Friday, March 28, 2014

Planescape: Torment - The Best RPG of All Time?

"What can change the nature of a man? If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you *believe* can change the nature of a man, can. I've seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me."
-- The Nameless One

Whenever people talk about role-playing games, Planescape: Torment  inevitably comes into the discussion as an example of how great RPGs used to be. Torment was largely overshadowed by the likes of Baldur's Gate and Fallout at the time of its release and was not much of a commercial success for developer Black Isle Studios, but it developed a cult following over the last 15 years and is now commonly regarded as the greatest RPG of all time. Its reputation has been so tenaciously uttered for so long that I suspect people just take it for granted without actually understanding why, and it's not uncommon to see someone name-drop Torment in online message boards as a way of validating their opinions and credibility. Over time, the shroud of Torment has grown from that of a cult icon to the holy grail of RPGs, taking on a mythological mystique entirely of its own.

It was about six or seven years ago that I played Torment for the first time. As a fan of old-school RPGs, I had to know what I'd been missing all these years, but my time with the game was cut short upon discovering that one of my discs was so badly scratched that my computer couldn't read the files, thus preventing me from progressing past a certain point. I liked what I had seen of the game, though, and have since considered it among the best RPGs I've ever played, even despite never finishing it. With its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera on the horizon, I thought it was time to take another look at Planescape: Torment, to see what it is about this game that makes people speak its name with such passionate reverence, to figure out why, exactly, Torment is so often heralded as the best RPG of all time. 

Torment is without a doubt a unique and finely-crafted game that absolutely deserves to be near the top of any "best ever" list. It's one of very few games that takes full advantage of video games' interactivity to bolster its storytelling in unique ways that you can't get from books or movies. It's one of very few games that uses the "main character has amnesia" trope in a crucial way that permeates the very essence of the story and gameplay. The nature of the story, the way it's told, and your role in uncovering it (both as the nameless protagonist and as a person playing the game) are unlike anything I've seen in perhaps any other game. The story is Torment's best feature, but there's a lot more than that under the hood that consistently propels it into the discussion of being the best RPG of all time.

Torment takes place in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting known as Planescape, a place where different planes of existence intersect with one another, linked together by dimensional portals. It is a world unlike other traditional fantasy settings, filled to brim with its own weird (and often grotesque) idiosyncrasies and few familiar motifs. You play a man known only as The Nameless One, a walking corpse-of-a-man with no memory of himself or his past, whose every inch of flesh is covered in scars and warped tattoos. You wake up on a stone slab in the mortuary of "the city of doors" at the center of the planes, greeted by a floating skull named Morte, who reads a tattoo written on your back that tells you to seek a journal and a man named Pharod. The game begins as you attempt to escape the mortuary and seek out the clues to recover your lost memories.

Torment doesn't waste time gently easing you into its world; it dumps you straight into it. Once you escape from the mortuary you're presented with a fairly large district of the city to explore with dozens of NPCs on every screen. It doesn't give you any overt directions on where to go or what to do -- you're expected to stumble around talking to people to figure things out for yourself. This type of gameplay really helps immerse you in the setting because you have to involve yourself much more in familiarizing yourself with the setting, learning map layouts, remembering where things are, following directions, picking up clues from NPCs, and connecting all of the dots in your brain so that when a character mentions an obscure rumor, you know where to go or what its significance might be. It forces you to really pay attention to what's going on and makes you feel a greater part of the game.

The game does a good job, in this regard, of making you identify with The Nameless One; the directionless beginning and the plethora of places to go and people to talk to is meant to make you feel as lost and confused as TNO since neither of you is familiar with this place, and you come to understand the game's world at a similar rate as TNO recovers his memories.

There's so much to see and do in the starting area of the city that you can easily spend three or four hours talking to people and completing side-quests before even leaving in search of Pharod (although you're free to skip all that and go straight for Pharod if know where to go). It's nice that the game spends so much time in one place establishing its world because you become so intimately familiar with it; this is not an epic adventure that has you journeying across an entire continent, skipping past miles of geography that only exists to spread everything out. You spend most of the game within the walls of Sigil, and when it becomes necessary to venture to another plane, you find the correct portal and teleport directly there. Each gamespace is small enough that you can explore everywhere without feeling overwhelmed, yet each one is packed with enough interactive stuff to keep you busy for long periods of time.

