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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

Nostalgia Challenge: Normality

The early-to-mid 90’s were heady times for the adventure genre, particularly on the PC. LucasArts and Sierra dominated the genre with many titles that have gone on to become all-time classics, but even smaller companies were getting in on the action by introducing their owns games with their owns little twists. One such title, from British developed Gremlin Interactive, puts you in the shoes of Kent Knutson, a rebellious, wise-cracking teen living in a 1984-esque alternate world. Normality was published by Interplay in June 1996 for the PC.

The plot revolves around Kent and his quest to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes and put a stop to all the oppression that’s going on lately. Much of the humor in the series comes from Kent’s lively quips [courtesy of Corey Feldman], the bizarre situations he finds himself in, and the clever solutions that he comes up with. It’s a really funny game, one that easily rivals the best of the genre during this time.

Unlike many adventures games from this time, Normality features full-3D graphics that look to be similar in quality to titles like Duke Nukem 3D. It allows the player to look around the various environments without restrictions. It’s actual has aged fairly well all things considered, although it’s still filled with pixelated textures, 2D characters, and simple environments. That shouldn’t be a hindrance, however, as the game runs just fine in DOSBox. The graphics are helped by a unique artstyle and some nice little details here and there.

Despite the viewpoint, there’s no action in this game, it’s all classic point-and-click gameplay from start to finish. As with most such games, it revolves around picking up various items, combining items, figuring out when and where to use items, and talking to the various NPCs that inhabit the world to figure out what to do and where to go. Some of the solutions are a bit esoteric, though funny, and may require some serious lateral thinking. If all else fails, GameFAQs has guides available to help get you to the end.

Upsides: A unique story, lots of funny characters, classic point-and-click gameplay with a different perspective.

Downsides: While the graphics have some nice touches they’re really dated, some of the solutions are kind of confusing.

Verdict: It’s still just as funny as I remember it being, it’s also still really fun to play. Definitely one that shouldn’t be forgotten. 8/10

Where to Find: Normality has long since gone out of print, but the European release is still readily available on Amazon for about $10.

Random Note: The engine used in Normality was used once more for Gremlin’s second, and last, adventure game: Realms of the Haunting.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , | Leave a comment