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Planescape: Torment, Black Isle, 1999

I have had almost nothing to do with AD&D or role-playing, and only picked up Planescape: Torment out of curiosity. Computer gaming is undergoing a role-playing renaissance and CRPGs are everywhere, most crucially in market share. Most of these new games stick strictly to the AD&D ruleset, which I was completely unfamiliar with prior to Planescape: Torment. I had played some RPGs, like Fallout and Fallout 2, and enjoyed games with RPG elements like the Thief and System Shock series. I was not sure of what to expect of Planescape: Torment but found that I mostly enjoyed it, with a few caveats.

The game begins with a character creations screen. You are offered a few hints as to what the stats might mean, but nothing meaningful. Real information only comes from spending some time with the game, which feels like a bit of a waste. Games like Planescape: Torment are apparently made to be played in many different styles, which is possible, but not by the same person. At least not by me. I played the game through in my own way, and feel no need to try with different stats, as the differences seem completely useless. To clarify: there seems to be an optimal way to play through the game -- in this case, Wisdom as the best trait, and Mage as the best way of playing -- and anything else is not rewarded by anything significant.

The game opens with your character, the Nameless One, waking up in a Mortuary. But it's not just awakening from sleep. Your character is immortal, so you never have to worry too much about dying. In fact, dying is essential to at least one puzzle in the game because you usually "wake up" in a different place (and it makes no sense in that one particular puzzle). The Nameless One is in the Hive, which is part of the multiverse. The Planes of the game offer trips to different versions of reality, and the factions are like religious groups that act on their views of reality. The Mortuary that the Nameless One wakes up in is run by the Dustmen, but you will run across many other factions along the way.

Almost immediately the Nameless One meets a wise-cracking skull named Morte. This was one of the worst parts of the game -- Morte is funny and livens up the game, but he's a shameless rip-off of Murray from The Curse of Monkey Island. In fact I called him Murray throughout the whole game to remind myself that the character of Morte here is unoriginal and lifted directly from something else. The Murray-character helps you get your bearings and off on the first quest of the game, which is to get out of the Mortuary. Once out of the Mortuary and in the Hive, the quests start coming thick and fast, and the game settles into its groove. Planescape: Torment is driven almost exclusively by talking to characters and doing their quests, although some combat is involved.

It's by talking that the Nameless One accumulates other members of his party. The Nameless One has a long history with Dak'kon, longer than is quite comfortable, but Dak'kon is indispensable to the struggles to come. And the relationship between the two is resolved eventually, depending on how you treat him, so that's a relief. Other possible party members include Fall-From-Grace, a sharp-tongued young woman who joins fairly early; Annah, a priest character who joins much later; Ignus, a being made entirely of flame and not very reliable; Nordom, a Modron and a strange mechanical character; and Vhailor, a type of haunted suit of armour, who can destroy many things with the greatest of ease as only a suit of armour possibly could, but a bit rigid in his thinking. Some of the possible party members were far more helpful than others.

The storyline of the game has to do with The Nameless One gaining self-knowledge, and the climax of the game literalizes that metaphor. I liked the general trend of the game, and the way that you are forced to play by the puzzles and the dialogue. It was also great to have a really powerful character at the end, but there wasn't much combat after a certain point and the game ends once you've solved everything (so no wandering around the early areas and blowing away those pesky enemies who caused so much trouble when you had a low-level character). The philosophical bent of the game was definitely interesting, and set Planescape: Torment apart from other games of its genre.

A few caveats. The AD&D system is mostly impenetrable, and when I did finally comprehend what was happening, I found that it made the focus of the game on numbers, not on what was happening with them. I'm not asking for total transparency, but something a little less mechanical. On a different note, I was unable to find any easy way to transfer inventory between the characters in my party, which was massively irritating. A few other niggling problems frustrated me along the way, and I've already mentioned my frustration that there wasn't much to do with your high-level character at the end. In general, I find CRPGs get bogged down in the process with not much reward at the end for the hours of obsessive preoccupation. Planescape: Torment had some enjoyable moments, but I was happy to be done with it.

Last modified: September 4, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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