Everything in this world is strange, weird, and unique, and that's a large part of what makes it such a memorable game for people. Planescape is a world where everything seems dipped in strange magic, where even its own inhabitants are often perplexed by the laws of nature and the events that transpire. As unique as this setting is, the best part about it is its presentation. It's all too common for games with a lot of lore and backstory to hide it behind walls of text found in in-game books and expository dialogue; Torment is a strong adherent of the "show, don't tell" philosophy in storytelling. Most of time in Torment you simply observe and soak in the details of the world and make your own deductions about it, experiencing it for yourself, as is usually the case when you visit foreign places in real life.

Necromancy is a common part of life in the planes, with professions dedicated to rounding up corpses to sell to the mortuary so that the Dustmen faction can reanimate the bodies for use as a workforce. Zombies help around the mortuary, serve drinks at the bar, and even serve as bulletin boards with notices physically nailed and carved into their bodies. There's a character who is simply the embodiment of the letter O, a race of characters who speak by projecting glyphs above their heads, and you hear frequent stories of people being whisked away to other planes by accidentally stumbling into a portal. Some of your party members consist of a chaste succubus, a floating skull, an empty suit of armor, a man permanently engulfed in flames, and a crossbow-wielding organic robot. These things are all presented matter-of-factly by the game and its inhabitants, making everything feel natural (and therefore more immersive) even despite its other-worldliness.

Further eschewing typical fantasy tropes and establishing its own unique identity in the realm of RPGs, Torment's story is not about saving the world from a great threat; it's a personal story about a man recovering his lost memories and reclaiming his lost mortality. The Nameless One is immortal, and every time he dies he awakens some time later in the mortuary with no memory of his previous life. He has lived a thousand different lives spanning multiple personalities -- some of them paranoid psychos, others cold, manipulative bastards -- each one attempting (and ultimately failing) to solve the mystery of his identity and reclaim his mortality before dying at the hands of the shadows that pursue him across the planes and across eternity.

The tattoos that cover his body are clues left by previous incarnations to help him remember himself after resurrection; the tattoo on his back is what sets the game in motion searching for his journal and a man named Pharod, but perhaps the most important tattoo is the symbol of torment etched into his left shoulder: "It is that which draws all tormented souls to you. The flesh knows it suffers even when the mind has forgotten." As you play through the game, you learn about all the suffering and anguish The Nameless One has caused for himself and those around him, and depending on how you choose to role-play his current incarnation, the story can be about making amends for his sins and righting past wrongs, or it can be about furthering his original selfish intentions.

There's not a whole lot of driving force behind this story since there's no overt villain or conflict requiring your immediate action/reaction -- you have to feel the intrinsic desire to seek out answers and solve the mystery yourself, taking the initiative upon yourself to progress the story even when it presents no clear momentum -- but it's one of the more interesting and deeply touching stories I've ever seen in a video game. Part of that may be because of the personal drive it takes to complete the game, they way it gets you involved mentally in reaching its conclusion, but it's the type of story that plays out like solving a puzzle.

Throughout the game you end up following the footsteps of your previous incarnations, finding clues and messages left behind to help regain certain memories, or stumbling into traps left by nefarious incarnations that want to put an end to the constant cycle of death and resurrection. At one point you learn that you were trying to build a dream machine in order to uncover dormant dreams, but were never able to complete it; you find sensory stones that allow you to experience such things as "terrible regret" or "longing" felt by another, from their own eyes, mind, and body; and you meet characters (or descendants of characters) with whom you dealt in previous lives, who will either tell you the plain truth or lie about it.

Each of these encounters only reveals part of the picture, and information you discover later will either expand upon or change the nature of what you'd learned previously. The story is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma; every time you peel one layer back, you get answers to your questions, which prompt entirely new questions. The central premise of the game is, in fact, a riddle: what can change the nature of a man?

