Déjà vu time. Just under a year ago, I reviewed Torchlight on PC, and gave it a mighty respectable score. In fact, as I said in that review, the only thing I truly disliked in Torchlight on the PC was its delivery service: Steam. So when I heard that it was being released on XBLA, I raised my hand to volunteer for the review so quickly that I hurt my shoulder. With my biggest complaint eliminated from the equation, how did this port fare? Well, it’s not flawless, but it too is mighty good.
In Torchlight, the player’s character is drawn to a town, also called Torchlight, where a magical ore called Ember is mined. As players move down through the floors of that mine, they learn that Ember has a corrupting effect on any who use it, which has already led to the downfall of a number of civilizations. It’s not the deepest story in the history of RPGs, but it is clear that the developers put effort into it. The writing is better than many hack & slash games I’ve played – as players progress, they are given journal fragments of a previous explorer who is clearly being driven mad by the Ember and who always thinks that a cure will be found a few floors farther down. Is the player’s character truly a savior or just the next victim of the same corruption? The dilemma isn’t quite on the same level as what happened to the Diablo games’ main character, but it’s still good. Sadly, the same praise can’t be given to the sidequests, which follow a very small set of formulas: kill a specific boss or retrieve a specific piece of loot, with little real reason given. One of the quest-givers is a bard who just wants players to kill boss monsters to give him material for new songs. This isn’t a huge criticism, though. I think of it as being pretty standard for this style of game.
Torchlight may only be “above average” in the story department, but its gameplay is where it stands out from the crowd. This game doesn’t do anything really original, but it takes good ideas from the developers’ previous games and improves on them in just about every way. There are three character classes (essentially, a barbarian, a ranged character, and a magician), each of which plays very differently from the others, and who can be viably developed in several ways as they 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 a wide range of skills that fall into three trees, about half of which are unique to each class. The other half are skills like “ranged weapons mastery,” which show up in all classes’ trees, although they appear in a different order for all three classes. I appreciate this set of skills, because I wanted my summoner to dual-wield pistols – something he’s not necessarily good at by default. In addition, there are a set of magic scrolls that can be found as loot or purchased and taught to any class. I loved having that ability, because it allowed my barbarian to heal the party or throw fireballs. Sure, he’s not the best at those things, but they’re helpful skills that many RPGs restrict to their magician class. It’s worth noting that the XBLA version of the game seems to have eliminated the town portal and identify item spells, and I’m very sad to see them go. On the other hand, players can now purchase respec potions that allow them to reset a character’s progression and reclaim skill points that were once wasted.
Even non-summoners aren’t alone in their journey; the player’s character is constantly accompanied by a pet dog, cat, or a strange lizard-thing that’s new to the XBLA game. All three seem to behave identically, but players can catch fish and feed them to their pet to change it (temporarily or permanently) into another animal/monster with different abilities and strengths. Transformed or not, the pet has an inventory and can be sent back to town at any point to sell loot. Doing so really helps the game to keep flowing, because like any good hack & slash game, Torchlight features a lot of loot, and going back to town to sell it is annoying.
Pets don’t merely serve as pack mules, though, or even as simply meat shields. Players can teach their pet any of the spells learned from scrolls. The pet can only know two spells at a time, but the AI makes good use of those two spells. I liked having my lizard-thing summon zombies and heal the whole party, but a dog who can throw fireballs and leech health from attacks sounds pretty awesome too.
The main story takes players and their pets down through one long dungeon to a final boss battle, but once any character has beaten the story, a second, never-ending, randomly generated dungeon is unlocked for all characters. In addition, maps can be purchased that lead to short, randomly generated dungeons. These can serve as a break from the main storyline or just a place to grind for levels and loot. Interestingly, there are also randomly-occurring monsters called “phase beasts” that open a portal to a one-level dungeon when killed. The only reason to go to these dungeons is to get loot and experience, but they give good loot, and that’s a big part of the fun in a hack & slash game.
The XBLA version of Torchlight is very similar to the PC version, but the nature of the control systems meant that the PC’s Diablo II-style inventory and other menus wouldn’t work very well on the 360. Instead, players now have an inventory that can hold any 50 items – a stack of potions counting as just one item, the way a six-pack would in the grocery store express lane. This isn’t as restrictive as it may sound, since pets have their own 50-slot inventory. Also, players have access to a personal chest in town with another 50 slots, as well as a shared chest with yet another 50 slots. Items placed in that chest can be accessed by all of a player’s characters, which is outstanding. It allows for easy transfer of items to their best owner or muling of things players want to keep but don’t have space for.
