Hall of Fame Review – Planescape: Torment (1999)

by Benjamin Fitzgerald

 

Developer: Black Isle

Publisher: Interplay

Release Date: December 12, 1999

Genre: Role-playing

Mode: Single-player

Rating: T for Teen

 

***Before I begin, I would like to send a huge wave of praise to the amazing artists whose representations I have used in this review. They really helped bring a lot of life to the characters, more than was capable by the limited 3D rendering capabilities of the time. Below each image in question, I have included the artist responsible for the painting or drawing.***

 

Planescape: Torment is in a class of its own. It is a game like no other. It is much more than a game: it is an experience. It is a captivating multimedia experience, at once an interactive digital novel and a thrilling role-playing experience filled with a dynamic and often unsettling environment, an enthralling cast of characters and a dramatic journey of self-discovery.

You Are the Nameless One

Nameless

Artist: coupleofkooks (coupleofkooks.deviantart.com)

You awake on a stone slab in the mortuary, a strange mausoleum with “all the architectural charm of a pregnant spider.” Your bodily is mutilated with hundreds of tattoos and scars, many of which are sufficient to have killed a man. You have no memories at all – no recollection of who you are, why you have come to this place. Even your own name is a mystery.

You are approached by what you are instinctively certain is a most unusual sight: a floating skull with two intact, bulging eyeballs bobbing in your direction. Somehow, this oddity opens its mouth and addresses you. “Hey Chief, you okay? You playing corpse or you putting the blinds on the Dusties? I thought you were a deader for sure.” This…creature…identifies itself – himself – as Morte, and explains that you are locked in this strange chamber. He proceeds to read some tattoos on your back which appear to be instructions of some kind – something about ‘Pharod’ and a journal.

Breaking off from your discourse, you take to examining the room. It is locked, just as Morte said. It is not this that catches your attention, however, but the other residents of the room – three ambling zombies and four long-dead, disemboweled bodies. One in particular catches your attention, as some strange machine has pulled back all the skin off its skull, leaving a bloody white skull exposed.

mortuary

You take the skull’s advice and bash in the animated corpses with your fists, claiming the key to the room and opening the door. After a bizarre conversation with your floating companion, you begin to explore this mortuary. In another room, seated at a great book with many thousands of names, sits an aging, sickly man who is clearly not a human. His skin is a pale yellow, his ears extend to sharp tips above the top of his skull, and his face is framed in a long, flowing white beard.

Against the advice of the skull, you approach this man, hoping that he may contain answers to your questions. He seems to know something of you – he addresses you as Restless One – but when pressed answers, “I have never *known* you.” As you talk to this aging scribe, who identifies himself as Dhall, you learn to your horror that this is not the first time you have come to the Mortuary. It seems you have come here many times, and something holds you to the “Shadow of Life.” You do not know what he means, but you are determined to find out.

Sigil

Once you finally secure escape from the Mortuary, you find yourself in the Hive – the slums of Sigil, home to little else but fear, poverty, violence and death. The Hive will be your stomping grounds for the first act of the game, so take time to explore it thoroughly. Speak to everyone you can; it will help accustom you to this strange place, with its bizarre customs and unfamiliar slang. You will soon realize that this is not a world to travel frivolously. Portals can open anywhere, transporting you to another plane. The inhabitants can be easily given to violence. Denizens of Baator walk the streets, foul-tempered tieflings tell you where you can pike off to, and somewhere the Lady of Pain surveys all that happens in Sigil, though who she is or what she wants remains an enigma.

Your journey will take you deep below the Hive, through ancient crypts, buried villages and strange empires. Later, you will be able to explore the city of Sigil further, to some of the upper wards. You will come into contact with many different factions, men and women struggling to find meaning and sense in a world that defies comprehension. You will come into contact with strange artifacts, encounter fantastic beings, fight fearsome beasts and meet some of the souls your life has impacted across countless centuries. It is awe-inspiring.

crypt of dismemberment

As you explore Sigil, you will likely be struck by how exceptional the world is. It was described by a designer in one of the pitches to Interplay as an “avant garde” fantasy. Absent are many of the usual tropes of high fantasy: there are no elves or dwarves, goblins, gnolls or dragons. There is no epic battle for good and evil, no high-flung prophecies you are destined to fulfill. Your journey is a journey of memories and trial and torment built out of a clawing need for the answer to the only question that matters: Why am I cursed with immortality? This thirst for meaning will eventually take you across the planes, where you come to meet demons, devas and possibly, finally, the answer to the question you seek.

Torment

During your conversation with the githzerai scribe Dhall, he makes a strange request: “I ask that you no longer ask others to join with you, Restless One – where you walk, so walks misery. Let your burden be your own.” You do not realize at the time how powerful those words are.

