By some unexplained twist of fate, the phenomena of Dungeons and Dragons and its role-playing progeny has never drawn my gaming-geek attention. Late nights in the basement wielding swords and casting spells under the fateful and sometimes whimsical eye of the Dungeon Master, while at the same time frightening a whole generation of parents worried about brainwashing cults of evildoers, just evaded my sphere of gaming experience. Although, when put that way, I must admit a certain visceral curiosity to find out what makes this genre so appealing to so many.
So in an effort to expand my horizons, I decided to give a role-playing game, one set in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons universe, a try. Planescape Torment from Black Isle Studios is my first foray into this mystical universe. And what a universe! Filled with fiends, magic, mayhem, betrayal, and torment, the world portrayed in the game is rich and appropriately demented.
My Name is Nobody
Plot is the vital factor in a good role-playing game, and Planescape Torment delivers a simple, compelling, yet twisted, story. You play a nameless character with amnesia who awakens on a cold slab in a dark and dingy mortuary. You don't remember how you got there, and you don't know why you were presumed dead. You are immediately befriended by a wise-cracking floating skull named Morte who helps set you on your way to discovering who you are and what led you be in such a predicament.
From that point on, you are driven by an almost obsessive need to find your true nature and to solve the mystery of your immortality. This overall quest is satisfied by the completion of numerous mini-quests involving the characters that inhabit the Planescape universe. Your character, the Nameless One, can choose to interact with the varied characters in one of three roles: fighter, mage, or thief. The usual role-playing character abilities of strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma all factor in to your ability to play your chosen role and to interact with the environment. There are also several characters that the Nameless One can recruit to help in his crusade.
Gaining fighting skills and weapons or honing your mastery of spell casting will make you a formidable force in the Planescape, but the most vital ability involves dialogue. My prejudicial idea was that role-playing games were mostly hack and slash affairs, but Planescape Torment enlightened me on that score. Most of the "action" in this game revolves around dialogue with the other characters. To gain valuable experience, which increases your skills, you need to acquire and complete quests, which can only be accomplished by conversation with other characters.
This is my one gripe with Planescape: there is too much dialogue, too much interaction. And believe me, this is something I never thought I would say. The game bogs itself down in a swamp of dime-store novel dialogue that eventually wears your patience to a bare nub. You want to get it over with, to just see the end. A little less background filler would have suited me just fine. Maybe some indication of dialogue that was vital to the game progression versus dialogue that was just atmospheric would have been the best compromise.
The user interface mechanics of the game are excellent. The game is played entirely by intuitive mouse-clicks which indicate traveling direction, attack modes, characters to talk to, and spells to cast. During heated battles, you can pause the action to allow for some tactical planning. This single aspect saved me several times late in the game as the battles became more difficult and I had to direct the actions of more and more group members.
The experience of Black Isle Productions in making role-playing games is evident throughout Planescape Torment. The visuals of the game environment are detailed and striking. In the city of Sigil, where most of the action takes place, the markets are teeming with shoppers, and the bars are full of loud heavy-drinking patrons. The city seethes with atmosphere.
Combat in the game could not be simpler. Point at a character with hostile intent, left-click, and you will engage the enemy in melee battle. Alternatively, you can right-click and cast a spell, if you have that ability. This same simple combination works for all the members of your party.
The documentation within the box exhibits just the right amount of information. Explanations in the 48-page instruction manual provide players with enough knowledge to start their journeys without giving them too many details about how to proceed. For experienced role-players, Morte will provide all the direction you will need to get started. Although I recommend that the inexperienced read the manual for some insight on your initial character skill level.
Planescape Torment is rated "Teen" by the ESRB rating system. Not only is this rating appropriate from a content perspective, but it also makes sense as a matter of practicality. The reading and comprehension of character dialogue is vital to the progression of the game, and the level of reading and comprehension sophistication it requires is definitely teen or better.
As a first venture into the role-playing realm, Planescape Torment was enlightening. In this game, role-playing means having to play a role. Players have to pay appropriate attention to character development both in terms of skill and demeanor. It also means plenty of reading, some of which merely makes the game longer but not necessarily better. Planescape Torment cannot be played in one weekend, at least not by normal casual players. The game will take time and patience. For the most part I enjoyed the game, but as I neared the end, I was just wishing for it to be over. Like a Kevin Costner movie, I would like to see some of the unnecessary slow, epic-making parts cut to make a leaner, concise game. But if you enjoy role-playing games, Planescape Torment could be your "Dances With Wolves."