Planescape: Torment Review

It's clearly the best traditional computer role-playing game of the year and is bound to be an all-time favorite for many of its inevitable fans.

Torment is a traditional role-playing game with an uncommonly detailed story and first-rate graphics and sound. It's set in the complex and interesting Advanced Dungeons & Dragons universe of Planescape, which is a patchwork of wildly different dimensions surrounding a sprawling city that connects them together. In Torment, you play as a nameless character who cannot die and cannot remember his past, and in uncovering his origin, you'll experience one of the year's most fascinating games.

Torment uses the same graphics engine as Baldur's Gate and will consequently seem immediately familiar to fans of the best-selling 1998 role-playing game. However, Torment's top-down isometric perspective is much closer to the ground than in Baldur's Gate, which means all the characters in Torment appear quite large onscreen. Each character is highly detailed, carefully animated, and cleverly designed above all else. Torment abandons the high-fantasy styling of most RPGs and instead uses the Planescape license's unique interpretation of familiar fantasy archetypes, which lends the game a wholly original appearance that defies expectations for fantasy and science fiction artwork. Even Torment's protagonist, who is heavily scarred, entirely tattooed, and dressed in bones and animal hides, seems nothing like the usual role-playing game hero.

Torment's scenery is more intricately detailed than the scenery in Baldur's Gate because of the close perspective, and much like its characters, the scenery looks good and looks different from what you're used to. The game has no pointless spans of wilderness; each area is carefully designed, and most areas are densely populated. The jutting blade-like architecture of the game's urban settings and the rough-hewn, almost alien tangle of its catacombs give Torment a well-defined, highly distinctive appearance, while the game's atmospheric soundtrack, good sound effects, and sparse but high-quality voice acting all help maintain Torment's style. The game has a consistently cold look that can even be unsettling and uncomfortable at times, but Torment's bleak environments seem to work intentionally to motivate the protagonist's desire to escape from the oppressive, claustrophobic confines of the city of Sigil. In spite of its harsh scenery, at times Torment is colorful and impressive looking, mainly because of its often-spectacular special effects. Powerful magic spells cause the screen to go dim and erupt in ghostly energy, which shakes and rattles the screen. Even the game's most minor incantations feature impressive effects and animations, although some of the more elaborate effects tend to make the game slow down.

The Baldur's Gate engine has other limitations, some of which are exclusively aesthetic, and some of which have a slightly adverse effect on Torment's gameplay. However, as in Baldur's Gate, Torment players will likely be quick to dismiss or disregard any such problems, like the limited screen resolution, bad character pathfinding, and the unattractive real-time-strategy-style fog of war shroud that covers each new area you visit. To allow for Torment's bigger characters, most of the game's interface is invisible until you right-click to bring up a circular pop-up window that lets you use items, cast spells, use special abilities, and so forth. Unfortunately, while the hidden interface does free up most of the screen, it is neither compact nor intuitive - you'll spend a lot of time fumbling for its little unmarked buttons or otherwise dragging it aside so you can see what's happening once you bring it up. At least the game automatically pauses whenever the interface is active, so you can figure it out at your leisure. Even though most of Torment's interface isn't onscreen most of the time, you'll find that the game's close-up perspective nevertheless has particular problems. There are virtually no ranged weapons in the game, if only because there's so little relative distance from one end of the screen to the other. Similarly, several of the game's powerful spells have a bad tendency to be just as dangerous to the caster, because by the time the enemy is targeted and the spell is uttered, that enemy has already closed the distance with the caster, who invariably suffers from his own magical attack. Torment also suffers from the game's unrefined menu screens and the unavoidably slow scrolling speed of its extensive dialogue, which, much like the interface, you will train yourself to ignore.

You will ignore Torment's technical problems because it's such a good game. Specifically, it's a long and involving game with an original plot, well-written, descriptive dialogue, and likable characters. It's fortunate that Torment's dialogue reads well, because there's a lot of it to read; although the game's graphics are evocative and often beautiful, the game's most vivid events are actually written out rather than portrayed onscreen. You might wish the game had a more frequent tendency to show-not-tell; however, its combination of great graphics and writing is generally very effective. As such, even though you'll be reading text half the time, you'll rarely feel as if the dialogue interferes with the game's surprisingly quick pacing.

That's mainly because the dialogue is actually one of the best parts of Torment, since it's one of the few role-playing games to ever make good on the promise of letting you play your character however you prefer. Torment's dialogue often lets you choose to make promises, bluff, or play dumb; the game lets you perceive small details if your character is intelligent, understand philosophical implications if he's wise, and intimidate or charm if he's strong or charismatic. Your character's moral alignment and his affiliation with Sigil's different factions are openly flexible and have a noticeable impact on the course of the game. Similarly, your character can readily switch between fighter, thief, and magic-user classes and can rapidly advance to a high level of proficiency in any and all of these, which is justified within the game as not so much an acquiring of new skills as a remembrance of latent centuries-old talents. In addition, your character's perverse incapacity to permanently die also helps maintain Torment's pacing by discouraging you from frequently reloading your saved games, although the game never seems easy or trivial in spite of the hero's immortality.

Yet it's easy to apologize for Torment's many programming flaws, which cause the game to become excruciatingly slow at times and some of its dozens of quests to become unsolvable on occasion. It's true that bugs in computer role-playing games seem almost as conventional as spells and hit points. Fortunately, Torment's aren't so drastic that they actually ruin any single part of the game. Nevertheless, you'll probably experience several glitches either in performance or in quest scripting that make portions of the game unnecessarily frustrating, especially in light of Torment's generally excellent quality.

In fact, it's evidence of Torment's impressive achievement that its problems, which would be detrimental to most any other game, seem so negligible. It's clearly the best traditional computer role-playing game of the year and is bound to be an all-time favorite for many of its inevitable fans. That's because it's a great-looking game that's lengthy but never boring, and it begs to be played through more than once, just as its unique hero and his story promise not to be forgotten.

The Good

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The Bad

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