They say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I was vaguely interested in Torchlight at the time, but based on its status as a digital-download-only title and rumours that it was just a cash cow for an eventual MMO, it fell by the wayside (ain’t no way I’m funding an MMO if I can help it).
Then GoG.com offered it to me for free. Free. What kind of man would I be if I refused?
My experience of real top-down hack ‘n’ slash action RPGs is actually surprisingly limited. I’ve never played, for example, the hallowed reference point Diablo II (then again, I think Starcraft sucks so I’d probably hate Diablo II as well). I was too busy sinking half my childhood into Baldur’s Gate, my first ever play of which lasted more than 365 days of in-game time.
Which is funny because, while I suck at strategy and tactics and thinking things through, I’ve got a mean set of reflexes (or at least, I had a mean set of reflexes back then).
So Torchlight is pretty no-frills. The titular town itself is miniscule and offers nothing more than shops and stashes and a few commoners with minor quests that you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter as you delve into the dungeon.
The levels are simple: continue forward until you reach the exit, while fending off all the bad guys. And I do mean, all the bad guys — it is all about gleefully chopping through huge piles of enemies rather than carefully taking down small squads. If they’re not already on the ground, then they’ll pour out of the walls or erupt from mine shafts as you walk past. Luckily even the man-mountain Berserker has huge area-damage skills open to him, so once you’ve grinded a few side quests to get ahead of the press and those area-damage skills can one-hit most of those minions…
Skills might be class limited, but luckily equipment isn’t. Rather, it’s limited by your attributes, which can be incremented with each level gained. My Berserker, then, is as happy with a sword and shield as he is dual-wielding handguns.
Structurally, though, I do feel that it labours the point a bit much. The levels feel overlong, and in each tileset there are three or four floors before you reach some kind of climax and move on to the next biome.
On the other hand, it is kind of addictive. The game is, depending on your skill choices and stat distribution, pretty much as cheap or as tactical as you want it to be.
I quite like the way there are portals to miniature bonus levels.
Sure, they’re more of the same (slightly ho hum), but I like the concept of a “phase beast” dying and leaving behind a portal leading to a secret room full of fun. Or the map scrolls you can just buy from shops, or that come as quest rewards. They could have made more of this feature by making all-new tilesets intead of recycling the game ones (by the end of the first two hours I was thoroughly fed up of the mining tunnels), but it’s a cool idea. A bit like all the pocket planes of Planescape: Torment, I guess, or the secret levels in Quake II.
One of things that really rather annoys me about this game is the proliferation of loot. It’s everywhere.
As if full suits of armour and giant polearms springing from dead spiders and jellies wasn’t bad enough, there are chests and armour racks scattered across the land too. It’s a problem because after a certain point it ceases to have any meaning; it’s just more junk to be sold off (said selling made convenient by the presence of a companion pet, who can be sent back to town with a boat-load to sell while you get on with the dungeon diving).
The other problem with the loot is that there’s so much of it and so much of it is only better than what you’re wearing by tiny increments. It makes comparing things a pain, and it means there’s never an appreciable jump in your capabilities — you never start to feel a favourite sword is holding you back, but you can’t quite afford/find a better one, and then you find a better one and it’s sweet rapture. No, there is just an endless treadmill of tiny steps.
Mass Effect also suffered quite heavily from this effect, and I guess Divinity II did a bit too. Too much equipment spoils the broth? Then again, so does too little — Mass Effect 2 went too far in the other direction, to the point where I basically never changed guns for the entire game.
On a more mechanical note, I do have to call out the control scheme. Left-click both moves and attacks, depending on whether or not your cursor is on top of something, making it a real pain to attack from range without walking towards that hulking great troll that can kill you in three hits. Sure, the game provides hold-down-the-shift-button-to-stand-still, but that seems a bit counter-intuitive when you could just have left-click-to-do-stuff and right-click-to-move like Nox. Nox Nox Nox.
Instead, right-click is used for one quick spell/skill cast. But I can already quick-cast spells from the hotkeys 1 to 9, so it seems a little bit redundant when adding that quick cast makes navigation and basic attacks that much more troublesome. (Speaking of 1 to 9, I’d rather have QWER or, heaven forfend, be able to choose my own hotkeys. Venetica let me map all nine slots to the number pad, and let me tell you, that‘s a rare treat. It’s strange because Torchlight is kind enough to offer graphical options like “Netbook Mode”, but won’t let you anywhere near the keyboard mappings.)
To be honest… I’m kind of glad I didn’t fork over cash for this. It’s fine. It’s clean and bright and pretty and it runs on full power like a dream.
But there’s something missing, some elusive context that would give that click-fest some meaning. I guess that’s why I fall away from the haters that want games to be just, well, games — pure and untainted by the trappings of story. Story gives actions meaning, and while Torchlight‘s systems are engaging enough (endless equipment aside), without meaning there’s little draw to keep going and no real feeling of satisfaction once that horrendous hitpoint-sack of a final boss is finally down.
Nox got the balance right. Torchlight doesn’t.
On the other hand, Nox didn’t have a level editor…