The entire game is about pain, tragedy, and suffering, and the deep characterization that goes into every single character makes you really empathize with them, so that their anguish really touches you. One character's story is particularly emblematic of the way the game creates intriguing mysteries with tantalizing clues and dramatic revelations, always stringing you along with just enough detail to paint a larger picture, offering a mere glimpse into the torment experienced by your companions before you learn the full nature of your actions.

While you're trying to escape the mortuary, you encounter the ghost of a woman named Deionarra, who claims to know you and addresses you as "my Love." The game doesn't go into much detail at this point, but her words suggest a deep affection that you might have shared with one another in a previous life, which was cut short by tragedy, leaving you to wonder what your relationship with her actually was, and how she died. After some adventuring, you learn that you did not reciprocate her love, and were merely manipulating her for some greater purpose; this lends extra tragedy to the fact that her spirit lingers on after death, still yearning for your affection even after you've died countless deaths and continue to forget her name, and makes you wonder what your ultimate intentions were. After some more adventuring, you learn that you tricked her into loving you specifically so that she might follow you and ultimately die for you.

The whole point of the story is that The Nameless One brings torment to those he meets, everywhere he goes, and the great thing about this story is that it often gets you involved, as a player, in unwittingly perpetrating some of the exact same torments as your past incarnations. At one point I was faced with an NPC who asked me if I truly cared for my companions. I sat back in my chair, surveying my party, and realized that, at least in the case of Dak'kon, I really didn't care about him -- the only reason I brought him along is because I needed a strong fighter at my side to help me get through certain parts of the game. He was but a tool to me, and I was taking advantage of the oath he'd made to serve me after I'd saved his life in a previous incarnation. I was essentially leading him to his death (as I was my other party members) simply to further my own goals of beating the game. 

It was kind of a shocking moment when I realized how much impact I had as a player in perpetrating the torment that follows The Nameless One. Although they didn't seem that way at the time, some of my decisions were just as cold and manipulative as my previous incarnation, the one who had tricked Deionarra into loving him. For as much good as you might try to do in this game, people will still suffer and die around you as a direct result of you playing the game.

The reason the story is so effective, besides the compelling presentation of its intriguing mysteries and emotional payoffs, is because playing the game is much like reading a novel. Whenever you interact with something, whether you're talking to someone, examining messages carved into a wall, or using an item from your inventory, the game provides text descriptions of what your character sees, thinks, and feels. In a way, this is a circumvention of the lower graphical fidelity of older games; it was easier, at the time, to describe a character's actions through vivid descriptions than crude animations, but Torment also showcases the power that raw language can have in storytelling, with its use of imagery and literary devices.

I chose to begin this article with a quote from the game because it's so rare that we encounter video games with as much literary value as is present within Torment. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes words can move one's heart more strongly than an image. Reading a passage in which my character bites his own finger off, describing the taste of the blood in his mouth, the feeling of tendons and muscles popping off his bones, his skin tearing apart, and the searing pain he feels was much more horrific than if it were shown in a cutscene. I'm pretty desensitized to gore and violence, but the vivid descriptions were enough to make me physically shudder at the thought of biting off my own finger.

A large part of why it's so easy to identify with The Nameless One (and why he's regarded as such a great character) is because the text narration allows you to peer deeper inside his mind. With other video game protagonists, you're often stuck observing them from the outside -- in Torment, you get to experience all of TNO's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, providing much more insight into the character than you usually get in video games.

It doesn't stop with the protagonist, though -- Deionarra's story is one of the most poignantly tragic romances I've ever seen in a video game, and it's made even more touching because of one sequence when you to get witness one of your character's manipulative deceptions from her own eyes, via a sensory stone. You get to feel the forlorn despair of her unrequited love, her passion and desire to be loved, her eager willingness to buy into your deceitful lies and bent truths; you also know what your former self is thinking, all-the-while your present self feels the anguish of being unable to warn Deionarra of your treachery, your inability to alter the events of the past. It's a rare bit of omniscience that lets you see into the minds of three characters simultaneously, and I can't imagine that being possible through any other medium than text narration.

