Planescape: Torment - Retroview

It isn't just about the consoles...
By: Xythar

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 6
   Music & Sound 8
   Originality 10
   Story 10
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Very Easy
   Completion Time 30-40 hours  

The pre-rendered backgrounds aren't too shabby.
The pre-rendered backgrounds aren't too shabby.
Planescape: Torment

   Planescape: Torment is an excellent and original RPG - and I even say this as a gamer who is not normally into PC RPGs (I hated Baldur's Gate, which was even made by the same people using the same engine) and generally prefers console RPGs. But this game is incredible, mixing an original, creative setting and storyline with decent gameplay and excellent writing.

   As I write this, Torment was released about three years ago by Black Isle, a company responsible for previous PC-style RPGs such as Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2. When I heard about this game recently, I'd hesitated to get it because of Baldur's Gate. However, with the praise I'd heard for its storyline (praise it quite rightfully deserves) and the reduced price, I thought "what the hell" and picked it up. This turned out to be the best "what the hell" purchase I'd made since Final Fantasy 7.

   So, what makes Torment so great? Basically, it's the storyline. Torment's storyline is excellent. Most RPGs are about saving the world - Torment is about saving yourself. As you start, you know nothing, or close to nothing. As you proceed along your journey of discovery, you'll piece together fragments of the past, whether it is from written journals, recovered memories, or experiences stored in "sensory stones". At first, these fragments don't seem to relate to each other, but they slowly join together until at the end, you know the whole truth - and what a truth it is. Obviously, I'm not going to reveal any details here - suffice to say that it's as good as they come - Torment has been added alongside Xenogears and Final Fantasy X as having one of the best storylines I've ever seen - or in this case, more like "read".

   This brings me to my next point - Torment has a lot of text. Just about anything that would be acted out by the characters in a console RPG is described in Torment - if the cutscenes in Final Fantasy X can be likened to watching a movie, the cutscenes in Torment can be likened to reading a book. In some of the most revealing cutscenes in the game, you're standing there next to another character, and the screen remains completely still while text in the bottom half of the screen describes what's going on. I didn't really have a problem with this, although on the other hand the game would probably be even better if scenes that could be acted out were. On the other hand, there are some that only really work in writing - and the writing is of simply incredible quality. I certainly began to see some of the advantages a game written in your native language can possess - no Japanese-to-English translation can match Torment's superbly written text and dialogue.

Prepare to be swung at repeatedly, knave!
Prepare to be swung at repeatedly, knave!

   The game's fantastic writing really fleshes out the world it takes place in. Torment's stock villager-type NPCs don't just say two lines of filler when you talk to them. Just about any NPC (and for that matter, your own party members) in Torment has a full dialogue tree, although some are more extensive than others. Talk to anyone, and you can expect to learn more about your setting, and often in a dialect that Black Isle appear to have cooked up just for the game (unless it was a part of the Planescape setting.. it's masterfully done either way). The characters have superb characterization and dialogue, and are genuinely likable. I can honestly say I got attached to them by the end - and the final dungeon, just as an example, manages to be chilling and of the most emotive ones I've seen.

   There's a few letdowns story-wise, such as the game's endings, which I didn't like much, and the fact that the game's pacing seemed a bit uneven - you'll go for hours without finding out any major storyline details (although you can still learn about the setting) then they'll suddenly throw half of them at you at once. The last point (which may or may not be a problem, depending on how you look at RPGs) is that an awful lot of the storyline isn't mandatory to see. In most console RPGs like I'm used to, the only way you can miss the storyline is if you close your eyes and press X during the cutscenes. In Torment, nearly all the storyline can be missed. There are, of course, varying degrees of how much can be missed. Some of it you'll miss if you say the wrong thing in a conversation, so if a conversation with an important character ends surprisingly quickly, you might want to try loading a saved game and choose some different options. And to see some of it, you may have to go out of your way to talk to a particular NPC or visit a particular location. This I didn't like, but many people do, so use your judgment. If like me you can't bear the thought of missing anything, either use a walkthrough (I know I'm going to outrage people with that, but if you primarily play RPGs for the storyline, you don't want to miss any of it) or at the very least make sure you explore everywhere, and say everything to everyone.

