Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Buy it. Now.
Where do i start? Before i had even been able to finish this game due to bugs in an older, non-GoG version, i had said this is a good candidate for the best RPG. Having finished it, i haven't changed my mind. I'll stick to generalities before getting into spoilers.

Torment is the perfect example of the core principle of an RPG. The 'role' you play is not defined by a choice of race or class. It is a personality you develop. The game's a tangle of moral decisions, with combat forming only part of the background of a violent, callous, vicious world. It's dialogue options that drive your game experience, not simple killing or even quest completions, and it's well enough written that the dialogue choices don't feel perfunctory. Your choice to refresh someone's memory or leave them in the dark, to help or attack, to be cruel, vindictive, unrelenting or merciful, has consequences. Minor characters die, quests become unavailable, others' attitude toward you changes. It's rare to find a game in which the main ways to kill yourself come through dialogue options, as do the ways to kill various companions, intentionally or not.
More importantly, it's written so as not to pull any punches in regards to emotional impact. When you perform an evil act, you're not given justification for it. When others recount your misdeeds, their indignation is not ridiculed. It is justified. You can hurt people, physically or emotionally, you can break their spirit or shatter their worldview. Among the outer planes, belief is reality, and Torment is a story about shaping beliefs and understanding. Death cult, transcendence, chaos, merciless justice, sadism, blind vengeance and cold-blooded manipulation all form the moral background. The physical setting itself is purposely drab. Like the original Diablo, Torment largely sticks to a grayscale color scheme and dark fantasy tropes: zombies, demons and well, torment. It's the music that lends a bit of grandeur to events. One of the most interesting features is that as with adventure games, seemingly random items can be intrinsic to various quests down the road and clearing your inventory out is a risky proposition, though this will come as a shock to many players who are accustomed to having their hand held and never being allowed to make mistakes.

This is not to say the game doesn't have flaws. The combat system is rudimentary. If Torment had not been so centered on role-playing, it could've been a major drawback. This also extends to character advancement and skills, with many options being utterly useless. In terms of actual gameplay, the developers obviously had a certain view of the player character, and other options are limited. Torment is story-driven from beginning to end, but unfortunately a few of the side-quests don't entirely make sense. Spoilers follow below but not before i get in one unfortunately necessary paragraph of warnings. Some of the surprises the game throws at you are a bit too much.

One: it is entirely possible to kill some potential companions during the initial meeting or later dialogues with them, so keep in mind your smack-talk has consequences. Also, even if you're like me and prefer to play support roles, keep in mind you will have to solo the end of the game so keep yourself in half-decent fighting shape. Lastly, do fully explore all you can. Many of the best tidbits are found by searching various nooks and crannies of the game world and carefully keeping track of dialogue options. They're not exactly easter eggs, but you do have to keep your eyes peeled. Lastly, you will need a relatively high wisdom score no matter what class you choose.

Spoilers and flaws.

For one thing, the factions of Sigil are undeveloped, and it's aggravating to start out thinking there is a real choice in joining them.
For my own part, i wanted to join the anarchists, but the developers obviously had a very dim view of anarchy. The faction is presented as childishly shortsighted and almost impossible to join, a group of paranoid bomb-planters and slogan-sprayers. In fact, playing the game as chaotic seems to be defined as being a liar, without taking into consideration other anti-establishment courses of action. It's a very simplistic view of anarchism, as though the only encounter the developers ever had with the notion was high-school cliques' facetious rebellion. Though the good/evil axis is very well developed, there is no real way to play chaotically and almost nothing to gain from it.

Another issue is the uneven development of the companions. Though Morte and Dak'kon have excellent storylines and interactions with the player, later additions to the cast become more and more simplistic, with Nordom showing little or no development and even Grace being unexpectedly linear after her excellent set-up in Sigil.

The Nameless One's class choice is also a bit too obvious. Being a thief seems almost entirely pointless, and given that many of the interactions, especially with Ravel, center on spellcasting, being a high-constitution mage is the obvious way to go. The over-arching importance of a high wisdom score is also a mean trick to play on anyone who likes playing an absent-minded professor.

Another frustration came from the unfinished parts of the game. The best example would be skulls. I filled three characters' inventories with them before finally looking up the issue in an online guide and finding out they're useless because the quests involving them were cut out of the release version. Other bits like the memory stones in the brothel's basement or the truth behind Fell's disgrace also seem to have been left incomplete.

One complaint which i have to qualify as subjective is about the massive burst of experience which brings all characters up to the same level right before the ending, regardless of how well you've done previously. In general, RPGs are buildup games. Your earlier choices should affect your chances later on. You should be able to fail. You should not be protected from feeling like the lowest speck of slime in existence for lacking the brainpower to prepare for the worst. The handholding's not as bad as it could've been. You're allowed to make your life difficult for most of the campaign, then right before the end you're given an insurance policy so that you can actually finish the game. As Torment was, again, an intrinsically story-based and not combat-centered game, the pre-finish burst of exp is not objectively a bad design choice.

However, if the exp burst was justifiable in terms of the limitations of the game engine in combination with the developers' intended focus on role-playing and not combat mechanics, i cannot say the same thing about having to solo the Fortress of Regrets. One of the most frequently detrimental artificial gimmicks designers use to spice up games is changing the rules right before the ending. When you've spent all game long building your party of adventurers, having them take little to no part in the final struggle is anticlimactic and frankly... a mean trick to play on me! It works from a storytelling standpoint because of the nature of the fortress and of the Nameless One himself, seeing your fellow tormented dying off because of you, but in terms of gameplay, there were better ways to implement that emotional impact. I can see the motivation for the choice from a design perspective, but i don't see it as justified.

That being said, the game is a world, and the sheer number of different dialogues accessible during the side-quests makes it more thoroughly fleshed out than most fantasy book series. I hadn't even thought to go back to the mortuary after learning to talk to corpses, but though i'd killed too many of the zombies and skeletons on my way out, the dialogues i ran through after finding out about this apparently minor, extraneous feature from an online guide were still excellent. The best part of the game though is Ravel. Her influence and her own character development loom in the background of the story, almost overshadowing the Nameless One's own choices. While the main character's story is obviously intended to be one of attempted redemption, Ravel's own conflict with her past, her lack of regret, her nature as a tired old weaver whose few good deeds wound up killing her is much more fascinating. Visiting Ravel's incarnations after sealing the vicious/pitiful old bat's doom was the icing on the cake.
In the black-barbed maze, after having learned what i had done to Dak'kon and Deionarra in past lives, when Ravel asked me her one question, i answered after the slightest hesitation: regret. I did not expect Ravel's answer to be simple acceptance. Beautiful set-up, beautiful conclusion.

As a concept though, as a plot device, the mark of torment, the curse or blessing of drawing kindred spirits to oneself is also very interesting. It makes for an excellent symbol of the game itself and should have been used as the opening screen instead of the Lady of Pain. It certainly seems to have potential beyond the story of the game itself, and i can see myself referencing it for years to come. What would it take to bring the other tormented to myself, the ones who cannot live in the human world, whose rage and self-hatred would drive them to the plane of negation for the sake of regret?

So, what can change the nature of a man? Arguably, my answer in the black-barbed maze was not perfect, because in order to have that quality, the man has already changed.

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