Let’s get a few things out of the way first. This game is a near-perfect Diablo 2 clone. In fact, I’d call it Diablo 2.5, as both Schaefers were involved after coming over from the defunct Flagship Studios, and audio was done by Diablo composer Matt Uelmen. This means that picking up gold, opening chests, hearing crypt and town music reminiscent of Tristram, all feels very very familiar - in a good kind of way. If you close your eyes, you wouldn’t know the difference. If you open your eyes, you wouldn’t either: the gameplay feels spot-on.
1. World Design
Torchlight is a game made in eleven months. This has some severe ramifications when looking at world design, although it is well concealed using the same ideas as Steamworld Dig. In Torchlight, you explore one gigantic “cave”, divided into separate groups of levels. At the end of each level, you can go down the stairs, and at the end of each section, there’s a mini-boss and a waypoint portal back to town. There’s only one town, stripped down to its bare minimum as a utility to buy and sell goods, craft stuff, and gamble. In your cave venturing quest, you’ll encounter mines, floating isles connected by wooden bridges, crypts, sunken temples, and so forth.
The trouble is, it all feels very mechanical. You can teleport (of course with a TP scroll) back to town, or try to dig deeper for the waypoint in order to save and get out. It is linear and not linear, each level is procedurally generated. If you need a break from the main levels, there’s a guy in town who can conjure up portals to hidden dungeons, and you can buy maps that reveal even more lost dungeons. In the end, they are all the same: full with monsters to kill and gear to pick up. In that way, a ‘world’ is absent in this game. There’s a redundant story about a blight infestation and missing ember that can and probably will be safely ignored by just entering the dungeon and taking out your gun.
The first thing you’ll notice when booting Torchlight is the cartoony graphics and interface, something players will either love or hate. I did not mind the direction they took with the game, but compared to Diablo 2, my preference is the dark and more gritty atmosphere of burning Tristram. Still, the colorful spells, environment, enemies and NPCs are pleasant to the eye and provide enough constrast to make out the difference between background and foreground. If I had one remark to make, it is the inventory art with the icons that look a bit too childish for me.
The 3D engine is smooth enough and delivers a fine job, although the frame rate (on my WinXP PC going at
115+ FPS) occasionally takes big hits when a lot of stuff is going on at once. Sometimes, ten enemies throwing lightning balls at you, and you returning fire with ice blasts, the game even stutters to a halt - if only for one second. Still, panic sets in: do I press
F1 to preemptively heal or will things be all right? The most annoying part of Torchlight is not the occasional dip in FPS, but the load times. For some strange reason, even if your PC config is way above the recommended specs, staring at a load screen after descending stairs is inevitable.
Enemies and Mobs
This game really shines in enemy and mob design, especially compared to other Diablo clones such as Dungeon Siege or Sacred. Of course, killing hordes and hordes of enemies is the only thing to do in Torchlight, so it better be satisfying, right? You’ll encounter rattkin, spectres, skeletons, giant spiders, goblins, ogres, elementals, bats, … Every couple of levels, the scenery and enemies change, keeping the experience fresh enough. That said, Torchlight does not have the most diverse or unique beastery out there, but it’s fun enough to breeze through the rather short single player campaign (it took me
10 hours as an Ember Mage).
Elite mobs are notably absent, something that its successor Torchlight II should hopefully fix. At the end of every few levels, a mini-boss encounter makes you gobble ten mana and health potions and hope for the best loot drops. Be sure to wear your best magic find gear! Yes, it is that similar to Diablo. The drop rate is just right and kept me hooked to do just one more run. With the absence of a “real world” and “proper quests”, this game feels even more rogue-like than Diablo. That comes at a price: at one point, it will get boring and very repetitive.
In Torchlight, you’ll be exploring the mines by yourself: there’s no party or any temporary follower. Except for your pet, of course. No simple Dungeon Siege-esque mule, but a potent killer that you can equip and even dump unwanted items on to send it off to town. After thirty seconds, your kitty will happily rejoin you and bring back the hard earned cash to be gambled away in the near future. On higher difficulties, the pet will become a bit redundant as it will have trouble actually damaging enemies and dying - or at least running away - more quickly. There are opportunities to fish using an awkward and boring mini-game that fetches different kinds of fish. These can be fed to your animal that temporarily transfer it into a fire elemental to more effectively aid you in boss fights. I hated fishing and completely skipped that.
Well… Which ones, exactly? There is a main quest, which is meaningless, so I won’t waste words on it. And then there’s a guy who opens up portals to “hidden dungeons” and asks you to fetch stuff in exchange for… more stuff. That also got old pretty quickly. Actually, compared to Diablo 3, Torchlight was the innovative game that came up with ‘nephalem runs’, as these portals gradually scale up in difficulty (as do the rewards). Others reviewers complained about the lack of end-game content, but there you have it, and it is more than Diablo 2 has to offer.
