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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Planescape Torment

Planescape: Torment (Game release date: 1999)
Dark, gothic mood and compelling characters carry a plot which is more philosophical than heroic.

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Highlights: Original concept, thought-provoking plot, interactivity, fascinating gameworld, memorable characters Lowlights: Annoying realtime elements, a few interface frustrations

From the minute your main character sits up on a morgue table in the opening scene of this game and wonders what the hell he's doing there, you can tell you're in for something a little different with Planescape: Torment. I can guarantee you you've never played anything quite like this game before: an AD&D-based CRPG in which your character is immortal, and knows as well as the player does that death is nothing but a temporary inconvenience to his story? Is that deep, or just metafictive? I'm still not sure, but the bottom line is, it works. This is probably the strangest game I've ever played, but it's also one of the best.

Created by the same team who made the Baldur's Gate series, Planescape: Torment is less solid in its game mechanics and more dependent on atmosphere. Luckily for us, the atmosphere is excellent. I've never seen a game with a more compelling fusion of artwork, music, world creation, and thematic innuendo. Much of the plot is interior, and so many of the plot points hinge on ideas and moral choices that the sporadic and generally dull semi-realtime combat interludes seem tacked on and jarring. I get the feeling Torment really wanted to be a genre-shattering 3rd-person graphic adventure game and just couldn't quite break free of the tried-and-true AD&D interface that served Black Isle so well in the Baldur's Gate series. Small matter, though; the interface is tolerable, the game mechanics serviceable, and the combat sequences ignorable. It is the plot that really shines here--this is one of a very few games I actually think would have made a decent movie--and for that, for its pantheon of wonderful three-dimensional characters, and for its engrossing mood, I am willing to forgive it every single inane misuse of the word 'berk.'

Style: Torment is a D&D-based CRPG with a third-person birdseye interface. You control and develop a six-person party of which one character is your protagonist and the other five are chosen from a group of 7 NPC's each with his or her own voiceset, personality, and agenda. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy, horror, psychological, and philosophical themes. Combat is turn-based but has semi-realtime elements that require your frequent attention.

Series: Torment is set in the same universe as Black Isle Studio's other games, including Baldur's Gate 2, Throne of Bhaal, and Icewind Dale. However, it's a completely stand-alone game and there's no need to play any of the other games to enjoy this one (or vice versa).

Finding Planescape Torment: Computer games don't have a very long shelf life. For the most part, you're not going to find five-year-old games at your local CompUSA. If you don't have a dedicated computer-game store in your neighborhood, you can always order this game online.

Getting Planescape Torment to Work: Torment is a relatively recent game and ought to be plug-and-play. I've found that it crashes periodically on Windows XP, but never fatally so; restarting the game after a crash works fine. Save frequently if you have an XP machine (good advice in any event), but you don't need to go out of your way to play on an older system.

Hints For Planescape Torment: I don't have a Torment walkthrough or hints page of my own (yet), but the UHS hints are always a good bet--because of the unique site design, you can reveal only the solution you're looking for without your eye accidentally skimming over any other spoilers you didn't want. Or you can buy a Planescape Torment Hint Book, if you prefer.

Game Length: Between 40 and 80 hours, depending how many optional elements you explore. This game is also highly replayable due to the number of interactive plot elements.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to dark themes, violence, and small amounts of non-graphic sex.

Lora's Planescape Torment Review: (Outstanding)

Plot and Quests: The plot is fantastic, if you don't mind a bit of subtlety and a lot of introspection (I don't, but more action-oriented gamers may find it slow). Torment did not offer the same kind of cornucopia of side plots and character subplots that Baldur's Gate 2 did, but then, few games do. There were still a great many interesting quests to pursue, many with more than one solution.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Torment is actually an extremely easy game puzzle-wise; the toughest part is following and figuring out the mystery underlying the plot. Most of the game's quests are solved by simply talking to the right person and deducing the right conversational choices to use. Despite their simplicity, these conversational quests win high marks from me for their use of lateral thinking--approaching a problem with two or three different mindsets can often bring you to multiple solutions, or to the same solution along multiple paths, in highly plausible ways.
Characters: You only get one PC in Torment, and he is disappointingly uncustomizable--his gender, appearance, and to a large extent his attitude are fixed and cannot be adapted. This isn't a crippling flaw, but since the same game designers put out Baldur's Gate 2 the very next year, proving exactly how unproblematic it could be to present the same complicated destiny to a female character as well as a male one, it certainly is an unnecessary one. The NPC's, on the other hand, are highly interactive and utterly fascinating, among the best I've ever seen in a computer game.
Gameworld: Torment takes place in the AD&D setting of Planescape, and brings that unusual interplanar realm to life with flair. The attention to detail in this game is really incredible. As a tabletop player, I always thought the city of Sigil was really lame... sort of a fourteen-year-old's idea of impressively weird. Torment matures the concept in bloodcurdling fashion, and I left the game actually liking Sigil. If it can win over biased minds like mine, it's gotta be good.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): Straight AD&D-based, a good solid rendition of that game system. Character development is rather limited (there are only three character classes you can choose from, and you have little input into game mechanics).
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): The interface has some innovative features--I particularly like how unobtrusive the screen controls are--but they are also very busy, and messing around with all the tiny buttons can get annoying. The combat interface is merely okay, and the semi-realtime combat elements are a hassle, but the conversational interface is excellent, and since the game relies so much more on conversation than on combat, it's good that it has those priorities straight.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): Torment is about as strikingly immersive as a game with a third-person interface could be. The artwork is intricate and creepy, the music is good, the voice acting is well done, and the overall effect is unsettling and powerful.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Planescape Torment for any gamer who is willing to think outside the box a little bit. This is kind of a weird game, defying a number of standard gaming conventions (starting with the fact that your PC cannot be permanently killed and dying is occasionally a productive action to take, and going on from there.) If you don't go into Torment with preconceived expectations, playing this strange and brilliant game is truly an experience not to be missed.

If You Loved Planescape Torment: There's nothing else quite like Torment on the market out there, and I suspect there never will be. It's probably the most idiosyncratic game I've ever played. If you loved the complex NPCs and multiple paths to follow in this game, then you'll definitely want to play the impressive Shadows of Amn if you haven't already--it's a more conventional fantasy-adventure game, but it was made by the same design team that made Torment, and the characters are as three-dimensional as the ones in this game and even more interactive. If you loved the thought-provoking plot, I'd recommend the slow-paced but fascinating graphic adventure The Longest Journey. If what really sucked you in was the originality, you may enjoy the surreal psychological thriller Sanitarium, the quirky film noir/magical realism adventure Grim Fandango, the post-apocalyptic CRPG Fallout 2, or the flawed but intriguing steampunk CRPG Arcanum.

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