Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition Review
Planescape: Torment appears in several lists of Greatest RPGs of All Time in gaming sites, sometimes among the top three spots. Two years from now it will turn twenty years old, and yet it is not exactly cherished for its combat gameplay. So what exactly makes Torment one of the greatest RPGs of all time?
No nostalgia goggles are involved in this review of the Enhanced Edition. I did try the original version on GOG a few years ago and had to follow a complicated guide of mods and tweaks with several steps and details. Once installed, I couldn’t move a savegame from one PC to another, which caused me to lose progress halfway through. Not the best experience.
When the Enhanced Edition came out earlier this year I decided I’d finally get it over with, at least so I could say: it’s good, but not that great. And most gamers would probably come to that conclusion if they played it, but the standards by which we usually judge a game seem unsuitable in the case of Torment, not because it is better, but because it is different.
The Enhanced Edition not only made it so that the game can run flawlessly on our current range of hardware and systems, from Windows and Linux to Android and iOS, but also included fixes and a general supervision from Chris Avellone, the original lead designer. Support for other languages and some gameplay and graphic settings were also included.
Beamdog has been doing Enhanced Editions of the classic Infinity Engine games since 2012, beginning with Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, followed by Icewind Dale. A version of Planescape: Torment has been in demand for a while, though hardcore fans have managed to replay it with mods and tweaks for years.
Set in the Dungeons & Dragons classic campaign setting Planescape, Torment is highly esoteric and philosophical, not particularly fit for the usual high fantasy adventure with dwarves and elves and goblins and trolls. One could argue that Planescape encompasses the whole cosmology of possible D&D settings, but it also remains its own beast.
Instead of elves and dwarves, the most characteristic races are known as Baatezu, Dabus, Githzerai, Modron, Tanar’ri and Tiefling. Baatezu, Tanar’ri, and Tiefling are different races of fiends, or fiendish. Dabus and Githzerai are alienish humanoid races. The Modron are mechanical, robot-like. And of course there are humans, the protagonist himself being one.
As the protagonist, you play The Nameless One (TNO), a heavily-scarred amnesiac immortal who wakes up in the Mortuary of Sigil, a city at the center of the Outlands, the most neutral of all locations in Planescape. The cosmology of the planes is quite complex, but it follows the famed Lawful-Good-Neutral-Chaotic-Evil axis of possible D&D alignments.
It is very difficult to avoid lore dumps when writing about Torment, so suffice it to know that the protagonist is able to recruit companions of some of those races: a Tiefling thief girl, Annah; a Tanar’ri succubus courtesan, Fall-from-Grace; a Githzerai samurai-like mage-fighter, Dak’kon; and a rogue Modron fighter, Nordom (Modron spelled backwards).
When you start the game you instantly have a floating skull companion, Morte, who is also a narrative device as a tutorial and a guide. There are also two human companions to be recruited, Ignus and Vhailor, a mage and a fighter. All of the companions are highly reactive and can assume different stances depending on TNO’s alignment and choices.
The core of Torment’s narrative design shifts around TNO’s possible interactions with these possible companions, as they reveal much about himself and his past. It is possible to skip most of these interactions, and though most Torment fans would agree that this approach would impoverish the game quite a bit, it is still a valid path accommodated by the game.
The combat is the least interesting and the least important part of the game, which may seem weird for an old-school RPG, particularly one based on the D&D ruleset. TNO starts the game as a fighter and is able to acquire training from companions or NPCs to become either a mage or a thief, but also to resume fighter training.
Combat as a fighter is quite lacklustre: only a matter of selecting targets for TNO and the companions, then watching them hack at it for a few seconds while healing them if they take too much damage. As a thief it isn’t particularly different, but there are skills for lockpicking, sneaking and detecting traps. As a mage, there are some interesting spells, but the spell system depends on resting to reset them, otherwise they are soon exhausted.
It is possible to avoid combat some of the time through dialogue options, but not all of the time, and it should be almost unanimous among fans that, at certain parts, combat is just a hassle and a tedious grind that accomplishes little in the way of loot or story advancement. Combat is there because it is expected to be there in a classic RPG and that is it.
Fortunately, most of the game is focused on dialogue and level exploration. Well, “fortunately” is relative in this case: if you hate reading, you will absolutely hate Torment. If you like reading but you’re not that crazy about it, you will sit through most of it. But if you love reading and dialogue interaction, Torment is the perfect game for you.
And it is for that niche of bookish, highbrow gamers that Torment was made for. I absolutely do not mean to disparage other types of gamers with that distinction, only to show that in this case the audience is very, very select. Nothing wrong at all with enjoying button-mashers, I enjoy quite a few myself, but I also loved Torment because of its narrative intricacy.
It is one of the most narratively complex games I ever played, no doubt about it, and at certain points I found myself stuck and had to look up hints and solutions, which is nothing to be ashamed of. I also used a character creation guide by veteran players, as a way to get the most of my stats, particularly Wisdom, which is central to many dialogue interactions.
And this is the greatest selling point of the game: it is insanely reactive in its narrative interactions. The narrative design in Torment is seriously groundbreaking. There are so many possible interactions, based not only on stats, but on inventory items, companions, and so on: if TNO has a certain companion or item with him, it can change interactions.
The only other games where I observed such wealth of roleplaying and replay value would be Fallout 1-2 and New Vegas. And after all, this is what roleplaying is supposed to be, instead of cheap gimmicks to dress up a character; this is what makes RPGs special and unique, endowing players with agency and making us more than mere spectators.
But that is not to say that Torment is merely a piece of interactive fiction, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. It is first and foremost a roleplaying game, though the combat is definitely secondary to the story and its interactions, which are definitely more complex and reactive than most interactive fiction.
Above all, it is the characters who make these interactions worthwhile. The plot itself is slightly more mature and compelling than the usual D&D campaign, but the characters give the story a soul, a myriad of souls, in fact. Thoroughly fleshed-out, complex and reactive, heartwarming and entertaining, they are “round characters” through and through.
Not only the companions, who shine the brightest, but some of the most minor characters manage to be memorable and interesting. There are dozens of minor characters who play no major role in the main quest and its denouement, but many of them have quirks and personalities that stand out, giving the fictional world a veritable tapestry of textures.
This is narrative design at its best and smartest. There was a time and place for a game like this to emerge, and it was unique for what it was. They have tried to replicate the magic with Torment: Tides of Numenera, and though I haven’t played it through yet, it could never be what Planescape: Torment was and remains: one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
- Long and complex main quest full of twists and turns
- Compelling side quests that connect with the main quest
- Highly reactive roleplaying systems and interactions
- Fascinating companions and character development
- Lacklustre and grindy real-time with pause combat
- Dated graphics and rather grainy cutscenes
- Lore dumps can be overwhelming and tedious