Updated Fri, Sep 21, 2012 by gunky
Almost three years have passed since the original Torchlight was released to critical acclaim, and now the team at Runic Games is back with the co-op enabled, open-world enhanced sequel. Much has changed with Torchlight II, but much hasn't - the price point, Matt Uelmen's musical stylings, an executive team that has games like Diablo, Diablo II, and Fate in its pedigree, and a credit roll that eschews such titles altogether, to name just a few things.
But much has changed in the marketplace. Mainly, Diablo III is no longer just a long-awaited sequel. So is Torchlight II blatantly better? Can Runic really deliver an erstwhile competitor to D3 with a fraction of the team size and development budget? Read on to find out!
Let's start at the beginning, with character creation. Torchlight II expands the initial assortment of classes from three to six, and while the initial Destroyer, Alchemist, and Vanquisher are somewhat represented by the new Barbarian, Embermage, and Outlander (respectively), the wrench-wielding, turret-dropping Engineer is all new. Character customization options have been expanded to face style, hair color, and hair style too.
Player pets now include a bulldog, cat, chawkawry (if it puts you in mind of a vicious-looking chocobo, you're not far wrong), hawk, and papillon (a breed of small dog - Falcor, a frequent visitor to Runic Games was the inspiration), in addition to the original wolf dog (now wolf), lynx (now panther), and ferret. Each has 2 or 3 appearance skins, and, handily, pets can now take a shopping list to town to pick up basic potions and scrolls in addition to selling items in their inventory.
The old system of hits, critical hits, and misses has been supplanted by a fumble penalty. Players can lower their fumble chance with stat increases, but on every swing you'll have some chance to fumble (rather than miss on) the attack, lowering the damage you deal. It's a small change, but as Lead Designer and Diablo visionary Max Shaefer once told me, "Misses aren't fun." That's especially true when you're wielding a large weapon with very slow attack speed.
One important player request that Runic remedied in Torchlight II is difficulty levels. A pet peeve of mine is gamers who soon get bored with games but aren't willing to up the difficulty, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of you reading this review should play Torchlight II on Veteran mode. One of T2's incipient flaws is that characters feel too overpowered on Easy and Normal modes for anyone with a basic familiarity with dungeon crawlers, and Veteran mode forces you to think out your attacks and frequently move mid-encounter.
The gameplay is classic dungeon crawler with a few nice changes. While Diablo III deadens your ulnar nerve and mouse with clickety clicking, simply holding the mouse button over a target will continue the attack in Torchlight II. (EDIT: Commenters pointed out that this mechanic is present in the Diablo series. Please see the comments thread below, and our apologies for the misinformation.) The skill comes with holding the sometimes hard-to-see cursor over a mass of mobs and (in co-op) other players and selecting the correct right-click and number key attacks for your weapon and playstyle.
Early bosses rely perhaps a little too much on vaulting wave after wave of adds at your character – a genre artifact that's always struck me as lazy design – but it's perhaps unavoidable given that T2 slowly and comfortably introduces new class-specific skills. In the early game, you spend more time learning which weapon sets work best for you (given stat biases and a growing assortment of skills), and too much too soon coupled with highly nuanced boss encounters might have been overwhelming.
I couldn't tell you the storyline of most dungeon crawlers I've played, and unfortunately Torchlight II does little to reverse this trend. The four cell-shaded and beautifully layered cinematics for each act are a nice touch, but questgiver dialogue is of the clickthrough-and-leave-it-behind variety. T2's broadening storyline would have benefited greatly in the telling from the read-to-me-while-I-fight tomes found in Diablo III.
Of course, Torchlight II uses the same time-tested itemization scheme that Max and Erich Shaefer brought to modern games in Diablo and Diablo II, meaning loads of socketed weapons and armor in varying degrees of rarity with descriptive prefixes and suffixes.
One way T2 cranks itemization up to 11 is through more sockets. Early in the game, players encounter weapons with four sockets, and though embers (gems) seem to drop at a slower rate than in T1, players eventually have the same options to remove, destroy, and combine embers that they did in the original game.
Runic didn't set out to revolutionize gaming graphics. Torchlight II features highly-stylized (some would say "cartoony," but those people are crass and uncultured) characters and environments, with blocky shapes and a broad but vivid color palette. The stylized aesthetic can be compared to games like World of Warcraft, but there's more polish here. Atmospheric fog and some creative particle effects, and some sweet rim lighting add some believable depth and realism to the look of the game. Torchlight II seems to accomplish much while using little. It looks good but shouldn't prove terribly taxing on system resources, and should run just fine even on older machines.
Unlike the original, T2 expands the game world far beyond a mineshaft stack of ruined civilizations. Players traverse vast open world areas on their way to dungeons, and these areas come complete with weather and certain surprises (brief side quests, phase beasts which open portals to king-of-the-hill style bonus challenges, elite fishing holes, and monster shrines which spawn rare creatures, to name a few of these surprises).
While Diablo III's palette browned out considerably after unflattering comparisons to kids games, Torchlight II remains unapologetically varied, bright, and colorful. Given Torchlight II's more lighthearted approach, it works, and it's an impressive achievement given that T2 increasingly blends T1's fantasy tropes with steampunk trappings. The Engineer and Outlander coupled later environments (with the most interesting take I've seen on Dwarven ruins) add a little robo-industrial-era appeal to a setting that might have otherwise been dismissed as another Diablo clone.
The user interface has changed significantly since the first Torchlight and is, in many ways, more elegant and functional. For example, potion slots have been replaced with a simple Z/X keypress which uses the best health/mana potion in your inventory, though you can still map potions to the numeric keys if you like. Another nice change is the moveable minimap with adjustable opacity, though if I had a gold for every time I accidentally switched off the map by hitting M, I could afford a lot more enchants.
The locked-in isometric view, however, feels antiquated, restrictive and limiting. The ability to zoom in and out is nice and all, but it seems almost pointless since you can't spin the camera around to find a sweeter angle. Like the click-to-move navigation system, fixed isometric camera angles are a relic of a bygone age. Torchlight II makes the best of this, however, by offering a blue or red glowy when your character, friends, or enemies go behind an obstacle.
Diablo, Diablo II, and Torchlight composer Matt Uelmen returns to score Torchlight II and the results are masterful. The motifs of Torchlight's original theme and soundtrack are reprised with the full orchestration of the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra this time, though Uelmen's trademark bright, Flemenco-influenced guitars and echoing drum kits still pervade the atmospheric soundtrack. (But don't take my word for it: at the time of this printing, Runic generously allows you to download the soundtrack for free from the T2 website).
Like the music, the sound direction is reminiscent of the original. Ember drops still ting, the voiceovers are nicely varied even for common messages like "out of mana" and level ups, missile attacks clunk into shields, and the character sheet unrolls with the rasp of a scroll. The only mildly irriatating sound that I've encountered so far is the idle mewling growls of the panther, which give me the eerie sensation of my stomach growling. Or maybe I've just been playing Torchlight II for too long.