Developer: Overhaul Studios, Black Isle Studios (original release)
Publisher: Beamdog, Interplay (original release)
Platforms: PC, Android
ESRB: T for Teen
Until The Witcher 3 absolutely blew my mind, for almost twenty years, the top three RPGs that I had ever played included Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn/The Throne of Baal atop the list (for the curious, FF7 would have made a “top five list” alongside Witcher 2). Inspired from the revolutionized CRPG formula that made games like Diablo (2) and Fallout (2) famous, BG2 forgoes the drag that is low-level D&D play in favor of mid to epic level combat, fused with vivacious, intriguing NPCs whose temperaments influenced constantly-shifting dynamics of party chemistry alongside the “reputation” and alignment mechanics in a massive tale of (demi)gods among men. BG2 became the seminal game in which all other WRPGs would be judged (its spiritual successor, Dragon Age: Origins, is merely outstanding by comparison, falling just shy of celestial-tier due to some by-the-numbers consolization undoubtedly prompted by EA for the purpose of a multiplatform release).
Preceding BG2, Planescape: Torment was met with a lukewarm reception, and would have to wait to be rediscovered by BG2 and Icewind Dale fans searching for more Infinity Engine-based D&D goodness before garnering renown as a cult classic. These newly-converted fans began singing the praises of PT like muses lamenting a fallen hero, mourning its relegation to obscurity. Their sustained apotheosis preserved PT alongside the likes of Ultima and Might & Magic on digital distribution websites such as Good Old Games (GOG), a competitor to Steam that specilizes in old school. Even so, it was not always easy to run on modern Windows OS without the assistance of fan-made mods. Fortunately, fans of PT and curious gamers like me no longer have to play roulette with our rigs, for Beamdog/Overhaul Games has come to the rescue, modernizing the the old adventure for contemporary audiences.
Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition (PT:EE) in its entirety is a spiritual quest enthralled with the preservation of life as much as it reflexively meditates on eluding death. The game begins with the Nameless One (TNO) awakening from a slumber of the permanent kind, except that for him, it is not. Trapped in a mortuary, he was mistaken for dead; a core mechanic and plot element of the game concerns how he is immune to death’s embrace. Morte, a floating skull companion (dare I say familiar), appears to have no other purpose than to wait for TNO to stir, and joins him in the escape from the prison-like mausoleum. Another companion-to-be, Dak’kon, a kensai-like warrior who commands his blade with willpower rather than muscle, is standing by at a tavern, also apparently existing for the sole purpose of accompanying TNO on his journey to *KNOW* himself. This trek will take TNO and his party into catacombs to retrieve an item whose value remains unknown for the next forty hours, among the courtesans of the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts where the hedonistic desires of the mind rather than those of the flesh are satiated, and through a handful of alternate dimensions as the title of the game suggests.
PT:EE emphasizes that TNO’s death-defying gift as anything but—the D&D cosmology itself buckles in response to this disruption in the natural order as he travels searching for a solution to the…torment…that is eternal life. This takes place under the watch of the enigmatic deity known as the Lady of Pain, infamous for striking down both those who dare to worship or blaspheme her. As players engage in the traditional digressions presented in an RPG such as this, they might be tempted to enlist services from one of the ubiquitous harlots loitering on the streets of game’s starting area. I declined, choosing the higher mark of a companion that would join the party at midgame, sealed with a biting kiss. Still, I engaged in dialogue with one or two of the strumpets to see how far I could get before the point of no return, discovering Morte’s penchant for PG-level lewdness that persists for the duration of the game. Consistent with such a rating, PT:EE utilizes language that is no more crude than what one would find in a KJV Bible, such as that found in Matt 23:33. Likewise, on-screen blood and gore is minimal despite the ESRB rating, but there are a few morbid depictions to consider, such as the existence of sentient ghosts, skeletons, ghouls, demons (and angels). I also carried a severed head of a spy in my inventory until the game’s latter stages.
