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The Games Of Christmas: December 20th

This way please.

You’re probably wanting to open the latest door of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. But it’s a long way below. You’ve got a lengthy journey to go on, so follow the sure direction of the one true leader of the Autobots to begin a mystical clickery of timeless effect…

Torchlight!

John: I came to the Diablo party very late. I don’t know why I missed it at the time – I think no one invited me. I was at home while you lot where partying. I hate you. But I caught up, and discovered it was a party I would have loved to have been to at the time. Anyway, bygones. Torchlight! Join that party!

I can imagine trying to describe the game to my mum. “You left click until your finger falls off, then sell stuff in a shop.” But somehow that’s enough! It’s enough because Torchlight is a game more about obsessive compulsion than elite gaming skill. It’s about clearing this dungeon because there’s another one below to clear. And of course there’s lots of different reasons to left click, whether it’s firing of enormous spells, picking up loot, commanding your pet, or browsing the shops for the finest gear.

My complaint with Torchlight is a frustrating one, as it would have been so easily amended. I don’t understand why it’s just one contiguous dungeon. Why not a different dungeon for every environment? It wouldn’t change the content of the game, but simply create an aesthetic illusion of variety. But you keep clicking anyway because there’s another floor beneath this one, and it needs to be cleared.

It’s a joyful, bright and cheery thing. I love it for that. I love the way it seems to be a game that heard the whiny twits whining about Diablo 3 screenshots looking too colourful and said, “You think that’s too colourful?! Then take THIS! It’s silly, and light, and all the while compulsive. It manages to deliver what I want from a dungeon crawler – endless fighting and looting – without thinking it needs to decorate that in unnecessary story or complication. If you’re bored over Christmas, I highly suggest taking a trip down its stairs.

Alec:The odd thing with trying to write about Torchlight is that I can barely remember playing it. I can remember installing it, then darkness, and then about a week later. I didn’t feel sad or afraid come said week later – time had just blinked past, pleasurably if not terribly memorably. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but really it’s a straight compliment – sometimes, it’s exactly this phenomenon that we play games for. We want something to take away time that we have no other purpose for. Not everything needs to fill our heads with tales of grand adventure, awe of digital entertainment’s great diversity or triumph over statistical adversity. Torchlight takes away time, quickly and painlessly, replacing it with a vague sense of achievement and a dim hunger for things that can be obtained with ease. If your life is overcomplicated, I can confidently prescribe Torchlight.

It isn’t this precise and effective medicine simply because it’s a decent Diablo clone. It’s because it ruthlessly removes the extraneous ingredients of what was already an incredibly simple formula. Anything that could waste your time or cause annoyance has been cleanly excised, leaving the perhaps cynical but absolute truth of why we play such games: we want constant reward from minimal effort. Click, kill, click, upgrade, click, kill, kill, kill, UPGRADE. It’s not even risk/reward – it’s just reward/reward. The skill and loot bump-ups are almost absurd: it’s become routine to reference giving your in-game pet cat/dog the ability to summon skeleton armies, but it’s the surest, finest way to summarise Torchlight’s everything louder than everything else philosophy.

It’s as deep as sports commentary, but it does its simple thing so very, very well, and in a way that Blizzard never could. They have to pander to long-term fans and lore, to the complicated and rare statistics that yield fansite upon fansite, to leaving space for paid extras and add-ons, to being Serious Business even though this model of game is, let’s be honest, absolutely ridiculous.

Torchlight, by contrast is free, absolutely unhindered and unfettered from everything except raw loot’n’kill’n’kill’n’loot. It’s the chemical formula for pure, simple Fun – a potion that may not last all that long, but it’s such a heady rush while it does.

Jim: The other week I had an unpleasant cold and ended up skipping a night’s sleep. Rather than keeping the lady Rossignol awake with pottering and coughing, I decided to work through the night and perhaps sleep the following evening. By the time it hit 6am I’d done most of the work I had planned for the next day and had that kind of fried-brain feeling that comes about from no sleep. Nevertheless I knew I needed to stay awake a little longer, and perhaps even push through for the whole of the next day. How would that be possible? Videogames!

It’s awesome when we can apply videogames like psychic-medicine. I had to stay awake, but couldn’t rely on any high-level brain work. Torchlight was perfect. There’s a back-handed compliment for the ages, but I don’t mean it to denigrate the game, which was the most appropriate salve to my overheated cortex. Plunging into Torchlight’s myriad dungeons was a beautiful thing. The videogame equivalent of leaping into a warm pool and having a swim.

There’s a weird sense of order to these kinds of Diablo games. It’s as if the loot-collection process is a kind of tidying up. The game world is a mess of monsters and you have to put it all in order, getting better and brighter as you go. The game is strong precisely because it is simple, and straightforward. It reaffirms that you don’t have to worry too much about innovation, as long as the design-craft is good.

Kieron: Torchlight is a delight.

It’s a word I don’t often get to use about PC Games. My favourite PC games stir many things in the black thing that sits in my chest which passes for a heart – but “delight” is rarely among them. That’s more the domain of the sort of console esoterica which fills the DS and similar, really – and that I don’t touch them at the moment, delight is pretty much absent.

But Torchlight delighted me. I stomped my way through the whole actual campaign on normal, then straight back in with a different character with the difficulty maxed out. “Character”: there’s another word which comes to mind with Torchlight. I like the people I’m playing in a way which I’ve never felt for Titan Quest’s cold classes. My first rogue’s demented trap-based build turned whole rooms into some kind of washing machine designed for removing the stubborn stains of all monstrous life. The chick-chick-chick of the shrapnel trap is one of my favourite sound-effects of the year. I initially thought the approach a little overpowered… but I swiftly came to the idea that being overpowered was a big part of the point. When enemy spiders emerge in wave, the joy of setting yourself to counter them felt a little like the perfect corner-side-step-and-shotgun-blast-to-an-imp in Doom, or the Gun-fu-eque positioning of your Victorian gentlemen to maximise damage in The Chaos Engine. It says a lot that what I’m reaching for as references aren’t RPGs, but action-games. Torchlight very comfortable that the root of its inspirations is really Gauntlet.

There’s a lot of the delightful Fate in it too, of course. Those of us who played it will be familiar with the joy of the pet who’ll run back to town and sell your stuff for you (my favourite addition to an RPG since Dungeon Siege’s Donkey. Or Dungeon Siege letting you immediately sell back for the same price you’ve bought something for – as, of course, a real shopkeeper would probably let you if it became immediately clear your hat of sexiness +4 was a little too small. And… oh, let’s shut up about Dungeon Siege. So many awesome ideas in a game which really wasn’t). But the detail is the thing here – all those little buttons and things to play with. Blowing all your gold on enchanting your already existent weapons, so old-warhorses don’t need to be put out to seed. Being able to train your pet to cast any of the two spells – my zombie-summoning group-healing dog is very much man’s best friend. And…

Delight! So many baubles to play with and promise of so many more to come. Diablo III is almost certainly more than a year away. And with Torchlight here, I really don’t care.

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