"I loved Torchlight II, and I think you will too."
Let me first start by apologizing. Torchlight II was a highly anticipated title, and it was a real pleasure to be the guy tapped to cover it. I owed it to the readers of RPGFan and the rest of the editorial staff that played the game to get a review out sooner than I did. Hopefully this letter
explains some of the delay.
If you read that letter, you'll know I love this game. If you haven't gotten it already, you really should. It's terrific. And for $20, it's a much smaller gamble than most games, even if you don't love it quite
as much as I do.
If you are still reading, you want more details. So let's get to it.
The Diablo Legacy
The big design names on Torchlight II should be familiar to isometric Action RPG fans. The top guys at Runic Games were involved in Diablo 1 and 2 as well as the indie smash hit Fate. If you liked those games, you'll be familiar with a great many of the elements in play in Torchlight II. The original Torchlight took everything that was great about those 3 games and combined them into a sleek experience designed to keep you clicking and making things explode to get at the loot inside.
The biggest complaint folks had about the original Torchlight was a lack of multiplayer; something that made Diablo 2 immensely popular for years after its release. Torchlight II addresses that problem and more, but at its core, it is still an isometric loot machine that will remind you in important ways of Diablo, Fate, Titan Quest, Din's Curse, and a host of other "Diablo Clones." It is my opinion that Torchlight II is more than that, the same way that a TiVo is more than just a DVR or an iPod is more than just an MP3 player, but when you are forced to describe what Torchlight II is
– well, it's a lot like all of those games, which is to say it's a lot like Diablo.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Clicking
Classes and skill trees are at the heart of any classic loot dropper, and Torchlight II does not disappoint. There are 4 classes: Engineer, Outlander, Embermage, and Berserker. Each class has 3 distinct skill categories. You start with a skill point already assigned at level 1 (you can get the point back for free if you like as soon as you reach the first town), and with each experience level, you get another point to add to your pile of skills. These are not skill "trees" in the sense that you need a point in a certain skill to unlock another skill. Instead, there are a variety of skills in each category, all of which are made available to you based on your existing character level. Killing certain monsters or completing quests earns you "fame" points in addition to experience points, and increases to your fame level give you additional skill points just like traditional experience levels.
Given the sheer number of skills on offer, there are plenty of interesting choices to make with each skill point you receive, and Torchlight II has a nice compromise between letting you totally respec your character at will and punishing you for making what turns out to be a choice you wish you hadn't made. At every town, there is a vendor that can refund (for a price) any of the last 3 skill points you assigned. It should be noted there is a company approved "hack" that can get you respec potions if you really want them, but I personally like the compromise between having my decisions matter but also having some flexibility as I progress to try some things.
Regardless of the class you choose, your character also has 4 attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Focus, and Stamina. Typically, you can't go too wrong with dumping the points into whatever your most relied upon attribute is, but I have always liked games that give you the option to screw around with the numbers like this. Want to make an Embermage that hits things with a staff rather than casting spells? It'll be more challenging, but Torchlight II won't stop you.
Special mention should be made regarding the classes, because they all have the ability to act as hybrids of some kind. The classes all have a rather obvious build available to them that fit typical RPG archetypes: Berserker = Melee damage machine, Outlander = Ranged attacker, Embermage = Wizard that flings spells at crowds, Engineer = Tank/Defense. The skills, though, are of such a wide variety that you only have to play the class that way if you want to. With an Engineer on my first playthrough, I went with a hybrid that relied on various "summoned" companions (steam powered robots) to do a lot of my dirty work while still focusing a great deal on passive skills that strengthened my defense. I could take a lot of licks while my minions ran around and killed things, healed me, or charged and blew up in my enemies' faces. I could just as easily have made my Engineer smash things with a large wrench, but I thought it was fun to try something different and have it still be quite effective.
Given the combination of classes, skills, and attributes, there are very few ways you can't
play Torchlight II and get by. Mix/matching things is one of the great joys of the genre for me, and Torchlight II offers a level of flexibility that combines with something relatively streamlined to squeeze the most fun possible out of a tried and true system. For example, having only 4 primary attributes makes it a lot easier to compare that new sword you found with the one you're currently using.
