I feel like I'm having a sort of ARPG existential crisis.
With Diablo III continuing to be so popular, the same game finding a new audience and fresh buzz seven years on with its Switch release last year, I wondered if Torchlight II could do the same. A wondering that probably reveals a damning lot, since Torchlight II was actually re-released for Switch, PS4 and XB1 in September this year, and I didn't even notice. At the time of its release, I confidently declared TL2 to be the better game, and yet one seems like it's still the dominant title in the field, and the other like a retro feature idea despite having most recently been released three months ago.
And my conclusion? Having replayed both a bunch in the last month, I still prefer Torchlight over Diablo! But, um, well, I'm not sure how much I actually like either.
Is this heresy? It feels a bit like heresy. I thought I loved this sort of game. And I've found myself feeling an enormous distance from them. As much as I expected to gently sink back into a nice few days clicking through this 2012 game, it's felt a bit like a slightly annoying chore to do in the background while I finally get around to watching Mr Robot.
I've always played action-RPGs while doing something else. I can't imagine a way they could be all-consuming, considering how little there actually is to be doing at any one time. But this time out, I found myself often barely paying any attention at all, and doing just fine. Winning. Taking out purple-level bosses I hadn't really noticed I was fighting. And I'm left wondering: am I just playing them wrong?
I'd love to interject here to detail what Torchlight II is about, but honestly, despite having watched the introduction twice I couldn't tell you a single thing about it. There's something about an Alchemist, something about some bad thing he did at the end of Torchlight I (like anyone finished Torchlight I), and then it just starts. People are sending you, whoever you are, off on missions to do something to stop the Alchemist from doing something else. I'm not wholly shocked that there hasn't been a Netflix series based on the concept. And I wasn't really motivated to follow the inter-mission intermissions either, with dialogue as eye-glazingly unreadable as the following:
"I have been expecting you. I am the Guardian of Air. Yes, the Alchemist has already come to the Ossean Wastes, and has allied himself with the vile Ezrohir, presumably to aid their impending attack on Zeryphesh.
The Guardian of Mana has pursued the Alchemist into the Forsaken Vaults, which are guarded by the Sphinx. Seek the Vaults, and convince the Sphinx to grand you entry. The Guardian is in great danger ... if not from the Alchemist, then from the Netherim."
If I were reading this, I'd think I was making some of that up, so banal and generic is it in its delivery of Fantasy Speak (TM). So here's a screenshot to prove it. The only thing I changed were the double-spaces after full-stops because I have some standards.
Perhaps my first mistake was figuring out a way to map everything to my mouse. (Aside: I, and it seems from searching, a lot of other people thought it wasn't possible to map lots of actions to the mouse. Because I, and lots of other people, were trying to map said controls in the second column in the options. Force of habit from three decades of gaming, leaving the original controls in the first column, putting my errant alts in the alt field. Turns out in TL2 the second column is for modifiers, and I'm glad I'm not alone in having not noticed.) Move/Attack on Mouse 1, obviously. Skill on Mouse 2, swap skills on the middle button, and then I set up scroll to roll through all available skills - I mean, when does anyone actually ever zoom in on these games except for screenshots? I put my and the pet's inventories onto buttons 4 and 5, and turned sideways to my desk to put my feet up. Left hand was free to fiddle with these here magnets, thank you.
I'm wondering if just doing this alone was enough to break the spell. Sure, I was slightly inconvenienced not being able to hold Shift to send inventory items between menus, but that was hardly the biggest deal. I could play this purely through side-eye. And didn't struggle for it, on Normal, deliberately seeking out dungeons just above my level.
It wasn't until I started writing this that I realised my mistake. In trying to capture what was wrong, why I wasn't finding the love this time out, I went back to my original review and read this line:
"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."
There's an unwritten rule of games criticism that you play games on "Normal". Normal is the mode the game is intended for, the default the developers expect most people to play on. You can't play a game on Hard and then complain it's too hard, nor Easy and then lament the lack of challenge. You just Normal. And seven years on, seven years since all the Diablo III controversy and the sense that Torchlight II was its happy-go-lucky cousin, I'd forgotten all this. I assumed I played on Normal then, and was playing on Normal now.
Fixing this wasn't so easy. There's no in-built way in Torchlight II to change the difficulty level on the fly. Eff eff ess. I didn't want to start over! And then I found a way. Ridiculously, choosing to play as LAN instead of Single Player, you can create a LAN game with the difficulty settings of your choice, and then start off from the last main base with your current character. That's very silly. I have to play single-player LAN now.
Increasing the difficulty doesn't transform Torchlight II from clickfest to intricate strategic battle game, you probably won't be shocked to learn. It just means everything takes longer, and you suddenly die more often. There's perhaps more call for more strategic switching between available skills for different circumstances, and most of all, concentration is required. No more Mr Robot.
Now, I know for CERTAIN that there are people who play these games on difficulty settings the likes of scum like me don't even know how to find, and they find them a breeze. I know that for some Diablo is a recreational sport, that min-max their way to perfection, and have Very Strong Opinions about people like me. But screw those guys.
And yet, even with things tougher, I still couldn't find all the previous magic. So what's changed? Clearly it's not the game, so it really can only be me. I just find myself wanting more from it. And I think what I want is to care. I don't want some heart-rending story or literary masterpiece - I just want to care a jot about why I'm fighting my way across yet another map, to yet another dungeon, to open yet another chest. With such life-drainingly dreadful exposition, it's barely possible to read to the end of a quest-giver's excuse for asking you to do the same thing you've already done for a 48th time. There's no motivation! That it barely bothers to have a story in the first place seems an oversight. That it then fails to craft a world as you explore it seems worse.
Going back to my original review, I agree with most of it! I love the colours, the location variety, the range of enemies. And it's crucial not to forget that TL2 came out a few months after Diablo III, and in 2012 adding some colour was really damned welcome. I talked then about how bloody dreadful the story was, but apparently didn't mind. I mind now! I want some purpose, some drive.
Clearly Torchlight II is still good. It just reviewed extremely well on its console releases this Autumn. (Although I delight that one PS4 review opined that it was a "budget Diablo III clone"! Yeah, a game that came out four months after Diablo III, and made by, er, the creators of Diablo...) I think the crucial factor is, in 2012 I was able to report that while it added nothing new to the genre, it was still joyful anyway. Now, seven years later, that lack of innovation catches up with it.
Can I still play Torchlight II?
Absolutely. Like no time has passed, it runs straight away in any modern resolutions at a solid 60fps. No issues here at all.
Should I still play Torchlight II?
Hmmmmm. Look, this is a staple of the genre, from Fate's Travis Baldree and Diablo's Max and Eric Schaefer. It does ARPG exactly as it was done in the 2000s, albeit a couple of years after the 2000s were over. It absolutely delivers on that. I just feel like, when Path Of Exile and Grim Dawn exist, and Titan Quest still working just fine on PC, it's harder to justify. It's bright, colourful, far less silly-brooding than the norm, and that's still great. But... I dunno, it feels like it's maybe had its day?