Reviewed: May 1, 2002
Released: December 12, 1999
Black Isle Studios is a well respected developer among RPG fans, and Planescape Torment may just be their best releases ever, contending with the best of the best games such as Fallout. Planescape is a very atypical fantasy setting, originating in the pen and paper AD&D game. The multiverse is made up of an infinite number of "planes" of existence - sub-universes each with their own laws of physics and magic.
The core theme of the setting is that BELIEF is the ultimate power in the multiverse. The beliefs of the intelligent creatures (of which humans are only a minority) is what shapes the laws of each plane in the multiverse. Change enough peoples' beliefs, and you can literally change reality.
Torment is a story of personal discovery set within this intriguing multiverse. The story begins with your character, an amnesiac known only as "The Nameless One" waking up in a morgue in a very strange city. Sigil is a central location in the Planescape setting, because the city has doors (called Portals) to many other planes of existence. As you play through the game, you learn more about The Nameless One's mysterious powers and past, and also a lot more about the intriguing setting itself.
Character generation starts off the game as with most RPG games. Instead of rolling virtual dice as in most other D&D based RPGs, you will instead be allowed to assign points to your statistics of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. This is rather important in Planescape, because the options available to you in solving problems will depend upon what scores you have in which statistics.
For example, a Nameless One with a high dexterity will have options available to perform slight of hand, while a very wise Nameless One will remember his past more quickly and be able to have mind over matter in sheer acts of will. This gives the game a good replay value, since playing as a wise, intelligent Nameless One will be different than playing as a strong and sturdy one.
During the game, you will encounter many highly imaginative and entertaining NPC's (non-player characters). Some of these may be able to join The Nameless One on his quest of identity. You can speak to the characters in your party and unfold more of their stories, which may also help you learn more about TNO's. The dialogue in the game is of very high quality and quantity. In fact, it's some of the best writing in any PC game since the old Infocom days of interactive fiction. The dialogue is filled with the jargon of the planes, reminiscent of 18th century London thieves' cant mixed with it's own special flavor.
The game engine of Torment is the much acclaimed Infinity Engine used by Baldur's Gate. Black Isle Studios has customized the interface, making it easier to do some things. They also have zoomed the camera in closer to the party so that the characters are bigger on the screen, and have more impressive animations. The artwork is highly unusual and mood evoking and fits in with the bizarre setting very well.
Combat is similar to Baldur's Gate in that it's real-time with the ability to pause and give orders. Many times you can avoid combat altogether by simply running away. You get more experience points from doing quests than from combat, so it's not inconceivable to play the game as a "pacifist" and avoid almost all confrontations.
Aside from combat and story, there's a few puzzles that you must deal with which make sense with the plot and are entertaining. Perhaps one downside to the game is that the combat can become fairly repetitive at times, because unlike Baldur's Gate there really is very little need for using much in the way of battle tactics. Running in with hack-n-slash tactics will usually get through most situations. There are still quite a few combat options and tactics available, with special abilities of the different NPCs and such. Most of the time these are not required for success. The good news is that combat is, for the most part, an optional part of the game, and if you begin to get tired of it, remember that discretion is the better part of valor anyway.
As in Baldur's Gate, you have a journal that keeps track of things for you. However, BIS has improved the interface for this considerably. It shows you which quests are open and which have been completed. A bestiary with some interesting 3D modeled graphics of the people and creatures of the game is also included in the journal, as well as a running journal of the story. There are also maps that are revealed as you uncover new areas, and you may annotate them with your own notes.
One interesting aspect of Torment is how your character develops over the course of the game instead of all at the start. Want to be a mage? Find an NPC who can teach you how to do magic. More interested in being a knight of the post? Talk to one of the shadier characters who can teach you the arts of thievery.
Alignment is also not a pre-determined, class limiting device as in other AD&D computer games. Instead, your actions and words themselves determine what alignment you end up with. Lie too often and your alignment slips to chaotic. Make vows and keep them and you'll be on your way to lawful. Kill innocents and get labeled as evil. Acts of kindness will reflect in your goodness. Your alignment will also have an affect on the paths you are able to take through the story.
One of the game's few drawbacks is that the graphics are limited to the now antiquated resolution of 640x480. On larger monitors this can make things look a bit jaggy. Fortunately the game is not a 3D game, but instead uses hand-crafted 2D art which is attractive to look at even at the low resolution. The animations are excellent, the backgrounds are eerie and mood evoking.
There are sporadic cutscenes that are done as computer generated movies, which are of good to excellent quality. The perspective of the game is 3rd person overhead "isometric", similar to Fallout and Baldur's Gate, but with larger characters. The variety of the planes you can visit is expressed in the artwork of the game.
As you gain more and more power in the game, the spell animations become even more and more impressive. By the time you are casting ninth level spells (the most powerful ones in D&D), you will be watching beautiful "mini-movies" as you cast these awesome spells of mass destruction, not unlike the "summons" in the Final Fantasy series of games. The animations are great and never really get old or annoying.
A few players of Torment have experienced slow-downs during intense battles with multiple spell animations going at once. It seems that the 1.1 patch to the game has cleared up many of these issues for a majority of the players, but some continue to experience this from time to time. Doing a Quicksave and a Quickload will sometimes get rid of the problem, and it does seem to be a relatively rare bug that only appears intermittently. This is one of the few bugs in an otherwise very stable release.
The music in Planescape: Torment is some of the best music of any game ever. The main theme haunts you as you make your way through the planes, varying depending on the mood of the situations you are in. It has deep and emotionally charged scores that jump between orchestra highs to barely audible ambient sounds of an almost alien tone. There are few games that I want to listen to the music outside of the game, but this is definitely one of them.
Along with the ambient sounds provided by the background music, the quality of the sound effects themselves are very good. The voice acting ranges from very good to excellent, and Sheena Easton's performance as Annah was one of the highlights. The voices and sound effects along with the musical score all combine together to really draw you into the alien world that is Planescape.
Planescape: Torment is not an extremely long game, even if you do most of the many side quests and hidden areas. Average playtime is probably close to 25-30 hours. The good news is that since the game changes depending on the choices you make while playing it, there is a lot of replay value, especially for such a story driven RPG.
There are no level limits to the game. There are certain locations where you can kill infinitely respawning monsters, so if you want to play on and on for hours to build the "Uber Nameless One", that is an option.
Planescape: Torment is without a doubt one of the best RPG games ever made for the PC. It has one of the most involving stories you will find in an RPG, especially one for the PC. The dialogue is superbly written, on the level of fantasy novels and the old Infocom classics. The combat is fairly simple, and although it offers a good amount of options, can be resolved 9 times out of 10 by either running away or mindless hacking and slashing. You will still want to make use of some of the spells just to see the amazing spell animations.
Because the abilities of your character and the choices you make earlier have an impact on the story later on and change the way the story unfolds, you may find yourself restarting this game after you've finished to try different options.