My quest for the perfect action-RPG, the elusive Nox-killer, continues. I’ve heard a lot about Titan Quest over the years, constant rumours of its goodness, but it was never purchaseable so I shrugged and moved on.
I think you already know how this story begins. A remaster appears on gog.com, it is deeply launch-discounted, and gosh, I’m not playing anything right now.
Alas, this is the point where I need to stop searching for good action-RPGs and concede that what I want from the genre is at absolute odds with what everybody else in the entire world wants from the genre (and thereby gets produced).
Every time somebody said “action-RPG”, somebody else whispered “Titan Quest“, and the forum thread collectively sighed with longing. Even Dionesiist said it was good, and he knows his stuff!
I don’t understand it. Titan Quest is, like all the other “good” action-RPGs out there, flat.
This time, you are born into the world only having chosen your gender and the colour of your tunic. Choice of class comes when you level up for the first time, after having smacked a couple of satyrs around the head. I picked Storm Caller because a few lightning bolts seemed like a good way to perk up a warrior, then added Defence later on for the Shield Rush ability (Bull’s Charge by any other name would smell as sweet?).
Enemies are scattered liberally but regularly across the countryside and a succession of characters will send you trouncing through them along the main quest. Sometimes they’re satyrs, sometimes they’re centaurs, sometimes they’re just crows and pigs — but whether it’s an enemy camp or a cave or open fields, as long as you haven’t been there yet, it’s full of enemies.
I think this is one of my major gripes — because the scattering of enemies is so uniform there’s no texture to your travels, no spikes and lulls. You just exist, trudging onwards, rinsing and repeating the same dull actions without variation and without end.
And those action are very dull. It has the same irritatingly ambiguous left-click-does-everything control scheme as every other action-RPG, where you just hold down the left button until the thing under your cursor deigns to fall over.
Sometimes you cast a spell, but casting a spell requires you to activate it and then click a target, rather than just firing forwards, so it breaks the flow of combat something awful. The buttons are not entirely responsive either, so sometimes spells will fire off in the wrong direction for no good reason, or if you didn’t notice the spell was in cooldown you’ll start attacking an enemy you only wanted to blast. This is another point where Nox wins: when you press a button the action happens in the direction of the cursor, giving it a sense of immediacy and sharpness that just isn’t possible with this more common control scheme.
Skills are as uniform as the enemy placement anyway. “Improving” skills by putting points into them may make them deal more damage, but it similarly increases their mana cost and enemies gain more hitpoints too so you’re never actually getting better — only spinning a statistical hamster wheel where everything is proportionally stable. What’s the point?
Death is irrelevant as usual, only a minor inconvenience as you wake up at the last Rebirth Fountain (yes, not even an attempt to dress it up in the fiction). This is invariably barely a minute’s run away from where you died — and since you’ve already killed everything it’s not even an eventful minute.
Because death is meaningless there’s nothing to fear, and with nothing to fear there is no tension. Is that a boss enemy that might take some effort to defeat? Meh, I can die or not and what difference will it really make? Five minutes more? Whatever, I can buy more potions while I’m in town.
We all complain about grind in games, but to me grind is just an expression that the core loop is unsatisfying. If combat is enjoyable, then there is no such thing as grinding, only fun repeatedly tackling challenges with a good set of tools. Here, there are thousands upon thousands of enemies but the tools available are just a bit cack.
Loot, at least, seems to be items that were actually carried by the enemies you’ve just dispatched. Wild animals drop related charms that can be applied to your items to boost them, while civilised enemies will drop the weapons and armour they were using before you murdered them.
There’s even inventory tetris, which in another time would have pleased me but here feeds straight back into the absolute pointlessness of everything. You can portal back to town, any town you’ve visited, any time you like, with no limits and no fear. As if the negligible effects of death weren’t bad enough, the trials of organising your inventory are irrelevant because you can jump away and sell everything in seconds — and even use your portal to get out of difficult combat if you like!
I just don’t understand what it is about this particular formula that seems to get everybody else foaming at the mouth but leaves me cold. Loki was a pile of shit with a few nice ideas but now I can tell how much it just aped Titan Quest. Torchlight II is at least slick and stylish and pretty, but ultimately it’s as hollow and pointless as this.
I don’t want to hate action-RPGs. My love for Nox may be evergreen but I would like to play and love other things too, things that refine and tweake and evolve that formula. Instead, everything has chosen to evolve this formula; this formula which is (to me) fundamentally bland and uninspiring. Despite the praise, Titan Quest has turned out to be just another notch on the same old boring, empty bedpost as all the rest.
I refuse to believe that I am the only one in the sixteen years since Nox was released to think its ways are worth developing. Even if nothing major followed its lead, then where at least are the mid-tier games, the hidden gems that didn’t make the mainstream? They must exist. I can’t be the only one to even attempt to follow the trail Nox blazed. No. Fucking. Way.