Torchlight Review: Imitation And Flattery And All Of Those Good Things

You may have noticed that I have a fondness for adventure games. This is because adventure games [and sometimes role playing games, too] have a very strong focus on things like narrative, character and world building. There’s nothing quite like the feel of playing a game, spending time with a character, learning about their world, getting sucked into all the little details and just generally being immersed.

So, imagine my horror when Diablo happened along in 1997. The thing about Diablo is that it’s more-or-less completely random. The only non-random things are the plot, the layout of the town you start in, your stats and the powers you assign your hero. Otherwise, it’s all just one big random number generator.

This is technically OK, really, because Diablo came from a very long and storied line of Role Playing Games known as Roguelikes, but the trouble for me is that while Roguelikes are often very dense – there’s a lot to do in a game like that and a lot to learn, experiences like Diablo left me feeling hollow. I mean, I like action role playing games, don’t get me wrong, but I know what I’m getting: I’m getting a big pair of fuzzy dice.

Torchlight is – for the most part – a direct Diablo descendent. A love letter of sorts to that game, in fact, right down to the music playing in the background. Remember that town theme that wormed it’s way into your mind? A similar thing is trying to happen here. And that’s some of the problem. Torchlight is trying so hard that it doesn’t quite hit the same level of greatness that Diablo did. [I should really say that in square brackets. I was one of those people who never fell particularly hard for Diablo or Diablo II. It seemed like Blizzard had made an engine, realized it was fun and then attempted to shove a story in there, somewhere, so they could release it as a game.]

So, Torchlight adheres to the Action Role Playing Game formula: When something dies, drop a ton of loot. If you pick up that loot, the stats you get are largely randomized. When you enter a level, you can never count on it being the same level twice, because the game will change the way it looks – unless it’s a boss level.

I could have summarized this entire review in two sentences: if you like Diablo, you’ll like this. Also, make sure to stack fire resistance. But we’re here for the long haul, so let me tell you a little about my time in Torchlight.

Torchlight can be a pretty frantic game, but at any point, you can pause the action.  The pause feature here is great, zooming into your character and lazily spinning the camera around him.
The pause screen. No “pause” dialogue here. The camera zooms in and pans around your character.

The good news is that Torchlight has a fantastically pleasant feel to it. The music is suitably grim – some guitar here and there while violins and the like underscore the gentle sway of whatever the guitar happens to be doing. The graphics are quite pleasant to behold – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that I prefer the way Torchlight looks to the way Diablo does. There’s just more colour and that’s something I kind of miss in modern gaming. Diablo was very about a very gothic sort of ambiance, so everything ended up being grey and brown and sort of dull. Torchlight doesn’t care. It wants to look interesting, so it throws a whole different set of tiles into the mix every few levels.

Torchlight's visual design is fantastic and colourful.  Here's a lava-themed area.
Brimstone and fire!
Torchlight's visual design is fantastic and colourful.  Here's a ruins-themed area.
Torchlight's visual design is fantastic and colourful.  Here's a caverns-themed area.

In Torchlight, you use the mouse for just about everything.  This includes killing your foes.  To do this, you place the cursor over said foe, hit left mouse button and wait until they fall over.
Killing people is easy! Aim! Left click! Fire!

There’s further good news in the sense that – for the most part – Torchlight is mostly quite responsive. Hitting shift and aiming your magic makes you stay put and generally, your spells go in the right direction and hit your intended target. There’s also a fantastic pet system, where you can kit him out a little and have him help you in the dungeons. Best of all, when your inventory becomes full, you can send your pet up to town to sell things for you. I love this system. I love this system so much that I dread playing any other Action Role Playing Game, now.

But then there are problems. And the problems turn a kind of ho-hum, not-so-terrible, five-out-of-ten experience into…well, something lesser.

Because Torchlight borrows so heavily from its source material, it commits the same design sins as it’s source material. If there was something you didn’t like in the Blizzard game, you can bet money that the Torchlight developers have slavishly copied that fault in this one, too.

Here’s an example: Diablo’s developers conflated difficulty with more. If they felt like a section of the game was too easy, they’d just stuff it full of enemies. This just made the process of being in that area tedious. There’s nothing interesting about fifty fire imps. They’re just a nuisance monster you need to kill to get the loot. Not surprisingly, the Torchlight developers saw this, thought it was good and put it into their game, too.

Torchlight believes that difficulty is all about throwing hordes of enemies your way.  This picture shows off a grim array of dead bodies littering the floor, plus all the loot they dropped.
More enemies? That must mean it’s more difficult! Plus: A boatload of loot.

Likewise, Diablo believed in dropping a TON of loot for you to collect, all in various rarity colours and all with different stats. The problem was, of course, that there were three character classes in that game: Warrior, Rogue and Sorcerer. Naturally, that ton of loot would be for the character class you weren’t playing. Or if the game did happen to drop loot for your character, it was pointless with worse stats than any gear you were wearing at the time.

While there’s no real loot specialization in Torchlight [everyone can wear everything, provided they meet the stat requirement] this does mean that the itemization is…it’s all over the map, really. Outside of the first few levels, I never felt like getting new gear was rewarding. I would groan, pick up the crazy amount of loot, identify the unknown bits and then sell ALL of it. By the time the “end” of the game rolled around I had a stupid amount of money that I wouldn’t bother to spend because, of course, there’s no way to get fixed stats on anything. Everything is random.

But the thing that broke the camels back for me was the last boss. For the most part, Torchlight is not particularly difficult. I had one run-in with one boss that made me stop playing the game for about a year [because the difficulty spike was silly] but when I got back into it, I was slicing through npc hordes like butter. This was true right up until the level just before the boss. Yeah, there’s that design sin of MORE going on at that point, but as long as I was careful, I wouldn’t get particularly overwhelmed and could quite easily prevail.

That last boss, though…he was something else. The difficulty spike is absurd, for one, and the game never even bothers to hint at the fact that you might need fire resist gear at the end. There are subtle clues, of course, but this is the sort of game where subtle does not work. A line of dialogue would have done the trick, but that’s not even remotely present. So I got flattened. Again. And Again. And again. Because there was no way – after playing for close to forty or so hours, that I was going to go and farm for resistance gear in other parts of the game. Chalk another one up to the dismal loot roller.

In the end, Torchlight is an OK game marred by terrible design tropes. If you really liked Diablo a whole lot and wanted to spend more time in a similar sort of game, then you will love Torchlight to bits. While its visual style is great and its music is very evocative, these two things, alone, can’t really save it.