As a game, Planescape: Torment takes its name from two sources. The first is the universe (or campaign setting, if you prefer formal D&D terminology) in which the game is set. Universe is not an appropriate term, because the premise of Planescape is the multiverse: hundreds of different planes of reality connected by portals, held together by the hub city of Sigil. Sigil is, in fact, the capstone of all reality – should Sigil ever be destroyed, the entire multiverse would be lost.

The second source is one of the great underlining themes in the narrative saga: personal torment. Suffering assumes many guises, and a soul may be tormented in myriad ways. This theme of anguish is explored throughout the game, through the experiences of many. The Nameless One is at the core of it all, but his anguish is only part of the problem – indeed, the planes have suffered much agony for his immortality, for his many incarnations have afflicted much pain and despair.

Many of those you meet have borne and [still] bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love and the law’s delay. Mourns-For-Trees, the Crier of Es-Annon, Karina, Angyar, Ingress and even Dimtree suffer under grief or longing or fear or shame. These are but walking shadows that strut and fret their hour upon the stage – their impact on the story may be insignificant, but they too have their own pain and their own torment.

Deionarra, Ravel, Fhjull and Trias

Deionarra, Ravel, Fhjull and Trias

Many whom you meet bear the pains and sorrows that life deals in one way or another, but for some characters, their sufferings hit much closer to home. Deionarra suffers the wounds of treachery and untold loss. Ravel pines for what cannot be hers. Fhjull Forked-Tongue suffers the disgrace of his people and the indignity of deception. Trias suffers…many things. Dak’kon bears the pain of deceit and an oppressive yoke he cannot escape. Fall-from-Grace suffers many torments, both those within her and around her. Annah wears the scars of fear and conflict and lovelessness. Vhailor has been denied everything he sought to pursue. Nordom is a conflicted being, transformed by Limbo into something not himself. Fiery Ignus bears little and yet much, for he has embraced utter chaos and inflicted much suffering upon the undeserving. Morte suffers from the shame of lifetimes of guilt and misconduct.

It is now time to say more of the seven souls who bear your journey with you. Each of them suffers in their own way, and for those who are willing to look past the surface, there are many questions that their characters and experiences raise.

Friends?

dakkon_1

Artist: Grosnus (grosnus.deviantart.com)

Dak’kon is a githzerai, a race of beings from the plane of Limbo – material chaos. Though their realm is one of chaos, the githzerai themselves have embraced order over chaos, choosing to shape their realm in their own manner. Once enslaved to the merciless evils of the illithids, the githzerai fought for their freedom, and there is nothing of greater value to them. Thus Dak’kon has become a pariah to his people, because for unknown reasons he has been bound to you. Dak’kon is the last known wielder of the karach blade, and it is said that in the hands of one who *knows* himself, it is a weapon by which the multiverse itself can be unmade. But what does it mean for a man to know himself?

annah

Artist: agregor (agregor.deviantart.com)

Annah of the Shadows is a young fiendling in her late teens or early twenties – a tiefling, descendant of an unnatural union between a woman and a fiend from the Lower Planes. Annah hails from the Hive; she is brash and strong-willed, fiercely independent but loyal to those who prove loyal to her. She is a potential love interest in the game, and aggressive towards anyone who attempts to sway your affections away from her. She is frequently coarse and rude, but also zealous in her devotion to those who help her. Much of who we are is a product of our upbringing, but do we have to be defined by the cards fate has dealt us? This is one of the central issues explored with the character of Annah.

Ignus_NPC

Ignus is a being I despise. Though he has suffered much, perhaps enough to be deserving of pity, he is not deserving of mercy. Everything he represents is in antagonism to all that I believe, both inside and out of the game. He is chaos: pure, unfettered destruction for no cause but its own. There are others in the game who desire destruction for their own reasons – conquest, personal gain, survival, entropy. Ignus the Fiery, the Burning One, wants nothing but to watch the world burn. His is a compelling character, a powerful and unusual force, but full of an unquenchable thirst for destruction. Although life often inflicts terrible wounds upon us, at what point do we remain morally culpable for the person we become?

fall-from-grace_2

Artist: Katya Ryabova (http://katyaryabova.in.ua/)

Fall-from-Grace is a character who defies stereotypes. She is a tanar’ri, a being literally formed out of pure evil and elemental chaos – a succubus. She was sold into slavery by her own mother into the hands of the Baatezu, the mortal enemies of the tanar’ri. She eventually escaped from her masters by undermining the weaknesses of her captors and fled to Sigil, where she eventually became the proprietress of a rather singular brothel. As a succubus, she is incredibly beautiful. (At one point, Nordom says, “I estimate Fall-From-Grace to be found attractive by the male sex of over 321,423 species.”) Unlike the rest of her kind, however, Fall-from-Grace has rejected her chaotic nature, and there is more than a hint of benevolence behind this most remarkable of abyssal creatures. Through Fall-from-Grace, we observe a powerful lesson: what is it that truly defines the essence of a being?

