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Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Retro Night: Planescape: Torment

There are people who will claim that Western RPGs peaked in the late 90’s and early 00’s, with BioWare, Black Isle, New World Computing, Sir-Tech, Origin, Sierra, and other’s putting out high quality entries in the genre with regularity. There’s no denying that many of those have been placed into the annals of videogame history as classic, but were games truly better then? Well, that’s a question for another blog entry, not for this one. Here we will focus on a single game from Interplay developer Black Isle. The title in question is one Planescape: Torment, based in the titular AD&D universe and headed by Chris Avellone [who went to Obsidian after Interplay folded and is currently working with fellow Black Isle-alum Josh Sawyer on Fallout: New Vegas].

The game begins with a man waking up in a strange mortuary, with no idea how he got there. Actually, he can’t remember a thing at all, not even his name. He quickly enlists the helping a talking skull named Morte who floats in the air. The two make their way out of the mortuary and into the city, where The Nameless One hopes to discover the reasons behind his lack of memories and his seeming immortality. Along the way, you’ll discovery some truly bizarre locations and equally bizarre characters. Much of the game is very heavily based on dialog, it’s even possible to talk your way out of many encounters, rather than resorting to violence. The game even goes so far as to have no penalty for being killed in combat. The Nameless One will simply respawn at a set location. You might be tempted to think that this makes for a very easy game, but that’s really not the case at all.

In a way, Planescape: Torment is almost more of an adventure game than it is an rpg [not of the point-and-click variety, of course], in that the game has a great focus on story and characters than it does on combat. Some will no doubt see this as a negative, but I see this as a positive. There are plenty of RPGs with great combat in them, if that’s what you’re truly looking for, but there are scant few RPGs with such amazing writing. The time it would have taken to put in a more complex combat system would have taken away from that writing, or at least placed less emphasis on it.

Unlike other RPGs, there are no traditional dungeons. The game takes place almost entirely in within populated areas, it’s just that some of those areas happen to have monsters or thugs in them. Sometimes you’ll even be attacked in broad daylight by thugs, right in front of dozens of people. It’s not all that common, but it happens. The plus side to this is that there’s virtually no dungeon crawling or pointless grinding to deal with, with I see as a plus.

The gameplay is real-time, point-and-click based combat seen in many other Black Isle titles like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. It’s possible to recruit seven different characters, but only five can accompany the main character. It’s clear from the outset that combat is not the main focus of this game, but that doesn’t mean that the combat is just thrown in with no regard. It works very well and there is some depth to it in terms of controlling a party of character in real-time and using their various talents to get through each battle you come across. The combat gets the job done and doesn’t get in the way.

Another area where the game truly shines is in the sound and music. Both of these elements are blended perfectly to create the feeling that you are actually in the places that you see on the screen. While walking through the city you can hear people talking and shouting to one another as their voices blend into a droning din, walk past a bar and you can hear the drunken patrons inside, and so on, all this is done to infuse the world with life. The music weaves through the sound in just the right way, fading when you’re just walking around and suddenly jumping to the forefront when battle is afoot. Although Black Isle was originally going to use a soundtrack by musician Lustmord, his soundtrack was pulled three weeks before the game was to be released so that Fallout-compose Mark Morgan could create an entirely new soundtrack that took the music of the game in a different direction.

The character, writing, and dialog are among the best that will find in any videogame, and the sound and music are no slouch either, Black Isle really went all out with this one and it shows. RPGs since Planescape: Torment have come out have attempted to recreate that depth and that degree of choice in the dialog trees, but most just haven’t even gotten close. Will companies like BioWare, Obsidian, and Bethesda bring RPGs back to this level of detail in the near future? Well, perhaps, but until they do, and even if they don’t, you can always keep playing the one that set the standard in the first place.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Hot of the heels of their roaring success with platformer Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega needed a follow-up that captured the appeal of the original but expanded upon the formula enough that it could still be just as fresh. This time around, members of Sonic Team [such as Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara] traveled to the United States to work with a newly-formed development team known as Sega Technical Institute. The product of their labor, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, went on to sale six million copies and helped the Genesis catch up to the SNES in market share. It’s also been branded as one of the greatest videogames of all time, certainly no mean feat.

This time around, Sonic is joined by his pal Miles “Tails” Prower, a fox with two tails [hence the nickname], who aids Sonic by, mostly, providing moral support. However, Tails can, at times, accidentally attack the enemy. Usually he falls into a pit or walks directly into an enemy and dies, only to reappear a few moments later. He does prove his worth near the end, however, so I suppose he’s not entirely useless. Clever players will discover that Tails can be directly controller during singe player with the second player’s controller. There’s also a two-player race mode where Sonic and Tails race through various levels to see who can be the fastest, but everything gets really squashed during this mode and there’s a lot of slowdown, so I wouldn’t really recommend it.

This time around, the gameplay has been streamlined a bit and made a bit easier. Sonic can run much faster than before and there are various things that have been implemented to take advantage of this, such as more loops and twirls for Sonic to run through and less strategically placed enemies. In the first game, it was hard to get up a lot of sustained momentum because there was usually and enemy or a spike trap waiting just ahead, so you had to be very careful about how you used Sonic’s speed. That’s not the case with Sonic 2. But, that doesn’t mean that Sonic is just about running fast from one side of the level to the other, there’s still a great deal of platforming and quick-reflexes required. This is especially evident in levels like Oil Ocean Zone and Chemical Plant Zone which have large, sprawling levels and, in the case of the later, a number of insta-death pits places in the final third. Another addition is the ability to rev Sonic up by crouching and pressing the A button, allowing him to build up speed for a sudden burst. This is very useful for getting up steep inclines or powering through enemies. Much of the rest of the gameplay is very similar to the first title, you collect a lot of rings, jump on enemies, run really fast, and fight Dr. Robotnik at the end of every zone. That’s not a downside, of course, as the gameplay standard set by the original is one of the best in 2D platformers.

Both the graphics and the music have seen a considerable update for this sequel. The backgrounds and the foregrounds popout with detail, depth, and a vibrancy that many Genesis titles sorely lack. It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to say that this is one of the best looking Genesis games. As I stated before, Sonic moves even faster than before. For the most part, the Genesis has no trouble keeping up, although sometimes Sonic can get moving so fast that he actually starts to move ahead of the camera. This is usually the case most often when Sonic is going through a series of loops and doesn’t affect normal gameplay. The music, done again by Masato Nakamura, is absolutely one of best soundtracks ever made. Nearly every track is an all-time classic and each is highly memorable. On the technical front, it’s an absolute gem.

On a special note, one of the zones where the graphics, music, and gameplay gel the most is the Casino Night Zone. The two levels that comprise this zone is are just so absolutely brilliant. The way the skycrapers in the background shimmer in the night, the stars that pass by up in the sky, the sprawling, complex levels filled with bumpers, flippers, slot machines, and more. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to say that the Casino Night Zone is one of my favorite levels in any platformer ever. Everything about it is just so good.

As I stated earlier, Sonic 2 is a bit easier than the original. It’s possible to store up a bevy of extra lives and extra continues without much effort at all, although it’s still very possible to lose all of them fighting the final boss. I certainly have on more than one occasion, but getting that far is not the Herculean effort that it is in many other Genesis platformers.

Bottom line: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is an all-time classic in every way and one of the greatest games ever made.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment