Painscape: Tormented

Long time readers will remember that a couple of years ago I worked my way through the first half of Planescape:Torment using a Windows emulator on my Mac. Since then I’ve dabbled in the game every once in a while, and then over this past Christmas break I decided to finish it off for good. Since my previous article on the game covered most of what I liked about it, now I get to complain.

For the most part the game’s strengths carry over into its second half. What I wrote before still holds:

The written text in Planescape is the strongest part of the game. It consistently performs the miracle of making the game world seem real even in the face of relatively primitive graphics and sound design. Also, the deep conversation trees, something I always found pointless in other games, actually serve a purpose in this game. This makes me optimistic about the possibilities for future plot development.

The plot develops in generally interesting ways and is populated with characters who remain interesting to talk to. But, there are also some annoyances. You are constantly presented with situations where you find out later that you left half the game on the floor because you missed some critical branch of the dialog tree. Then you have to fight your inner gamer OCD engine to keep yourself from replaying entire chapters of the game.

The game also executes the what I now call “The Bioshock Gambit”, where the game keeps you from discovering the last major plot point or two by throwing what seems like dozens of tedious fetch quests in your way. Therefore, you spend a week of your life running from one side of the map to the other to get the final “key” that lets you move forward.

Finally, the last third of the game is an almost completely pointless tunnel between you and the final boss where the game throws away everything it had going for it and makes you crawl from one dungeon to the next killing bad guys for loot and experience. They even threw in a mini-boss fight with a 15 minute long dialog sequence that you can’t skip. Since the dialog sequence ends in a fight, you can’t even save after it’s done. Finally, the dialog itself branches endlessly around and can actually net you an extra level or two if you do it “right”, which means you will be playing it two or three times after studying the walkthrough.

The dungeon crawling would be OK except that dungeon crawling implies combat, and combat is where the whole game falls apart.

My preference would be to play as a fighter and just tank my way through everything. Except this doesn’t work well because the weapons all kind of suck, only the Nameless One gets the free pass on death, and the game almost begs you to switch to using a spell caster. Being a spell caster might be great except that:

1. It takes 15 clicks to pick the spell you want to use.

2. After you use it once or twice you have to find a town and go to sleep before you can get your spells back.

3. Half of the enemies in the later parts of the game seem to have a high resistance to magic, which I guess makes sense, given the setting. But given this why didn’t they make it easier for me to just fight them straight up with a +15 Sword of One Hit Kills.

To add insult to injury, after you kill stuff, grabbing the loot is a frustrating exercise in carefully positioning the cursor on the exact pixel that you need to hit to pick the stuff up. To make up for it, the drops are always one of the same five items. And you have to play the tedious inventory bin packing game to carry them anywhere. All in all the kill-and-loot experience in this game is pretty useless. Given that most of the game is primarily concerned with dialog and narrative, this isn’t surprising. So why bother? Why not stick with that the game did well?

I finally got tired of it all and just dialed the combat to Easy. Then I found a cheat that let me buff my stats to ridiculous levels. Even then you can still manage to die if the mob is large enough. But I eventually got to the end of the final hallway and got the last few bits of plot. Although there are probably 57,000,000 other dialog branches that I missed. No I’m not going back to find the rest.

My feeling about this game is mixed. It has some of the best video game writing that I have ever experienced. Parts of the game are better at building a sense of place and atmosphere than much more modern games using much more modern tools. Unfortunately all of this greatness is brought down a bit by an engine that is crippled by its undying love for D&D; and the developer’s need to ruin the pacing by padding out the game with too much useless filler.

Still, I think the game deserves its classic status in the pantheon of Western RPGs. It sets a high bar for the quality of writing and narrative that can be packed into a game. Make the game ten hours shorter with tighter pacing and a better UI and it would be the best RPG that I’ve played.