nordom

Artist: denis48 (denis48.deviantart.com)

Nordom is a bizarre life form. It is a modron, an extraplanar creature that hails from Mechanus, the plane of law. Modrons are geometric shapes with wings or humanoid limbs, an odd combination of biological and mechanical working together by clockwork. They are not autonomous creatures, but they are not exactly a hive mind either. They simply do not possess any sense of individuality. Nordom is different, however. It was left in an isolated region of the Modron maze on the plane of Limbo, which is composed of pure chaos. As a result of prolonged exposure to the element, it became, in a sense, corrupted with individuality. As Nordom journeys with you, it hopes to understand what it means to be an individual – a struggle for identity as ageless as humanity.

vhailor_2

Original concept art for Vhailor

Vhailor may be the most tragic of all you travel with. He is also perhaps the least empathetic. In life, Vhailor was a Mercykiller, a member of a faction wholly devoted to blind justice, for whom mercy is a weakness and a disease. To Vhailor, there is no difference between a starving man stealing food and a rich man robbing the blind: all transgressions must be answered with justice. In death, Vhailor remains, his commitment to justice so incredible that even mortality could not contain it. His flesh has long since rotted and turned to dust, but his spirit refused to depart and now exists to bind together the suit of armor that is the last remnant of Vhailor’s being. Although Vhailor rejects mercy, it would not be accurate to call him cruel. He calls to account evil and righteous, always administering the due for the penalty. For those of a philosophical bent, his radical zeal raises a striking question: can justice be truly just in the absence of mercy?

Morte_3

Morte is one of the most unusual, creative and engaging sidekicks ever to grace a video game, and one of the most imaginative characters as well. It is never revealed who or what Morte was in life. He isn’t exactly anxious to talk about it, and avoids the subject whenever it is raised. He is loyal to a fault, though he doesn’t always seem too eager about it, and he never shies away from telling you exactly what he thinks – unless you’re asking about him, of course.

Perhaps his most defining trait is his rather carnal appreciation for all things women. From the luscious succubus to the feisty fiendling, the sensual harlots of the Hive and even, well, femme zombies, Morte isn’t all that picky. It’s doubtful that in life he had a thing for cadavers, but untold centuries of death have made him much less discriminating. One of the very first conversations you have with Morte reveals this rather particular weakness of his, and throughout the game he will hit on just about anything with breasts, decomposing or not. Unfortunately, death has not improved his charismatic appeal…

For me, the story of Morte is one of redemption almost as poignant as the Nameless One himself.

What Can Change the Nature of a Man?

I realize that I have spoken very little of the actual game mechanics. The game was written on the same engine that propelled the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series of games. Dialogue functions much the same, although it is far more immersive. I am tempted to compare it to a visual novel, but it is far broader and richer in scope than any I have ever experienced, and many of your choices bear a weight on the sort of person you have chosen to become. In this regard, it is one of the purest RPGs I have ever played. The mechanics of the game allow you to shift your character however you please, but at the same time avoids the anonymity that titles such as The Elder Scrolls or Fable provide.

Coaxmetal

The combat is much the same as in other Infinity titles, although the rather unusual assortment of characters provides interesting strategic challenges. The game can be pursued with a minimum of violence, where combat is only necessary in a handful of places, or it can be pursued to the fullest. This can be especially fun in later levels, for towards the end of the game the Nameless One takes on powers of a terrifying magnitude. The ability to alternately fight or role-play your way through many dangerous situations is one of the most appealing aspects of the game.

One of the places where the game most shines is in the spell effects. The developers had four programmers whose sole responsibility of the appearance of the spells, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. One spell features billowing clouds and menacing lightning strikes encircling the target before all the enemies in the area of effect are struck. Another finds a massive ethereal axe materialize above its target and pummel him. Many of the higher level spells trigger entire cut scenes; one shows a cannon from another plane that fires a blast of intense energy; another pictures four devas from the celestial planes that strike at all enemies in the vicinity. I have never seen a game with such consistently stunning effects, made all the more impressive by the age of the game.

Amazing

There is so much more I could say, so much more I wish to write. Ultimately, though, I simply wish to encourage you to experience this game. The combat is unusual for today’s RPG standards, and there is a heavy amount of reading. Nevertheless, it is a story masterfully told, haunting both in its beauty. It is an experience you are not likely to forget.

What can change the nature of a man? It is up to you to decide.

 

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About

Benjamin Fitzgerald has been playing video games his entire life. An avid Star Trek fan, the first game he ever played was Interplay's "Star Trek: 25th Anniversary." He has many other interests as well, including writing music, cooking and spending time with his friends, including his best friend, Shadow.

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