Torchlight - Staff Review  

Dia---Tor---No, let's just say Diablo 1.5
by Andrew Long

20-40 Hours
+ Endless if you're into that sort of thing.
+ Levels are short and can be played episodically.
+ Well... at least Runic isn't owned by EA.
- A surfeit of deja vu.
- Interface can be unnecessarily maddening.
- Completely and totally linear.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   The action RPG genre has long been plagued by games that are very much alike, which is probably as symptomatic of technical limitations as it is of laziness or lack of creativity. It also doesn't help that there aren't all that many studios producing them, which can result in a lot of crossover among the development staffs that turn such titles out. Torchlight seems to be emblematic of several of these problems; not only is it very similar in terms of its design to several preceding games, even when it comes up with a good idea it seems to gum it up with mechanical problems that result in the end product serving as a limp chore of a Diablo clone that oozes mediocrity from every blandly executed pore.

   Torchlight begins in an eponymous, homey little mining village in the middle of nowhere with a bubbling creek and rustic surroundings. Unluckily for the townsfolk, the mine has recently become infested with nasty creatures. Their lucrative mining operation, centered around extracting the magical ore known as Ember from the mountainside, has pretty well ceased, since miners keep turning up dead or else as zombies, which tends to put a damper on profitability. So they do the only logical thing and wait for some headstrong adventurers to show up and go find out what's causing all the trouble.

   No time is wasted on details like story or not recycling the theme from Tristram for the seventh time, so after a few minutes of stirring acoustic guitar, the hero, available in three flavours - alchemist, destroyer, or vanquisher - is dragged into the mine by a pretty lady who is chasing her mentor, Alric. Alric, the player is informed, seems to have become unhinged by the presence of all that glittery Ember, demonstrating in the process that Runic didn't expend much effort on subtle foreshadowing either. So it's into the mine in search of answers and treasure, and thus begins another semi-random dungeon grinding experience.

   Torchlight does an adequate job of offering up hack-and-slash fare, even if it is a rather simplistic flavour thereof. Players gain levels and equipment by killing monsters, which can be accomplished with spells either bound to a hotkey (only 1 through 0 are available) or a mouse button. In an apparent concession to its failure to offer up a customizable keyboard layout (at least without benefit of manipulating the game's configuration files), Runic has included the option to tab between two abilities for use with the right mouse button. This is helpful for spells such as summons or town portal and is a small but welcome refinement on the standard Diablo combat formula. That's about all that can be said positively, however; as mentioned above, there is curiously no option in-game to bind hotkeys of your own, which is a glaring omission today even as it would have been ten years ago, when it was thankfully included in Diablo II. There is also very little challenge in fighting, as most monsters provide limp opposition at best.

Down the road... that's where I'll always be! The Littlest Hobo decides not to eat Timmy's shrooms anymore.

   This problem is compounded by skills whose main goal seems to be to clear the screen of enemies in jig time; after plopping a dozen or so points into attack spells, there is virtually no challenge left, and several skills such as the alchemist's Ember Lance, which functions as a sort of deadly radar ping - well, at least when the spell graphic doesn't bug out as happened a few times - are available before the halfway mark and completely eliminate any challenge that the game might have posed. Compounding the easy availability of these skills is the Fame system, which racks up a second sort of experience when players kill rare monsters. This has the effect of accelerating the trip through the talent tree, and to deleterious effect. After this total lack of challenge is coupled with a total lack of story to become involved in, the game becomes a tedious journey from point A to point B, and there's not much to hold on to, other than the usual assortment of loot.

   Yes, Torchlight has loot. It has so much loot the developers thoughtfully gifted players with a trusty pet to carry junk back to town when it gets to be too burdensome, which is often. This effectively doubles inventory space, but because of the sheer volume of crap that drops on each and every floor, it's often necessary to send the dog back two or three times, and eventually it comes down to a choice between porting back to town frequently or else sacrificing items that might be of some use. This is, of course, not a huge concern; so much stuff drops that replacing it is generally just a matter of wading through the sea of target dummy mobs until the proper sort of piece drops again, but it once again fails to resolve the biggest issue with this sort of game, which is spending almost as much time fiddling around with inventory as is spent blasting through the levels that fill it. If one ignores regular and uncommon items it is possible to avoid this of course, but the game's economy is very unforgiving to the extent that if these items are not gathered and sold frequently, it is difficult to find the money to enjoy the game's item enhancement systems.

   Runic once again opts to borrow from Diablo II for these particular systems, of which there are three: alchemy, enchanting, and gambling. Alchemy allows players to combine items to receive other items, which generally end up being gems. Four items of the same quality will yield one gem, while two gems of the same quality will yield one of the next highest quality. It is also possible to upgrade potions in this fashion, which can be helpful, since these also drop with inventory-clogging regularity. Meanwhile, enchanting works on the same principle that Charsi put into play with her blacksmith's hammer, appending random enchantments or gem sockets to items, or in some cases removing all enhancements. It is also prohibitively expensive for items of any useful quality, so these can usually only be enchanted at the shrines that are scattered sparsely throughout the game's dungeons. Finally, gambling is exactly what it sounds like; a random item with no listed enhancements can be purchased for an inflated price and then upon purchase its attributes are revealed.

