Friday, January 03, 2020


The Enhanced Editions of the Infinity Engine games continue to impress. I recently completed my second playthrough of the seminal RPG Planescape: Torment, this time with Beamdog's Enhanced Edition interpretation of the game. Unlike the Baldur's Gate series, which I've previously played with heavily-modded non-EE editions, my only prior experience with PST was the completely unmodded (but patched) original Black Isle release.

The EE works great out of the box, and I think I'll recommend new players to stick with it. As with the BG EE versions, it has widescreen support, better UI controls, and tons of small quality-of-life improvements. It is unfortunately missing a couple of the current improvements from Siege Of Dragonspear-era EE games; the one I missed much was icons on the character portraits that show each characters' currently queued action, which is extremely helpful for keeping track of spellcasting and ammunition. I suspect this is because the PST UI has always been so unique and custom, and it's probably hard to keep that compelling visual look and feel while also streamlining and improving its functionality.

PST's modding scene has always been significantly smaller than the BG series, likely because its story is so personal and it doesn't have the open world feeling of the Amnish portions of BG2, which gracefully incorporated vast quantities of user-created stories. That said, I did install a few mods for this playthrough. PST:EE fully supports the classic Weidu mod structure, and installation is easy: just download each mod and unzip it into the program folder (easily found on Steam by opening Properties for the game and selecting Browse Local Files), then double-click the mod EXE and follow the prompts.
  1. Unfinished Business. This is a bit smaller than the BG version but still has a lot of "new" quests. Most of these are are things that were written/programmed by Black Isle and shipped with the original PST release, but were inaccessible in the game due to bugs, being incomplete or being intentionally removed. The mod adds them back in, fixes any related bugs, and in some cases adds some original content to fill in any still-missing parts.
  2. Journal Portrait Conversations. PST actually has great, high-resolution images for almost all of the characters and monsters you encounter over the course of the game, but they're buried deep in the Bestiary, which many people never open and nobody views more than once. This mod updates the UI so you can see the portrait of the character you're speaking to instead of, uh, nothing. This makes it much more like the BG games and, in my opinion, adds a lot of atmosphere to the game.
  3. Auto Detect Traps. Fantastic little quality-of-life mod: whenever Annah isn't fighting or in stealth, she automatically starts looking for traps. Traps are one of the most persistent annoyances of the IE game, and this mod makes them a little more bearable.
  4. Banter Accelerator. Unlike the BG games, the banters in vanilla PST have unrealistically short timers; even in a 100% completionist playthrough, most players will only hear a tiny fraction of the available banters, and because they're generally delivered in the same order, even on multiple replays you'll re-hear the same few. Installing this mod (default settings are OK) gives you periodic banters that are still nicely spaced out and lets you hear fantastic voice acting from Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Dan Castellaneta, and the other great talent in your party.
  5. Generalized Biffing. This is very important to install if you are using Unfinished Business, the Tweak Pack or any mods that add or change content in the game (NPCs, items, etc.). There's a relatively new bug that was introduced in a newish EE version that causes previously-visited maps to be reset after visiting the Modron Maze, which can lead to duplicated characters, impassable doors or other game-breaking bugs. Existing PST:EE mod guides won't mention this unless they've been updated recently. It's important to install Generalized Biffing last after all other mods. You can re-install it multiple times if you add more mods afterwards. If you do run into the bug, you will need to install this mod and then reload a save before the Modron Maze.
None of these are essential for a first playthrough, but I think all of them are OK, nothing really spoils the game. The Banter Accelerator was especially nice. I increasingly think that semi-voiced text-heavy RPGs like this may be my favorite style of RPG. It really helps bring the characters to life, giving you a fantastic sense of their personality and style, while keeping the game quick to read and never annoying.

It's been... wow, 13 years since the last time I played this game. PS:T is both less and more replayable than most RPGs. It's notable for having a predefined protagonist: you can't select your gender or race or background, you are always The Nameless One and have the same history. But you have more agency than in most RPGs as you progress through the game, with a large number of choices that impact the evolution of the plot. And not just the plot; PS:T is interesting in that a lot of mechanical aspects of the game are driven by dialogue rather than interface. In Baldur's Gate games, you select your PC's alignment from a drop-down menu when rolling a new chararacter; in PS:T, your alignment is determined based on your actions during the game. In Baldur's Gate you choose a class at chargen and maybe select a dual-class in the Level Up menu; in PS:T, you must complete a series of quests to meet a trainer and decide in conversation with them whether to adopt a new profession.