Torment has the interactivity of a video game, but balances the use of graphical imagery to (quite literally) paint its world for you while also requiring you to use your imagination to fill in some of the gaps. The game's visuals are quite stimulating (particularly for the time it was released, though even by today's standards the graphics are certainly no eyesore) in terms of depicting all of this world's weird, grotesque idiosyncrasies, but the use of text descriptions takes things one step further by getting you more mentally involved in perceiving and realizing its world. It kind of feels like a text adventure game or a choose-your-own-adventure novel dressed up in the skin of a modern video game, offering the most satisfying elements of both worlds.

At the same time, that means there's an awful lot of reading involved -- the script contains some 800,000 words and remains to this day the second-longest script ever written for a video game (excluding visual novels, Torment is second only to Baldur's Gate 2, according to sources). At one point, after becoming a mage, I spent something like 20 minutes straight just reading tomes that tell the history of a race known as the githzerai, just so I could recount the implied lessons from the stories (a task that requires you to pick the correct dialogue choices) and learn some spells. It's entirely understandable that people might not want to spend so much time reading in a video game, and indeed it can be a bit of a bog in areas that somehow manage to be completely devoid of music, but it's absolutely worth it.

As a role-playing game, Torment offers an awful lot of choice to players. When you find a limited quest item, do you give it to the NPC who will give +250 experience and a permanent +1 boost to your health, or do you give it to the NPC who will give you +500 experience and a disguise that you can use to help you escape the mortuary? When trying to escape from the mortuary, you can take the disguise, talk your way out (using various possible dialogue options), fight your way out, or sneak your way out by finding a key to unlock a portal. When given a quest to get rid of another NPC, you can kill him and return to collect your reward, or you can talk him into leaving, or you can lie and say you dealt with him.

These examples are quite obviously defined to the player as possible role-playing options, but there are bunch of more subtle ones as well. Later in the game, for example, you learn that there was more to the message on your back than what Morte read to you: a single line that says "don't trust the skull." As you wonder what the meaning of that extra line is supposed to be, do you choose to confront him about it directly, or do you keep quiet and keep a closer eye on him? When you learn of how Deionarra died, do you go out of your way to tell her father? Even then, do you tell him the honest truth, or do you give him a more comforting lie?

Other choices present themselves in the form of factions that you can join. The factions each represent a different philosophical or political worldview while offering their own unique services and abilities to the player, and whichever you choose to join (if any) will depend on a combination of how you perceive their in-game representations as well as your own experiences in the real world. The Dustmen, for instance, believe in the "true death" and advocate against worldly passions in order that one's spirit might not linger after death and pass on to oblivion; the Godsmen believe that everything in life is a test, and that with enough patience and virtue, anyone can ascend to become a god in the next life; the Sensates believe that the universe doesn't exist beyond that which can be sensed, and its members seek to learn truth by experiencing as much of the universe as possible; the Chaosmen believe that the universe is pure chaos; and the Anarchists believe that all factions are corrupt and seek to dismantle the structure of factions.

I chose to join the Dustmen because they were the first faction available to me and I wanted access to their benefits, but I didn't believe in their philosophy and lied about my convictions to its leader when taking the admissions test. Later, when I encountered the Sensates, a faction whose worldview I was more keen to support, I left the Dustmen and joined them. You can join and subsequently leave any faction you want; each one will provide its own string of quests and gameplay benefits, but they're primarily there to serve as role-playing options while fleshing out the lore of this game's world in a way that lets you feel much more involved in it, which is always a good thing.

The amount of choice available to you is no more apparent than in the dialogue system, and Torment features one of the most robust dialogue systems in any game I've ever seen. Even in situations where your dialogue options don't really matter, in terms of effecting a desired result, you're usually presented with five or six different options to convey an entire range of emotions. Sometimes you have multiple instances within the same set of response options to express a single emotion, be it compassion, sympathy, frustration, or impatience. The response options tend to cover the entire spectrum of the good/evil, lawful/chaotic alignment system from AD&D. It's not uncommon to see two or three response options with the exact same words marked with "truth," "bluff," or "lie" in front them, allowing you not only to designate your choice of words, but also to designate your intentions.

