Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Planescape: Torment In-Depth Retrospective on the Original Incarnation Part I

Planescape: Torment In-Depth Retrospective on the Original Incarnation Part I

The multi-verse is a big place and it don't play by the "normal rules", whatever they are, but learning the dark of them is the stuff of life. A being's got to become a blood to know all the different ways magic works out on the Great Ring, and no basher should ever be able to just lay his hands on a map of all the portals between the planes. There's things a sod wasn't meant to know and things he's just got to learn by experience. (A body can describe what it's like in the furnaces of Carceri, but it just ain't the same as going there.) Sure, some of the multi-verse is so simple that even a Bariaur basher'd understand, but there's some of it that's real dark, and it's meant to be that way. So folks with no business knowing these things should just keep their noses out of it — understand? — Introduction, PSCS Boxed Set, TSR 2600.

Hi there! And welcome to the first part of my in-depth retrospective on the original incarnation of Planescape: Torment. The following comments, criticisms and pro-tips pertain only to the original and authoritative version of PS:T that has been standard for two decades (v.1.1); in other words, for the purposes of this write-up I am unconcerned with mods, fixes and cashgrab overhauls.

Developed and published by Black Isle Studios, Planescape: Torment (1999) is an AD&D 2nd Edition campaign set in TSR's Planescape Campaign Setting (PSCS). In fact, PS:T is the only game set in Planescape and is likely to remain unique in that respect. As with the FR-based Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and their sequels, PS:T was built on BioWare's influential Infinity Engine.

But while PS:T employed the full party control, isometric perspective and RTwP combat system common to all IE games, it also broke the mold in its employment of dynamic alignment, in its ruleset implementation, and in its profoundly modified UI. Those first two will be covered in-depth in future parts of this retrospective, but I have already posted in-depth coverage of PS:T's UI in Part II of my User Interface Evolution. Likewise, I have covered the basics of the Infinity Engine in Part I of my Baldur's Gate Retrospective. If you haven't already, please take the time to read those because I won't be repeating what I have said therein.

In regards to campaign design, PS:T also separated itself from the pack, for good and for bad.

First up, its stat- quest-, faction-, alignment-, tattoo- and companion-based reactivity. By "reactivity", we are referring to how the campaign reacts to the The Nameless One that you have chosen to role-play; for example, the campaign frequently checks TNO's class, stats and abilities along with the decisions made over its course, thereby determining the possibilities and outcomes for TNO and his companions. To give an example of that last one, Mage TNOs sporting Int 18 and Wis 19 can unlock the Eighth Circle of Zerthimon to upgrade Dak'kon (Str +1, Dex +1, Con +2); the whole Zerthimon dialogue segment (which also nets +12 spell scrolls) being one of the most memorable in genre history.

So yeah, some PS:T reactivity is profound and far-reaching whereas other examples are trivial or fluff-based (though still flavorsome). The goal of reactivity is to make the player feel like their choices matter and that they are actually role-playing their TNO / are TNO. And a particular incarnation, whether that be Mage or Fighter, Good or Evil, Lawful or Chaotic, or somewhere inbetween.

Secondly, PS:T dialogue is torrential. Words, words, words. It just rains and rains words. Here is a dialog.tlk size comparison:

Baldur's Gate 2 v.26498: 7465 KB
◦ Planescape: Torment v.1.1: 6393 KB
◦ Icewind Dale 2 v.2.01: 4605 KB
◦ Baldur's Gate v.5512: 2987 KB
◦ Icewind Dale v.1.42: 2798 KB

If it isn't obvious from the version numbers, BG, BG2 and IWD dialog.tlks include the content added in the expansions (Tales of the Sword CoastThrone of BhaalHeart of Winter and Trials of the Lure Master). And yes, overall, BG2 contains more dialogue than even PS:T, but its emphasis is still not on reading, and a lot of words are confined to optional romances, strongholds and a deeper companion pool (17 vs. 8).

While most of the dialogue, descriptions of lore and journal entries in PS:T are certainly very well-written, the sheer cascading paragraphs and multi-threadedness can be overwhelming for some players, and the writing sometimes becomes annoying with its *emphasis* on certain words, its confrontational tone in general, and its awkward inclusion of Planar cant and jargon.

To be fair, this is the style of writing seen in the above-quoted PSCS Box Set written by David "Zeb" Cook, but I just don't see the point in learning 16th-18th cent. slang in order to get to grips with a CS. To my mind, such modes of speech should be confined to thieves' guilds, gypsies and professional beggars: a particular social strata of society rather than the universal.