Speaking of loot, it is my opinion that Torchlight II has loot progression down to some kind of fine art. I'm crazy for loot progression mechanics not just because getting loot is one of the most fun parts of the genre, but also because there is serious design theory at work when it comes to loot progression. Too much loot too often cheapens the joy of finding loot. Too little loot, and a game can become tedious. Not enough variety to loot, and even if the amount
is right, the pleasure of discovery is lessened. I have a lot of respect for how much work has gone into loot progression and loot drop rates over the years across a variety of games: if it is done right, then as a player, you don't know why
the game is so much more fun than others like it, just that it is
Loot is an area where I think Torchlight II sets itself apart from the competition. All of the classic elements we've come to expect from loot systems are present. But Torchlight II tries to perfect
these systems by offering a huge variety of unique items and sets, as well as tons of different gems that can be socketed. On top of that, there are vendors that can add additional enchantments to your items to make them even more unique (often, a couple of additional purchased enchantments can greatly increase the lifespan of a favorite item before something better drops).
One last thing to mention on the loot is just how easy it is to switch and compare equipment. This is one of those things that people take for granted when it is well implemented, but can become extremely frustrating when poorly implemented. Comparing and swapping out equipment is a breeze not just because of the various shortcuts available (right clicking equips an item, shift clicking puts it in your pet's inventory, etc.), but because the differences between items are easy to understand. If you just want to maximize your damage, all you really need to look at is a weapon's "damage per second" and compare it with what you have. But if you want more complex comparisons or information, you can always hit "J" to bring up a list of all the nitty gritty statistics and make comparisons that way. With that extra button press, you can get additional complexity, but you can choose to never use this feature and still get by quite easily.
The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Hacking
The sound effects were among the most underrated aspects of the original Torchlight. You could tell that a lot of care went into each satisfying "crunch" and "splorch" that the weapons and spells made when connecting with the various enemies, and I think that had a lot to do with why the game was such a joy to play.
I'm happy to report that this level of care has not diminished in any way with Torchlight II. I really think this is another area where Torchlight II does a better job than any game out there right now, and it's just an example of the little things that Runic has polished up to make every click on a monster as satisfying as possible.
Torchlight II definitely got an upgrade over the original in its soundtrack. Matt Uelmen, who composed the music for Diablo 2, was brought into the Runic family for Torchlight II and recorded live in Bratislava, Slovakia. You can definitely hear the difference in quality between the original game and the sequel, just in terms of the crispness and vibrancy of the music.
That said, there isn't much that I would call particularly "memorable" about the soundtrack. This may have been by design, as the music never at any point distracts you from the mayhem on screen and provides another layer of satisfying background noise for the game, but I'd be hard pressed even after many, many hours of play to hum a tune from the game. This by no means should suggest that the soundtrack is bad
. There are some fun electric guitar riffs that provide a nice backdrop that you might pick out during rare quiet moments shuffling your inventory around or giving your pet a shopping list, but there's nothing that really sticks with me after those tragic moments when I am required to shut the game off.
It's a Steampunk World After All
Torchlight II takes place in a vibrant, colorful steampunk universe. In an interview
with one of the lead designers at Runic during E3, there was a telling comment about the visual approach being taken that I will repeat here: "The whole construct of the ARPG is sort of a comedy anyway – what are all these monsters doing carrying chainmail? It's kind of nice to not have it be so somber."
This sums up the look and feel of Torchlight II very well to me. You've got bears running around wearing hats and trying to murder you right next to things that are half yak, half yeti that are actually called "Yakotaurs". There are deadly frogs. There are cute little robots. You can have a pet ferret. Everything has this cartoony joy about it, and that translates to the game experience, which takes itself decidedly less seriously than other games in this particular genre. The fun the designers had coming up with these things is infectious.
