BDTB: Planescape: Torment – Part 1
You wake up on a stone slab in the middle of a cavernous mortuary, you have no memory of how you got there or even your own identity. The first thing you see is a floating skull. His name is Mort and he immediately insults you before explaining that you are in a giant “Dustman” temple/morgue. That is how Planescape: Torment begins. I’ll be honest, after several years of trying to play the game, I never got much further than that for some reason or another. Maybe it was because I was just a bit too young to understand the world and the mechanics. I would consider Torment to be the video-game equivalent of classical literature; wordy and quite difficult to get through but well worth the effort required.
What Torment is known for is its writing. It is always in the top ten, hell usually top three, of any list of “Best Writing in a Video-Game” worth its salt. So I came to it with lofty expectations, and I have to say that it has so far met them with ease. What seems like a fairly rote premise – protagonist with amnesia has to find out who he is – extrapolates and spins out in some incredible ways. Philosophical concepts are discussed through both optional and core quests in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or rudimentary. What is a person? Can you truly know something? Does history inevitably repeat itself? Is there a soul? Luckily, thanks to the setting, Torment has some seriously interesting interpretations and answers to those questions. For example, you meet personifications of neutrality, chaos, law and even infinity. The conversations you have with them – providing your character is intelligent enough – quickly lead to the profound and heady. Yes, it is almost all told through large paragraphs of text, but it is all worth a read. It is very rare to come away from a game and feel, for a moment, slightly more intelligent. But with Planescape: Torment, it happens more often than not.
I’ll say a quick word on the characters of Torment, I won’t go into too much depth as I haven’t spent a significant amount of time with them. The Nameless One himself is currently a blank slate. He looks like a lumbering meathead, but depending on how you build him he can become a mage, a warrior or even a thief. He can be witty, blunt or an intellectual. His history though sure seems interesting though. Morte, the skull you meet within the first thirty seconds of the game, is a fighter. He is lecherous, funny and very sarcastic. Dak’kon is a mixture of fighter and mage. He seems deeply spiritual and one of the most unique characters I have met so far. His sword is constantly moving and almost seems apart of him. Finally, I have just met Annah, she is a thief and immediately very antagonistic towards you. They are a motley crew that I really look forward to seeing them develop alongside the Nameless One.
I mentioned the setting and I have to say that, second to the writing, the world Torment is set in is a real highlight. The Sigel is a humongous city that is basically the crossroads to other planes in the Dungeons and Dragons Universe. It is filled with weird and wonderful denizens from monstrous demons, remnants of a civil war already finished by the time the game starts, to disturbed humans, necromancers, minor Gods and they are all lead by someone called the Lady of Pain – a being so powerful that people try to avoid even saying her name in case it catches her attention. And you, the Nameless one, are some sort of very powerful half dead being of unknown origin. At the moment I haven’t seen anything too odd with the landscape. The Sigil itself is a weird place, a cross between a city and a desert, but apart from a crypt filled with Cranium Rats and sentient undead, I haven’t necessarily explored anything truly abstract or strange. It has a lot of potential to get really trippy though.
What I immediately noticed within a couple of minutes of Torment is that the combat is…not good. It is serviceable, but certainly nothing to write home about. It is based on Dungeons and Dragons, so its all based on invisible dice rolls and whatever THAC0 is. So when you engage with an enemy there could be a good few seconds of the Nameless One and your party members flailing about like they were fighting ghosts before they make contact. It all feels very detached. Plus, it is all in real-time so things can go bad very suddenly which is a bad combination with the ancient menus . It can lead to some really cheap deaths just because of some unlucky dice rolls, which I guess is par for the course for a game based on DnD rules. I do feel like it would be a lot more manageable if the combat was turn-based, then you could diffuse some of the RNG with tactics. What I do like is how the memories you uncover about the Nameless One’s life and the people you talk to gives you experience points and extra abilities. I have learned how to resurrect my party members, given various buffs and the ability to talk to the dead all from choosing the correct conversation choices. Great stuff that I hope the game keeps it up as I continue to play.
So that pretty much summarises the first few hours or so of Planescape Torment. I’ve just completed the first part of the main quest and have just met the thief character. I’ll hold off on any more qualitative judgements on the game until finish it. But so far, I have to say that the game has some very strong opening hours. I think it might live up to the ludicrous praise it has received over the years.