By John Walker on September 20th, 2012 at 5:07 pm.
I’ve played Torchlight 2 for 20 hours, killed 8339 monsters (1352 of them exploded), gathered 179,463 gold pieces, died 115 times, and completely pointlessly smashed 1,368 bits of scenery. Which I believe makes me ready to tell you Wot I Think.
Edit: Sorry, I completely forgot to stress that I was playing this single-player, as it was pre-launch. We’ll definitely take a look at the co-op soon.
It’s not a competition. There’s a reason we don’t put scores at the end of reviews, and it’s because games shouldn’t be ranked on some giant graph – it’s stupid and arbitrary. We can say which is our most favourite, of course, and we do. But I am not willing to get into a pie-fight between Torchlight 2 and Diablo III. Saying that, Torchlight 2 is WAY better than Diablo III.
Perhaps more importantly, Torchlight 2 is also much better than Torchlight. The lovely, minimalist approach to a dungeon crawler with its linear descent and ridiculous amount of charm managed to woo us despite its limits. Torchlight 2 removes those limits, keeps the charm, and manages to be a vastly superior sequel to an already fantastic game. What it doesn’t do, however, is move the genre forward in any meaningful direction.
So gone is the single surface village and ever-descending dungeon. Instead there’s a far more traditional setup for a Diablo-clone: one town per act, multiple areas all around, portals linking them all together, and a bunch more story trying to justify the click-click-click.
Like almost every aspect of the game, there’s nothing strikingly original about the locations. Deserts, forests, ruins, etc – it’s exactly what you’d expect to see. But like almost every aspect of the game, they’re fantastically well realised. Vibrant, gorgeous scenes, bursting with character, an amazing variety of enemies, lovely features to discover, and packed with secrets and extras. While it would be sheer madness to suggest this – or any other game in the genre – isn’t repetitive, the locations vary enormously, even within themselves, and the enemy mix demands a fierce focus on your skills to stay alive.
There are no limits on difficulty levels here. If you want to start on Veteran or Nightmare, you can. And I did. Veteran that is – I’m not mad. Normal is recommended for players new to Torchlight, and I can assure you that Vet is the one to pick for the familiar. The challenge has been absolutely pitch perfect throughout, the dungeons exactly matching my level as I reach them, the battles always on the limit of what I can do. And I’ve died. A lot. 115 times according to the game, in my first 20 hours. And almost every time it’s been my stupid fault. (Death isn’t a big deal. If you want to return to the beginning of your current area, it’ll cost you a tenth of your gold. Otherwise you go back to town for free. And if you’ve made judicious use of portals, you can be back where you were in just a few seconds. But it still feels like failure – bitter failure – when it happens.)
I played as a Beserker, and I’m thrilled with the choice. The class is superbly structured, the game constantly enticing me to string one fight into the next, not pausing but continuing my rage, going back for loot later. The skill trees are very interesting – three pages with ten skills each, but each with 15 stages to them. So realistically you’re not going to use most of them, if you want any of them to be well powered. You makes your choices, and your play style comes with it.
So for me, Shadow Burst – the first skill available on the Shadow page – is essential. It’s smart – it causes you to dash forward, transformed into a spectral wolf for about half a second, rushing through enemies and hurting them as you go. But more importantly, you’re also draining health from them. The more you swoop through, the bigger the life boost you gain. It means that to get healthier, you have to get deeper into the fight. Then there’s my other favourite, the Wolf Shade. He’s a temporary buddy wolf who brings a mean fight, especially now he’s rank 9, but again siphoning health to you as he bites. The emphasis on combat as healing, combined with your Beserker charge bar (beefed up with Frenzy Mastery and Rampage skills), entices hefty, meaty battles, strung together as closely as possible.
Beyond this, you know the score. A million loots (no inventory tetris here, sadly) a pet to load it onto and send back to town when you want to sell on the move, enchanters for weapons, gems to socket into weapons and armour to boost their states, and the constant chase to find a weapon, hat or necklace that’s those precious few points better than the one you’re currently using. There’s the main storyline (which we’ll get to), and a bundle of sidequests along the way, which all mostly involve hacking your way across country to the next dungeon entrance, then killing everything inside.