   In practice this can be enjoyable, but again, the game's economy is very broken, at least for the duration that does not involve the endless dungeon known as the Vault, which becomes available upon defeating the final boss in the Ember mine. This is because gold drops, while they can be enhanced both by abilities and items, are not sufficient to provide enough income to do very much, and items can only be sold to vendors for a tenth of the price those vendors charge. This can be particularly irksome because if an item is accidentally sold, it will mean blowing through all or most available money to regain it. That there would be no prompt is galling with this in mind, and the same goes for socketing gems; if it's placed over an item, it's socketed, and to get either back the other has to be destroyed. While there is certainly an excess of help menus and prompts in today's games, this is one area where they would come in handy, and their absence caused several extremely irritating situations.

We work hard... and we play hard! There's a spark in my hair.. GET IT!

   At least Torchlight doesn't sound too bad. This isn't to say the music is anything new; Matt Uelmen appears to have either been mailing it in or else rummaging through a bin full of discarded tracks from prior titles when composing this soundtrack. Nevertheless, nobody can question his competence and there are few composers better at providing darkly atmospheric tunes. Alas, the sound design is another victim of deja vu, especially in the case of certain sound effects that, for all the world, sound like they have been ripped source-direct from Diablo II. While there are only so many variations on the sounds required of a title of this nature, a number of the ones that pop up in Torchlight are just too similar to not call to mind its predecessor. Needless to say, that is something that is best avoided, since such associations are likely to result in people booting up Diablo II instead of trudging through this pale copy.

   The graphics are also utilitarian at best; while the art design is attractive and the fully 3D environments are well-executed, many areas are too dark and the minimap is an abomination in this day and age. While the Vault levels are apparently randomly generated, those in the actual mine itself are supposed to have been selected from an available two or three variations. It therefore would have been quite easy to include a full-scale map of areas that could actually be consulted, instead of squinted at and mistaken for someone having sneezed on the screen. Yes, there's a WoW-style minimap option that can be used instead, but neither that nor the Diablo-style map are much use in getting a sense of the whole area of any given floor, and the only thing that makes this forgivable is the fact that each of these floors are rigidly linear. The path occasionally forks, but in every case this happens, both forks lead back to the same point, with the effect that the only divergence from the trip from start to finish is the occasional treasure chamber. This is nice, but hardly constitutes much in the way of creative level design, and this too adds to the sense of boredom and really, of a foregone conclusion, that permeates this game. This is obviously something that a game developer would do well to avoid.

   More sloppiness crops up in Torchlight's text; while there isn't very much of it, a host of small errors manage to plague what little dialogue and information there is, be it spelling the possessive of "it" as "it's" or calling a sword that would more properly have been termed leeching "leaching" instead (this might be a point for debate except leeching much more closely fits what the sword does than the definition of leaching, which is to say "to dissolve out soluble constituents from a substance through percolation"). In another example of why the game's dialogue could have used more polish, Runic is apparently also an old hand at internet memes, since while the game lacks an hero, it does have the possibility of "[catching] a ice angel fish".

   Speaking of fishing, why oh why is this particular sideline included in the game? There is no apparent reason for it, other than vague plans that have been mentioned to eventually turn Torchlight into an MMO, a genre in which this sort of time-killing activity is more at home. Yes, it's keen to be able to use the fish to turn the player's pet into a monster that shoots fire from its nose, and the occasional stat-boosting fish can also be dredged up, but in terms of the difference doing so makes on the actual mechanics of gameplay, which is to say none, the fishing minigame could easily have been left out.

Down the road... that's where I'll always be! Is that a "No playing Torchlight" symbol I see? Cuz that'd be super.

   In addition to fishing for pointless fish, players will also have to fish for reasons as to why they're bothering to play the game, as it has only the barest skein of a storyline connecting its various dungeon floors. The events can basically be summed up in a single breath: player goes into mine, player finds Ember, player kills things that also like to find Ember. That's a slightly sanitized version to avoid spoiling the two or so actual plot points that occur, but really, it covers all the bases, and if the game is played in complete ignorance of the "cutscenes," which is to say an ersatz British voiceover in front of a letter scrolling a la Mario-3-have-a-P-Wing that occurs every three floors, the above will serve to keep players abreast of what is going on. There is just no excuse for this dearth of a plot, and better action RPGs solve the problem by lavishing resources on actual cutscenes that serve to drive the action and tie it together. There's nothing of the sort here, and no reason to care about any of the characters. The reason why games such as Disgaea that have endless dungeons retain their appeal is because they also contain a storyline that makes gamers care about the characters, and the absence of that alone here is enough to relegate this title to the dustbin.

   So really, barely adequate barely cuts it when it's your money on the line. If you're looking for hack-n-slash action, you're better advised to look elsewhere. Meanwhile, if endless dungeons are your cup of tea, grab a console RPG that does it better, because there's really nothing here to keep players hanging on after the original playthrough. Sure, it's possible to "retire" your character, which makes it unplayable and boots one item with enhanced stats onto a new character with the same name and Fame level, but with playing through one generation of this game being something of a trial, playing through two or three seems unthinkable. Then again, this is the fourth or fifth time this particular title has been made, so surely if someone can go through the process of coding, drafting, drawing, and composing the necessary elements that many times, maybe it's our obligation as gamers to reward this effort. Or, maybe we should skip mediocre games so that fewer of them get made.

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