Beamdog resurrects the role-playing classic for a new generation of gamers.
The concept of videogame remasters is a strange one. Some, like Activision’s Marvel: Ultimate Alliance opt to do no more than faithfully recreate the original game on new hardware. Others, such as Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition, go much further to enhance the game that existed before. This is a far cry from how movies are generally remastered, modern tinkering with a film’s color timing and Lucas’ meddling with Star Wars notwithstanding.
I was more than a little apprehensive upon learning of the remastering of Planescape: Torment, a game originally released on PC in 1999 (and also one of my all-time favorites). Black Isle’s CRPG (CRPGs are traditional western RPGs) is a classic of the genre, the unforgettable tale of an immortal amnesiac who awakens in a zombie-staffed mortuary.
Awake and confused, our protagonist discovers a to-do list tattooed down his back and a floating skull who claims to be his friend. While running from an army of living shadows, he must discover his identity and answer the recurring question “what can change the nature of a man?”
Foundations of a classic
Planescape owes much of its success to the truly uncommon quality and depth of its writing. Amidst hundreds of games fully content to riff on Lord of the Rings until the end of time, this one tells a remarkably nuanced tale of the search for identity, all set in the incredibly original and fascinating Dungeons & Dragons Planescape universe.
A vibrant personality is easily the game’s next greatest asset. The cast burn themselves into memory within minutes of meeting them, and sparse but good voice acting adds a lot to the companions who join your party. The world itself has so many fascinating little details; one could spend hours exploring them all. In fact, the joy of exploration largely makes up for the initial lack of encouragement to follow the central plot.
Genre-wise, Planescape occupies a space roughly midway between 90s Baldur’s Gate-style CRPGs and a visual novel. Save for a few disappointing combat sequences, the story is told solely through dialogue with NPCs.
This focus on character and worldbuilding over combat allows the game to create an emotional engagement and verisimilitude matched by few games. It also manages to creatively subvert traditional CRPG tropes, most memorably by allowing players to exploit their immortality by repeatedly killing themselves mid-conversation.
Much to see and much that can be missed
But that’s not to say Planescape was perfect. Like all 90s CRPGs, the original interface was rather clunky and so much of the game unintuitive to discover. It really shows how much game design has improved in the last two decades when you consider how much of these games could be missed through no fault on the player’s part. Thus, a few bits of advice for new players:
- Sink all your points at character creation into wisdom and intelligence, as these unlock the most dialogue options.
- Find Deionarra on the bottom floor of the mortuary and keep talking to her until she gives you the resurrection spell. Otherwise, your companions will spend most of the game dead.
- Find Old Mebbeth’s house in Ratpicker’s Square and have her teach you magic. This makes the combat less boring.
- Keep the bronze sphere with you until the end of the game.
Enhanced Edition features
We haven’t discussed the Enhanced Edition’s remastering so far because there really isn’t a whole lot to it. At the start of the game, gamers can choose whether or not to enable the remastered enhancements, which are mostly just minor visual aids.
Planescape’s sprite-based visuals can now be zoomed out to modern resolutions, though they look rather tiny at great distances. Visual effects like a solid line around creatures and sprite smoothing also spice up the visuals for high resolution displays. The framerate (and thus gameplay) can be sped up slightly. This makes everyone run a bit strangely, but it doesn’t impact on the game.
The only major difference is a new user interface, which can’t be turned off. While the Enhanced Edition UI is slightly more intuitive than the original’s damned radial menu, it’s a shame to exclude the old interface entirely.
And of course, the Enhanced Edition makes Planescape available on modern PCs and mobile devices. Playing old computer games on new systems can be clunky at best and impossible at worst, so we should celebrate this version for that reason alone. Besides these minor enhancements and the major increase in compatibility, the remaster doesn’t really change the game much, which is the best option in that regard.
Worth the revisit
Revisiting Planescape: Torment has made me realise why neither of its recent spiritual successors Pillars of Eternity and the much better Torment: Tides of Numenera lived up to its legacy. Despite styling themselves after this one, neither development team realized that Planescape’s gameplay only really compliments this particular story.
Tides of Numenera invented many potentially interesting ideas of its own, such as the protagonist’s ability to change the past through Meres (relivable memories). But that game’s devotion to copying Planescape kept it from fully capitalizing on them. To work as well as the original, a successor would need greater gameplay deviations that better match up with the new story it wants to tell.
I heartily recommend checking out Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition. If you haven’t played the game before, it does a strong job maintaining the original experience (always my preference for interactive storytelling). Planescape veterans will likely find the Enhanced Edition to be like revisiting an old friend. And this time, we don’t have to install or swap a bunch of discs just to play it.
Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition sells for $19.99 on Steam and supports Windows, Mac, and Linux. The Android and iOS versions cost $9.99; stay tuned for Paul’s Android impressions!
Review copy provided by the publisher.