Torchlight seeks to revive the proud tradition of hack-and-slash action RPGs that saw their prime with the Diablo, Might and Magic, and Dungeon Siege series in the earlier part of this decade.
Runic Games' premiere release is a single-player experience centered on the mining town of Torchlight, under which run veins of valuable, powerful Ember. Characters choose one of three classes (the meleeing Destroyer, the ranged Vanquisher, and the minion-summoning Alchemist) and wend their way down through 35 floors of click-driven combat that include plenty of story-driven moments and boss fights too numerous to mention.
Procedurally generated instances and a free downloadable TorchED level editor extend the Torchlight experience long past the initial storyline concludes, and with a a OSX port in the works and a Torchlight MMO planned for 2012, that level of replayability will help keep the experience fresh as Runic rounds out the IP.
Blood, and lots of it when you land critical hits on humanoid monsters, but the violence is hardly realistic. Parents and the easily offended can turn blood off via a checkbox in the settings menu.
Gameplay - 95 / 100
Torchlight's control scheme is charmingly simple - left click to move or attack, right click to execute a special attack. Tab toggles your special attack, and W switches you to a secondary weapons set and back again. A toggles a map overlay, a minimap, or no map. Spells and potions you don't use as often go on your hotbar where you can access them with the 1-9 keys. That's all there is to it, though if you want to remap the key bindings, you'll have to edit a config file or wait for a future patch.
Even for me, a WASD gamer to the core, it didn't take long to adapt, though in a panic I might have toggled my minimap a time or two. Old habits die hard. I do think it's a pity that Torchlight doesn't offer Xbox controller support (for the PC) since the controls are so concise, but it's probably hard for action RPGs to kick the cursor habit.
Even with straightforward controls, combat can become frenetic in Torchlight.
The real skill is in choosing your spells, abilities, and equipment, because Torchlight absolutely inundates you with skadss of each. On normal setting, you'll scoff at common drops and even green items, donning gear that's levels beyond you and reaping the benefits. You can even give spells like Heal All or Summon Skeleton to your loyal pet, a cat or dog, who will cast them at intervals. The pet is an extremely nice touch, since your companion has inventory slots and will even return to town to sell without you if you start to get bogged down with loot. In combat, the pet does a little damage and mostly doesn't make a nuisance of itself until the last few levels, when it needs healed fairly regularly.
As players level, they allocate points between stats (which dictate weapon and spell effectiveness, as well as which items you can equip), and skills. Since you only really have two skills active at any given time, I found it wise to specialize as much as possible in two offensive skills and spend the rest of my points on passive skills (like improved crit).
That's a pity, because I really would have liked to explore the staggering variety of skills more. With a paid respec mechanic, I would have tried out a much wider variety of my skills and probably had more fun with the class. A respec mod is now available on the Torchlight mod sites, but I'd like to see this as part of the core game. It's too possible that players will limit themselves to a mundane, "safe" build and miss out on some of the cool innovative combat options available.
It's worth noting that there are a number of fun extras in the game as well that only tangentially involve combat. Fishing, a quick minigame, allows you to catch performance-enchancing, shapeshifting fish for your pet. The gambling merchant invites you to spend cash on an unidentified item, which for me seemed to pay off big time once every five tries. In addition to having your pet return to town to sell for you, you might experience a travelling troll merchant deep within dungeons.
Besides a total lack of respec, the game's only other disappointment was in the final few floors. Without giving anything away, Torchlight kind of flattens out where most games accelerate towards the climactic finale. The final few levels sprawl ever larger and the mobs might be piled ten deep, but more mobs and more floorspace isn't always a fun idea. The final boss fight is, granted, is fairly epic, but the milquetoast response you get from Syl and the townspeople afterward leaves something to be desired.
Graphics - 87 / 100
Torchlight's art direction is neither too cartoony nor too realistic; Runic has straddled the fence in the way only Blizzard vets seem to know how to do. In the process they've created likeable-looking characters that will both scale well to older computers now and age gracefully in the future.
You may not notice what a great job Runic has done with environments until you get to the overgrown jungle temple-ish Estherian Ruins, not because the mining levels above aren't well done, but because the green contrasts so greatly with the muted blues and grays that defined Torchlight up until that point.
