June 15, 2006

Torment and Friends

by psu

I've spent the last month dabbling with Planescape from time to time on the laptop. I'm not quite all the way through, but I think I've played enough to say a bit more. My overall opinion of the game has not changed since writing my first impressions. I think it's clearly the best of the classic "western" RPGs that I've played from the 1990s.

I've toyed around with these games ever since I finished KOTOR. I'm not really interested in investing heavily in PC games, but the fans of these particular games, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and now Planescape tend to be so vocal in their support that I was interested in seeing what all the fuss was about.

I gave up on Fallout first, having only played four or give hours into the game. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the game, but I couldn't find a great reason to put up with the tedious gameplay and particularly the annoying combat system. After spending a night repeatedly getting killed by giant rats, I threw in the towel and went back to playing Mario and Luigi.

Baldur's Gate 2 lasted a bit longer. At a technical level, the game seems more playable to me than Fallout. Control over the party is smooth and intuitive, and there are no "action points" to keep track of. I really like the "real time, but round-based under the hood" control engine which is no surprise, since it's basically the same scheme used in all the Bioware games up to KOTOR. I also liked the narrative threads and character development in the opening parts of the game. There were only a few archaic mechanics that annoyed me. The constant shuffling of inventory got on my nerves. In addition, the need to obsessively rest the party so that the spell casters could refresh their memory grated. The game didn't lose me for good until I escaped the first area and got into the town. At that point, I completely lost the thread of what I was supposed to be doing. What had been a well paced plot was replaced with a huge area completely devoid of clues as to where I should go next. I tried to do a few of the quests in town, but I ultimately ended up bored and confused and put the game down.

Planescape improves on Baldur's Gate by emphasizing its strengths while pushing the annoyances more into the background. Although the game employs the ultimate RPG cliché of employing a main character with amnesia trying to puzzle out his true nature, the narrative is interesting enough and the pacing is good enough to keep you going anyway. The quests and the plot are intertwined and support each other in a pleasing way. Finally, the game has some of the best writing that I have experienced in a computer game. The text in the game is evocative and full of clever turns of phrase. Who could not like the idea of a "brothel" for the mind?

From a gameplay perspective, the best thing about Planescape is how it de-emphasizes combat. While it maintains the same smooth Bioware combat engine, the game does not force you to constantly worry about buffing your party and making sure you have all the protection spells case and magic armor equipped before every fight. Since the main character is immortal, if the fight goes badly you can just try again immediately. This brilliant gambit, along with the fact that you can score huge amounts of experience points just by talking to people make the game less of a kill and loot grind. It's refreshing to play an RPG actually just play the character rather than trying to navigate the optimal path through the character progression and loot procurement systems. It's odd that an eight year old game should be refreshing in this way. I find myself surprised that such a compelling system is not an overused cliché by now.

From the chapter titles on various walkthroughs, I would guess that I'm somewhat more than half-way through Planescape. I had to stop playing for a while because the license on the emulator that I am running on my Mac to run Windows expired, and I don't want to buy the software just yet. But, never fear. I won't be able to avoid getting an Intel Mac for home use forever, so when I do, I can dual boot it and finish the game. It's good to have something to look forward to.

Posted by psu at June 15, 2006 08:51 PM | Bookmark This

How does playing these old games fare on Mac emulation? I have a new MacBook and I have bootcamp set up but I was considering using Parallels to revisit some older PC rpg/strategy titles (my only real interest in current PC gaming). Rebooting isn't that big a deal, but if the minimum power that emulation supports is sufficient to enjoy these games it would allow me to "pop" in from my preferred OS.

Posted by guthrie at June 16, 2006 10:50 AM

Baldur's gate and Torment both ran well under parallels, but with minor glitches in things like cursor tracking and support for full screen mode.

Posted by psu at June 16, 2006 11:25 AM

Can't really think of anything to add, I just wanted to say that:
a) I discovered this site an hour or two ago;
b) I've been compulsively searching through your older reviews for all that time;
c) you guys fucking rock (re: Oblivion, Metal Gear, Gran Turismo, etc).

I heard at the time that Planescape and Icewind Dale were sort of balanced points around Baldur's Gate: Planescape had less combat and Icewind Dale had more. Since then I've never been remotely tempted to try Icewind Dale.

Posted by Jon Mann at June 23, 2006 03:28 AM

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