The embedded screencap depicts the dialogue with one of four Giant Skeletons standing guard in the Mortuary of the Prologue. As you can see, it's really well-written but quite lengthy. And in order to maximize experience point yield and material rewards, you must go through the exact same dialogue four times (one for each skeleton). Moreover, that is actually not an example of a long dialogue segment in PS:T. Wait until you meet up with a certain old crone...

Lastly, there are many situations, where, if you choose the "wrong" dialogue option (say, thread "a" before thread "b"), you will just be LOCKED OUT. This can cause you to miss out on quests, powerful bonuses and even entire segments of the game — for no apparent reason. As I write this retrospective (I'm halfway through a replay) I have been locked out no fewer than 10 times. It is incredibly annoying to have to reload the game just because (to give an example), you simply rested in dialogue before requesting a key in that same dialogue — and broke plot progression as a result.

There are dozens of other examples such as Aola (no demon waiting in Curst for you), Narochj (no Dustman faction for you) and Ingress (no Morte teeth upgrade for you). These are the result of QA inadequaecy.

In regard to the Norochj bug you can literally see the thread glitch out and skip. It's a complex interplay between other NPCs in the Gathering Dust bar, including Emoric whose threads alone are complex. It's possible to skip the Not-a-Dustman quest as a result and lock yourself out of the faction, which is a pretty big deal for a Mage TNO who wants access to embalming-based spells that increase tanking ability. And unless you saw the thread jump-skip or have foreknowledge of the correct quest order, you won't know something is amiss. Even a veteran may miss the glitch and return from the lengthy catacombs segment only to find that Emoric has no thread for joining the Dustmen. Your heart will sink if this happens to you.

Also, the multi-threadedness is at times absurd. Getting the proper quest order going in the Dead Nations (with the interplay with the Warrens) is like pulling teeth. It took me three hours to recall how to work out the most satisfying conclusion — as a veteran.

Thirdly, PS:T combat encounter design is practically non-existent. It is regrettable — since preexistent Fallout did a better job of balancing dialogue, questing, exploration and combat — that dev-cycle emphasis on dialogue, lore and writing in general detracted from the effort that should have been put into the most important aspect of an A/D&D campaign.

As I've said before, A/D&D is, above all, about combat. Respectfully approach and ask any Ars Magica elitist, and they may deign to give you the following answer instead of waving you away dismissively: "A/D&D is a combat RPG for powergamers that traces its roots back to wargaming (whereas Ars Magica is the 'real deal')". ← That was tongue-in-cheek.

Furthermore, what combat there is that manages to spark interest in fans of BG and IWD, is almost entirely ruined by the abysmal pathing routine (worse than even pre-patch BG), broken inventory mechanics  (buff or heal as many times as you like per round; multiple quaffings stack), clunky portable pop-up (below-pictured), lack of combat feedback in the dialogue window, limited spell ranges / special abilities, conspicuous lack of buff/negative status effect indicators on the portraits (you won't even know what's going on half of the time), and utterly absurd Final Fantasy-style cutscenes that trigger scripted and pre-rendered FMVs every time you cast an epic spell. (Not to mention that blinding white flash that blanks out the screen just for casting Magic Missile! See vid embedded into this post.)

Must it be expressed in such simple terms as: I am not sitting before my PC to read, I am not sitting before my PC to watch, I am sitting before my PC to play a game. It's called game-play and it's what makes games games.

PS:T combat is just completely uninspiring and yawn-inducing. Remembering that it was released several months after Tales of the Sword Coast, there are no notable mage duels à la Davaeorn...

... there are no interesting set-piece battles or boss encounters (Warders/Aec-Letic)...

... there are no rival adventuring parties to pit TNO's crew against...

... and there is almost no terrain to be employed by the player for tactical purposes. Instead, combat encounters are usually staged in wide open areas and largely consist of one benign trashmob (that might bleed into an adjacent, identical trashmob), one toughie and his crew, one super-toughie all alone, or just a full-blown horde such as the one in Carceri prison.

Basically, PS:T should not be given a free pass by its fanbase who like to cite it as "an interactive novel with stats thrown in" that should be played "passively"; in other words, the aggro is hot on their heels and mad as hell as they frantically run about the area, all the time hoping that the pathing routine doesn't fuck them over as they seek out the next "quest post" to click on — the location of which is only known to them by virtue of foreknowledge. These edgy posers love to boast about how you only have to slay four NPCs to get through the game; this does not make PS:T passive by design for the above reason. Fallout can be played by a genuinely passive Vault Dweller, and I have satisfied ToEE's main quest without even drawing aggro. Whoop-de-doo for meta-gaming.

If, through a Strength or Charisma check, one can intimidate or bluff potential aggro into backing down —

— likewise, if, through a Dexterity check, once can stealthily break someone's neck and avoid AR-wide alarm bells...

