Behind The Times: Torchlight

Please note that, like always, you can click on the screenshots for bigger versions.

I originally intended to finish playing Torchlight in time for the release of Torchlight 2. Then I injured my wrist, and since Torchlight is a 2-handed game, I had to take a break and play other things. Now, I’ve gone back and finally finished it.

Before I start, a little history: I’ve written many posts on roguelikes, and several more on roguelike-likes, games that borrow design elements from roguelikes and fuse them into other gameplay styles. But the most famous roguelike-like was Blizzard’s 1996 game Diablo. Diablo took the dungeon-crawl premise of most roguelikes — complete with procedurally generated floors, hordes of enemies to fight, and heaps of randomized loot to find — and fused it with a fast-paced real-time combat system. While Diablo did not feature perma-death like most roguelikes, where dying meant starting the whole game over, it did offer serious consequences for failure: there was no manual save system, with the game instead saving automatically when quitting, so it was never possible to reload an old game to reverse a mistake. Dying meant respawning in town without any of your stuff, and having to make a dangerous run to your corpse to recover it. This kept the tense feel of a roguelike without punishing the player too harshly for not having clicked on an enemy quickly enough. [EDIT: Diablo II did feature an optional “hardcore” mode with permadeath — thanks to jefequeso for pointing this out.]

Diablo was an instant hit, spawning its own genre known as the action role-playing game (abbreviated to action-RPG or ARPG). Today, nearly all role-playing games are called action-RPGs because they tend to feature real-time combat systems that play out similarly to action games, but back in 1996 the term applied exclusively to Diablo clones. And there were many, although none managed to unseat the Diablo series as the leader of the genre. Torchlight is a more recent Diablo clone, and has the distinction of being developed by some of the same people who worked on Diablo and Diablo II. While I enjoyed the Diablo games (mostly having played the second), I was never that interested in their dark, demon-filled world. Torchlight’s colorful locales were much more enticing.

Torchlight was released during the long wait between Diablo II and Diablo III. Most people viewed it as a fun diversion, something to play while they waited. Then Diablo III actually came out, and it was divisive. The requirement to be online at all times, even when playing single-player, turned off many, while others were bothered by the changes to character skill systems. These players started to look on the Torchlight series more favorably, with many hoping Torchlight 2 would be the game they wished Diablo 3 had been. Now, Torchlight 2 has been released to no small acclaim. How does it hold up against Blizzard’s Diablo III?

I don’t know, because I’m behind the times. I’ve only just finished the first Torchlight. So, let’s see how the series started.

Torchlight borrows quite a lot from the first two Diablo games. It’s structured like the first Diablo, with a single town atop a giant, multi-floor dungeon, but features the distinct character classes with their own upgradeable skill trees from Diablo II. Loot is color-coded by quality and rarity just as it is in the Diablo games. There’s a merchant who will let you gamble on unidentified magic items, which comes straight out of Diablo II. Unique items make an appearance, as do set items, which confer additional bonuses if your character is wearing multiple pieces from the set. There are even socketed items, which are customizable by placing pieces of ember (analogous to gems in the Diablo series) into the sockets to provide extra enchantments. Combat with hordes of monsters is punctuated by procedurally generated “mini-boss” enemies with unique names, just like in Diablo II. Even some of the sound effects are nearly identical.

There are differences, however. Every character gets a pet (at launch, the options were a dog or a cat, but a ferret was added later, based off of a user-made mod), which will fight alongside you and, most importantly, can be sent back to town to sell all the junk you’ve collected. In a game that’s primarily about acquiring loot, this is an excellent addition that removes a lot of the busywork, letting the player keep adventuring without having to head back to town every ten minutes. The biggest difference, though, is that Torchlight is single-player only. One of the most popular features of the Diablo series (especially the second game) was the ability to play through cooperatively with a friend (or several), usually as different character classes who could work together and support each other. Torchlight does not allow that (although its sequel does), which will turn off many players. But I still found it quite engaging.

