I’m a lover of old school video games. Don’t get me wrong, the gaming world today has reached new heights in terms of graphics, immersion, and mechanics. But for a moment, let me wax nostalgic.
But between the years of 1997-2004 we experienced a golden age of gaming very different from the trends we’re seeing now. These games, like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Arcanum, among others, focused on killer combat, reactive story telling, and engrossing characters to pull the player in and keep him in the game world for hours upon hours.
I’m not going to talk about that too much right now, especially because I just wrote an article on that very topic for Nerds Feather (look for it soon). But I have found myself going back to play the games I loved from that era. I’m a writer, so what better way to share these amazing experiances than to write a retrospective about them beginning with Planescape: Torment.
The best part about this is, you too can easily find Planescape: Torment along with hundreds of other great games DRM free through GOG (Good Old Games). (I’m not an affiliate or anything, just love GOG!)
Enough of that stuff! On to my first video game classic retrospective review – Planescape: Torment.
“What can change the nature of a man?” – Ravel
This is the question asked of the protagonist Nameless One throughout Planescape: Torment. It’s the question set in the heart of the story driving you and your followers ever deeper into torment.
The Nameless One is a man who wakes up on a slab within a mortuary surrounded by a floating skull, shuffling zombies, dissected corpses, and Dustmen. He has no memory of who he is, only a few rambling clues. Upon his back is tattooed half a novel of instructions on how he can find himself. It’s a strange and dark beginning introducing gamers to perhaps the most unique setting ever presented in a video game.
If you’ve read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, you’ll have some idea of the kind of things you’re going to experience in Planescape: Torment. Expect weird, fantastical events such as cities birthing fledgling streets. Expect strange and unique characters like a fallen succubus, a floating skull, a forever burning man, an a man with a sword which shifts and changes depending on his mood. Expect every door to be a portal to another plane of existence: mazes with no escape, worlds of eternal war, and pillars of skulls swarming as one.
“Time is not your enemy, forever is.” – Fall-From-Grace
Somehow the world of Planescape: Torment is horrific and mesmerizing all at once. It makes you cringe while still drawing you ever deeper into it’s world, a world you won’t want to leave. Instead, the game invites you to take your time and get to know the workings of the multiverse, allowing players to savor ever moment of strange, dark beauty.
“You must die… While you still can. The circle must come to a close my love.” -Deionarra
For a game this expansive, the story is surprisingly intimate and character driven. You’ll spend hours delving into the relationships between Nameless One and each of his companions, learning new secrets behind who Nameless One is and how those who are tormented need to follow him. Conversations often wind and unravel like a meandering river, swaying this way and that but always well worth it for the view.
It’s also a story of self discovery. The Nameless One is a man who has lived a thousand lives and died a thousand deaths. Each time he dies, he rises again with a new personality and no memory of his previous existences. But as he tries to find himself, he realizes that he’s been trying to find himself again and again, and some of his former selves will do anything to stop him from discovering the truth of who he is.
“I wonder what it was I said that made death reject me.” -Nameless One
Following clues one of his former selves left in a past life, Nameless One also confronts many traps set by a another former self. He discovers people who’ve met him in a previous life and remember him as a murderer, others who remember him as psychotic, and still others who remember him as a cold and calculating man.
Which one is the true Nameless One, and how can he end the cycle and die a final death? That is the quest Planescape: Torment sets you on.
“It is *torment*. It is that which draws all tormented souls to you. The flesh knows it suffers, even when the mind has forgotten. And so you wear the rune always.” -Fell
I can’t talk about Planescape: Torment without mentioning the fantastic writing. This game takes conversations so far beyond the typical he said, she said dynamic of most games. Instead it reads like a novel. When you speak to a character for the first time, you get a description of looks and mannerisms, of the setting around them and their reactions as they speak.
This makes voice acting almost impossible, though there is a little voice acting here during climactic moments. Instead, playing Planescape: Torment is like curling up with an intoxicating novel with all the care and talent the best of novelists bring with them.
Take a look at this example of one such conversation below and you’ll get a taste of what I mean.
As you can see above, the topics Planescape: Torment covers are not typical fodder for even the deepest of video game experiences. In fact they are topics you will rarely find in entertainment of any kind including books and movies. It’s refreshing to play a game that lets you think without coming across as pretentious.
But this is indeed a videogame, so we should take a moment to discuss the gameplay. First, Planescape: Torment follows slightly simplified Dungeons & Dragons rules. This means there’s a bit of a learning curve for players who are unfamiliar with D&D, but I’ve rarely played a pen and paper RPG and I got through fine.
When you begin a new game Nameless One is a Fighter class by default. Still, there is definitely room for customization here as you assign stats (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Charisma and Wisdom). About 2-4 hours into the game you’ll have multiple opportunities to change your class to either Mage or Thief when you find NPC’s who can train you in those areas. If you’re not happy with any particular class, just talk to a party member and they can usually change you back to the class of your choice.
Combat can arise all over the place. At times the combat will force you to think, challenging you to use your companions abilities wisely. But while the combat system is fully realized and allows multiple playing styles, the focus in Planescape: Torment is not combat. In fact just about all combat can be avoided if you give Nameless One enough Charisma, Intelligence and especially Wisdom.
I’ve now played through Planescape: Torment 3 times in the last 13 years, and each time I’ve taken a different approach. While talking your way through combat rather than fighting can be satisfying and rewarding (you do gain XP during conversations), sometimes I just wanted to pull my enchanted hammer and bash some skulls. The beauty is both options were always available to me, so if I ever got tired of one, I’d just switch to the other.
A Note on Mods
If you do choose to get a copy of Planescape: Torment, it might be worth your while to download a few of the mods out there that can greatly enhance the experience for modern computers. There are a few good mods floating around out there, some that improve the sound quality, some that fix a few bugs, but the one is necessary in my opinion is the high res mod.
With the high res mod, Planescape: Torment can actually still look quite nice considering its age.
Planescape: Torment is a retro gem. Lucky for us it’s aged very well, especially with the assistance of a few mods. The story is second to none and the game play is versatile and challenging enough to keep it fresh through the 40-60 hours of gameplay. If you’re looking to loose yourself in a unique world that will make you think, Planescape: Torment is the game for you.
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