Review: The return of the little action RPG that could! Can Runic’s isometric dungeon crawler TORCHLIGHT II take Diablo’s crown, or is it destined to go down fighting?
OK, let’s get it out of the way. Do you like playing games where your hero wanders through dark, musty tunnels underground, whacking thousands of slathering monsters over the head and collecting shiny things from their mangled remains? Then chances are your first thought was about how Torchlight II really looks like Blizzard‘s wildly successful Diablo.
So why the resemblance? Well, it’s worth explaining because it’s a bit more complicated than one studio jumping on the bandwagon of the week. Torchlight developers Runic Games were partly founded by the creators of the Blizzard team who made the original Diablo, and Torchlight was originally going to be a quick project using their know-how in the genre before doing a MMORPG using the same technology and setting. But then Torchlight suddenly picked up enough of a following that developing a proper sequel looked like a better idea, and Blizzard’s controversial decisions over Diablo III (including requiring constant internet access and in-game purchases for real money) meant Runic could push Torchlight II as even more of an viable alternative for frustrated fans of fantasy hack-and-slash.
So how does Torchlight II measure up next to Blizzard’s army of coders and multi-million dollar budget? And for everyone waiting for me to get on with the rest of the review, is Torchlight II a decent game in its own right? That would be “Pretty well” and “Yes”, respectively, just with some definite caveats. Runic have improved massively on their first title, and lots of the changes they’ve made to try and show how they think the genre should work do arguably make for a better experience than Diablo III. But they’ve duplicated a few of the problems with Blizzard’s game too and replicated a lot of the genre’s issues. Plus, it’s painfully obvious in places that they didn’t have Blizzard’s money pit to dive into. Torchlight II is still a solid, well-polished game you could easily lose hundreds of hours with, but it’s got some serious rough edges and does little that’s wildly new.
The plot, such as it is, sees the villain corrupted by the malign influence of the buried remains of the Big Bad from the first Torchlight. He builds himself a suit of powered armour, as you do, and sets out to try and find a cure for his affliction even if it means levelling half the world in the process. Now, you’re the hero charged with clearing up the havoc he’s wreaking and ultimately putting a stop to the guy.
Pack a compass
If you’ve played one of these games before then in many ways Torchlight II is business as usual. Follow the story, do people favours and grow steadily stronger until your hero’s kit would make Conan weep with envy and monsters tremble at the mere sight of you. Where Torchlight had you working your way steadily down through ever more floors of the one dungeon, Torchlight II expands across a series of hubs, giant stretches of open world dotted with various story missions as well as hidden caves, optional bosses, side quests and suchlike. It’s still linear, overall, but you can spend as much time as you like mopping up the extra content before tackling the story proper, if you want to.
Given Runic’s not that big a studio it’s a hell of an achievement they’ve been able to build a world so expansive and detailed. You can run across the maps pretty quickly once you’ve cleared them out, but first time through they’re stuffed with wandering enemies, mini-bosses and extra missions. Side quests often stretch back and forth over multiple levels - some signposted, some left to you to discover. While Runic are plainly still gunning for low-end PCs, with simple, almost cartoon texture work, the art design is frequently gorgeous and the sound vivid and evocative, particularly Matt Uelmen‘s terrific score (he also provided audio and music for the original Diablo).
One common criticism levelled at Diablo and its ilk are they’re all pretty much mindless treadmills: click repeatedly on monster until it’s dead, collect treasure, get better equipment, click on stronger monster, repeat ad infinitum. There’s some truth to this, but they’re not exactly lacking in depth. Torchlight II offers you four different character classes, all of whom get a different mix of melee and ranged combat abilities, and each of these classes can choose from multiple skill trees. The Embermage class can pick from fire, ice and electric spells, say, and there’s additional character enhancements on top of these. Skills do tend to follow predictable types, like an area of effect, a focused strike or an aura, but there’s definitely a vast array of opportunities to customise your playing style.
Clickin’ is my business (and business is pretty brisk)
There’s the usual catalogue of different armour and accessories too, with all of these able to carry socketed gems offering further bonuses or special powers. You can collect matching sets, customise favourite pieces or a mix of the two. Torchlight’s pet system returns, where you choose an animal companion that follows you around, and functions as both man-at-arms and a packhorse for your surplus loot. Your pet fights, levels up, gets its own kit, casts spells and when fed the right nibbles can even be briefly transformed into more powerful monsters – it’s a far more valuable allied AI than that bloody dog in Fable ever was. Merely tweaking all these aspects of your build can see hours of your life vanishing, let alone playing the damn game.
Yet, while Torchlight II still lands the same hook as the better examples of the genre – the lure of finishing one more dungeon, or maybe finding one more piece of armour – it has its shortcomings too. Like Diablo III, this is a very easy game on Normal difficulty (try three deaths in nearly 20 hours’ play, all completely avoidable). True, Runic offer the option to jump straight in at a harder setting where Blizzard were criticised for locking this away, but when you settle into the same pattern over and over you start wondering if there’s something better you could be doing with your time. Your pet could comfortably solo much of the game, and that never really feels like a good thing. The lack of any coherent story beyond chasing the bad guy also grates. While Torchlight II is undeniably beautiful, it’s far from a living, breathing place you feel any serious attachment to.
And sadly part of that simply has to come down to the lack of budget. Runic have plainly slaved over this game, but in places you can’t shake the nagging impression their best isn’t always good enough. The animated cutscenes – commissioned from Shank and Mark of the Ninja developers Klei Entertainment - add absolutely nothing to the game. And consider the way so many backgrounds fade straight into indeterminate fog inside fifty feet; how too many pieces of set dressing are badly over-used; how the random level generator can spit out two dungeons exactly the same, or how almost every mission is go here, kill this guy, fetch this, come back, bookended with simple text boxes. For all that gorgeous art, the odd witty piece of text or the striking bosses, the bones under the game’s skin are just a bit too visible. It’s still a lot of fun, but it’s a shame Runic couldn’t balance their priorities a little better.
If right at the start you read “click repeatedly on monster until dead” and wanted to put your fist through the monitor, it’s probably best you steer well clear of Torchlight II. But if you’ve never played anything like this, Runic’s game is a good place to start, no question. Torchlight II stands out among the competition by way of being a lovely little piece of design that’s non-threatening and relatively uncomplicated while still offering a staggering amount of content for those who do take to this kind of game. If you feel like wading into the genre, you’re a committed fan unhappy with Blizzard’s new direction or you’re just not yet dungeoned out, consider the low price point a gift and snap up Torchlight II right now.
Torchlight II, by Runic Games, is available now for PC.