Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition Review
Our perceptions of a genre are shaped by what its games choose to present themselves as. Many games travel the beaten path of conventions, conforming to the standards set by their predecessors, manifesting with their own takes on the genre, but never allowing themselves to stray too far from the norms that bind them. But once in a blue moon, a game is willed into existence, taking on a form that subverts the expectations of what it is supposed to be like and revealing a new path for all future games of its kind to follow. It is in Planescape: Torment that the world of cRPGs was humbled by storytelling so unorthodox that it inspired many RPGs to come and guided them on how to form their narratives.
A world of many worlds
Planescape’s setting is unique. That word alone does no justice to how different it really is. Sigil, the center of the Outlands, is known for its many portals that can take their users across the multiverse—even to planes outside of its own campaign setting (although there is the issue of copyright preventing anything from being canon). Each portal requires a key, which can range from the tangible—a book or a moldy piece of bread—to the intangible—a short dance you do or a thought about how lovely the sky looks today. Speaking of the sky, there is none. Sigil floats high in the air, beholden to no sun or moon, its system of day governed by an all-encompassing light that dims when it is time for night to take its turn. Some may wish to question why this is so, but that would mean questioning the ruler of the city, the Lady of Pain, and given she can—and did—kill a god with her power, no one has ever asked her. In fact, no one dares to speak to her lest they render themselves unto death.
The Outlands is one of the Outer Planes, and in the Outer Planes, alignment is what defines the plane you live in. There are seventeen planes for each alignment, from lawful good to chaotic evil, that all form a ring around the Outlands, the plane of true neutrality. Sigil forever remains where it lies so long as the Lady of Pain exists to will it so, but that is not true of the many gate towns that border precariously close to the edge of the other planes. These gate towns houses a portal to their respective planar borders and always harbor a future of uncertainty due to taking on the alignment of their planes. Should they adopt too many of the characteristics of their planes, they will fall into it, causing a new gate town to take its place in the Outlands. Whether this happens or does not happen all falls upon the beliefs of their citizens.
Belief is power. If enough people believe in something, or if a single person’s belief is strong enough, that belief can become reality. This is the reason for many of the factions in Sigil; if a faction accumulates enough faithful members, surely their way is the true way. The Godsmen’s truth is that anyone can become a God, the Sensates believe only what can be sensed is true, and the Chaosmen believe chaos is the only truth in the multiverse. With the Lady’s watchful eye and the number of factions that populate Sigil, no single faction could ever dominate enough to cause radical changes. If, in theory, the denizens of Sigil places their faith into only one faction’s ideology …
The Nameless One
In the spirit of the Sensates’ tenants, the only true way to know the story of Planescape is to experience it. You shall do so through the body of The Nameless One, a protagonist who wakes up in a mortuary knowing nothing of who he is and what he has done. Your source of guidance stems from Morte, a floating skull that was conveniently near you when you woke up. Right away you may have numerous questions bouncing around your head about who are you, where are you, and what’s with the skull, but unfortunately, your character is an amnesiac. You have no recollection of anything past your wake; even your own name is lost to you. Only the scars and tattoos of your body provide any clues as to what you must do, and Morte, being the gentleman he is, reads off the instructions that someone had carved into your back. With what was written in mind, you set off to find a way out of the mortuary you hope to never wake up in again.
Being the very first zone you are greeted by, the mortuary is a perfect example of how the rest of the game will be like. Everywhere you go, there will be zombies scattered across the institution—but you don’t have to fight them. In fact, the game encourages you to interact with them instead, giving each zombie a unique description with some of them having items you can take from them (don’t worry, they don’t mind). Combat is non-optional for almost the entire game; there are only a few instances of absolutely mandatory combat. Many encounters can be avoided by the right choice of dialogue or by simply running away, a viable option as your party can outrun almost every creature in the game.
Moving back to the morgue, you will soon learn that there is a lot of writing to uncover. It is a very dialogue-heavy game, being more akin to an interactive novel than an RPG in that regard. Alignment is a key aspect of the dialogue, as your alignment will shift depending on what you say and do. You will shift toward being chaotic if you poke fun at the zombies littering the building, evil if you murder the mortuary workers, and lawful if you tell the truth in conversations. On the topic of truth telling, Planescape has a system where there are times you may be given the option to lie, bluff, tell the truth, or make a vow. Your choice will have an effect on both the outcome of the conversation and your alignment. Although alignment is primarily a roleplaying mechanic, there will be times where it will affect the game, so do pay it some mind.
As with all cRPGs there are stat checks that unlock new dialogue. You need dexterity, for example, to successfully stop a thief from fleeing. But the most important attribute for the story is wisdom; you will want to max it out immediately. Like many other attributes, wisdom will provide you with additional dialogue options, but the most important function of wisdom is allowing you to regain memories of your past during certain instances of dialogue. These memories are not vital for completing the game, but they provide information of past events and actions involving The Nameless One that are needed in understanding what you have done. The memories are especially important in knowing the backstories of some of your companions.
You don’t have a wide choice of companions in Planescape, but in return, you have seven characters that are by far the most interesting cast I’ve seen in an RPG. You have a floating skull, an animated set of armor, and a robot with crossbows (or gear spirits) as hands. It doesn’t get much stranger than that. They aren’t just gimmicky partners-in-crime either; they are well-written characters, with some of them having a history with The Nameless One that you are able to piece together should you choose to explore the subject with them. There is a great deal of banter between your party members who will start conversations with each other as well as interject in dialogue you have with both your party and with NPCs.
If you chose to invest in “story” attributes (i.e. intelligence, wisdom, charisma) then you’re in luck: most of your companions will have some sort of special dialogue path that will provide permanent stat boosts to themselves, often requiring stat checks to fully upgrade them. Dak’kon requires help in “knowing” both the teachings he follows and his own self. Nordom desires purpose and reassurance of his own self-identity. Give them your aid, and not only will your companions become stronger, but you will learn much more about who they are and what binds them to you.
There’s so much more that can be said about this game. You can not only evaluate Planescape as a game, but also as a work of literature due to the outstanding writing and the intricacies of the plot. Atypical of a usual RPG, you are not saving the multiverse from a great evil. You spend the entire game piecing together your identity (or what’s left of it) and solving the dilemma of why are you immortal. You are not forced to play the role of a hero; you can just as well play as a villainous character and still have the events of the story make sense based on your alignment. The Nameless One, though a story rich in history and, based on inferences you can make, significance to the multiverse, is not a story to be remembered. In time, after the events of the game, you will be forgotten, known only by a scant few. There are many questions you may ask yourself from your experience with this game, from the meaning of an endless war to the possibility of redemption for lifetimes of many wrongs. But the main question the game seeks to answer, and the one that you will take away from here, would be this: what can change the nature of a man?
You can find Planescape: Torment on Steam.
You can also find it on GOG.
You can also get the game, physically or digitally, on the Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.