Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Braving The Planes

Planescape : Torment
The one thing I can confidently say about the hardcore PC gaming crowd is that we love our RPGs. RPGs have been in practically since the beginning of mainstream gaming; they're hot now; they'll continue to be big in the future.

So, what is special about them that lures us to lose days of our precious lifespan into these time-sinks? Is it the world and its people that only we can save? The choice we make to influence the flexible plot? Or all the side-quests and exploration that we undertake, and the-world-that-needs-saving be damned? Maybe its just that shiny pointy new katana I found that does enough fire damage to make me feel like a balrog? The lure of dungeon-hunting, people-killing and corpse-looting? Or the basic human instincts to flirt with your companions to advance to second base and beyond - particularly since I'm currently struggling with the dilemma of choosing between Isabela and Merril in Dragon Age 2 . . .

There's no single answer. Maybe its all of them. Basically the main thing that RPGs provide us is the sense of progression, and the sense of control. That is the reason RPG elements are being incorporated in other genres too - to make the gameplay more deep and involving.
But I digress. This article isn't supposed to be about why RPGs are great. And it isn't supposed to be about modern RPGs anyway.

Forget your Dragon Age 2. Forget The Witcher. Forget Skyrim. Today I take you to a journey towards the very roots of RPGs. I talk about the grand-daddy of them all. I talk about Planescape : Torment.

Over the years RPGs have evolved, yes. The graphics and gameplay mechanics have certainly improved. But, except for a few instances, we do not get a great plot or memorable characters.
Enter Planescape. A game released in the Baldur's Gate era, with the same isometric perspective and D&D mechanics. But its the setting, plot and characters that set it apart from everything else.

The game is set in the planescape multiverse - an intersection of all the different planes of existence, with its capital city Sigil.
 You, the Nameless One, wake up in a  mortuary, with a real bad case of amnesia - you've no idea of who you are or how you got there. Eventually you realize that you're immortal & people recognize you (not all in a nice way, I might add) you've lived plenty of lives before, worked nearly every profession - which makes way for an interesting mechanic - you can freely switch between being a fighter, a mage or a thief; since you are not learning, you are remembering; you've done all that before.

THIS is the Nameless One. Hello Ugly . . .
Thus begins your journey in search of your identity and the reason of your immortality. Oh and you've also lost your journal, so you gotta look for that too. And this is what sets Planescape apart from the myriad other RPGs; its not a quest to save the world, but a quest of self-discovery.

Right off the bat, you will realize that Planescape puts much less emphasis on combat; the meat here is in the character interactions. You read through a fantasy novel's worth of dialogue, and its absorbing and fun, varied and entertaining; and sometimes its remarkable enough to make a deep impact upon you. You approach quests and interactions depending on your preference - an intelligent character will perceive small details and use them, a wise one will sway others with philosophical implications, a charismatic or strong character will charm & manipulate or intimidate others. You often get the choices to bluff, play dumb, lie or speak truthfully in the dialogue. All these things impacts your alignment, and the ways the plot unfold later on.

Your companions take the game to a whole different level - believe me when I say that they are the best you have ever encountered in an RPG. Where else will you find companions such as these : a disembodied skull called Morte who has a crush on zombie chicks & is adept at swearing & taunting others, a weird-talking weirdo(!?) from the planes of order, a succubus who has given up sex (a shame!), a restless vigilante of a spirit trapped in an ancient suit of armor or a rat-tailed half-demon lass capable of trading insults with even Morte.

Many other characters you meet are pretty interesting and memorable. They may range from wiseguys and know-it-alls to freaks and madmen, all fun to talk to in their own way. One instance I remember was such : I had decided to play a totally evil character (as in chaotic evil, doesn't get better than that) until I met a poor wretched fellow looking for his sister. I intimidated him into handing me over all his money for my help, but after the subsequent dialogue and his forlorn response, I just couldn't bear to do that. And that was just the impact of the dialogue sans any voice-acting! Go figure.

Seeing how ugly The Nameless One is, I'm not surprised the succubus gave up sex
This is an RPG in the true sense of the word - a game where your character influences your approach, the plot is something original and intriguing, and ever random people you meet leave an impact on you and has just dang awesome companions.

If, fellow traveller, you are impressed by my long awe-induced rantings and are ready to leave behind your precious high resolution textures and 4X Antialiasing to journey into the world of planes, you need to grab this - a bunch of mods and tweaks (installation instructions included) - these range from gameplay fixes, tweaks to a widescreen and high resolution mod. These are essential to play the game on your modern rigs.
Until next time, people. I gotta find out why that inn has a burning man hanging there. . .

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