The inventory works well for the most part, but the move to a console hasn’t left it completely unscathed. Namely, Torchlight’s XBLA version lacks a screen showing what slots a character has for equipment. Instead, the inventory is divided into categories of equipment: armor, weapons, consumables, etc. Any items that are currently equipped are highlighted and pop to the top of their category, and it’s very easy to compare new items to what the character has equipped. The lack of a screen dedicated to item slots is not terrible, but it will probably lead new characters to miss some equipment opportunities. For example, pets can also be equipped with a necklace and two rings, but there’s nothing in the interface to indicate that it’s a possibility. I only tried because I knew it was possible on the PC.
I could go on and on about the features in this game: gems, enchanting items, difficulty ranging from cakewalk to brutal (I died on dungeon level 2 playing as a tank)… there’s a lot here. But I will leave it and move on, with just one final note on the biggest casualty of the move to XBLA: mods. Torchlight has a very active modding community (on Steam, there’s even an achievement for having at least five mods installed at once), and the nature of XBLA means that none of those mods will make their way to the console. It’s not the end of the world, but it is sad. The other sad thing is that this game lacks multiplayer. It’d be an awesome co-op game. Happily, I hear that lack will be remedied in the sequel.
One thing that wasn’t lost in the move to XBLA was graphics. This game looks really good. Spell effects are plentiful, and weapons that do elemental damage throw the appropriate sparks, flames, or snow. The environments are rendered in 3D and use the classic overhead isometric camera. Like any game with that camera, Torchlight has to deal with the issue of environmental elements getting in the way, and Torchlight’s solution is excellent. The game renders a sort of x-ray version of anyone who moves behind a wall. Friends are blue and enemies are red, which really helps. Stylistically, it falls halfway between Fate and Diablo II. It’s a more grown-up look than Fate, where every character looked like a 12-year-old running around with a puppy, but less gritty than Diablo II. It is a very successful mix. The only problem worth noting is that I had a hard time reading descriptive text when playing from across the room on a 32″ TV. I had no problem if I sat more closely or when I tried a 52″ TV. Of course, it’s hard to know if this is an issue with the TV, the game, or both, so I mention this merely as an FYI to readers. I’m not docking any points from the score for it.
With everything it already had going for it, this game also 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. The music also wears its Diablo influence proudly – just listening to Torchlight’s town music will take players back to their days in Tristram. To be clear, the developers didn’t rip off Diablo’s music. Torchlight’s music is all its own, but it pays tribute to the game’s roots in a way I really liked.
As one might imagine, the controls are where this port differs most from the PC version. Most of the 360’s buttons get used, and in logical ways. Players will have to actively look for the explanation of what the buttons do, because there is no control tutorial, but those who have played any 360 RPGs in the past will likely figure things out in fairly short order. My only complaint is that when the player’s pet or summons get close to items dropped on the ground, the pet/summon steals focus from the loot, stopping players from picking up the loot. Walking away and then walking back usually remedies the situation, but having to do so is annoying.
One of Torchlight’s biggest strengths is its attention to detail, and that strength is on display in a number of subtle control factors. Playing as a summoner, I need to stay away from enemies and take them down with pistols or magic, not cleavers (true story: one of the unique weapons is named “Ward’s Cleaver”) and maces. As a ranged character, proper targeting is very important, and Torchlight does a great job of ranged targeting. If the character is pointed mostly in the direction of an enemy, that enemy will get shot. And if there’s a barrel between the character and the enemy, the enemy will still get shot. But once the enemy’s dead, that barrel is history. That kind of prioritization is very important.
I also like to dual-wield, because the magical properties of both weapons are applied to every hit, and dual-wielding is another thing that Torchlight does well. Characters using two pistols or two melee weapons will strike with one, then the other. But characters using one of each will only attack with the weapon that’s appropriate for the distance they’re standing from their enemies. Sure, it doesn’t dramatically affect gameplay, but it’s one of those little touches that proves the development team was thinking about what they were doing.
As I said in my PC review, 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. Even on the Xbox 360, Torchlight falls pretty firmly in the second category, but that doesn’t make it any less great. It’s not a must-have for those who already own the PC version, but it’s absolutely worth a purchase for anyone who missed out the first time around.