There is a modicum of story in Torchlight II, and that's all. The opening video sequence does at least spend a little bit of time with the familiar characters from the original game (the three classes you can choose from in the original are back as story characters for Torchlight II) and gives you the barest context for what you are supposed to doing, but it would be nearly impossible to argue that this is Shakespearian stuff here. The goal is to get you clicking and slaying things. The universe of steampunk and magic universe of Torchlight II doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, but I was too busy enjoying myself to really care about the lack of story. What there is in terms of story plays out across three Acts (sound familiar?) which provide nothing more than an excuse to transition to different locales where you can kill more stuff and get more loot. If you are looking for character choices that involve story decisions, Torchlight II will not deliver. If you are looking for character choices in terms of creating a character for yourself that is unique, Torchlight II will satisfy your desires.
Beyond the End
Something I loved about the original Torchlight was the endless, random dungeon the opened up after you beat the "main" game. Torchlight II delivers plenty of value after you beat the "main" game as well.
Rather than an "endless" dungeon, Torchlight II gives you two options once you have completed the primary quest. You can start a new game with your current character, maintaining your current level, by selecting "New Game+". This means you'll be able to play through the primary quest again with upgraded monsters.
But before you do that, you'll want to check out the "Mapworks," which contains tons of new dungeons and maps to explore. I love this feature, because it reminds me of the endless dungeon of the original Torchlight but is more organized. The maps provide gameplay "chunks" to play through, and you'll find yourself thinking "just one more dungeon" as the sun comes up.
That brings us at last to the multiplayer features of Torchlight II. On a very basic level, the Internet and LAN play both work wonderfully. Once you are connected, the game is at least as fun to play with multiple people as it is by yourself. You don't have to worry about sharing loot or quests – every player gets their own. What you are really sharing in multiplayer is the enemies, and that's about it. You can, of course, trade items and help each other out, but you are still interacting with the environment on your own terms.
When you start a new character, it doesn't matter whether you choose to start a single player, internet, or LAN game. Characters can move freely between the three, and completed quests in single player will be completed in any multiplayer game for you that you join or create.
Where Torchlight II's multiplayer needs some work, though, is in ease of finding your friends. Although you can see which of your Runic Account friends are online, I can't actually figure out how to see what game they are in easily. On top of that, if your character has progressed to a different "tier" via New Game+, that character can only play in games on the same "tier", which seems an unnecessarily complicated distinction.
Due to the wide open nature of the platform, there are plenty of hacked games out there. This, too, is by design – Runic intends to release the editor tools used to build Torchlight II in the near future, which will lead to even more mods and hacks – but folks used to a very controlled multiplayer environment will need to be aware that there aren't safeguards enforcing a "fair" game here.
Torchlight II vs. Diablo III
I don't think it is possible or even reasonable to talk about Torchlight II without discussing Diablo III. They have to be compared because of the similarities between the two and, more importantly, the directions they represent for game design in this genre.
I still think both games are fun. Torchlight II, dare I say, "clicks" more with my sensibilities as a gamer, a designer, and frankly as a customer. I like having more flexibility. I am continually amazed by the argument that fewer choices in games can ever be a "good" thing, and while I appreciate some types of streamlining, I think the trend toward less choice in RPGs is strange not because it doesn't make sense for designers to do it (it does, because it is easier), but because it seems to be something people want
. Torchlight II appeals to the old school gamer in me who wants to have the option to screw up badly, but also appeals to the old school gamer in me who wants to have the option to hack the heck out of my game.
But more than that, Torchlight II does
represent an evolution of the genre in my mind. Yes, many of the mechanics are familiar, but they are familiar the way that pressing play on an iPod to listen to music is like pressing play on a cassette player. In both instances, music is played. However, in one instance, it is a beautiful, satisfying interface that behaves exactly as you expect and as easily as possible, while in the other instance, it feels clunky and is heavy to carry around. Perfecting something is
All this is a long winded way of saying I loved Torchlight II, and I think you will too. But if you don't, at least you'll only be out $20.