Your alignment starts at "true neutral" and shifts depending on your actions; obviously, your alignment plays a crucial role when dealing with certain NPCs, and certain party members will actually leave your party or attack you outright if your alignment drifts away from their liking. Certain weapons and items are also only available to certain alignments. What's most interesting is that each of the planes you visit has its own alignment tendencies, which yields different bonuses or penalties on your party depending on how your alignment matches or clashes with the plane's alignment. I, for instance, ended up being a predominantly "neutral good" character, and when I went to a "chaotic evil" plane I found that my buff spells were actually having the opposite effect, and had to change my game up to reflect that.

Most of Torment's quests are all basically "errand boy fetch quests" that simply task you with retrieving an item or talking to an NPC across town and returning, but even the most banal of fetch quests in this game have some kind of worthwhile payoff. In becoming a mage, for example, you have to run to the market to buy some seeds, only to discover that those seeds have become extinct; you're then sent to another NPC who shows you how to will things into existence. You return with the seeds, now grown into small branches, only to be told to return to the market to pick up some clothes from a launderer. When you get there, you learn that the clothes have been routinely washed and starched for so many years (because the witch never went back to pick them up) and have become utterly useless as clothes. The witch then sends you back to the market to buy ink, only to find that you need a rare fish from a blind NPC to produce some ink for you.

As you're going through these quests, they feel like the most shallow, simple, tedious fetch quests of all time, but then you finish the quest line and learn that they were meant to teach you some lessons. The first was about the power that belief holds within the planes; the second was about the futility of routine rituals without understanding their purpose; and the third was about seeing things from another's perspective. Afterwards, the seed branches you brought back become a frame, the clothes you brought back become parchment, and the ink becomes, well, ink, all used in creating your first spellbook. The tedious nature of these quests is also meant to test your resolve and determination to become a mage, as well as to test if your character is intelligent enough to see the lessons intended in the tasks.

Most quests are entirely optional, but many of them have strong contributions to the main story; very few feel like they were designed simply to pad the game's length with extra content. There are a couple dozen different quests and events, in particular, that you can trigger as optional content, which reveal new things about your character as well as your companions, both past and present. There's no impetus from the game to do so, which makes every discovery feel genuine and rewarding. This is a game whose design feels brilliantly realized and cohesive, where every little thing has some kind of significant impact on the story, where everything seems designed specifically to relate to and compliment something else.

It's actually surprising how much crucial, hidden stuff there is in this game that you can absolutely miss if you aren't thorough in your exploration or don't think to try a certain action. At one point you can gain a skill that lets you communicate with the dead, a skill which is possible to miss, but even once you have the skill you have to remember to go back to certain locations to use the skill on zombies and corpses you might have already passed. In one instance you speak with a character who talks in a foreign language; if your intelligence is high enough, you can learn to translate what he's saying to you, otherwise you can ask some of your party members to translate. It turns out you gain new insights into at least one of your companion's history if you have them translate for you, which I never thought to do because I could already understand what the NPC was saying. 

It's the sort of game that requires your own input in connecting the dots to get the most out of it, because it won't spoon-feed everything directly to you. It's so refreshing, to me, playing a game that respects me enough to let me make my own decisions, to discover and figure things out for myself, even if I might miss out on certain things, because that makes each discovery more rewarding. It also makes the experience feel much more personal; rather than everyone who plays the game experiencing the exact same thing, it's possible for different players to see and experience totally different things depending on the way they play, making your own playthrough feel totally unique because of the decisions you make. 

The actual structure of most quests might not be much more complex than those involved in becoming a mage, but they usually offer a wide variety of role-playing options with multiple possible solutions, which makes them consistently satisfying to solve. More than anything, though, the content of these quests tends to be genuinely interesting: killing yourself to convince someone else not to commit suicide, helping a pregnant wall give birth, being duped into handling a cursed box, settling a dispute between a city of undead and a faction of psychic wererats, retrieving an article of women's clothing from a sentient armoire, and so on. It says a lot about the game that one of the most interesting locations is a brothel where the prostitutes can only be hired to engage in verbal intercourse.

