After being barraged by a flurry of game announcements on Steam the other day, I decided I’d try out the demo for one of the more interesting looking titles, Torchlight. I was pleasantly surprised with the game, however — what initially looked to be merely a poor man’s Diablo 3 turned out to be a fun and addictive, if somewhat simple, dungeon crawler. After playing the demo for an hour or two, I purchased the full version, and have since descended into the mines many levels below the village of Torchlight, in search of fame, experience, and of course, fantastic piles of loot. Read on for my quick review!
Anyone familiar with Blizzard’s dungeon-based role playing franchises (Diablo, World of Warcraft) will be right at home with Torchlight. Just as in Diablo, you click to move your character around, click (ad infinitum) to attack, you can add items to numbered slots and trigger them with the numbers on your keyboard, and as you play you earn experience points that allow you to increase the base skills of your character, as well as select talents from a tiered tree of abilities. Quest-givers are indicated with floating exclamation points and question marks, items come in different levels of rarity and some can be slotted. And scrolls can be used to identify new items before you can use them, as well as create town portals for you to bounce back and forth between the village of Torchlight and the dungeons below.
At times, things can seem almost too familiar. But if you enjoyed the Diablo games and are aching for Diablo 3, that’s not always a bad thing. Runic Games borrows elements from Diablo and WoW liberally, and works under the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
So as you might expect, the game progresses pretty similarly to Diablo games; you begin the game in the town of Torchlight, you’re informed of a growing menace originating from the mines below, and then you spend hours and hours going into the mine, click-fighting a bunch of bad guys, and occasionally returning to the surface to empty your bags and replenish your potions. Thankfully, Runic Games has made a few appropriate changes to this formula, which have improved the classic dungeon crawling experience immensely.
One of the biggest changes you’ll notice appears right on the character creation screen: no matter which class you choose, each one comes with a pet (either a cat or a dog). This computer-controlled companion has two primary functions. First, he (or she, depending on your naming preference) will attack any enemies you encounter, helping you punch through waves of bad guys with ease. Your pet also has a separate inventory from your fighter, so you can use him to store your excess items, and even equip a few items for extra effects beyond those offered by your main characters’ gear. That brings me to the second, and arguably more important function of your pet — using the extra pet inventory, you can send the little guy back up to the surface to sell your extra junk while you continue to fight through the dungeons. This prevents you from breaking up the action every few minutes to empty your bags, so you really only need to go back up to the town whenever you want to turn in a quest or buy new supplies. Along with other changes, like the ability to remove slotted gems, and upgrade gems and spells, your pet is a great example of how Runic Games has streamlined the classic dungeon crawler formula in order to make the game more accessible and more fun.
This allows you to concentrate on the finer points of dungeon running, like loot. Loot drops often, and lots of time is spent comparing new gear to old. Enchanted gear can affect a great number of attributes, and the game contains gear sets that offer bonus attributes when you equip multiple pieces of the same set. Gear names are also color-coated according to rarity (the same color coding as seen in World of Warcraft) and as mentioned above, newly found gear often needs to be identified before it can be used.
Gear is one of the few things I have to gripe about with Torchlight, however. While there is indeed a huge variety of gear, multiple gear sets, and a great amount of possibilities granted by gem slots, I find it slightly annoying that I have to mouse over each one to know what it is. Games like Diablo or World of Warcraft use naming schemes to hint at the abilities gear can offer. Any piece of armor in World of Warcraft that has the suffix “of the Monkey,” for example, will grant the player increased agility. Armor with the suffix “of the Whale” grants spirit. “Of the Bear” grants strength, and so on. Though the naming scheme in Torchlight shares some characteristics with this system, it’s not quite as precise. The result is that sometimes, you’ll find two pieces of gear that have similar (or in one case I’ve encountered, identical) names, and yet the stats for the item will be different. It isn’t a deal-break by any means, but it’s not good, either.
The only other gripe I have about gear is that there don’t seem to be enough different models / textures for all the stuff you pick up. Supposedly, Torchlight only had 11 months of development time from start to finish, so I suppose this can be overlooked. It’s a shame, but most games with the amount of different gear to be found as Torchlight suffer similar limitations, so I guess I can’t complain too loudly.
The graphics in Torchlight seem a little cheap at first, but they get the job done, and once you get into the action and the camera pulls away from your character, you’ll completely forget how simple they are. If you squint your eyes a little, it even looks a bit like all the Diablo 3 screens / videos we’ve seen so far, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. It’s not going to wow your friends like Crysis might, but the graphics are consistantly good, and that’s what’s important. Player and enemy models are nice, and have a broad range of animations. Color is used well and spell effects are appropriately awesome. The cartoonish graphics are nice to look at, and the world is vibrant and detailed. Actually, sometimes it’s so detailed that you might lose some of the dropped loot in the background of the dungeons, but luckily Runic Games included another all-too-familiar feature, which lets you toggle nameplates for all the items on the screen. I should also mention that the game runs great on my machine.
Sound and music are nothing to write home about, but get the job done as well. The music is dungeon-ish and serves it’s purpose; it fills in the gaps between sword slashes and enemy grunts. And speaking of sword slashes and grunts, those effects are decent as well. There is even a little bit of voice acting sprinkled here and there, between levels where the story progresses, as well as when you talk to merchants in the town.
This is yet another area of Torchlight that crosses dangerously over into Blizzard’s realm. Some of the music, like the town theme and the library theme, actually sounds like they were lifted straight from Diablo. And the first time you leave the blacksmith behind, and he yells “watch yer back” in his Scottish accent, you’ll wonder if Runic Games didn’t cast the same guy who did all the dwarven male for World of Warcraft. All of this makes the game seem, again, familiar to anyone who has played these other games, but I still wish Runic had gone the extra mile and not been quite so blatant in lifting ideas from Blizzard.
Reading the Wikipedia entry for Torchlight, I’ve found that Runic actually hired on a sound designer from the Diablo team to do work for Torchlight, so I guess that mystery is solved.
I’ve not beaten Torchlight yet, but I’ve spent many hours with it so far, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s not entirely original, but everything it’s borrowed from other games adds to the experience so well, it’s really hard to complain about it too loudly. At only $20, with three character classes to play, and a near infinite number of levels to play through, thanks to the random level generator and upcoming level editor, Torchlight it a great value. I’m not sure if the game will last me until Diablo 3’s eventual release, but it should be good for at least partially filling the gap we’ve been in since Diablo 2. The Torchlight MMO that’s in development might also be good for filling the void, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
For now, go try the Torchlight demo. If you like these types of games, or if you’re a loot whore in training, you’ll probably like it a lot.