I loved Torchlight. I played it on XBLA and on PC, then played Torchlight 2. I love Diablo. I’ve played all three and had a good time with all of them. And I don’t think the fact that I am a fan of both series will surprise anyone reading this, since they both fit into the same RPG niche and share a lot of gameplay elements. Four of those five games also share a composer: Matt Uelmen, who wrote the music for Diablo 1 and 2, then went on to do the same for both Torchlight games. He’s an award-winning musician, and I would never argue that he shouldn’t have those awards. And yet, I’m starting to feel like it’s time he moved on.
I’ve had the Torchlight 2 soundtrack for a while. (Technically, I’ve had it since the day I bought the game, but I didn’t realize it was there until months later, a fact that I mention in case anyone reading this review finds themself in the same situation. It’s sitting in your install directory: mp3s, CD booklet and all.) I’ve listened to it several times, but I’ve never found anything that really jumped out of it and grabbed me. There are, I think, two main issues with this soundtrack. The first is that some of the games Uelmen has scored have been so successful that they essentially defined the genre.
Did you watch The Matrix in theaters all the way back in ’99? If so, you probably remember how amazing its effects seemed at the time. Bullet time was awesome and new, and everything just looked so dang cool. Try showing it to someone now who never saw it back then, though, and they’ll probably have a very different reaction to those same effects. The same is true for Torchlight 2’s music. Years ago, this style may have been amazing and really helped draw people into Diablo, but at this point, it’s just more of the same generic music we’ve been hearing for the last 17 years.
The second issue is that the music in a game like Torchlight 2 is mainly designed to be ambient and unobtrusive, and this doesn’t lend itself to outside enjoyment. This soundtrack provides a background to your gameplay without really drawing attention to itself, and that works against it when you try to listen to the music on its own. It doesn’t have strong melodies or beats, and when something interesting surfaces for a few seconds, it has to go away fairly quickly or risk distracting you from the mob of enemies trying to tear your character’s guts out. An example of this comes in track 24 of the soundtrack, “Vault.” A cool drum background surfaces somewhere in the track, but it only sticks around for 30 seconds or so before diving below ground again.
For this reason as well as the need to loop music during gameplay, no one track really stands up among its brethren to say “I’m special, check me out!” If you asked me to close my eyes and point out each time one track ends and another begins, I’d miss some entirely and would be off by ten or twenty seconds on most others. I can tell from the track names that the music is supposed to support very different environments, from ice caves to deserts and marshes, and yet I just don’t hear that in the music itself. This is a step backwards from Uelmen’s earlier work; in Diablo 2, the finger cymbals used in the Harem music give it a middle-eastern flavor, whereas the pan flutes and drums of Kurast give it the feel of a South American rain forest.
I don’t want you to get the idea that Torchlight 2’s soundtrack is actively terrible, because it’s not. Rather, it is depressingly generic, and listening to it without gameplay takes it out of its element, playing to its weaknesses rather than its strengths. I think it’s time for Matt Uelmen to branch out and do something really different to stretch himself as a musician. I’m sure he has the talent for it. Until he does so, if you’ve got a copy of Torchlight 2, then by all means grab those mp3s and add them to your music library for something to listen to as background noise while you read a book or study. That is this soundtrack’s raison d’etre, and who am I to deprive a soundtrack of its purpose?