Glorious Past Reborn
Just because a game doesn't do much that's new, doesn't mean it can't be one of the year's best. Torchlight is a perfect example of this. Developed by the ex-Diablo designers at Runic Games, this is a classically shaped dungeon crawl through and through, with monsters to kill, loot to collect, and hours of your life to be lost. But with a ton of brilliant refinements to a standard formula, Torchlight ends up being one of the greatest examples of the genre, and a game I'll be playing for months from now.
The fantasy hamlet of Torchlight is host to some sort of strange, ancient corruption, and it's up to your character to delve underneath the town and smoke the threat out. You can choose from three classes – the brawny Destroyer, nimble Vanquisher, or arcane Alchemist – and decide on having either a canine or feline companion for the game's duration. After these simple choices, you're set out into the world. Fans of Diablo will find a lot of similarities here; you'll level up quickly by killing monsters and completing quests, spend stat and skill points, and find tons of weapons, armour, and accessories that constantly improve your character.
Any action RPG fan will tell you that the loot is what counts, and luckily, Torchlight delivers in spades. Nary a moment went by when I wasn't picking up a new flaming sword or some unique shoulder armour. The game uses a familiar colour-coded system similar to games like Warcraft or Borderlands, and it works just as well here. What's better here, though, is how basically any magic item you find is useful. I found that very few of the items I was finding were a complete waste, and I was switching gear often just to try out all the combinations I had in front of me.
Skill sets in Torchlight are similarly useful, as they typically use percentages instead of plain numbers for their stats. Because of this, your character's skills never become obsolete. My Destroyer was still using skills he had learned at level six at level twenty-five, and with great success, simply because the skill used a percentage of his physical damage to work. There's also no real prerequisites, leaving you free to experiment with any skills you wish. The freedom to try the full breadth of your character's skills feels great, and the game gives you enough skill points to try things out without spreading yourself too thin.
Along the way, there are tons of little features that don't sound like much on their own, but add up to make Torchlight the superlative dungeon crawling experience that it is. It all starts with your pet. He fights with you. You can equip him with accessories to boost his stats. You can change him into different forms by feeding him fish that you catch (don't ask). And best of all, you can fill up his separate inventory and send him back to town to sell it, all without you having to return and do it yourself. It keeps you doing the fun stuff while the game takes care of what would be mundane. It's awesome.
A lot of other tweaks help you in similar ways. The shared stash is a lifesaver; a chest in the north end of town that is accessible across all the characters you make in Torchlight. So when my Destroyer found a sweet unique staff that he had no use for, I tossed it in there for when I would inevitably start an Alchemist. You don't have to create mule characters or any of that garbage – the game has you covered. Of course, you'll get a personal stash of your own, along with specialized denizens in town that can enchant weapons, sell you potions, or even remove gems from your gear after you socket them (though you have to choose whether the gear or gems will be destroyed in the process). Torchlight doesn't screw you for trying things out; it encourages you instead. With all these great options available, it's clear that a lot of game industry veterans worked on this title.
While you make your way through the continuous dungeon floors, you have two main metrics to progress; experience and fame. The former you get for killing monsters, and the latter...comes from killing bigger, unique monsters with larger health bars and special abilities. Of course, you'll be boosting your stats and skill power with each level, as well as becoming eligible to use new abilities and equipment. Levelling up your fame nets you more invaluable skill points to pump into your talents. Both of these increase quickly, so even playing for a few minutes at a time has a sense of accomplishment to it.
A superb, streamlined presentation complements the game's mechanics wonderfully. Torchlight is made up of simple geometry, bright colours, and dramatic lighting effects, and the end result looks excellent. It's a style that befits this kind of game perfectly, and the cartoony look to all of your gear really makes it stand out and look unique. It just goes to show you that graphics don't have to be cutting edge to impress. A dramatic score accompanies the action, and while it's not exactly memorable, it sets the tone without missing a beat. Beyond all that, this is a game designed to run on virtually any system. My video card is definitely not top-of-the-line, and I was able to run this game at 1920x1080 resolution with all settings maxed. It's very scalable, and there's even a “Netbook Mode” that cuts down the visual flair significantly but gets the job done.
Torchlight will go down in my book as the game that made action RPGs accessible to pretty much anyone, and all without compromising the key elements of the genre for longtime players. It cuts down or eliminates the most boring and stodgy parts of its genre and polishes what's left; tons of items to collect, powerful skills to learn, lots of different monsters to kill, and interesting places to do it all in. If you've played games like Diablo and hated them, Torchlight still might be able to change your mind. If you've enjoyed these kinds of games in the past, be prepared to lose a lot of sleep over this one. It may be the most refined, enjoyable game of its type I've played.