The Strange Greatness and Missing Legacy of 'Planescape'


#1

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/qvm7z3/the-strange-greatness-and-missing-legacy-of-planescape

#2

I hate to be the one to jump in first and be negative - and I feel rather guilty about this too - but that travesty of a combat system (and, to be fair, my general dislike of the AD&D 2nd Ed system which infuses the entire game’s ruleset) is probably responsible for my never having gotten past the first “act” of Planescape:Torment, despite giving it hours of my time.
The bits of dialogue, and philosophical discussion, I did manage to access were very engaging, and certainly hinted that there’s was a great game in there which lived up to everything Cameron [and the others who’ve written eulogies about PS:T - including the friend who lend me his copy of the game CDs so I could play it] claims about it.

But that combat, guys. The trash mobs which turn up and annoy you in real time when you’re out in the early areas and either force you to move to another screen [yes, PS:T has screen-based zones, where the scrolling flips at a border, and any mobs following you tend to vanish in the transition], or engage in that horrible combat.

I’d argue that the true legacy - and the more palatable presentation - of PS:T is in RP-light narrative games which pose interesting questions of the player, not RPG-systems-heavy settings. PS:T, ultimately, didn’t have the courage of its convictions, and still felt that it had to have a bunch of combat, with crunchy AD&D rules, in it, because “that’s what CRPGs are”, and that’s what makes it a flawed classic, at best.


#3

If you ever give it another chance, something they don’t really mention how important it is in the early game is that Morte resists 90% of all physical attacks. If you make him your main hitting people/in the thick of it combat person despite The Nameless One being the one looking like a hulking brute it will make much of the early game’s combat waaaaaaaaay easier and faster. The Nameless One himself is way more effective with using magic.

I never really found the combat bad though, it’s not like a huge step down from Baldur’s Gate or whatever, This always felt kind weird to me how today the consensus is that the game should have much less/no combat just because it has a lot of story. But not even towns being 100% safe in RPGs isn’t anything new in ones that want to establish a sense of danger. They do a good job in Planescape of making each party member very weird by D&D standards too which I appreciated (moreso than the actual Planescape source book did by default). Like it’s a D&D game where the main character can never use a sword or wear armor. :open_mouth:

We remember stuff like Fallout but for every Fallout or Planescape there’s ten Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusaders. Planescape was seen as a groundbreaking evolution of these at the time (and its combat had a lot of quality of life improvements, believe it or not, with how its menus worked if you didn’t want to do it in full real time) but it also came out in the midst of the peak of the “2D graphics = bad and old and lame” mindset both popularly and on plenty of game magazines and review website. So we never really got a game really of its kind of to follow up on it until Tides of Numenera came out (though I’ve heard that one’s writing is a bit of a step down, haven’t played it yet).

I don’t think it’s a huge fault that the game is a genre game despite the bigger emphasis on the narrative and the more zoomed in perspective compared to other overhead CRPGs coming out at the time. I think they did a good job building a game that works as a conversation with the game engine and type of RPG it was built out of. It’s great because of what it wrings out of that type of game.

There’s a few reasons you don’t see Planescape emulated as often though is because of budget realities and everything having to be fully voiced today. The only game that kinda tried to build on it was Alpha Protocol, but THAT game’s combat makes Planescape feel like Bayonetta.

There’s also its graphics and it being an RPG at all though. Planescape’s perspective is a little more zoomed in than other infinity engine games to better show off its pre-rendered backgrounds and make everything feel more personal, but those little things it accomplishes visually to move its type of game forward got eclipsed pretty fast. If you weren’t already into CRPGs, this was a CRPG that came out a few months after Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, and System Shock 2. Planescape’s graphics were praised at the time, but it was still 2D. I think on today’s hardware, depending on how one is playing is can be hard to see how it really does have significantly more detailed graphics than any of the previous games of its ilk.

It’s a small thing today but even it having real time shadows was like a, this should be pointed out on the back of the box kind of thing for Interplay’s games around that time like it and Septerra Core.

I would also say there was some fatigue for its type of game by the time it came out. You can see a lot of reviews of the time open up with this sort of yet another incredibly plotted RPG from Tim Cain/Bioware/Black Isle produced Infinity Engine RPG. There’s a language in them along the lines of like, no really, this game’s actually worth playing even if you played all the others.

So even if one doesn’t like the combat, I think a lot of the other little technical touches that make the game greater than the sum of its parts go unnoticed or were otherwise more quickly eclipsed, so it’s hard to process and make a legacy follow up game to something where the only thing people would ask of such a thing today is “make the story amazing and the characters really weird by 90s CRPG standards.” That’s about as general as you can get.


#4

I don’t necessarily think PS:T should have no combat because it has a lot of story.

I do think that it shouldn’t have the kind of combat it has, because the combat is annoying, awkward, and generally not pleasant. (And, trash mobs, and random encounters, are a bête noire of mine in any RPG, which are just made worse if the combat isn’t even fun in general.) This isn’t so much about the combat being hard, it’s just that it’s very difficult to know what’s actually going on in it - especially if you’re not a D&D expert and don’t really have a feel for what different stats are even supposed to do.

