Shadowrun, Planescape, and the Isometric RPG – A Retrospective Review

I like RPGs. I upgraded my computer a few years ago, which allowed me to run a bunch of games that I formerly had to put off. After playing through Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4, Oblivion and Skyrim, I asked myself, “what now?”

What is the common element in the slew of games I had just played? They’re all first-person, and the combat happens more or less in real time. It took me some time to adapt and get comfortable with that, because I’m more of a third-person, turn-based gamer. However, just as I grew accustomed to other technological advances in the past (I’m not interested in manually mapping for a computer game), I grew accustomed to this. So could I go back to the isometric RPG?

I loved the original Fallout. I played Baldur’s Gate and its many offspring. With the advent of GOG and Steam I can access a lot of games and often at bargain prices. And so I found myself scrounging around my online libraries for an RPG. I settled on Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition.

While I’m an avid tabletop gamer and a big fan of 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, I bailed out as a customer when TSR booted Gary Gygax from his own company. Thus I didn’t get involved in the Planescape brand, which was post-Gygax. But I’d seen the hype that Planescape: Torment gets online, so I decided to give it a whirl.

Visually, the scenes all looked low-res, blurry and washed-out. Again, this was the enhanced version. The sprites were hard to see. Contrast was low. I felt like I was “removed” from the display, rather than immersed. The isometric perspective meant that there were areas that I would never “see.” There was no option to rotate my POV to reveal the areas hidden by walls and such. If there had been such an option I would’ve eagerly taken advantage of it.

I had to activate all of the “stop real-time” options so that I could get through combats. I remember having to do this with the Baldur’s Gate family of games, too. I remember being less than thrilled then, and I remained so today. How about just a simple “turn-based” toggle? No, they have to try and sub-divide it all up, so my experience is jerky. I feel like Charlie Chaplin.

But I still like having control of a team. And the story was OK. Not great, as the online pundits insist, but OK. Contrary to what I’ve read, there was plenty of combat. Not that it’s good or bad, but it’s a significant percentage of what you do. I have to say that there are some weird choices that you can make, which I suppose was done to try and make things exotic, but I ended up saving often to see if a choice was supposed to be viable or not. Because a lot of those choices involved things that were so unlike anything I as a protagonist would consider acceptable, that I had no clue how to proceed.

And I’ll add that I found the story’s ending to be a lot less than satisfying. I won’t spoil the game for anyone, but I play these games to experience a story, not to go through meaningless combats. So if I had to rate Planescape I’d give it maybe three out of five, or two out of four. I think I could’ve skipped it.

So after that, I decided to give Shadowrun Hong Kong Extended Edition a try. Yes, it’s a more recent release, but both games’ updated versions were contemporaneous. I’ve got to say that visually Shadowrun is very pleasing. The sprites are the weakest component of the experience, but still acceptable, while the rest of the display is top-notch.

I did NOT have to fiddle with settings, the game is turn-based. Thank you! That’s what I wanted to play. I still can’t rotate my POV, and I’d like to zoom in closer than allowed, but it’s still better than Planescape.

The story is a lot of fun. I’m not saying that there’s no room for improvement, but unlike Planescape I was usually able to find a choice that was close enough to what I wanted to do. The only thing I had an issue with was the difficulty level. I chose Easy, and I played through the story with satisfying combats that made me feel like a tough guy. Once or twice I lost a character and re-played a scene, but I had fun. However, there was a point where I did not; I’ll call it the penultimate battle (I’ll let you look that up so that you understand what I’m saying – I’ll wait). For that one, without any good reason, the difficulty level skyrocketed. It didn’t for the final battle that came later — just for the penultimate battle. Why? I re-played the scene three times, then tried enabling god-mode and STILL died (how is that even possible?) before I finally got through it. On Easy difficulty! Why wouldn’t the difficulty level remain constant? Is that toggle there just to distract me (like the crosswalk buttons in NYC — true story, look it up), or does it actually do something? I was bent out of shape on this one, because I get zero pleasure from re-playing a scene even once, let alone five times.

But overall, SR was a lot of fun and didn’t feel like I was playing a “retro” game. And now I pause for reflection.

I’m not a “first-person shooter” gamer. I don’t think that quick reflexes should have any impact on or part of how I experience an RPG. On the other hand, I definitely feel more “in the experience” with a first-person game than I do in these isometric third-person games. Not that first-person doesn’t have its drawbacks, because it does. I have a narrow perspective in first-person, way too narrow, and I am easily flanked – too easily. I can’t tell what’s going on around me, and I can’t make good tactical decisions. And I definitely DON’T feel that’s a good gaming experience. But when those issues aren’t a factor, the game is more immersive. So, points for modern games.

And yet, I get a better experience with isometric third-person in other ways. I get turn-based choices. I get a much better tactical sense of a situation. And I can easily manage a team to its best effect.

So at this point, for this player, there are benefits to both styles of game. What would be ideal for someone like me? Obviously, a combination of the two. Yes, there are ways in some games to flick options to get closer to my ideal, but in practice they still seem clunky and less than ideal to me.

Do we need to go for VR? Emphatically not. I still need that third-person option and turn-based actions, and a VR headset isn’t going to offer improvements in those aspects – quite the opposite.

But I think there’s more than a few more miles’ worth of playability left for me in games like Shadowrun Hong Kong.

What do you think of third-person isometric RPGs in today’s gaming world?

4 thoughts on “Shadowrun, Planescape, and the Isometric RPG – A Retrospective Review

  1. I am completely out of touch with today’s gaming world (no, seriously), but those 3rd person turn-based games are the bee’s knees for me. Are they still asking them? Would a more up-to-date one be any better for you?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. They still make them, but the more recent ones appear to be produced by little indie companies or designers, and they’re going for the “retro” market. The big guys appear to have moved on. And yes, I’ve got a few of the newer ones “wishlisted.”

    Like

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