Dialogue plays a crucial role in the gameplay, and your stats have a significant impact on the gameplay. Having a high wisdom allows you to recover your memories faster; a high intelligence gives you more dialogue options; and having a high charisma will allow certain dialogue options to be successful where they might fail with a lower charisma. With a high intelligence, you can disenchant runes from a skeleton warrior and destroy it without actually having to fight it. It's quite telling how much this game values its dialogue and character interaction when you consider that, even though it has a fully-fledged combat system, you can get through 90% of the game (or more) without ever having to fight anyone. It's often more rewarding, in fact, to solve quests through dialogue than to resort to violence.

In my view, RPGs are primarily supposed to emphasize exploration, quests, character interaction, and role-playing, and combat should merely be a byproduct of these main criteria. Role-playing games have seen a relative decline in the past decade as games begin to value combat and action more than anything else; Torment is quite an impressive game in this regard, since it offers an interesting world to explore, fun and engaging quests to solve, great characters with whom to interact, and a high level of meaningful choices to make, all in a game that allows you to pursue its combat if you so desire, but which doesn't place a burdensome amount of focus on it.

Unfortunately, the combat in Torment just isn't very good. It's competent, sure, but it lacks the kind of strategic depth that one might find in, say, Fallout or Baldur's Gate. Whereas Fallout allows you to target specific body parts to yield different effects in addition to merely dealing damage, in a system where every movement and attack uses action points that you have to carefully distribute between turns, and where your positioning is vital to your accuracy and defense, Torment basically just has you select all of your party members and click on an enemy to initiate an auto-attack sequence and then watch as everyone trades blows until the fight is over.

More often, combat means watching your party members and enemies whiff at each other while failing their accuracy rolls over and over again, and watching as the poor pathfinding causes your party members to bump into each other and bumble around like imbeciles, unable to join the fight because they're too stupid to go around the wall of characters in front of them. Playing as a mage is the better option, since at least then it requires you to cue up spells manually, and the limits on spellcasting (you get a limited number to use each time you rest) means that you have to use a little discretion in terms of when to use your spells, to make sure they last until the next time you have the opportunity to rest.

The poor combat can be excused because it's so rare that you see a game of this nature that will let you play a pure diplomat instead of being forced into the role of a warrior, and that diplomatic playstyle is so fun and satisfying anyway that, quite simply, you won't be seeing a lot of combat anyway. In the few sections when you do have to fight, though, it can be kind of a drag either running away from everything or tediously slogging your way through everything.

It's kind of a shame, because for all the potential Torment has in its role-playing options, there is essentially one universal "best" way to play the game. Wisdom, intelligence, and charisma are the most important stats in the game, in that order, because of how much more value the game places on dialogue and character interaction than combat, and since the mage class benefits from high intelligence and wisdom (and is generally a more engaging combat class to play), there's hardly any reason to play as a thief or a fighter. As good as Torment's role-playing options are, I can't help but think the game would be even better if combat were a more viable and desirable approach, because the choice of playing as a diplomatic mage isn't really a matter of choice or role-playing -- it's picking the one and only playstyle that will get you the most out of the game.

If you replay the game as a pure fighter, you'll get less experience, miss out on a lot of game content, and have less satisfying solutions to quests. There's basically no penalty for completely ignoring combat-related stats, especially since you can easily recruit party members to do the heavy lifting when it comes to combat, but you'll be penalized greatly for ignoring wisdom and intelligence. The lack of balance in this regard makes it feel like the game is meant to be played a certain way, and deviating from the game's intended path doesn't necessarily reward you, which seems kind of counter-intuitive for an RPG.

Some might argue that the lack of character creation -- getting to choose your race, gender, starting class, and background -- is a knock against Torment as an RPG, but having a finely realized protagonist (who still serves as a blank slate for role-players) allows the game to tell a much deeper and more personal story. It also gets you right into the gameplay without having to make too many uninformed decisions you'll quickly regret.

