In 1997 a few good folks got together and made one of role-playing gaming’s standout and breakthrough titles. Three years later they did it again. No, this review is not about Diablo – but it is about a game that’s its virtual clone. And that’s to be expected, Torchlight was developed by Runic Games – a hodgepodge of designers and developers who had a hand in the original Diablo series.
Runic sat down at the drawing board and had another go at the genre, and the result is a familiar and nostalgic replica. Torchlight is an enjoyable title, but one that unfortunately suffers from a few fundamental flaws.
Torchlight kicks off much the same as Diablo did, even the menu screen is similar (remember the campfire your characters stood around?). Once you’ve selected your preferred class – the standard selection between warrior, rogue or mage – you can get yourself into the action.
The games story is centred on the town of Torchlight, a safe haven in some pretty dodgy territory – a bit like King’s College in South Auckland. Once you arrive it becomes apparent that something is affecting the town and those around it, and you need to fight your way down the closest mine to sort things out. During your violent spelunking it soon becomes apparent that there are other terrors down in the earth’s depths – and it’s your job to chase them as far down the mine as you can possibly manage.
Now, I’d like to say this is a fairly standard story for a dungeon/mine orientated role playing game. But I can’t, because even the most skeletal of RPG titles have had more of a plot. Now in fairness, there are the bones of a narrative here – but Torchlight’s story is a mere shadow of the epic and nuanced fable of the title it craves comparison with. This is especially problematic in a third person role playing game like Torchlight. Because if you’re not immersed in a fantasy world that is justifying the countless and tedious slaughter of gold gathering goblins, then you are just grinding for loot and experience points. If I wanted to do that I’d just have a World of Warcraft relapse. Hell, at least that would be over multiplayer – a game mode that Torchlight fails to offer, not even via the local network co-op compromise we have come to expect from grinding RPGs.
So the story is pretty terrible, and it makes you wonder why you are churning your way through trolls, goblins, skeletons and all manner of other RPG nasties. Well, the answer is because the game play itself is actually not that bad. In fact, it’s pretty fun. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is a horde of gamers out there (myself included) who would sell our present and future children for a decent third person RPG in the Diablo vein – so we are pretty easy to please. The second, and better reason, is that the game play has had some intelligent thought put into it. The levels are randomised and while you do start noticing regurgitated sections after a while, they are expansive enough to offer a unique and interesting challenge each time.
In addition, there is a steady stream of appropriate loot drops – and the range of armour, weapons and trinkets you can collect is rich. Sure, I whinged before about endless grinding – but there is gaming grace to be found in epic searches for unique set items and enchanted staffs. And the combat is gory enough to keep any seasoned gamer amused. I spent about thirty minutes puppy stomping skeletons while wielding (enchanted) pistols akimbo. It was brutally badass, and reminded me how awesome RPGs can be when they put their mind to it.
But aside from watching critters back flip from satisfyingly aimed magic-bullets-to-the-cranium, the combat is rote. Enter level, proceed through hordes until you find the level boss. Kill the boss. Level up. Collect loot along the way. And as a consequence, Torchlight is missing some of the more challenging puzzle aspects of its peers. While these do peek out of the door during a few boss encounters, there is not enough of it to break up the cyclical combat.
But it’s not all standard fare. Torchlight’s addition of a computer controlled pet is novel, if a little odd. I mean, I can understand my pet cat (nicknamed Ocy the Ocelot) levelling up when I did – but it was probably a bridge too far to give him the ability to learn and fire spells. Thankfully your pets aren’t just automatic aggressors, they can do other things as well, like carry loot (and even run off to town to sell items when you’re still in the mines). I must confess, I’m still a little flummoxed as to exactly what role they play in this title. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mamillian backup in tight spots – but the ability to open town portals and equip secondary spells seems to negate any real reason for their addition. Furthermore the inclusion of cutsey pets is a bit of a lateral departure from the dark themes of traditional fantasy RPG titles.
This departure is also reflected in the graphical design. If the story sucks, Torchlight certainly gains a bonus point for art direction. It’s not draw-droppingly gorgeous but it is quirky, fun and cartoony. The armour and weaponry are all keeping in theme and the caricatured design gives the game a friendly cavalier feel. It’s interesting that Runic decided to go down this path – bright colours and soft palettes would not be something I’d immediately associate with a role playing game set in dungeons and mines, but the look certainly gives Torchlight a point of distinction and it fits bizarrely well with the title as a whole.
Torchlight can be regarded as a solid title. Now, I am aware that that is a horrid reviewer cliché – but its cliché for a reason. Torchlight satisfies a craving and scratches an itch. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not the shining breakthrough in RPG gaming that we are all waiting for, but it is a worthwhile experience that fits the comparatively low price tag.
It’s not going to knock the socks off you, but Runic’s Torchlight may be just the title to slake your fantasy-grinding thirst, while we wait for Diablo 3 to make its way to our shores.