My memory is understandably fuzzy, but I believe that I stayed a single-class Fighter for my entire original playthrough of PS:T. There are some good reasons for this. Unlike BG games, you can't change your party's formation order, so The Nameless One (henceforth TNO) will usually be in front when you meet enemies, so he will likely be the first party member attacked; he's also vastly more resilient at taking damage and recovering from death than your compatriots, all of which incentivizes you to toss him into the meat grinder with hand-to-hand combat.

This time, I focused on my Mage levels, kind of. This has more synergy with my desired stat allocations: to get the most story out of the game, you want to focus on your mental attributes of Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma, none of which are useful for fighters; your dump stats end up being Strength, Constitution and Dexterity, all of which are essential for fighters.

Some of your companions in PS:T are multiclass, which behave the same way as in the BG series: XP is evenly distributed between the two classes, leading to slightly slower leveling but more flexibility and utility. One companion is a Fighter/Mage multi, and another is a Thief/Fighter, giving you pretty much everything you need. TNO, though, behaves differently from either dual-classing or multi-classing in BG. After unlocking a new class, you can switch to it in dialogue at pretty much any time by talking with the right party member. You can switch back and forth without any penalty. While a given class, you can use all of that class's skills and none of the other class's. For example, you can only cast spells while you are a Mage, can only pick locks while you're a Thief, and can only wield a battleaxe while you're a Fighter. But, you keep all of the HP, THAC0, saving throws and weapon skills that you've earned in other classes, even after leaving that class.

So, my approach was to take Fighter levels first to beef up my HP and be more resilient, then switch to Mage to get powerful spells for the end-game. My leveling looked like this.
  1. I remained a Fighter up until Level 6. This gives 60+ HP and several weapon skill points. Unlock the Mage class during this time so you can switch out of Fighter at will.
  2. Work with a Trainer to spend your weapon skill points. Edged weapons are best since they can be used by mages; remember to keep enough points in reserve for higher-level trainers, but you can only train up to the third pip without specializing as a Fighter. Extra skills can probably go into Fists.
  3. Level as a Mage up to Level 7. This gives you the first Mage Specialization, which eventually leads to some great stat bonuses. Note that you'll only gain an extra +1 HP for the levels you've previously earned as a Fighter.
  4. It's worth briefly dipping into Thief; don't actually play the game as one, but you'll gain a couple of free levels and gain some XP that wouldn't otherwise be available by chatting with Annah while you're a thief and training with her. This gives a couple more HP.
  5. Switch back to a Fighter and continue leveling to Level 9. This gives you the most bang-for-your-buck HP wise; after level 9 the Fighter gets 3 HP per level instead of 10. A Mage still gets 4 HP at level 10, which is the one level where it out-earns the Fighter.
  6. Switch back to a Mage and play the rest of the game here. It may feel a little slow at first to catch up to your Fighter levels, but the XP scales significantly later in the game so you'll quickly surpass it.

Oh: Why all this focus on hitpoints? Well, because there's a lot of fighting in this game! PS:T has the reputation of an RPG where you can solve all your problems by talking instead of combat, at that's how I've remembered it for years, but that isn't actually how it works. Playing through this again, I thought that it actually felt a lot like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. As in that game, the early parts of the game tend to be very talk-heavy and offer a variety of peaceful ways to resolve most (no all) quests, but the later parts of the game are very focused on fighting, so you can't ignore combat build and strategy. That said, fighting is also significantly easier than Baldur's Gate, so you definitely don't need to min-max. But those HP do come in handy.

In that first playthrough, I was Chaotic Good. I didn't have a particular alignment in mind for this game, and was Neutral Good from fairly early on. Maybe around the midpoint of the game, I decided that I wanted to become Lawful Good for mechanical reasons: there are a couple of powerful items that are only usable for characters of that alignment. From that point on, I exclusively chose Lawful options in dialogue: Making and keeping promises, vowing to do things, never lying, etc. This wasn't enough, and I remained Neutral Good through the remainder of the game. I am kind of curious if some of my non-dialogue actions gave me Chaotic points: I never pickpocketed during the whole game, but there were some times I would have Annah pickpocket and loot chests in unoccupied homes. Or maybe I was borderline Chaotic Good before I changed course and there just weren't enough Lawful points left in the second half of the game to get me back on track. It wasn't a huge deal, but was slightly disappointing.

Given the decade-plus between playthroughs, I probably shouldn't be as surprised as I am at just how much I've forgotten. These days, I usually try to do an initial playthrough of an RPG game with as little help as possible; on subsequent replays, I'm much more lenient about consulting walkthroughs and wikis and stuff. I'm a little ambivalent about that. It does feel good to know that I hit all the content that I wanted to see in the game and didn't miss anything interesting or fun, but I am constantly spoiling myself about what's going to happen next, which takes away some of the magic. Once I know the "right" or "best" way to do something, I'll always do it that way, which is mechanically the best but removes the messy drama from the game.

