Review by · May 9, 2010

This is far from the first time I’ve said so, but I love hack & slash games. In fact, I must admit that I love them enough that I’ve played some stinkers and still enjoyed them to a certain degree. All you have to do is look at my review of Alien Syndrome or Fate to know that I am a big opponent of criticizing them for being what they are supposed to be.

Of course, if you read those reviews, you will also notice that while those games did some things right, they were far from flawless. Torchlight may share a genre with them, but it does not share their problems. I am here to tell you that there is only one thing I don’t like about Torchlight: its delivery method. I don’t like Steam. Never have, probably never will. That is truly the only complaint I have about this game, and this is not a review of Steam, so it’s the last you’ll hear of it.

In Torchlight, you are drawn to a town, also called Torchlight, where a magical ore called Ember is mined. As you move down through the dungeon, you learn that Ember has a corrupting effect on any who use it, and has led to the downfall of a number of civilizations before yours. It’s not the deepest story in the history of RPGs, but it is clear that the developers put real effort into it. The writing is miles better than that of many other hack & slash games I’ve played as well. The same can’t really be said of the sidequests, which follow the exact pattern from Fate: your task is always to kill a specific boss and/or retrieve a specific piece of loot, with little real reason given. I don’t think of this as a significant problem, though. Instead, I think it’s pretty standard for action games.

Torchlight may only be above average in the story department, but its gameplay is outstanding. It takes good ideas from the developers’ previous games and improves on them in just about every way possible. There are three character classes (essentially, a barbarian, a ranged character, and a magician), each of which plays very differently from the others, and each of which can be viably developed in several ways as you level up. For example, my first character was a magician who focused almost entirely on summoning, similar to Diablo II’s Necromancer. I could have put my points into casting spells, though, and been more similar to the Sorceress.

Each class has three skill trees, although certain skills like “ranged weapons mastery” show up in the trees of all classes. I appreciated that, since I wanted my summoner to dual-wield pistols – something he’s not necessarily good at by default. In addition, there are magic scrolls, found as loot or purchased, that allow you to teach certain skills to any character. I loved having that ability, because it allowed my barbarian to cast town portal spells and identify magical items; skills that many RPGs restrict to the magician class.

As in Fate, your character is constantly accompanied by a pet dog or cat. You can catch fish and feed them to your pet to change them (temporarily or permanently) into another animal/monster, and I was overjoyed to see that Torchlight doesn’t make you waste inventory space on a fishing pole to do so. Your pet levels up along with you, and it can wear two rings and a necklace, which is nice. The pet also has an inventory, can be directed to pick things up, and can be sent back to town at any point to sell loot. Doing so really helps keep the game flowing because like any good hack & slash game, you’ll pick up a lot of loot, and going back to town to sell it is annoying.

Your pet doesn’t just serve as a pack mule, though, or even as simply a meat shield. You can also teach it any of the spells learned from scrolls. It can only learn two spells, but the pet AI makes good use of whatever you give it. I liked my cat to be able to summon zombies and leech health from attacks, but a dog who can throw fireballs and heal the whole party sounds pretty awesome too.

The main story takes you down through one long dungeon to a final boss battle, but once you’ve beaten it, a second, never-ending, randomly generated dungeon is unlocked where the monsters scale to your current level, so you can keep playing with the same character as long as you want. In addition, maps can be purchased from vendors that take you to shorter randomly generated dungeons. These serve as a nice break from the main storyline or even a place to grind for levels and loot if you ever find yourself in need of doing so. Interestingly, there are also random monsters called “phase beasts” that open a portal to a one-level dungeon when killed. Again, the only reason to go to these dungeons is to get loot and experience, but they seem to give good loot, so they are worth the time.

There are a hundred other things I could talk about in terms of gameplay, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll limit myself to four brief things I can’t leave out of my review. One: you can install gems in your equipable items, and when you’re ready to upgrade something, you can destroy the gems and keep the item or vice versa. I would have loved this in Diablo II, where I agonized over actually using all of those runes I collected. Two: each character has their own inventory, their pet’s inventory, a private stash in town, and a stash that they share with all of your other characters. If you love to hoard items, this is a dream come true, because it makes passing items between characters and creating “mule” characters a breeze. Three: Torchlight is designed to make modding easy. It’s reportedly a piece of cake to create mods, and I can confirm that it takes almost zero effort to install them. There are a lot of mods out there, and they range from the classic “I’m lazy, so I’ll break the game’s balance” to simple, but really nice, things like changing the opacity of the mini-map. I even installed a mod that unlocks a ferret as a third pet option. Four: when you look at weapons in your inventory, you’re shown their attack speed and the damage they do, but you’re also shown their DPS (damage per second), which is a huge help when deciding whether to trade up to a new weapon.

There is one thing missing in Torchlight’s gameplay, though: multiplayer. I never play games online, so I didn’t miss it, but I know that this may be a deal-breaker for some gamers. It stands up very well as a single-player experience, though, so if you’re interested in this kind of game, I’d urge you to give it a shot despite that lack.

Graphically, Torchlight made me very happy as well. It’s not that this is the prettiest game you’ll ever see, because it’s no Crysis. It’s that it looks great on even a lousy laptop like mine. In fact, I can run it with the graphics turned all the way up and still encounter slowdown only rarely. With my computer, that’s saying a lot (it can take 30 minutes to boot). There’s even a “netbook” mode to allow machines even weaker than mine to play.

The game really does look good. Spell effects are plentiful, and weapons that do elemental damage throw the appropriate sparks, flames, or snow. The environments are rendered in full 3D, and use the classic overhead isometric camera. Like any game with that camera, it has to deal with the issue of environmental elements getting in the way, and Torchlight’s solution is to render a sort of x-ray version of the character. Friends are blue, enemies are red, which really helps. Stylistically, it falls halfway between Fate and Diablo II. Definitely a more grown-up look than Fate, where no matter what appearance you gave your character, they looked like a 12-year-old running around with a puppy, but less realistic and gritty than Diablo II. I thought it was a very successful mix.

As I’ve mentioned before, I play most games with the sound muted. When I finally turned the sound on in Torchlight, I regretted that habit. This game sounds great, both in terms of music and sound effects. Certain sounds are almost identical to their Diablo II counterparts, but that is so common in this type of game that I find it hard to criticize. My only true complaint is that when your pet gets injured, they whine, which can be annoying if they’re surrounded by a huge pack of enemies.

Torchlight controls very simply, but in a good way. You click on the ground to move or on enemies to attack them, and I like the fact that it’s fairly forgiving. If you are pretty close to an enemy when you click, you’ll attack, which really helps when dealing with fast-moving enemies. Skills, scrolls, and potions can be assigned to slots for the 1-0 buttons on your keyboard. You can equip two sets of weapons and switch between them at any time by pressing W, which came in handy for me on many occasions. Buttons are assigned to your inventory, your skill tree, etc., but they’re easily accessible through on-screen icons as well. It isn’t groundbreaking, it’s just a good implementation of tried-and-true controls.

In the broadest terms, there are two ways to make a great game: do something cool that hasn’t been done before, or do a great job of improving on things that have been done before. Torchlight falls pretty firmly in the second category, but that doesn’t make it any less great. It’s the game I wish Fate had been, and an outstanding addition to its genre.

Overall Score 89
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John Tucker

John Tucker

John officially retired from RPGFan as Managing Editor in 2017, but he still popped in from time to time with new reviews until Retirement II in late 2021. He finds just about everything interesting and spends most of his free time these days reading fiction, listening to podcasts, and coming up with new things to 3D print.