I actually found it much easier to get into the role of The Nameless One, as compared to other characters I'd created from scratch in other games. In most RPGs with character creation, your avatar often ends up feeling like a mere vessel to facilitate gameplay, with no displays of emotion or personality, and therefore not feeling like real, actual characters. Some games let you create your own avatar while still giving it an in-game persona, but I often feel a disconnect between myself and my character when these games necessarily take control away from you in order to portray those characters in their own way. In Torment, TNO is the entire focal point of the story -- you control him, but he is not you -- and yet there's still a ton of freedom in terms of how you want to role-play his current iteration, letting you shape the protagonist in the way you want him to be while still allowing him an on-screen persona that is able to display emotion independent of the player's actions. He feels more like a real person, and that makes it much easier to assume his perspective.

Musically, composer Mark Morgan is at his best with Torment. Most fantasy soundtracks opt to use symphonic orchestrations to set the tone of their games, with the classical instruments being the type that might be found in a typical fantasy setting. In light of Torment's bizarre, other-worldly nature, Morgan uses a variety of unconventional instruments, occasional synthetic sounds, and blends of musical styles like smoky jazz and middle-eastern music to create a musical style that is distinctly Torment, unique to this game, perfectly setting the tone for each area you encounter in the game. 

Deionarra's theme is quite simply one of the best pieces of music I've ever heard in a video game; it perfectly encapsulates the emotion of her unrequited love and the ethereal quality of her spirit clinging to life even after death. The mortuary music is genuinely haunting, a fine compliment for the imagery of dissected corpses lying on stone slabs and zombies shambling around. The music for the smoldering corpse bar, found in the slums district of Sigil, has an appropriately grimy, earthy sound in its wailing melody and rhythmic hand drums. Nordom's theme, the robot party member, has the kind of synthetic vibe you'd expect from a robot. Perhaps my favorite track, the alternate theme for the smoldering corpse bar, didn't even make it into the game. 

Besides the game's poor combat and its relative lack of balance, the only criticisms I can issue are minor nitpicks. I like the floating descriptive text you can get for examining things in the environment, but wish there were more of it. Looting corpses is kind of a hassle because you have to hunt for the one pixel that will highlight the pile of loot, and it's really annoying that your party members drop everything in their inventory when they're defeated in combat, requiring you to pick up and reequip everything after resurrecting them. The game uses an isometric camera angle, and sometimes places doors on the side of buildings opposite from the camera so that you can't actually see them, which requires you to hunt and guess as to where an interactive hotspot might be. Pathfinding is sometimes broken and requires too much micromanagement to navigate characters through a tight space, and the hotwheel you have to use by right-clicking to cue up spells or to talk to party members is a little obtuse. I also ran into frequent crashes. 

There are some really good reasons why Planescape: Torment is so often considered the greatest RPG ever. It has all of the great role-playing options and meaningful choices that you would expect from an RPG, complete with one of the most fascinating stories ever told in a game, along with interesting characters, a great setting, great literary value, vivid descriptions, nuanced gameplay mechanics, and engaging dialogue. This is a unique game, the likes of which we don't see very often, plain and simple. But is it truly the best RPG of all time?

It's a tough call for me to make. Torment almost leans more towards feeling like an adventure game than a role-playing game, and its weak combat and poor balancing of role-playing styles tells me that it's ultimately not as good as Fallout or Fallout 2. While the Fallout games don't have as good of a story or quite the quality of dialogue options as Torment has, I think they're more rounded games that offer a more complete experience for someone seeking a good RPG. Torment is such a good game, though, that it absolutely deserves to be near the top of any "best ever" list, RPG or not. Consider this a strong recommendation to play the game.


  1. Well, I liked the game. My problem don't seems to fall in the category game. I'm not saying that's better or worse, I'm just saying that don't feels like a game. Maybe not a videogame. It feels more like literature.
    Game with most text I have played but it's still is a game? Radiant Historia, a JRPG for DS. Funny. The protagonist isn't immortal, but he lives more than one live at the course of the game, just like The Nameless One.

    1. There's an awful lot of reading involved, sure, but I think Torment retains plenty enough interactivity to qualify as a video game. It has all of the component parts of any good RPG, after all, and your actions have a pretty significant effect on the way the story is told. Like I said in the review, I think it balances the best aspects of reading a novel and playing a video game.

