The classic roguelike boiled down to its core components. Unusually addictive, but low on challenge.
Unlike recent additions to the genre, Torchlight is a "back to basics" roguelike. Like any other game in its sub genre, it has randomized dungeons, boatloads of "loot", diverse character classes, a basic skill tree and an unlimited supply of red health potions waiting to be stocked up on. It does not, however, venture beyond the safety of its old school design and really doesn't seem to care about that fact either. Where other Action RPGs add new twists to gameplay such as Sacred's seamless/hub-less world and Borderland's First Person perspective shooting, Torchlight thumbs its nose up at the competition and retreats to its own gameplay "happy place".
Runic Games, the developer of Torchlight, reads like a dream team of action RPG designers. With "Fate" creator Travis Baldree, the 14 member Flagship Seattle division responsible for "Mythos" and founders of Blizzard North Max and Erich Schaefer, the Runic Games roster reads like a who's who list in RPG development. With so much talent and expertise available, you'd expect their first game to be something amazing.
And you wouldn't be wrong.
Though Torchlight rarely deviates from the path blazed by the roguelikes that came before it, older gamers might prefer its simplified design and easier gameplay. With a much lower difficulty level, low-spec graphics and a very straightforward skill tree, Torchlight is the perfect pick-up-and-play casual RPG for the player who is either tired of complicated games or simply in need of an addictive RPG to play on their laptop while away from their home PCs. Plus, at a mere twenty US dollars, it isn't exactly easy to pass up when you realize that most new games are more than twice that amount.
If you've played Diablo, you've basically played Torchlight. Much like the action RPGs that it's based on, Torchlight starts you off in a small "hub village" before quickly throwing you down into its randomized dungeons in search of quest goals and treasure chests. Though there is a story involving a tainted ore growing beneath the town and a corrupted wizard trying to release a powerful entity from its centuries long slumber, you aren't exactly playing this type of game for its engrossing narrative. Though Torchlight does add in one new feature by having a small pet accompany you, the rest of the game is mainly a retread of the genre's past. Those seeking something new and exciting will be left wanting more than what this game can give them.
Torchlight instead focuses on what made the first two Diablo games so popular, with that being how fun it is to collect items and kill things. Like Diablo, gameplay in Torchlight is fairly simple. You go down into the 35 level labyrinth below town, slowly complete each tier of quests, set up town portals for quick trips back to the hub and you repeat until you realize it's 2am and you have to wake up in 5 hours. This mantra of simplicity is carried over into all of Torchlight's features, for good or for ill. With three character classes (A ranged character called "Vanquisher", a Barbarian character amusingly called a "Destroyer" and a wizard-like Alchemist) the replay value is a little lower than what most Action RPG fans may be used to. Still, each character plays uniquely and is given access to items that only they can use as well as skills specifically tailored to them. The only standout feature in the game is perhaps its homage to Nethack's "Pet system" in which it gives you an animal companion to help in battle.
The animal is mostly worthless in combat unless you spend skill points to increase your "pet mastery" skill, though the creature's presence in the game is actually a boon since you can send him back to town to sell excess items and collect the gold he earned once he returns to you. It does get annoying hearing the in-game narrator constantly chide you for letting your pet's health dwindle down to nothing, but the extra inventory space and ability to sell junk from your overloaded inventory without porting back to town almost makes it worth it. Almost.
You'll be getting a lot of junk too, since the loot distribution in the game is insane. Even the smallest and most insignificant of enemies can drop a few items upon their death. Though as with any dungeon crawler, the best items are held by boss monsters. Much like Diablo, each dungeon level has a couple randomly generated "mini boss" monsters that are significantly tougher than your garden variety baddie, but usually offer up much more experience and much stronger items.
Torchlight spices the combat up a bit by giving you "Fame" points for completing quests and defeating bosses. This fame rating is much like experience points, except that when you "level up" your fame and reach the next tier of notoriety you gain an extra skill point to allocate. It's not exactly deepening the gameplay with its presence, but then again that isn't what Torchlight is about. I would have liked the fame rating to have other effects such as lowering store prices or opening up special quests, but I don't fault the game for opting to stay simple.
Each character class has a few key skills that they seem to rely heavily upon. The simplified nature of the skill trees is likely to blame here, but I found that the Vanquisher and Destroyer can actually go through the entire game using only one combat skill the entire time. My Destroyer coasted through the main quest doing nothing but his introductory attack skill the cleverly named "Slash Attack", while my vanquisher's ricocheted gunshots made equally quick work of her own enemies. Still, there was a very strong feeling of satisfaction seeing enemy corpses fall to the ground after spamming these moves, and that feeling simply never became old. It's this simple kind of fun that makes games like these so addictive. when you aren't going back to earlier dungeon levels to clear them out for loot and experience, you're letting large mobs of weaker enemies congregate together so you can wipe that out in a satisfying mouse clicking spasm of attack skill spamming. It's silly to watch but still ridiculously fun to engage in.
