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!
Blood is on by default, but this is easily turned off if you're offended by gibs that keep on gibbing, as they sometimes do. Other than that, we'd only caution you that this game can be addicting as a bag of chips, especially if your friends are feeling noshy too.
Gameplay - 95 / 100
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.
Graphics - 82 / 100
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.
Sound - 95 / 100
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.
Multiplayer - 87 / 100
Torchlight II is two games in one: the single-player and the multi-player. The two ways-to-play have a strikingly different feel and definitively change the way the game is experienced. Multi-player can take place over LAN or Internet. Players can connect to multi-player games (or create their own) through the lobby. Multi-player games can be created at any difficulty level for up to 6 players, and you can take your game in single-player doses when your friends aren't around. Happily, difficulty is scaled up on the fly, meaning if a friend ports back to town, health points and armor will immediately be adjusted accordingly.
Multiplayer comes in one flavor only: co-operative PvE. Co-op play is a straightforward matter of rollin' with your crew and beating up bad guys. While the ability to trade is finally in, players will only ever see their own loot and not the stuff belonging to other players. So if player A opens up a chest, and players B and C are standing by watching, the chest will spawn 3 separate instances of loot - one each for players A, B and C.
T2's multi-player turns your character from a solo artist to one of the MMO's Holy Trinity - Tank, DPS, Heals. Berserkers, with their heavy armor and self-heals, are the obvious choice for tanks. Engineers can drop heal-bots, and are the only class actually capable of healing other players. Embermages and Outlanders are both straight DPS. Really, though, each of these classes is meant to be able to run the entire game solo, so the Holy Trinity roles are easily switched up through the standard three branch skill tree.
Pets take on a more important role in co-op play. In multiplayer, the pet is more like mobile storage, trash disposal and automated grocery delivery system. When your bags fill up in the middle of a dungeon and you don't want to abandon the action, just dump your trash on your pet and send him to town with a shopping list. He runs off, vendors your loot, picks up the supplies you ordered and returns a minute or two later with your coin and supplies. The ability to save the mid-dungeon loot-hauls without inertia-killing town trips is priceless.
The multiplayer lobby will be familiar to anyone who has played an online game in the past 10 years, and the Steam integration is simply a matter of tying your Steam account to your Runic account. Having done so, you'll never need to worry about saving your games again (though files are backed up locally if you can't connect to Steam cloud for whatever reason). Filters at the top allow the player to search for games by name, level or difficulty, or for only the games their friends are playing. The lobby comes with a handy friends list on the left side, but actual interaction with that list is rather limited - clicking on the name only gives you the option to unfriend or block that player. It does not tell you where that friend is playing, or show any details about the character he is currently using.
Internet games are hosted on Runic's servers rather than locally. This impacts a couple of things - first, you will need to keep your client patched and current, or no games will show on the list at all; secondly, it means that people running behind wonky firewall/router/proxy setups can host games for their friends without having to reconfigure their labyrinthine security settings to allow other players to see their games.
Value - 100 / 100
Torchlight II is a 20-dollar game that plays like a 40-dollar game with another 20-dollar game attached. The single-player game is one you can play through at least 4 times and get a new-feeling game each time. And it's huge - depending on the difficulty setting, some of the early dungeons can take an hour or more to clear, and the world maps are fairly enormous. It's easy to put a lot of hours into T2. Add the multi-player game to that - it really does feel like a different game - and you're getting a lot of bang for your sawbuck.
Lasting Appeal - 100 / 100
Part of Torchlight II's outstanding value is its lasting appeal. The campaign is easily two to three times of the length of the 20 hour original, and, when you finish that, you can simply randomize the maps, up the difficulty to Elite or Game Plus (Runic's system to intelligently scaling the game for any skill, gear, and level up to the 100 level cap) and randomize all maps for a new experience while keeping your hard-won gear and gems. Beating the game also opens up a random map room where you can your buds can roll through entirely new dungeon areas.
While our policy is to review games as they launch, I should mention that Runic Games plans to roll out GUTS, the Torchlight II map editor, around three weeks after launch, just as they did for the original Torchlight game with the TorchED editor. A major part of the Torchlight series' charm is its extensive modability, and Runic looks to continue this trend with significant enhancements (such as the ability to mod the UI).
Pros and Cons
- The graphics match the feel and style of the game, and low system requirements means that just about anyone with a PC purchased in the past 5 or so years can enjoy.
- A Matt Uelmen soundtrack. Enough said.
- Fighting pets which sell your stuff and even shop for you keep you and your buds rolling through the dungeons and open world areas.
- Sparkling co-op, moddability, and excellent replay options extend the experience far beyond the already sizeable campaign.
- Easily the richest, lowest wattage, and most fun dungeon crawler experience launched in recent memory, at a third of the box price (and seemingly without the launch frustrations) of Diablo III. Or just buy the four-pack for the same price of ~$US 60 and introduce or re-introduce someone to this side of PC gaming.
- Pets, while far more functional, lack the character depth of Diablo III's companions.
- The locked-in isometric perspective feels dated.
- No PvP areas, arenas, or duels made it to multiplayer.
- Tutorials tips and misclicked panel elements can inadvertently obscure large parts of the screen, which can be disastrous mid-fight (pro tip: use spacebar to quickly close all panels).
- Easy and Normal difficulty modes should have been combined into a Story mode, with perhaps a little more challenge tossed into the bargain.
Runic has done it again - delivering a lot of what we love about co-op dungeon crawlers and sparing us most of what we hate, and what's left of the latter will likely be modded away soon. If error 37 left you needing a reason to fall in love with hack-and-slash action RPGs again, this may well be it.
Overall 93/100 - Outstanding
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