You’re right, I was a bit ambivalent about the first Torchlight, even though I got it for free. There were still things to like about it, though, and I was in the mood for some more pretty-but-brainless hacking and slashing and then Torchlight II went on sale on gog.com.
Yes, it’s the same old story. Shall we?
Luckily, one of my major gripes about Torchlight — that you couldn’t remap the controls — has actually been addressed. I’ve put the skills I care about into QWER and I’ve even managed to make the right-click button make the hero only move. Unfortunately left-click is still an ambiguous move/attack rather than solely an attack button, but almost there!
Thankfully that ambiguous attack/move is actually much less ambiguous this time anyway. Even if the solution has been to give every enemy a much more generous hitbox, it has definitely improved if not achieved Nox-like perfection.
Interestingly, weapons seem to have an arc of damage too — so attacking the single enemy directly under your cursor may well take out three or four of their neighbours too. That means that my proposed control scheme (or rather, Nox‘s control scheme), where left-click is only attack and right-click is only move, would surely fit perfectly and not even be difficult to implement here! So close, Torchlight, so close!
Otherwise, it’s a tune-up and a massive content boost. I said that in Torchlight each biome seemed to overstay its welcome, and so far Torchlight II has introduced much more variety, or at least faster cuts between varied areas. No more is it five levels of mine then five levels of cave then five levels of something else, but pleasant chunks of outdoor overworld that lead into more but shorter dungeons.
The overworld is populated with sporadic side quests and optional dungeons to keep the larger expanses in check. I’ve been down a couple of tombs and caves of different styles, but there have also been “Phase Beast Challenge” maps that add some very superficial puzzling to the mix too.
So, yes, fundamentally the same gameplay structure and level sequence. But it’s the disguise these mechanics wear that make a game more than just a spreadsheet, so having more aethetic chopping and changing keeps you from obsessing over the numbers rather than the world.
The enemies are also much more varied. Hover your mouse over anything and it’ll have at least one note about the species or variant’s particular behaviour, from natural animal things like the Armadax’s heavy plates blocking attacks to the spells and tactics of civilised creatures.
Champion versions of creatures also appear sporadically amongst the common rabble. These are classic Warcraft III-style minibosses — take a normal creature, scale it up by 5 or so, and slap on a heap of extra abilities at random. A giant crab is as likely to teleport around like a maniac as an evil ghost, but, oh well, it adds extra spice.
Except that, because enemies swarm in such vast numbers, the abilities of individuals are completely subsumed in the mass of pyrotechnics. If that enemy teleports, so what? There’s another three in the path of your sword anyway. All things will be chewed through, eventually, and it seems the game is actively doing itself a disservice by hiding its interesting behaviours in the riot. I know we’re in this to click lots of things to death, but maybe if we concentrated a bit more on clicking fewer things to death it might ultimately be more satisfying?
Loot is, of course, still not great. While having a vast pile of different locations and varied enemies to fight is great, I think I want the opposite for my character and their equipment. It’s classic information overload — having to weigh up whether +43 Ice Armour is more useful than +1.4 Mana Regen or +6 Strength is better than +2.5% Chance To Stun every five minutes is more than a little tiresome. Yes, I can ignore all the loot, but then the enemies suddenly start one-hitting me out of nowhere and the treadmill must be upheld.
Beyond that, every item also has so many properties. There are simple junk items that might have no enchantments at all, but most loot — the loot that is remotely relevant to your existence — is slathered with extra effects. With so little predictability in what up-coming enemies will actually be vulnerable to, these systems don’t even bring any extra strategy to the mix; they are just more numbers to worry about or gloss over.
I also still heartily dislike the compacting of damage and attack speed into “DPS” (damage per second). To me this undermines the illusion that this is a world with physical properties, and it brings everything back to spreadsheet management.
Sure, you need some numbers so that you can assess whether some item is better or not than another. I can see why they meld these two properties into DPS; it means you can effectively compare two unlike things on a level playing field. A fast-attacking sword with low damage becomes comparable with a snail’s-pace great-axe that one-hits everything.
Except that equalisation kind of spoils the fun, because the two weapons become conceptually indistinguishable too; I can tell completely scientifically that “this one is better” and everything more subconscious drifts away. Am I arguing for more ambiguity? Maybe — remember, I’m arguing that the key lies in disguising the raw mechanics as much as we can, and too many harsh mathematics spoil the fiction.
Could we just remove the attack speed factor and let our intuition lead the way? A two-handed warhammer looks larger, heavier and more unwieldy than a short-sword, so of course it will be slower to use.
Alas, no. As soon as I see that number, the illusion is sundered. It’s not exactly immersion that is broken, more like willing suspension of disbelief.
To be honest, though, it’s given me exactly what I wanted. It’s visually attractive and despite all the numbers mostly brainless, something a little bit new to while away the hours with. The environments and the creatures are pretty and there’s always something new to discover and kill horribly.
You are, however, absolutely right. I should probably replay Nox again.