   And the amount of choice you have in the game is indeed commendable. While the game itself is very linear, there's a simply insane number of sidequests, to begin with. I was pretty daunted by them at first - only a few hours into the game, and you're thrown into a large area with tons of people to talk to and not a clue what to do next. A lot of the side quests are just odd jobs where you have to talk to someone, then to someone else, and fetch an item, and so on...but they manage to save themselves from being completely tedious by fitting in beautifully with the game's setting, and you'll learn something about the world by doing many of them. There are also many ways to achieve side or main objectives. If someone has an item you've been told to get, do you try to sweet-talk them into giving it to you, threaten them, steal it from them or just kill them and take it? When you take it back to the NPC who wanted it, do you give it to them for free, demand they pay you, or keep it for yourself? Do you think that every RPG needs a love interest? You choose which or none at all. Your character's alignment starts off as True Neutral, and you'll move into good or evil, law or chaos depending on your actions during the game. I don't know how this would change the main storyline (I played the perfect goody-goody as usual, and some of the scenes just didn't seem like they'd have the same impact if my character was an evil butcher, but who knows) but it's certainly a nice option to have for the total bastards out there. You know who you are.

   For an RPG, Torment actually doesn't focus too much on dungeons and battle - it's got an almost adventure-ish emphasis on exploring and talking to NPCs. There are some dungeons, of course, but none are particularly fantastic except the last. The battle system is just average, basically. There's nothing particularly fantastic about it, but there's also no huge problems. Battles take place in real-time, except that you can hit the spacebar to pause the game and give orders to your party members, then unpause to see them carry them out. It can also be set to pause automatically on specific conditions, such as a party member being reduced to critical HP, the death of a party member, or even after each game round - which makes it pretty much turn-based, if you can't stand real-time combat. The combat is based on the AD&D rules, but it still seems pretty much like an afterthought. But, as I've said, it's not the focus of the game, especially when a lot of it can be avoided through the choice of the right dialogue options or actions.

It looks like he has a bone to pick with you. Eh heh...heh.
It looks like he has a bone to pick with you. Eh heh...heh.

   Torment's graphics are pretty good, especially considering that the game is three years old. They weren't the absolute best graphics for the time, but the game still has some crisp and lively pre-rendered backgrounds of an unparalleled size, and many feature movement, flames and other FMV-like animations. Some are a little dithered or blurry, but in general they're good. I was, however, a little disappointed with the lack of variety in the locales you visit in the game. It's based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Planescape setting…so why do you only visit a very small number of other planes of existence? This really disappointed me - I was hoping to see the majority of the Outer Planes of Existence firsthand, and instead you spend most of the game in the central city of Sigil. And when you do visit other planes…well, for the most part, you wouldn't know you were even there if you weren't told. There are exceptions, but the game still feels a little too confined for what I'd expect of the Planescape setting.

   The game's music is also pretty good. It's not an orchestral masterpiece, but rather MOD-type music that I'd previously only seen in first-person shooters like Unreal or Deus Ex. Regardless, the Torment music is good for its melody if not its instrumentation, and I felt it served the game well. Torment's voice acting is excellent - Black Isle recruited a cast of professional voice actors for the game's VA, and it shows. There isn't really too much of it (the game's big enough already, voice acting for the incredible amount of text in the game would make it unfeasibly huge) but what there is does the job well.

   Since Torment is a PC game, system requirements come into consideration. Of course, the game is relatively old now, so you fortunately don't need a ninja PC to run it. According to the game box, even a 200Mhz processor should be enough. It ran fine on my 366 (NB: please note that I originally wrote this review mid-2002), and considering that most computers nowadays are considerably faster than that, it shouldn't be a problem for the majority of people. However, the game box suggests 32MB as the minimum RAM, and 64MB as the recommended. I had 64MB of RAM when I played it, and the load times were nasty. They really made some of the game's sidequests a chore when I had to keep waiting for the game to load between each screen. I don't want to think about what it would be like with 32MB. Of course, most people have over 64MB now, and if you do then the load times are vastly improved. It's perfectly enjoyable with 64MB (that is, after all, how I played it) but you'll have to do a bit of waiting. I bought the old version of the game, which is on four discs, and I had to swap discs quite a lot during the game. Apparently the version currently being sold in the US is two discs, and that should deal with that problem.

   So, in conclusion, Planescape: Torment is a superlative RPG that nobody who enjoys fantastic storylines should miss. If you're into PC RPGs, you've probably already played it :). If not, then you definitely should. If you're into console RPGs and not PC RPGs, play it anyway. You'll find it to be very different to what you're used to, but once you've gotten into it you'll find an immensely rewarding experience that you'd be doing yourself a disservice to miss.

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