As said before, towns feel mechanical and only serve as a toolbox to get rid of your stuff or buy more or change it in some way. There’s a guy serving as a living Horadric Cube that merges ember pieces instead of gems. There’s a goblin that mashes embers out of socketed items, and there’s one that cracks open the item to keep the ember instead. And of course, you can try your luck and gamble, hoping for a unique item. NPC interaction is hilarious at best, and the interaction screens feel awkward and out of place:
Aah, loot, next to enemies, the most compelling reason to play Torchlight. In that sense, it really is an excellent hack and slash game! Drops are just right: not too many rares, not too little. The occasional unique and set piece also returns. To make it look like another game compared to Diablo, instead of blue it’s green (magical), instead of green it’s pink (set), and instead of gold it’s orange (unique). The system is an exact replica of Diablo 2, and I don’t see why that is a bad thing.
Nobody likes portalling too much loot back and forth to town, so in Torchlight, you can simply send your pet instead, and continue exploring the depths of the seemingly endless Ember mine. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a friendly looking goblin merchant in hostile areas - the last one idly stood by while I franticly tried to shoot down two dragon unique mini-bosses. I’m also pleased to see that unlike in older Diablo clones (or Diablo 2 itself), there is a shared stash! That means if you happen to come across a really powerful sword, but you’re a mage now, tuck it away and simply start another run with a new character. I hated not being able to do that in Sacred. There, the unique classes made me want to try out new things. In Torchlight, not so much: there’s only the mage, the archer, and the warrior.
It is also great to see the return of the classic magic find item attribute. There is no shortage of attributes in this game: sometimes, hovering over an item to see what it does almost completely fills your screen. Set bonuses are also back, although I never managed to complete the set I was aiming to wear. Oh well, better luck next time… There is also ample opportunity to mess with sockets or to try and imbue items with extra properties (watch out, it can backfire). Sometimes, in dungeons you’ll find special upgrade shrines that do just that.
3. Character Progression
As you level up, you can tweak your build by distributing points into the four basic attributes strength, dexterity, magic, and defense. Since each class is geared towards either strength, dexterity, and magic, the illusion of choice here is a bit weak. Of course the same holds true for Diablo itself, except that most power builds dump points in vitality and the rest until their gear requirements are met.
The skill system is more interesting than the character stats. Although it feels less complex than the tactical tree in Diablo, there are also three different tiers for each class to specialize in, as visible in the screenshot above. For instance, my ember mage maxed out ember lance, an offensive spell stream, while my archer used traps and an arrow pierce skill. As you level up, more skills open up in the tree, but none provide passive bonuses for others (except the inherently passive bonuses). This again means that heavily investing in early skills can limit the potential of your build.
The solution is to either look up a guide, or to shrug and do whatever you want since we’re not in multiplayer hardcore mode anyway (there is no multiplayer option! That’s saved for Torchlight II). Contrary to Diablo, most maxed out early available skills are more than potent enough, albeit a bit boring. You can quick-swap between active skills by pressing
TAB, and in the end, I only used two or three regularly: throw a trap that shreds enemies into pieces, switch to the piercing arrow and start spamming. The arrow pierce skill is dependant on what the game calls “DPS” - damage per second - meaning equipping a better weapon also increases the damage output of the skill itself. Of course these are item-dependent!
Sound and Music
Sound design is simply splendid, thanks to the magnificent work of composer Matt Uelmen. Although to some, the moody guitar strings may sound a tad too familiar. Try booting up Diablo 2, and traveling from the Rogue Encampment in Act I to the burned down village of Tristram. Shut down Diablo and start Torchlight, and you’ll immediately see/hear what I mean. For being a game from 2009, and not having heard these sounds for nine years, it is more than welcome. Even certain special effects seem like exact duplicates of Diablo’s: picking up gold, opening up chests, landing a critical hit on an opponent.
The background music in town comes off as a bit too much after hours of running back and forth to the same town. After all, compared to Diablo, the whole world of Torchlight feels like just one Act in DIablo, and if you’re tired of the dreading zombies and greens from Act I, you’ll get to see the endless sands and Lut Golein. With Torchlight, not so much, so repetition does kick in much sooner, even if the dungeon levels feel refreshing enough.
I cannot remember seeing one. The “epic” feel of a grand adventure is a bit missing: it’s more of a stroll into a mine. The sense of urge is there as your blight infection is worsening, and things are looking grim for the villagers, but still: nothing is as pressing as the eminent prime evils escaping their soulstone prisons.
If you were to play this in 2009, you’d thank the Lords that finally someone managed to do a proper Diablo clone. These someone guys happen to be none other than most of the original crew. At the release date, the game priced at one third of a full game, so be aware that content-wise, that’s also what you’re going to get. A ten hour thrill through randomized dungeons to kill, loot, listen to nostalgic tracks that bring back memories, while distributing skill and stat points. But that’s about it: Torchlight does not try to reinvent the genre or itself.
If what you are looking for is an original take on the genre and you’re tired of slogging through procedurally generated dungeons, take a look at Sacred instead. Otherwise, this is pretty much a no-brainer.