  2. Fantastic review, thank you.
    Torment is one of my favorite RPGs. The others are: Bloodlines, BG2: SoA, Morrowind. Can I ask what is your opinion on Baldur's Gate 2? (If I remember well, you like Bloodlines and don't like Morrowind.)

    Deionarra's "Longing" sensory stone in the private sensorium chamber is truly a masterpiece.

    I really like the end credit song:

    1. Vampire Bloodlines is one of my favorite RPGs, but I don't care much for Morrowind. I've tried playing it multiple times over the years but I always get bored and lose interest. I really wish I could like it because, ironically, I have very fond memories of playing Morrowind. I just could never get into it.

      I don't have much experience with either of the Baldur's Gate games -- my familiarity with them is limited to articles I've read online, sort of attempting to research them, but I actually installed Baldur's Gate 2 + Throne of Bhaal immediately after finishing Torment.

      I've been busy the last few days and will be even more busy the next couple of weeks, so it'll be a while before I can review it, but I'm going to try to put that next on my to-do list.

    2. I recommend the Enhanced Edition. I played through BG1: EE/BG2: EE last year and I'm very pleased with it. It is more polished than the original version.


  4. I think Torment is overrated. It has good characters, dialogue, and environments, but it's largely a barebones RPG with a lot of pseudo-philosophical BS thrown in.

    1. @TheUntergangMan:

      "Pretentious", "artsy-fartsy", "pseudo-philosophical" etc.

      The day I see anybody make a good argument in connection with this kind of derogatory label, I might actually start to take such comments seriously. Personally I don't understand why people feel offended or threatened by more sophisticated narration.

  5. Baldur's Gate 2 is one of my personal contenders for the best game I have ever played. Mostly because it is so well balanced between combat, dialogue, story and exploration. Unlike some other RPGs like BG1, Icewind Dale or Dragon Age: Origins I almost never got the feeling that the game did only take so much time to finish because of the combat. Its world is huge and it has a lot of content, yet most of it is still fleshed out reasonably well. Neither the maps, nor most of the characters are as interesting or convincing as those of PS:T, but the quality of the writing is still good. The story further develops the Bhaalchild-theme, which is narrated in an enjoyable manner. I feel that it does realize the potential of this inner conflict of the PC quite well. The fact, that the great main antagonist Jon Irenicus is integrated into the dream sequences, which serve to explore this theme, did certainly also not hurt. By the way, I have heard opinions of people who played both the german and english versions of the game, that the german voice actor for Irenicus is actually more convincing than his english equivalent. (Just saying, because I only know the german voice-acting and in most games it is actually lacking. Not so in this case it seems.) In short, the story is actually quite good.

    The game leans a bit more toward the quantity side of things, but that is not to say that it is lacking in quality (mostly talking about dialogues, story and characters). In spite of the good balance Shadows of Amn can still be needlessly combat-heavy at times, but fortunately the combat is also quite engaging, which is mostly due to the variety of opponents and the huge range of spells. Also, in terms of dialogue, stats such as Wisdom or Intelligence barely ever matter, which might just be the single biggest shortcoming of the game. Considering the long story-arc and the huge world (especially the very well fleshed out city of Atkathla), it might be hard for some people to actually finish BG2, but personally I also felt, that the effort required to get to the end gives a real sense of progression, especially when you immediately continue with the last part of the trilogy:

    Throne of Bhaal. It is not as good as BG2 in a lot of ways, but at the least the story holds up to the established standards comparably well. Other than that ToB is much more linear and much more of a grinding session, but still worth it in my opinion. You probably won't care too much, if you were able to put up with DA:O.

  6. I hate to say this but Tides of Numenera is massively dissapointing.

  7. I like Fallout 2 slightly more, because I consider it more „rounded“ and with more decision-making and options, but Planescape is arguably on the very top of my classic RPG list and is aging very well. Maybe the only games I would rate equally or higher are Fallout 2, Ultima VI, maybe Ultima VII Part 2, and KOTOR (having neither played Baldur‘s Gate 1 & 2 nor Gothic 1& 2, I might be missing something, though).

    Thank you for the great review, which was a pure joy to read!