— then that's great. (And we needed more of that.) But otherwise, the aggro is spawned to be slain, it is in fact easier to navigate an area once the aggro has been cleared (and logical to do so in most cases), and there is a reason for all those weapons, direct damage spells and Morte taunts. :P

To be clear, I'm not talking about slaying every trivial respawning Hive Thug; I'm talking about real aggro that is actually a threat, yields solid XP (and potentially powerful and interesting material rewards), and is unavoidable short of playing all kinds of silly positional tricks.

Fourth and last, aesthetics. Area, architecture and sprite design along with the color scheme and textures employed also separate PS:T from its medieval-fantasy IE cousins. From the dilapidated Hive to the opulence of the Civic Festhall, it's impressive to gawk at.

Sprite size for protagonist, companions and NPCs was notably increased, and extra anim cycles were added (f.e, walk and run cycles). Watching TNO slide off the Mortuary slab and have a floating skull bob over and start chattering to him will be forever etched in my mind. And watching TNO crit foes with the Hammer of Comminution is a sight to behold (25 Str + 25 Con + 3.5 ApR @ 13th level = I WIN). There are many idle anims, too: nice touches reminiscent of Fallout and Jagged Alliance 2. The anims are not on par with those two but they are certainly a big step up from BG!

Note the transparency effect for the ethereal Deionarra

Audio-wise, I'm pretty nostalgic for the OST and VOs. I almost shed a tear upon hearing the main menu music for the first time in 10 years. And, of course, Deionarra's theme, punctuated by her voice, made me tearful, too.  My views here are incurably colored by nostalgia so that's all I'll say on OST/VOs.

The sound effects, on the other hand, are a bit disappointing in that there are no footstep sounds and no sounds for opening doors and chests (as in the other IE games). There are also no general voiced NPCs, like in BG, and the ambient chatter isn't enough to cover for that. Thus, sometimes, the game just feels oddly silent and unengaging.

To conclude this overview, PS:T was made too early in the Infinity Engine life-cycle, and it shows. Constituting a branch of development all of its own — during the engine's infancy — it was not able to avail of any engine extensions made by BG2 and IWD2, but it did manage to influence subsequent IE games and future RPGs, for good and for bad.

PS:T is deeply flawed similar to Troika's unpolished and bug-ridden masterpieces, but the latter are superior as games. Far, far superior. And while Troika's games are underrated, PS:T is overrated. It is the most overrated IE game and possibly the most overrated RPG of the Renaissance era.

Bearing in mind that it would not have existed without its spiritual predecessor, Mask of the Betrayer arguably knocked PS:T from its perch in regard to reactivity and dialogue (if Troika's Arcanum hadn't already). MotB is also much more replayable by virtue of its 3.5 ruleset, its largely non-linear campaign, its spirit-eater mechanic, and its mutually exclusive companions deeply embedded into the lore, quests and plot. You are unlikely to want to endure PS:T more than a few times thanks to its torrential dialogue, linear final quarter and painfully limited build options. Besides — as hinted at in the manual itself — there is a singular TNO build that offers objectively the best experience and access to the most content; that is, Mage TNO with maxed Intelligence, maxed Wisdom and minor investment in Dexterity and Charisma (buffed with Friends). Not only that, but party composition is pretty much set in stone: it consists of Morte, Dak'kon, Annah and Grace, first and foremost. Then, Ignus and Vhailor are milked for all their worth, and Nordom becomes the final addition to the six-person party. Therein lies the core experience — and it's a decent one.

I will expand on and give examples of the aspects of PS:T (only briefly covered in this overview) in future Parts of this retrospective. I have written out "a proposal of coverage", so it's just a matter of posting the parts as I write them up. I hope you'll join me in replaying the campaign for nostalgia's sake. Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment, and cheers!

Next, we have an interlude on IE spells, which covers Magic Missile generally but also two esoteric PS:T spells that are not well-understood (Missile of Patience and Enoll Eva's Duplication).




  1. Great analysis as always! I love your objectivity in talking about a game whose well-placed fame makes most people overlook its flaws. I need to play MoTB someday; for all its worth, it has the flaw of being a NWN2 campaign.

    1. Thanks, HR. I have long disliked some of the views/attitudes of the forum-posting fanbase for PS:T and BG2. And yes, MotB deserved to be built on a better engine than Electron: something proprietary. It's relationship to the OC is a pity, too. Oh, well. Good on Obsidian for making a top 5 all-time campaign despite that.

  2. "Original Incarnation". I see what you did there.

    1. It's funny how that just happened. :P


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