Codes/Screens provided by GOG, Originally Released: 1999, Developer: Black Isle Studios, Publisher: Interplay, Thanks to Albino Boo for suggesting this game!
Considered by many to be one of the best RPGs ever made, PlaneScape: Torment delivers a surreal, almost insanely deep experience filled with questions and ideas that few other games would dare to broach upon.
I had a certain level of expectation going into PlaneScape: Torment. It’s something I wasn’t happy about. After all, when I think about the disappointing games I’ve played in my life, there have been more than a few letdowns rooted very much in the fact that I’d been pre-hyped into thinking I was about to play the greatest thing ever. PlaneScape: Torment, in turn, is one of those games that has its praises routinely sung high to the heavens. And, having wrapped up a fairly length stint with it, I can understand why.
While not free from flaws, it’s probably one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played. A lot of this stems from its setting, the titular Planescape. Originating as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, it can essentially be described as a dimensional airport terminal where walking between worlds is often as simple as finding the right door. It’s also home to some of the weirdest and most messed up stuff you’re going to find in any RPG anywhere.
Case in point, the game opens with your character, the enigmatic Nameless One, waking up on an operating table in the grimy base of a cult obsessed with achieving what essentially amounts to a macabre version of nirvana. Wandering through its halls you encounter dissected corpses, enslaved zombies and enough grotesque ephemera for two or three Resident Evil games. Shortly after that, you encounter a wizard who’s perpetually burning to death while never actually dying. There’s also that one cannibal you can feed yourself to, the hive of mind rats and, of course, the party member who’s nothing but a talking, floating skull. It’s about as far a cry as you can get from your standard fantasy setting.
As bizarre as this might sound, it also serves as the foundation of one of the most intriguing, well-wrought stories gaming has ever produced. In a nutshell, the aforementioned Nameless One is an immortal with an acute case of memory loss. Granted, amnesia is a well-worn trope as far as video games go, but in this case it’s put to some brilliant use. You see, his forgetfulness stems from the fact that his memory is erased every time he kicks the bucket. Consequently, he has no idea who he is, where he comes from and, more importantly, why his brushes with the grim reaper are so temporary. Hoping to uncover the truth of his existence and perhaps even find a way to end his miserable life, he sets out on a quest for answers.
I should say that this concept, on a fundamental level, appeals to me. While some of my favorite game stories across all genres involve plucky heroes saving the world against all odds, I also adore stories where the stakes are relatively small and the focus is more personal. There are just things you can do better when the plot is focused on a character working to achieve a limited goal as opposed to a desperate struggle against an impossibly powerful baddie.
PlaneScape, along those lines, does a great job of putting across how you’re only one small chess piece moving across a huge and elaborate board. From the moment you step into its world you’re given this sense that the various factions, conflicts and events transpiring around you have been in motion long before you arrived and will remain in place long after you’re gone. More to the point, the game actually has ways of swatting you down when you start acting like you’re the big kid on the block (pro-tip: don’t piss off the Lady of Pain).
It also excels at giving you myriad opportunities to define who your version of the Nameless One is. A lot of this comes from its exceptional focus on dialogue and choice. This isn’t like Mass Effect where your options are generally limited to one or two didactically opposite choices. A single conversation will often give you multiple responses and the choices you make can have long reaching consequences that spiral off in different directions. For instance, the Dead Nations section of the game can be resolved with violence, by doing favors, by befriending a zombie and more. There’s even one game ending option that allows to you essentially become the king of the dead.
These options don’t just do a great job of giving the player a sense of agency, they allow you the freedom to transform the Nameless One into a character of your own making. In my case, for instance, I envisioned him as being driven and harsh, but ultimately reasonable. To be sure, he wouldn’t suffer foolishness. If he caught someone trying to trick or swindle him, he’d happily flex his knack for violence. That said, it wasn’t his go-to move and he’d be perfectly willing to talk things through, make deals and, if it wasn’t out of his way, help people from time to time. I can’t remember any instances where the game failed to give me ways to stay consistent to this characterization and even now I’m eager to test out the other avenues and experience the game through the eyes of a different Nameless One.
Unfortunately, while I loved the game’s masterful storytelling (my sincere compliments to Chris Avellone), I was left markedly underwhelmed by its combat. Now, I should preface that fighting clearly isn’t the point in PlaneScape. In fact, the game arguably pushes you toward more peaceful routes; often rewarding more experience points for talking through conflicts as opposed to going all murder/death/kill on people. That said, you’ll still wind up in enough scrapes for fighting to be a major facet of the game and sadly, it can sometimes be a bit of a bore.
To be sure, it’s not always that way. There were definitely some challenging encounters and few of the game’s fights were ever easy enough that I could just zone out and let nature (a.k.a.: the Nameless One butchering NPCs) take its course. Even so, there were way too many engagements that would involve just mindlessly clicking on enemies and then watching as my party whacked them to death in a slow succession of boring blows.
The fact that this didn’t bother me more, however, should be taken as a sign of PlaneScape: Torment‘s overall achievement as a game. Is it perfect? No. Is it an unconventional epic that taps into the massive power of gaming’s interactivity in a way that few games have attempted since? Yes. Let me put it to you this way. All the hype you’ve heard about this game? It’s true. It’s so good that if you’ve ever even been curious about it you owe it to yourself to head over to GOG and spend the $9.99 they’re asking for it. Sincerely, I’d be galled if it left you disappointed.
Next week I’ll be taking a detour down editorial lane to discuss the power of written text in video games, how old titles used them well and what modern games have lost by moving away from them. The week after that I’ll be reviewing the mech-based tactical RPG Front Mission 3! As always, feel free to PM me with comments, ideas and requests for future reviews.