The most notable quality-of-life improvement that Beamdog has implemented in PT:EE is the the ability to scale the resolution to 4k, though I settled for 1080p. Readers should take note of the screenshots throughout this review (click to ; fully zoomed out, the sprites are high res, but tiny. On my 18″ laptop, I found myself straining to identify assets like NPCs, items, or interactive objects. After about ten hours of frustration, I fumbled around the keyboard looking for relief, and found the TAB key, which activates a highlighter. This is apparently a new feature, for it is missing in the key bindings listed in the options menu—a crucial oversight by Beamdog. Such are the consequences of augmenting the game’s native resolution of 640×480 by a factor of four.
Allegedly, the OST is remastered. Perhaps not the fault of Beamdog, but Interplay, the majority of the OST is derived from the melody of the Main Theme, which is good, yet merely builds up momentum without reaching the euphonious apex promised by the anticipatory tunes. I might have liked the music of Sigil, the city where TNO spends most of his time, if I were not hearing it for about thirty hours. While it and the Mortuary inflicted listlessness upon me, I became annoyed with Sigil Battle, which is actually a good song the longer it plays, but the number of hostile low-level thug enemies triggers it too frequently (Curst Battle is better anyway). Because of the disproportionate amount of time I spent in Sigil, I failed to notice that each character has unique music until their themes are played near the game’s conclusion. Annah’s theme, while as beautiful as Deionarra’s, is incongruous with her character. I enjoyed the theme of Fall from Grace as featured in her “brothel” as well as the music in the Civic Festhall; I wish I could have heard more, but my time was limited in those locations.
What could have benefited most from a “remaster” is the actual gameplay. Fans of Planescape: Torment might play the role of apologist, claiming that those looking for action are doing so in the wrong place. They are correct. PT:EE limits the robust character class systems that made D&D famous to simply fighter, thief, and mage—the former of which the player begins, while the latter is considered the “preferred” play style, not because of the spell selection, but because high intelligence and wisdom are valuable commodities in a game that lacks any challenging enemy encounters. I never lost a single fight, utilizing a simple “surround and pound” strategy of selecting all my party members and clicking on one enemy at a time, even with characters who are supposed to be lacking in martial ability. The neutering of the combat is an unorthodox method to dissuade players from choosing the path of violence as a resolution. At any rate, PT:EE places heavy emphasis on roleplay, providing players with clever, civil solutions to conflict (unless players choose to depict TNO as a jerk).
PT:EE is a game that I would recommend as an essential game to play for anyone who claims to be a fan of video games, let alone RPGs. However, it is seminal for gamers in the same way that The Birth of a Nation (1915) is seminal for fans (and creators) of film; no one sane in 2017 considers The Birth of a Nation an excellent film. In the same way, I would not call PT:EE an excellent game. In fact, its execution is indicative of why modern (AAA) developers shy away from the classic CRPG model in favor of The Witcher, Fallout and Mass Effect (although Obsidian appears willing to almost single-handedly bear the burden).
The pacing in PT:EE is dreadful. I found the emergent gameplay in System Shock Enhanced Edition effective because it allows players to explore multiple floors of the Citadel Station while keeping players focused through the implementation of corridors. I burned 10-15 hours just to map my way around Sigil in PT:EE, and by the time I had mapped and could navigate the locations, I was thoroughly bored. And it is not as if Sigil is huge, as it is made up of roughly six screens—eight if one includes the Lower Ward and Cleric’s Ward as roughly the same (and I do). It is the story that makes PT:EE famous, and true to the tradition of the CRPG format, there is lots and lots and LOTS of reading. The multiple sophisticated speech trees hidden through interacting with every NPC with a unique name inevitably becomes a sunken cost investment. I would have loved to have spent more time mediating the war between the Dead Nations and legion of Cranium Rats, or being mentally stimulated by the women of the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts, or experiencing the epiphanies provided by the sensorums of the Civic Festhall, or actually “scaping” planes, but such activities, including the acquisition of the last three characters in my party, are limited to the last quarter of the game, and there is not enough of it to justify the drag. While the narrative payoff within the Negative Material Plane is massive and ultra cool, I do not believe that its excellence justifies the first three-fourths of the game’s aimlessness. I would have preferred to experience Planescape: Torment as a visual novel (and I shall).
Review copy generously provided by Beamdog
The Bottom Line
Beamdog's modernization of a cult classic in the form of Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition is an extraordinary novel suffering from the misfortune of being trapped in the form of an underwhelming video game.