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Planescape: Torment (PC) artwork

Planescape: Torment (PC) review

"Planescapeís fiction is perfect: it takes two intrinsic human fears, turns one on its head, and allows the other so much room to breathe. In Planescape, you play as a man who has already lost his entire memory, including that of his own identity, yet he can never escape this dreadful state."

So, if thereís one undeniably good thing to come out of the recent Good Old Games saga - the abrupt closure, the media silence, and the perhaps somewhat ill-judged press conference to relaunch the service just a few days later - itís that Planescape: Torment is now available, and Windows 7-proofed. Thatís Planescape: Torment, the extraordinary classic RPG which has been nigh-on impossible to get hold of for several years. It turned up on Amazon in 2009, which was interesting, given that publishers Interplay claimed to have no idea how it got there. But it was the original version, with not even a single patch applied, and a bit of a nightmare to get running on modern systems. Good old Good Old Games. They might have suspect PR methods, but all is forgiven.

By now, I must have started Planescape maybe eight or nine times. Iíve finished it once, and that was aeons ago. Itís an absolutely enormous roleplaying game in which the focus is placed squarely on storytelling over combat, and has quite rightly gone down in history as one of the pillars of 1990s PC gaming. My guess? People who grab it for the first time from GOG are going to get a few hours in, and give up.

Planescape, for all its merits, has one of the most atrociously judged opening sections Iíve played in an otherwise excellent game. You begin in a mortuary, a giant, sprawling complex of death, with no idea where you are. Or how you got there. Or who you are. Or why there are scars and tattoos all over your body. You certainly donít know why thereís a floating, talking skull pestering you to get up. Heís called Morte, and though youíll learn to love him, heís initially insufferably annoying.

The mortuary is dull. Itís brown, dismally stifling and maze-like. Your overriding objective at this stage is to seek out a man named Pharod, but you donít know why. Thereís so little compulsion to do so. All you want is to leave this place so you can find something interesting in this world, but fathoming the way out is painful. Hooded, zombie-like keepers roam the halls. You can talk to them, but unless youíre very smart about it, theyíll figure out youíre not dead and attack. You have to find a key, but thereís no indication of where in this huge morgue it might be. Iíve got it pretty much nailed now, having ploughed through the section countless times, but itís inexcusable. As an intro, it totally fails in its purpose to grab your attention.

Once youíre out youíre dropped into the Hive, an interesting, busy community, filled with all kinds of interesting people. Youíll explore a while, and eventually find out a little more about yourself. Specifically, that you cannot die. Because, technically speaking, youíre already dead. Perishing simply respawns you. Youíre stuck in this eternal cycle of existence, and... well, thatís when Planescape begins to get interesting.

In a way, itís kind of a classical fear turned on its head. We are all afraid of dying, really. But thatís only because itís an unknown and inevitable state. We canít escape our own fate, and none of us knows what dying is like, until youíre already dead and - depending on your beliefs - you either go to somewhere completely unlike what youíve ever known, or your entire perception of everything just... stops. Which is scary stuff. But how about being unable to ever escape what you already know? Being trapped in a single mind forever more? As soon as you start to wrap your head around that, dying starts to become a lot less terrifying than never dying at all.

So, smartly, much of Planescapeís story focuses on this idea. And on the concept of identity. Because, of course, the other thing we all fear is our minds starting to disintegrate as we grow old. Planescapeís fiction is perfect: it takes two intrinsic human fears, turns one on its head, and allows the other so much room to breathe. In Planescape, you play as a man who has already lost his entire memory, including that of his own identity, yet he can never escape this dreadful state.

It takes entirely too long to start to play with these important narrative concepts. Youíre talking at least a couple of hours before you finally meet Pharod, having left the Hive and trekked through another dismal segment where nothing of interest happens. And thatís if youíre not really taking your time with anything. But after that, it expands to a remarkable degree. And itís around this point when you start to realise that Planescape is best treated as an explorable story - one of the hugest, most intricate in the world - rather than a game. Mechanistically, itís Baldurís Gate with some stat priorities switched around (you gain more experience from conversation than from fighting, for example). But you wonít meet anyone who loved Planescape and waxes lyrical about how the thing actually plays.

Letís go with the most obvious part of why this non-game focus works: itís just flabbergastingly, gorgeously written. Its script is quirky and unusual, playing around with an interesting new dialect that comes across as a sort of twisted Victorian fantasy slang. But itís consistent to an impressive degree, and totally in keeping with the mood of the game. Dialogue trees are absolutely vast, with countless conversation options to explore, each generating yet more beautiful text in response. I believe the script is something like 800,000 words long. To give that weight with a real-world example, thatís somewhere between five and 15 novelsí worth. James Joyceís preposterously enormous Ulysses contained 265,000 words. There are about 770,000 words in the Bible. I can still barely wrap my head around the sheer mass of language in this game.

Moreover, it remains entirely internally solid. There are no overt plot holes, and everything hangs together around its central themes - identity, fear, love and loss - throughout. Never does it feel as though youíre trawling through pages of irrelevance, because by the time youíre properly engrossed - probably somewhere around the four-or-five-hour mark - youíll want nothing more than to sit and absorb the culture of this astounding world: a world that, despite the aging technology, is still uncommonly beautiful to look at.

And it all kind of goes to show that gaming doesnít have to rely on precise mechanics, and that interactive entertainment can have roots buried far deeper than most games explore. For what itís worth, Planescape - like the Baldurís Gate engine games generally - is a lot more fluid than certain other RPGs of its era. But it never stretches much beyond competence in the way it actually plays. Combat (which is optional throughout, though the game is more difficult to play non-violently) is a simple real-time clicky-clicky affair, conversation trees are as you would expect conversation trees to be, and its levelling system is nothing out of the ordinary. Does that matter? Never, because the sense of being a character and exploring an unfathomable place, both physically and psychologically, is ever-present. Itís roleplaying at its purest. And itís marvellous.

The opening is dreadful and so many people are going to give up, just as Iíve given up so very many times. It was, I admit, difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to plough too far into the game before writing this piece. But I cannot in all good conscience condemn the game for this. Planescape is, in a very literal sense, an extraordinary game - one that blossoms wonderfully into one of the most beautiful works of fiction the medium has ever seen. Buy it, and persevere through the ill-judged beginning, because Planescape rewards patience. And when I say ďrewardsĒ, Iím talking about millions of dollarsí worth of endless fascination.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 30, 2011)

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