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4:09pm on Monday, 27th April, 2015:

3 RPGs


I fancied playing a party-based RPG a month or so ago, so I finally got around to installing Planescape: Torment. This is a classic game from 1999 that uses the same Infinity Engine as Baldur's Gate, and I've been meaning to play it for years. Obviously the graphics aren't up to today's quality, but it's the game I'm interested in, not the graphics.

Well, it didn't get off to a good start. You don't get to create your own character, you only get to spec out the character they give you — in Planescape: Torment's case, that means The Nameless One. Yes, that's right, I didn't even get to choose a name. OK, well it seems the entire game must be character creation, then: you get to create the person you want to be through play. That's an interesting approach, it means the game is probably well thought-out.

Right, so, off I went!

I swiftly took a dislike to The Nameless One. I couldn't identify with him, and what I mainly had to go on — his physicality — was negative: he was a great, hulking blue barbarian to look at, which did not appeal. I also took against his floating skull companion, Morte, who was remarkably chipper given that he was just a talking head. I carried on, though, confident that as I got to flesh The Nameless One out a bit more I'd get a better sense of who he was and who I wanted him to be.

Planescape: Torment's biggest difference from regular RPGs is that it's not as combat-based. Quests can be resolved through dialogue rather than fighting, which gives it a more thoughtful element than usual. It also means you can't tell how well you're doing and your character can't gain new skills to improve their discourse (although I guess charisma might help). I was really looking forward to this, to see how it was handled.

Sadly, though, I didn't get that far, mainly because of a bug. The save game feature worked fine, but not if you wanted to overwrite an existing file — which is exactly what the quick-save wanted to do. It caused a hang, as did attempting to delete a saved game. The cause looked to be a file protection issue, but changing the permissions on the directory path to the saves folder didn't make a difference. Hmm, actually, that's not true: it did make a difference — it stopped me from being able to load any save files at all. When I looked to see what had happened, they'd all disappeared. I'd only played for two evenings or so, but I wasn't enjoying the game one iota and I was looking at having to play through everything all over again.

I therefore punished it with an uninstall. If it behaves itself, I may give it a second chance some day.

So, what to play instead? I was seeing a few recommendations for Lords of Xulima, so gave that a go.

This wasn't much better in the character-creation department, and (unlike Planescape: Torment) not for any story-structure reason. You play a guy called Gaulen, trying to sort out some kind of conflict among the gods that is leaving the planet a war-torn mess. I played it for a couple of days before I figured that creating a custom party was the way to go (replacing the default's bard with a magic-user and the fighter with a paladin), so I restarted and made quite good progress. I've spent 30 hours in it so far (according to Steam), but it's supposed to have 100 hours of gameplay so that's not actually much.

The game is no Baldur's Gate, but it tries hard and isn't unenjoyable. I was finding its quest structure rather too linear for comfort, until suddenly the main plotline ran out. I had to go exploring to see which zone was the next one I should be entering. Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be "none of them". Basically, there were three zones I could go to: an icy zone that does ice damage every few moves; a deserty zone that does fire damage every few moves; an electric zone that does lightning damage every few moves. My party was getting killed before I got anywhere.

OK, so I know out what to do when this happens: gear up one character with all the anti-elemental damage gear you can find, let the others drop to zero health (they don't die in Lords of Xulima, they're just hors de combat), run the immune character through the damage until you reach a safe zone, then rest and get everyone else back into action again. The trouble is, the drops in this game are mainly random and I didn't actually have much gear that protected me from elemental damage; most of what I'd got I'd sold anyway. There isn't a way to store items in the game (well, if there is I didn't come across it), so I either had to sell stuff or lug it around and take the encumbrance penalty. This meant that with the gear available to me, the only zone I could realistically attempt was the electricity one.

I did succeed in that, getting to the castle, avoiding the traps and reaching the boss. Unfortunately, he was way, way above my level. I could barely dent him before he had my party's heads in a pie.

I went back and tried the icy realm, but couldn't get anywhere before my runner died. I made progress with the deserty zone, but it appears that I'm going to have to fight something to get to the safe zone I found. I can beat this particular enemy, but only with my whole party fit and well. My paladin alone is going to be mashed to a pulp.

It was at this point, yesterday, that I decided to abandon Lords of Xulima. To be honest, it was getting rather samey anyway. It's all well and good having a game with 100 hours of gameplay, but if that 100 hours is made up by repeating the same 10 hours over and over, it's not worth it. I may come back to it later, loading from an earlier save file and then going grinding wandering monsters to level up, but having a choice of whether I lose my party to fire, ice or the weather is not appealing right now.

So, what should I try instead?

Before Christmas, I'd bought and started Shadowrun: Dragonfall, mainly because one of the people I raid with in The Secret World kept harping on about it. I'd stopped playing after three hours, because Christmas got in the way, the plot was run-on-rails straight and the combat was always marginally tougher than I wanted it to be. However, after my experience with Planescape: Torment and Lords of Xulima, it was starting to look attractive again: it has the depth and dialogue of the former and the action and production values of the latter. OK, so it also has the am-I-winning-or-losing-this-conversation? of the former and the linearity of the latter, but at least I got to create my own character. I played it for two more hours last night and it picked up. I'll probably play it post-Game of Thrones tonight and see how it carries on. Maybe I should see if there's a way to put more ammo in a weapon when it runs out, that would be useful...

I really ought to get around to finishing the programming language I've been designing on and off for the past few years, so I can write my own RPG instead of playing other people's...

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Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).