Though I dislike having to constantly make comparisons to Diablo, Torchlight doesn't make it very easy. Besides the obvious links in gameplay between the two titles, Diablo composer Matt Uelmen returns to fill Torchlight with his signature guitar twangs. Perhaps one of the most memorable features in Diablo was Matt's wonderful musical score and after a two year absence (His last score having been made for World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade) his return to gaming starts off with a bang. Right from the very beginning, you're assaulted by a very familiar sound playing in the background of the game's main area. The light guitar plucking, the foreboding music, that medieval flavor...it's like playing a Diablo expansion pack. Anyone who has fond memories of Blizzard's classic Action RPG will get hit by a sudden blast from the nostalgia cannon barely 5 minutes into the game. His music is as powerful as ever, filling every nook and cranny of the game with his evocative and immensely enjoyable medieval tunes.
Gameplay is where Torchlight really shines, however. Quests are easily initiated and tracked, hotkeys are abundant and the interface is very friendly. Everything in Torchlight just screams "polished", especially the controls themselves. Besides having each mouse button mapped to an attack, you can also switch your right button attack move by hitting the TAB key. It actually improves on Diablo 2's setup by letting you easily swap between right click abilities without having to stretch your finger up to the function keys or spending a few precious seconds in the menu screen to swap in the new skill. Granted, the game's difficulty is so low that you really could do without this ease of use, but its inclusion is still a very welcomed thing.
Which brings me to one of the game's faults, that being its very low degree of challenge. Having started the game on Normal, I ended up restarting on Very Hard due to the boredom caused by me overpowering everything. Though even at that level of difficulty, I found that the game didn't become challenging until around level 30. I can only assume that the game was purposely made this way so as to not deter casual players from digging deeply into the game's more advanced stages. Perhaps as a way of rewarding experienced gamers, runic included a hardcore/permanent death option for veterans like myself who want an adrenaline rush every time they're too slow on the potion hotkey.
Though the gameplay is exemplary, the graphics took me a while to get used to. Some may enjoy the shader-less textures and rigidly polygonal character models because of their fanciful and "cute" appearance, but I found it much harder to appreciate. Perhaps it's my intense hatred of World of Warcraft, but I never fully adjusted to Torchlight's visuals. The extra huge spiked shoulder pads, the angular faces of the goblins, the flat and lifeless textures...it just didn't impress me. Though, once again, this was Runic's choice. I may not like the visual style, but it seems many do. I will, however, give them credit for making some very smooth and impressive animations within what, if I read correctly, was to be a very low-spec engine.
Even with the low difficulty and minimalistic "Warcraft-esque" graphics, Torchlight is still an excellent game. It's a Frankenstein's monster of successful Action RPG ideas all rolled into one very easy to digest package. Borrowing Diablo's randomization, World of Warcraft's ease of play, a simple skill tree that's easy to wrap your head around, an extremely well polished user interface and an ungodly amount of unique, rare and set items, Torchlight is the first game since Diablo 2 to capture the essence and the soul of Blizzard's action RPG masterpiece. No so-called "Diablo clone" has nailed Blizzard's formula as well as Runic games has here with Torchlight. With that having been said, Torchlight is a nearly flawless game...except for one tiny detail.
Its lack of online multiplayer.
Though I enjoyed the game and spent a rather robust 26 hours completing the main quest with my first character, there wasn't a single second where I wasn't moaning about the lack of co-operative multiplayer. Perhaps it was due to having just enjoyed two weeks of incredible teamplay with Borderlands, but I felt like the game suffered severely because of it. A game like this requires multiplayer. It is an integral part of the modern roguelike. Without the thrill of PvP or the friendly fun that only a rousing game of teamwork-laden co-op can provide, the game feels incomplete. While the total package is more than worth the twenty dollars steam is charging for it, I would be willing to pay three times that amount if only they had put in some sort of co-op mode. I never enjoyed playing either Diablo game alone and sadly Torchlight isn't any different. Although Runic has promised a free Multiplayer version of their game in the near future, I honestly feel they should have held Torchlight back until it was possible for them to put the multiplayer into the final version of the game. Of course, I don't work for Runic so perhaps what they want to do isn't possible yet and there is a perfectly logical reason for them to withhold the game's multiplayer. Though I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, I feel the game suffers greatly under the weight of its forced single player mode.
Gaming has become a big business in the past decade. Strangely enough, as big as the industry has become, the indie side of the business has actually been allowed to grow stronger than ever. When little start ups like Runic can make such a well polished and addictive RPG you know that our hobby is still healthy. Torchlight is one of those titles that PC gamers can hold up in front of console devotees and rub its exclusivity in their faces. Not only is it a prime example of why PC gaming is still relevant, but it also shows how important Valve's Steam service is to gamers. Torchlight is the ultimate casual "Pick-up-and-play" game and a laptop owner's best friend. With the introduction of free modding tools, a very active online community and the promise of a free to play MMO add-on in its future, Torchlight is an absolute must buy for any old school dungeon crawler aficionado seeking their next fix.
Though its longevity may be hurt by the almost criminal omission of co-op play and the overall lack of challenge, the mod community may just patch up those holes in a few months time. Until then, a post game "Infinite dungeon" and a nifty new game plus mode similar to Nethack's "Retiring adventurer" feature should keep you busy. Regardless, torchlight is a game that should please both hardcore Action RPG fans and casual gamers alike. A monumental feat to be sure.