Part of why it works is through the design of the character classes. At first the choices seem to be the bog-standard fighter, rogue or mage, but a look through the skill trees available to each reveals a lot more depth than that. Each class can be specialized into three major roles, but the player is free to mix and match skills from each. For example, the mage can stick to ranged magical attacks, or become more of a magic-buffed melee fighter. Most importantly, each class gets skills designed to dominate hordes of enemies all by themselves. While in Diablo II many skills were designed for co-op play — like the Paladin’s ability to provide buffs for the whole group or the Necromancer’s corpse explosion skill which works best when an ally is providing the corpses — skills in Torchlight are designed to make each character a solo powerhouse. Especially in the middle and late stages of the game, I found that strategic use of my various skills allowed me to effectively control crowds, avoid damage and efficiently eliminate packs of enemies in an extremely satisfying manner.

I picked the Vanquisher class, which is Torchlight’s rogue archetype, specializing in ranged weapons. I typically find ranged combat to be far less satisfying than melee in these types of games, but I’d heard good things about the Vanquisher in Torchlight and I wanted to try something different from my standard melee fighter. Unfortunately, this is what she looks like:

Apparently she decided that heading into battle wearing a corset and miniskirt is a good idea. Also, when standing still she cycles through various fashion model poses that look completely ridiculous. I hoped that maybe she’d get more appropriately attired once I found some armor; after all, according to the game she was actually not wearing anything when I started. Maybe she’s just in her underwear? Sadly, armor didn’t help. I was briefly comforted by a suit of chainmail which actually covered her entire torso (but not her legs), but then I upgraded to plate mail, which looks like this:

I honestly do not understand why art designers do this. Making characters that are distinctly female while still wearing appropriate armor is not that hard. Sometimes I wonder whether active thought is put into it at all; perhaps scantily-clad women in fantasy art are so pervasive that it simply becomes the default? If you ask an artist to draw a female warrior, do you automatically get a woman in a chainmail bikini, because that image is so ingrained in our heads? What’s most annoying about it is that in Torchlight, part of the appeal is watching your character’s appearance change as you grow in power and find better equipment. It’s nice visual feedback on your progress. But my Vanquisher kept putting on lingerie instead of armor. I didn’t want her to look sexy, I wanted her to look like a badass who just fought through an army of goblins. I can’t imagine that the developers spent much time thinking about how Torchlight would appeal to female players, seeing as the only female character prances around in underwear while the men get to look like warriors.

Actually playing as the Vanquisher, however, was quite fun. Unlike other Diablo-style games I’ve played, ranged weapons in Torchlight felt great, especially the guns. Modeled after early firearms like flintlock pistols and blunderbuses, guns in Torchlight are fantastically loud and fun to use. While I could have focused on my ranged attacks by building skills that allowed bullets to ricochet between several enemies or explode on contact, I opted for traps instead. But these traps aren’t placed, they’re hurled, like grenades. In fact, the first one literally is a grenade, a lightning bomb that does high damage and sends out smaller lightning bolts to hit other enemies. Later, I was able to throw flamethrowers or machine-gun turrets into packs of enemies, while I sniped from the sidelines. While my Vanquisher couldn’t take too much punishment, by throwing down the right traps and keeping my distance I was devastatingly effective.

Skill advancement works a lot better than in Diablo 2, which is the closest reference point. In that game, I felt the need to hoard my skill points until I was high level and could throw them all into the few skills I planned to use. This strategy doesn’t work in Torchlight because every level of every skill has its own level requirement, so even if I’d saved up 5 points to put into a skill that’s unlocked at level 5, I would only be able to spend one of those, since the next level of that skill requires my character to be level 6. This means I was encouraged to spend points as soon as I acquired them, and indeed I needed to in order to have the tools to survive. Each skill can be upgraded a total of ten times, which really makes a difference; even the lowly lightning bomb was still useful right up until the end of the game.

But despite having satisfying skills and tons of loot to find, the basic gameplay in these types of games is inevitably repetitive. In Torchlight, each dungeon floor boils down to many separate packs of enemies to slay, usually with the same tactics as the pack before. But Torchlight is able to keep things fresh with some superb visual and audio feedback. I already mentioned the fantastic sound my guns made, but not the way they felt; impacts on enemies were visceral and critical hits felt especially powerful. Visual effects are fantastic too; from the satisfying electrical explosion of the lightning bomb up through the rapid-fire flechette trap and pulsing devouring trap, every ability looked cool and felt powerful. By the late game battles were crazy explosions of lightning and fire, a cacophony of light and sound as my traps and I tore through the hordes. Sure, I may have been wading through the same packs of enemies over and over, but I was having a great time doing it.