Even with occasional consultations of walkthroughs, there were vast swaths of the game that I have no recollection of at all. It is kind of curious what parts of the game I remember and what I don't. I have pretty strong memories of the Mortuary, and Talks-With-Trees, and the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and the conversation with Ravel, and the Lazy of Pain's mazes, and the Modron Maze; but everything related to Pharod and his bronze sphere felt 100% new to me, as did Trias's arc and Deionarra and the Godsmen and the Sensates.

I do remember being surprised at recruiting Nodrom and Vhailor and being mildly bummed at needing to abandon party members in other planes, so this time around I planned ahead and made a five-person party before heading to the Modron Maze and Curst. I left Ignis behind when picking up Nodrom; he had been in my party through to the end game in my first play-through, and with a TNO Mage and Dakkon I didn't feel like I needed yet another mage. Choosing who to ditch the second time was harder; I was actually tempted to just not recruit Vhailor at all, but ended up leaving Morte behind, planning to pick him back up; this is mostly because he had the most XP at the time of my departure and so would be the quickest to level back up after my return. That said... you gain SO MUCH XP during the Curst / Carceri sojourn that he ended up being completely eclipsed by even my lowest-experienced party members. But, again: this game is pretty easy! So I still swapped him back in for the endgame, just so I could get his dialogue this time around. I'm glad that I did. It turns out that Morte and Dakkon, the two members I had removed during my first playthrough, are probably the two with the most to say in the endgame.

I still have never set foot inside UnderSigil, the bonus dungeon you can reach from the Clerk's Ward. There aren't any plots leading you toward it, and from what I can tell it's mostly a monster-fighting zone, similar to the Modron Maze. I'd intended to include this in a more-completionist playthrough, but I was getting antsy for the endgame so I skipped it yet again. Perhaps next time! From what I've read it scales somewhat to your level, so it might be interesting to check it out both before and after Curst.

My "romance" memories were very fuzzy, but consulting my ancient blog post revealed that I had focused on Annah in my first game, so in this game I chose Fall-From-Grace instead. The romance "content" seemed scarce or missing, and I was curious if I had messed it up, but some cursory Googling indicates that there really is a disparity between the two: neither is as involved as the long arcs in Baldur's Gate 2, but Annah's does at least include a kiss, while FFG's is much more subtle. These relationships have always been pretty intriguing to me; my reaction to video game romance is usually "more, more, more!", but I think these stories and personalities are very evocative with less. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to having a predefined protagonist. One of the things that threw me off in this playthrough was a lot of dialogue indicating that Annah had strong feelings for me, even after I had made the "right" choices to pursue FFG (kissing Ravel while she was in FFG's form, declaring my feelings for her in the maze, etc.). I thought that something had gone "wrong"... but it hadn't, or at least not any more than things do in real life. Annah simply had unrequited feelings for me. I don't think I've seen something like that in the more modern RPG romances I've played: you may flirt with multiple people, but once you select an exclusive partner everyone else gets selective amnesia. Here, things strung out in a really interesting way, with Annah attracted to TNO, TNO pining from FFG, and FFG acknowledging his feelings but not fully reciprocating them. (There are a few lines near the very very end of the "good" ending where she seems to return the romance, but even these are ambiguous and uncertain.) Anyways, this was all interesting to play and makes me think yet again about what types of stories I want to tell. "Traditional" romances are the most satisfying to me, but complicated and incomplete ones can be more thought-provoking.

I'd initially called out PST for being one of the more macabre and gross games that I'd played. It didn't really strike me that way this time around, and I'm not sure whether that's due to me being more desensitized in general or just being mentally prepared for this game. There is a lot of literal viscera in this game: plucking your eyeball out of your socket, digging in your intestines for a key, grabbing a dismembered arm and swinging it like a club. But weirdly enough it doesn't really feel mean-spirited or sinister. It's gross, sure, but I think there are actually fewer scenes of, say, torture or sadism in PST than there are in either Baldur's Gate game.


That sense of viscera is one of a few things that has changed in my mind over the years. Much like how I mis-remember this as being a game without much combat, I also remember it as being a game with tons of choice and consequences. It feels like one, but isn't really, at least not in the sort of branching-storyline sense that we've had for the last decade or so. You do literally select tons of choices during the game, but they're almost always in dialogue; there are relatively few actions that have any sort of meaningful consequences outside of the quest in which they occur. There are many alignment shifts and rewards over the course of the game, but these almost never unlock alternate solutions. Gameplay-wise, the major mechanic is increasing your character stats (on level-up or, occasionally, as a reward for completing a quest a certain way), and then using your higher Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma to get better solutions to future quests.

