The hallmark of a great video game is its ability to suck you in, grab hold and never let go. Before you know it, its 6 hours later, and the sun is down (or in some cases up), your stomach is empty and you have to pee… really bad. Don’t lie, we’ve all been there. There can be many reasons why: the game’s story, the non-stop action but sometimes it’s all about the loot. Torchlight is one of those games.
Torchlight is the latest in Diablo-styled action-RPGs, an old but poorly defined sub-genre of video games. This comparison is not made lightly, considering the roster of talent at Runic Games, the developer. They include Travis Baldree designer of Fate, Max and Erich Schaefer of Diablo fame and many ex-Blizzard North employees. Upon hearing of this, most Diablo fans and press will instantly imagine these guys coming together like some kind of video game industry A-Team or Justice League to produce an epic: the pinnacle of its genre. The bad news is life isn’t like Voltron, but the good news is that the game’s still good.
Graphically, it’s fairly light-weight, built to handle lots of on screen action at the loss of high-end visual quality. Fortunately, the game is by no means ugly. The environments are varied and detailed down to its crumbling rock faces, bubbling lava and sprouting weeds. There are even little critters running around underfoot. The characters and enemies themselves sport a charmingly cartoonish look reminiscent of other fantasy themed games like Warcraft 3. It also features a sizable and appropriately moody musical score put together by Matt Uelmen, the man responsible for most of the Diablo series’ music.
Players take on the role of a Destroyer (the big brute), Vanquisher (the lithe assassin) or Alchemist (the magic guy). In short, your character arrives at a small mining town gripped by evil where upon you delve deep into a series of randomly generated dungeons, slaughtering hoards of minions gaining experience, looking for new shiny items and sometime there after, getting around to beating the last boss. Want to know more about the story and characters? Don’t bother, they’re easily the weakest parts of the game and only serve to provide a backdrop for all the loot farming and excellent game mechanics.
To differentiate their playing styles, each character class comes with three modestly sized skill trees roughly corresponding to offensive, defensive and magical abilities. Each class has about a dozen unique abilities. The rest are universal skills that improve the power of certain weapon types or the effectiveness of health/mana potions. Characters can equip any type of weapon or armour given the right stats and all can dual wield. The result is a nice compromise between flexibility in character development and the distinctiveness of each class.
But the game’s most interesting and innovative feature is your pet. Each player starts with one, a dog or cat. Part bodyguard, part pack-mule, this CPU helper is your eternal companion during your quest. They assist in battle, have their own inventory space, health, and mana, can learn two spells and wear rings and amulets. Their AI and path-finding is fairly adequate, and can be set to three different levels of aggression. Fish, obtained from fishing holes, can be fed to a pet that heals them and temporarily transforms them into monsters granting them extra powers. But their best asset is as a go-fer. Just load them up with your unwanted junk and send them back to town where they’ll sell it and comeback with the cash. Doing so allows fewer interruptions during spelunking and less wasted time in town.
There are also various other small refinements such as weapon descriptions that give a quick damage-per-second stat which saves us all the hassle of computing it based on base damage, enhancements and attack speed. There is also a toggle that highlights all interactive objects and items in the environment.
Completing the game unlocks an infinite dungeon allowing endless opportunities to level up, improve skills and scour the world for better equipment. There is also the ability to retire a veteran character which makes them no longer usable but creates an heirloom item with increased stats that can be used by subsequent characters. Both features add a certain degree of replayability but unfortunately, near the end of the game, you’ll become acutely aware of how small the game world is. Small issues emerge like the 3 NPCs that give the same quests again and again.
A prime example of this is the game’s flagrant abuse of the word “epic”. At around level 35 you’ll begin to receive “epic” versions of items you received at the beginning of the game. But don’t be fooled, there’s really nothing all that epic about them. No one will be cowering in fear at the sight of your “Epic Moldy Staff”. But in all seriousness, they begin to recycle the item library to get some more longevity out of it. But all of this should be taken in context, the game is remarkable refined and expansive considering the size of the production team, the development time and price point.
So What I’m Really Trying to Say Is…
Torchlight is like a sports car: sleek, compact and finely tuned. The graphics are simple but charming and the environments are nicely detailed. The music is melancholic and well composed. It features many small refinements that make play smooth, accommodating and intuitive. The pet and its ability to help in battle, haul stuff and sell unwanted goods is a brilliant addition.
The game gives you a lot of reason to keep playing including multiple difficulty levels, an infinite dungeon and heirlooms. Runic Games have also taken steps to support an emerging modding community around the game by releasing an official Torchlight editor, so there’s the possibility of a lot of user generated content in the future. Just do not expect a decent story or a massive world and hundreds of thousands of items. Beating it on your first play through will only take 20 hours and near the end, it might feel a lot smaller than it did when you began. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good content crammed in a small package at a small price.
Torchlight was developed by Runic Games and is currently available at www.torchlightgame.com for $19.95 USD. Game provided courtesy of Runic Games and completed in 20+ hrs on normal with 6 additional hrs on hard. It’s late; I’m going to go use my “Comfy Epic Bed of Slumber”.