And let’s not forget where I was doing it. The environments in Torchlight are simply gorgeous. While still an isometric game, largely played on 2D planes, the 3D graphics provide more than just fancy visual effects. Bridges span chasms, cliffs overlook deeper tunnels, waterfalls cascade into the depths below. Every five floors brings a new environment with a unique look, and all of them are colorful and wonderfully realized. While the core progression loop was fun, it was really the environments that kept me going, and I happily descended through 25 floors to face the final baddie.

Except, er… Torchlight’s dungeon has 35 floors. And I really lost steam towards the end. That’s the biggest problem I had with the game: it’s too long. If I’d faced the final boss ten floors earlier I would have been fully satisfied with the game, but even with all its charms Torchlight can’t stay engaging forever. It didn’t help that the final two environments are the least interesting of the bunch, either. Loot had run dry too; I gambled on an enchanted rifle and ended up with something so absurdly powerful that nothing I found could compare. This appeared to be a fluke, as gambling on other stuff never yielded anything as good, but it spoiled the fun of finding new stuff. The rifle would have easily lasted me to the end if I hadn’t tried to enchant it and had it wiped of all its enchantments instead (that can happen if you’re unlucky). Without those it was sub-par, so I faced the final few floors with new equipment, but it wasn’t enough to get me interested again. But I persevered and finished the game — for you, my readers. No, not really… I’m just very stubborn. Amusingly, after finishing the storyline I learned that there was a new, fully randomized dungeon I could enter, complete with randomized quests, so I could keep going. As if I’d want to slog through more dungeon floors.

There are some other minor annoyances too. For some reason, enchanted items aren’t identified when you find them. This harkens back to classic roguelikes, when mysterious magic items could be powerfully enchanted or cursed, and it was a calculated risk to use an item that hadn’t been identified. But in Torchlight, you can’t use unidentified items, so this has absolutely no effect on gameplay. It just forces the player to stock up on identify scrolls for no reason. I also found that the vast majority of loot I found was junk, with only the occasional piece I actually wanted to use, but being able to send my pet back to town to sell stuff mitigated this somewhat. And I was a bit confused by the fishing minigame. There are fishing holes scattered throughout the dungeon where the player can stop and catch some fish via a simple timing game. Fish can be fed to one’s pet to transform it into a more powerful creature temporarily, which could be useful for some fights, and fishing sometimes provided a quiet respite from all the action, but it did seem a bit out of place. I will admit to liking the map scrolls though. Sometimes I received a map scroll as a quest reward, which opened a portal to a lost section of the mines beneath the town. Some of these places were hand-crafted rather than procedurally generated, and all of them were tougher than the main dungeon, which provided a nice challenge. Also, the loot was better. Still, in a game that already felt too long, after a while I didn’t want my quest rewards to be more dungeon floors.

But the thing is, if you find yourself tiring of Torchlight, there’s no need to see it all the way through. Unless you happen to be extremely stubborn like me. The story is thin and inconsequential — the magic ember in the mine beneath the town has been corrupted by an evil presence, basically — and there’s never any unexpected twists or turns that you’ll feel guilty about missing. What Torchlight is really about is summed up by that infinite, random dungeon I got access to at the end. It’s about fighting through tons of monsters, building powerful combinations of skills, and finding tons of cool loot, and doing that for as long as you want. If that time span happens to be shorter than the game’s storyline, that’s fine. It’s still great fun, and I certainly didn’t regret the purchase.

Before closing I should mention that Torchlight 2 is now out. Every person I’ve heard from who’s played it says it’s way better than the first game, and it allows co-op play too. From the website it seems that the female characters might even be clad in (slightly) more appropriate attire. I intend to play it eventually, but I need a break to play something else first. Besides, I’m already behind the times. But it seems that most people are recommending it over the first game. Both games have free demos to try out first, which could help with the decision.

As for me, it’s time to play some other games that everyone else has already played. Onwards!

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2 Responses to Behind The Times: Torchlight

  1. jefequeso says:

    IIRC, didn’t Diablo II have a “hardcore” mode with permadeath?

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