But there is some variety here too. Perhaps a bit too rarely, but within the format there are some nice surprises. Moments where just exploring wins you something new to do – perhaps you light a lantern by a river, and a ghostly fisherman appears, opening a portal to a new dungeon. Or there are the Phase Beasts, spectral creatures that take a good deal of killing, but once dead leave behind a portal to a challenge area. They’re most, as ever, just killing lots of stuff, but they’re specific – perhaps an arena with spectators – with abundant gold and loot for victory.
Later, toward the end of the second act, there were some even more inventive moments, a series of challenges from a character that offered a different experience. But all of it is about the click-click-click.
However, in Torchlight 2, more than in any other ARPG I’ve played, I felt like there was more going on. No doubt my being terrible at Diablo II, and not having the patience to play enough Diablo III (and I played a lot) just to be allowed to play it on a fun difficulty level, is a factor here. But where I’ve more usually just worn out my left mouse button while occasionally tapping the right, I realised as I played this that a single moment’s loss of concentration meant death.
I was doing far more than just tapping, instead watching my rapidly fluctuating health gauge as I fired off skills set to a bunch of number keys alongside my house, all at the same time keeping an eye on my pet’s health, healing her when necessary, and checking timers on the Wolf Shade’s next available experience. And doing all of this in the most extraordinarily frantic fights I’ve seen in the genre. Ludicrously busy combat is packed with maybe five or six different enemy types at once, each needing a specific approach to kill. Making sure to take out the spawning roach mages before worrying about the skeletal swordsmen, while deliberately keeping the super-tough Champion beast on the far side of the fight until I was ready.
It’s a beautifully colourful game, visually reminding me of those glorious screen-painting fights you’d get in City Of Heroes, and eschews all of the tedious grumpy-dark that people so ridiculously want from the genre. With such vibrant frenzy, the only serious issue I ever had was losing the dull gold mouse cursor in the panic.
So there is a story. And it’s awful. I think. I’ve really no idea. The game ridiculously expects you to remember the narrative from the original, which I think had something to do with amber or something? You’re in pursuit of the nefarious Alchemist, who is draining the energies of some giant beasties called Guardians, and trying to do something to do with something or other. It’s garbled, horribly introduced, and of course absolutely unrelated to anything you actually do in the game. So ultimately it doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t make anything any less fun. But it could have course made things even more fun had it been more carefully delivered. As it is, it’s: there’s a bad man – hit stuff until he’s stopped.
This puts Torchlight 2 in an interesting position. It’s pretty much perfect. And I don’t say that lightly. The design choices are exquisite throughout, with everything where you’d want it, designed how you need it, and smartly presented. But for one, every menu, option, inventory comparison, pet screen, skill description, quest description, short-cut, and tool-tip is spot on. While I would have liked a second row of skill buttons, that’s not too important. The only possible issue is the lack of a world map, a nice, clear screen to take everything in. The minimap pops out to become an opaque overlay on the screen, and you can put it in three different places, but it’s always too big to leave there without obscuring, and it’s never big enough to properly appreciate. It’s a minor niggle, but in a game that has gone so far to make everything as user-friendly and intuitive as this one, it’s an odd oversight. A proper map screen, that lets you look at the whole world, and specific regions, would have been lovely.
But that interesting position. It’s pretty much perfect at being something we already know. It really makes no efforts to take the genre anywhere new. That was enormously disappointing when Diablo III did it, while also strangling itself in moronic DRM, bugs and issues. With a game in such a fantastic state as Torchlight 2, it’s instead just a bit of a shame. There was a chance to innovate a lot more here, and while I don’t think for a moment that anyone buying this would be the least bit disappointed in any of it, it would still have been nice to see a significant step forward here.
But you can’t take much away from “pretty much perfect”. Torchlight 2 is a stunning game, as engrossing and evening-eating as you could hope, all so wonderfully presented. It’s smart, witty, and pretty, and it stands as a shining example of the genre.
Torchlight 2 is out on Steam at 6pm Queen’s Time.