Three different dungeon environments in Torchlight: Estherian Ruins (left), Prison Stronghold, and Black Palace.
That's not to say that characters and spell effects don't take full advantage of the game's very bright palette, just that every set of zones has it's own feel, from the Dwarven architecture of the Lost Fortress to the glowering purples of Black Palace. The environments can also spawn hazards, such as lava splashing up through grates in Prison Stronghold and spears jutting up through the floor in Lost Fortress.
In larger battles, the visuals can become a little muddy.
My only sticking point with graphics is that sometimes the visual busyness of the action gets to a point that you can't find your cursor on the screen, let alone click your next target. Granted, I experienced primarily with stampede 'n slash Destroyer build whose sole purpose in the game was to charge headlong into the middle of a fight and do damage in all directions, but sometimes I'd be vexed by a caster I couldn't really see. Turning on the Rimlights setting didn't seem to make much difference - the effects were just layered on too thick.
That said, Torchlight doesn't use shaders, meaning that if your computer has something better than a Nvidia GeForce 2 card, it'll run Torchlight. It even runs on my Toshiba NB-205 netbook via a special "Netbook Mode" in the settings menu, though the graphics are pretty rough and the framerate borders on a science class slideshow. Still, it runs, and that's more than I can say for just about every 3D game I've tried.
Sound - 97 / 100
Tracks from Matt Uelman's Diablo II soundtrack still haunt my iPod, and Uelman's trademark style, with the delicate string melodies and moodily driving orchestral passages, is in full effect from Torchlight's title screen. As with Diablo, the music completes this game by providing a whole layer of emotional involvement. It's significant but never oversells the moment, and the final boss fight music is, if anything, understated.
The sound effects and voiceovers are well done, and Runic wisely limited full voiceovers to transition screens. You might get your fill of the NPC quest giver Vasman's "Hello there!", but you'll never have to listen to him recite scrolling quest notes.
Value - 100 / 100
Retailing for $US19.99, Torchlight is easily among this or any holiday season's best gaming value among new releases. Far from a stocking stuffer, this is easily a game most fans would expect to pay twice as much for. The addition of the free and easy to use TorchED editor extend Torchlight to become a versatile learning tool for the most budget-strapped of aspiring game designers.
Lasting Appeal - 97 / 100
You'll barely scratch the skill tree during the initial storyline and likely be in your 30s when you defeat Ordrak, the final boss, on your first playthough. With a reported level cap of 99, there's plenty of room to grow from that point.
Phase portals like this one extend the game beyond the story.
When you get bored of your character, you'll likely want to check out how the other classes play, doubling or tripling the flavor and fun. You can also "retire" your character and pass down one enhanced heirloom item to a descendant, but you won't be able to play the retired character again.
Aside from that, dungeon crawlers define replayability with randomized, procedurally generated dungeons (purchasable as "map scrolls" from vendors), and given Torchlight's small disk requirements, this is a source of gaming fun many will return to long after you beat the scripted game.
Pros and Cons
- Capitalizes on the core of the crawler RPG: loot and levels.
- Torchlight's environments, music, and pace make it easy to forget you're playing a button-masher.
- Side quests, your pet, transmuting, gambling, and a tall, tall skill tree help keep the experience fresh.
- Click to move, with no controller support, can be a tough thing for WASD players to learn.
- More enemies isn't always more fun, and fighting through stacks of baddies occasionally makes for dull, formulaic gameplay.
- In crowded areas (and even with rimlights on), particle effects are so pervasive that they tend to totally obscure targets, leaving you clicking blindly.
More than a few of Torchlight's developers at Runic Games - the brothers Max and Erich Schaefer and composer Matt Uelman - were originals at Blizzard North on Diablo I & II. With such an explosive pedigree, we expected a high quality game built on well-established (if not extremely innovative) game mechanics. We didn't expect a highly addictive, chock full of glorious OP-ness dungeon crawler whose miniscule pricepoint ($19.99) and hard drive footprint (550 MB) make it the kind of game that's easy to recommend to just about any type of gamer. If you like loot and levels (and who doesn't?), you should definitely give Torchlight a shot.
Overall 91/100 - Outstanding
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