle had to implement a tattoo upgrade system in order to provide an extra treadmill path for the characters to follow, which is neat and it does expand on the Nameless One's own tattoos, but the tattoos are effectively pieces of paper that are slapped on to skin rather than anything permanent. It's very odd.

Furthermore, the Nameless One breaks almost all D&D rules. He can freely change classes by talking to trainers rather than being locked into the choice he picks at character creation, which is good because you start out as a fighter and as anyone who's played D&D knows, fighters don't get nice things. He gets free stat increases every level, which does allow for a better sense of progression and helps to meet the ludicrously high stat checks some conversation options take--seriously, there are checks in the script that require 24 Wisdom or 24 Charisma, which is higher than most statted gods have--but 2nd edition had basically no way to improve ability scores short of a Wish spell and that advantage is not extended to any of the Nameless One's companions.

A duel between mighty wizards devolves into a slapfight.

It's good that talking to people is so interesting, because combat is incredibly dull. There are very few places to rest--unlike Baldur's Gate's possibility of wandering monsters, Torment just flat out bans you from resting, so I was pretty reluctant to use my spells at any point because I never knew when I'd be able to rest again. That meant that basically every fight was box-select party, left-click on enemy, repeat. I'm glad that one of the mods I installed after following this guide automatically maxed out everyone's hit points when they leveled. The Nameless One can die and live again, and sometimes that's necessary to proceed, but his companions drop all their gear on death and even with the ability to raise the dead re-equiping them and healing them back to full is just annoying.

That's why I said above that the first part of the game is the best part, because most of the second part is an on-rails trip through parts of the planes, but while you go to Carceri and Baator and the Outlands, they're mostly empty wastelands filled with packs of enemies that jump you every 15 meters. Also you can't rest, so hopefully you have enough healing items to make it through. I nearly quit the game in disgust and watched a longplay, but the knowledge that the ending was very good and that I needed to play through it because it was important that I'd have the chance to make my own choices kept me going. And the ending was very good, but it was 15 minutes of great after six hours of disappointment. And I actually really hold that against Torment, because one of the draws of the setting is the sheer variety of the experiences and sights out there in the planes, but when you leave Sigil and get to explore it's all deadly dull.

At least you can solve the final battle multiple ways, including talking the boss to death, so that already puts it one up on Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

"Meh, I never liked those guys anyway. I'm out of here."

I'm tempted to say that Torment should have been a point-and-click adventure game the same way that Bioshock: Infinite should have, but I don't think that would have worked either. The best part of Torment is the dialogue, but the option to commit violence and do evil deeds at any time is an important part of the game. Maybe it should have been some kind of adventure/RPG hybrid like the Quest for Glory series. We've had tragically few of those, and it would have perfectly fit Torment's style.

Torment is a game where I don't think that watching a longplay or reading a Let's Play provides the proper experience. A major part of the game is determining what kind of person the Nameless One is--his nature, if you will--and if you watch it you won't necessarily get the sense of the other possibilities. Having played through as a good guy who keeps his word, there's a completely different experience there if I would be willing to be Neutral Evil like the Practical Incarnation was. There are entire characters I missed and factions I didn't join. I'm sad I left it so long to play this game, because it really is the perfect game for me. Just, maybe next time I'll play it through with an infinite health cheat. The combat is basically just a distraction from the real game. Which in a CRPG, is a really nice change.

Now I'm looking forward to Torment: Tides of Numenera a lot more. If they can learn from the lessons of Planescape: Torment, carry forth the importance of exploration and conversation, make the setting weird and interesting, and make every conflict meaningful so that there's no dull slog of random encounters, I might have a new favorite story-based RPG.

Play Torment, everyone. It's so good.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Antti Martikainen - Eternal Saga
q99q99 on April 3rd, 2015 11:48 pm (UTC)
One of the best places for Planescape's great setting to show it's stuff.

Or, I should really say, *Sigil* specifically is a great setting. Most of the other planes were really just places to visit but often were too limited for much richness. Other planes were for specific quests, Sigil was where the fun was ^^
dorchadasdorchadas on April 4th, 2015 03:29 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much how the game worked too. Everything in Sigil was great, everything outside of Sigil except the very end was meh.