The fact that Planescape:Torment has a lot of story does mean that anything you add to it needs to work with the narrative flow, rather than against it, though. The combat [and, especially, the random encounters] don’t do that, they just get in the way of it. (I believe that one thing that Tides of Numenera, from what I hear, does well is to give you other options in “crisis” situations other than fighting, which is definitely an improvement on the idea.)

I don’t think I agree that everything has to be fully voiced today. The Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games are barely voiced at all (Hong Kong has some voiced intro/outro video), and they work perfectly well.


#5

After playing some of the more older AD&D games, such as the Pool of Radiance, I do wonder, if the issue isn´t how the combat is, but that change to turn based to real time and maybe how this often don´t work well for AD&D system, while Bioware games managed this reached a good format, try playing the Ravenloft games, which also where real time, but there the whole thing really does not work.

Of course, there is lot of other elements, such as what monsters they use (too much enemies with special attacks can slow everything to a halt, due the need to rest or wait for healing), how much magic stuff is handled, average maximum levels, if you can build a party (if not how strong or good are npcs), ect…

Dark Sun games, despite their setting begin see as a “very hard” it was fun and easy to play, between the overpowered characters, lots of magical gear and the monsters mostly begin melee based. Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Hack use the same engine (in fact they where almost the same game), but the simple fact that in one game you have four character and in the other one, make a huge difference in the pace, with Dungeon Hack having really bad one.

The why it wasn´t copied? I suspect, one reason is because later western rpgs became much more rigid (due the whole “it have to be historical/accurate” mindset) in time frames they use for their settings (unlikely jrpgs, which often use a much more broad and flexible time frames and mix up elements a lot more).

While some old school western rpgs often used settings which mixed sci-fi and fantasy, like in some early Ultima games, Might and Magic and Wizardry, this was later looked down up (I could remember reviews/people complaining about that). So settings, such as Spelljammer/Planescape, didn´t end begin copied so much (also they where very specific, which make to make something similar hard).


#6

The most frustrating thing about D&D combat in video games is that the 3rd Edition rule set was heavily inspired by GURPs and generally a system that’s waaaaaay better as a video game rule set than a pen and paper one, but the only official game to use it is Temple of Elemental Evil which was super rushed and adheres closely to the original D&D module from back in the day. So you have this amazing combat in a game with nothing else going on in it.

I do love those Ravenloft games though, atmosphere for miles that creeped me out back in the day.

One thing I do like about Planescape, it’s definitely possible to just give everyone the weapons with the highest numbers and steamroll stuff without a lot of trouble without having to really know much about the underlying system. You don’t even need to use any magic because healing stuff is so cheap and there’s places where you can sleep for basically free all over the place.

Still, it uses the same real time with pausing whenever you want to assign specific stuff that Neverwinter Nights uses, it never felt like the massive step down to me that seems to be the consensus among folks, though I never really play these games for the combat.


#7

Sure, and maybe I should me more specific, truly Ravenloft games did a lot of stuff kind ahead of its time, there was several moments in the game which surprised me a lot. What I didn´t like was the way the combat became, where you often get killed because you didn´t turn around fast enough or in the first game where it won´t pause to cast a spell.

Yeah, that aspect of Planescape was really nice, remind me a lot of Dark Sun, where you also could just given everyone absurd stats by default, along with tons of magical stuff, so much you don´t even need bother to figure the psionic powers.


#8

The game doesn’t entirely cop out in answering the central question- if you have good intelligence and wisdom stats at the game’s finale you can arrive at an answer that is correct, at least for the character and the universe they inhabit (belief). This may or may not satisfy as an answer for the player, of course.

As the author points out, the value to the player is in the asking, and the repetition of the asking. I still remember the climactic mid-game encounter with Ravel, and it’s been a good long while since I played. She changes the whole frame of the question essentially by destroying the frame you’ve used up until that point- she cares only for your answer, whatever it is, because the riddle she created around you has always been a trick for her own amusement.. In doing so, she frees you to consider the question freely.


#9

I don’t think games of this ilk shouldn’t have combat, but I do feel as I’m older that I have a much more finite patience for repetition. Some games dole out abilities and upgrades in an interesting and well paced way that allows you to layer them into your playstyle and keeps gameplay fresh throughout. Character action games are great at this both because they have decent variety and because the length of the game fits nicely with the amount of time I’m willing to invest.

I’ve started PST probably five or six times. I will almost certainly never finish it, not because the combat is bad but because there’s too much of it and meaningful changes to the action are dosed out stingily. Yet another fight with a similar mob doesn’t teach me anything, doesn’t deepen my understanding or improve my skillset. I’m on auto-pilot letting my hands do the work while my brain is elsewhere. At that point, why am I engaging at all? If half of the game I’m playing is idle busywork, why even bother?


#10

Certainly, the real time doesn’t help, but I never got on with the earlier AD&D 2nd ed based games - the late 80s/early 90s things like Champions of Krynn etc - either, and they were definitely turn based. The entire system - and, yes, the tendency to use special attacks, etc - is just unpleasantly obtuse.