There's really just one road that you follow: while you're free to pursue early quests in Sigil in various orders, everything from Curst onward runs more or less on rails. Now that I think about it, there aren't even many of those "This is how I feel / why I'm doing this" dialogue choices that I've gotten used to in games like Dragon Age and Shadowrun. You can still say that, but it will be you the player, not your avatar. (And, again, this feels fine within the game, perhaps because TNO is a predefined character.) The story is still powerful, of course. I had vaguely remembered that late in the game there's a belated in-game explanation of why it actually isn't awesome that you resurrect each time you die. I was right: because you are immortal, every time you are supposed to die, someone else dies in your place. They turn into a shadow, and the shadows you encounter during the game are the shades of those who unwillingly died for you. In the Fortress of Regrets, there are a lot of shadows.

It's all pretty sad. After your party is separated, you see each of them killed off by The Transcendent One (henceforth TTO), and you must step across their corpses to reach your adversary. (I think I was subconsciously stealing from this dynamic in my initial ultra-dark plan for the finale to CalFree in Chains.) An answer is proffered for the game's infamous question: regret can change the nature of a man. (Which, as I've mulled over after finishing the game, feels right to me. Other potential answers like love and anger and hardship can change your behavior; but regret prompts introspection, a desire to change, and the willingness to make those changes). The big-picture story becomes clearer: Your wicked deeds had earned you an eternity in Hell, you wished to avoid your fate so you asked Ravel to remove your mortality, it worked but caused you to lose your memories, your mortality wished to remain separate so it actively sought to keep murdering you and keep you from regaining knowledge, and now at the end you are ready to reclaim or defeat your mortality and accept your fate, freeing the other souls you torment with your existence.

There's a fairly lengthy conversation with TTO, though not as long or complex as the encounter with Ravel. In my first playthrough I had selected the option to sacrifice myself. This time, I selected a dialogue option to resurrect one of my companions, opting for Falls-From-Grace. I hadn't realized that this would directly lead into the final battle. That fight was cool; you get a ridiculous amount of XP right before the endgame, particularly if you bring the Bronze Sphere with you, so I had jumped from, like, Level 16 prior to entering the Fortress to Level 25 before fighting TTO. That brought my spellcasting level all the way up from Sphere 6 to Sphere 9, unlocking the incredibly cool and powerful highest-level spells. These reminded me of the Summons from Final Fantasy games: each plays an FMV showing an elaborate otherworldly force unleashing a gigantic conflagration of pure energy that annihilates the battlefield, often dealing upwards of 10 HP of damage to TTO. The fight mostly consisted of TNO and FFG taking turns kiting TTO around the battlefield while the other casted spells (awesome powerful offensive attacks from TNO or buffs and debuffs from FFG). I'd worked my way all down to, like, Sphere 4 of my TNO spells, then jumped to Magic Missile and finally took down TTO.

I'd beaten the game, but was mildly disappointed with myself, as I'd missed the option to resolve the final confrontation in the dialogue. So I peeked one last time at a walkthrough, reloaded the last autosave and went through it again. There are apparently multiple ways to do this (one high CHA, one high INT, one high WIS); I think I followed the CHA path, first convincing TTO that I was willing to sacrifice myself, then convincing him that the Fortress was actually a prison, and finally compelling him to merge back with me.

This unlocks the "good" ending, which has the same very final video, but quite a bit more content before it: another FMV clip of the merging, and, more significantly, final conversations with all of your companions. This provides some really nice closure, particularly Dakkon's long-deferred freedom; it also includes the closest FFG ever gets to a romance, when she points out that a lifetime is less than forever and promises to find you on the Lower Planes. (I do really, really like the remaining ambiguity and mystery around FFG. You never do find out what she wrote in her diary, and all her statements about you are very carefully constructed.) It's very bittersweet but satisfying to free your companions from their bonds of torment to you and return them safely to Sigil, before you yourself enter the damnation of the endless Blood War.


I like games that make me feel something when they're over. Sometimes that feeling is "Yay, that was awesome!" Sometimes that feeling is wistfulness, or enthusiasm, or curiosity. Planescape: Torment gives me a feeling that's particularly strong and particularly hard to define. There's maybe a sense of awe, of humility, of... well, yeah, regret. I feel contemplative and quiet, with a lingering attachment that's less concerned with what happened than with what it meant. PS:T is a gross game, and also beautiful, violent and quiet, something that sticks in your brain like a steel key in your intestines. I'll wait for my memories to fade, and will play it again a decade from now.

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