In the wait for Diablo III, Torchlight has been cause for celebration among those that wish for an effortless and predictable excursion into well-worn territory. But like Darkstone was to the deadspace between Diablo and Diablo II, Torchlight is being overvalued because of timing. I’ll certainly give Runic Games credit for creating a slick action role playing game that pays adequate homage to Blizzard’s seminal genre template, but Torchlight is in a genre holding pattern that is waiting for something else to take its place.
Indeed, Diablo is a name is guaranteed to be referenced when talking about any gear collecting, gold hoarding, point-click-kill marathon. And perhaps some developers think that this is something to aspire to, hoping to capture the players that don’t want to pay for an MMORPG by capitalizing on the success of a proven formula. But does the already diluted genre of role playing games need another Diablo clone?1 What is this really offering the platform of PC gaming, in a time when the industry is rightfully criticized for creating sequels and clones and sequels of clones?
That’s a pretty heavy topic for such an innocent genre retread to lead to – after all, Torchlight is instant and fleeting gratification at its most elemental. One would also be remiss in failing to point out that Torchlight is a front to fund Runic’s upcoming Free-to-Play/micropayment MMORPG2. There’s not much more you can say about Torchlight‘s intentions, even if like Neverwinter Nights the game and its toolset are being released to provide a product for the community with virtually endless replayability. Yet I was still compelled to spend many hours with Torchlight, because it closed the loop on something that was started almost five years ago.
I found the enthusiast press reaction to Torchlight a little disturbing. The critical reception seems to agree that there’s nothing to it; beyond the item hoarding and watching numbers go up, Torchlight offers no more than you would expect from an acolyte of Diablo, complete with a soundtrack that is essentially Matt Uelmen riffing on the themes from Diablo II. And for simply meeting these expectations, it has managed to receive generally positive reviews3, and has been included on many best of 2009 lists. Does Torchlight represent the triumph of the “indie” or “underdog” spirit? Are fans of the genre so desperate for a true successor to its figurehead that they are satisfied with design by association? This is another symptom indicative of the game industry’s ability to succeed by creating graphical updates of very old, overused game concepts. I don’t even buy refinement as an excuse, because it adds only a few minor flourishes to the design of Fate4, a game by WildTangent released in 2005. Travis Baldree, was the lead designer for Fate. He is also the lead designer for Torchlight.
The praise for Torchlight becomes highly suspect when there are no heavy references to Fate, because the similarities are obvious throughout the game’s proceedings. Runic’s development roster consists of a mixture of WildTangent, Blizzard North and Flagship Studios expatriates. Aside from some offhanded references to the pedigree of Torchlight‘s team in some reviews, it’s apparent no one bothered to make the connection. In 2005, Fate was named on many year-end lists, too5. It wasn’t a good year for role playing games.
The result is that Torchlight is presented by the enthusiast press as a minor revelation, and one can only conclude that these are the opinions of people who never played Fate. Indeed, the pet that brought unwanted gear back to town for gold was a fantastic idea, and seems to be one that many advocates of the game latch on to. The same goes for the shared Item Stash that can be accessed by all of the characters saved on the same computer. However, like many other concepts in Torchlight, these features were directly transplanted from Fate. And it’s a good thing; in many ways, Torchlight is the game I wished Fate had been. It unquestionably exhibits a more cohesive presentation, so I didn’t feel like my character was some paper doll wandering around in randomly drawn levels fighting randomly spawned creatures dropping randomly generated items. Torchlight has a common thread, and as tenuous as it may be, there is at least some goal to achieve in this game beyond nursing a sore index finger.
What arises from this scenario is a question of the acceptable level of ignorance for reviewing a game of a particular genre. The same could be said of a publication that gives a fighting game to someone who dislikes them, and expects a fair review to be produced. But if a reviewer knew or cared to point out it was simply a visual upgrade to something that had been done previously – by some of the same people, no less – would it have elicited the same response? I can’t help but get the sense that Torchlight is receiving the treatment of the typical independent or low-key release that does something noteworthy, so that critics can give it the requisite pat on the head and move on to the next high-profile release. Like my feelings towards Borderlands, I refuse to accept that Torchlight‘s greatness is supported by its ability to be a faithful recreation of the mechanics of Diablo.
The three character classes offered by Torchlight are a welcome change to Fate‘s non-template, where there were no classes and the system was so open you could create whatever you wanted6. But what initially appeared as flexible is actually a poorly implemented system that makes you wonder what is in front of you after experimenting with all the skill point options and delving through fifty levels of random dungeon. Torchlight only allows the increase of the same basic attributes of any action RPG: Strength, Dexterity, Magic and Defense, and they all start off at the more or less the same value and provide the same benefits to each class (More strength means better armour and melee damage, more Magic means more Magic Damage, etc.). Playing an Alchemist felt very close to a fighter-mage, provided I was equipped with suitable armor and a staff with large damage output. In fact, there are very little trade-offs for system optimizers that want to create melee hybrid classes, making the starting class choice meaningless except for the Skills that accompany them.
The Skill selection for each class is uninteresting, but serviceable. The skills are entirely dependent on character level; there is no “tree” of prerequisites. Thus, there is no commitment from the player to a particular branch of special abilities; most can simply be ignored until more powerful ones become available and cherry-picked out of the set. In fact, the mid-level skills (such as Ember Lance and Ember Lighting, the case of the Alchemist) feel so overpowered that there isn’t much use in spending points on anything else. Saving up Skill points becomes a common strategy. It is also odd that spell scrolls were included as an alternate source of magic. This is more of a carryover from Diablo, where a Warrior class could actually learn a Fireball spell if the scroll was picked up as an item drop. There are only four slots to store these spells, and un-learning them destroys the scroll. This isn’t as much of a sacrifice as it seems – the amount of spell scrolls that are dropped by monsters or purchased through vendors provides an ample supply to draw from. This seems like an element of design that was kept in by mistake; once again, the line for a character’s class is blurred when a Destroyer is able to wield a Level III fireball spell if they are willing to spend the Magic attribute points or have equipment that grants them. A more complicated skill tree with dependencies to make character builds more of an investment for the player would have synchronized Torchlight with its contemporaries.
In Fate, everything was randomly generated. Quests, items, the floors of the endless dungeon – even the “boss” monster to be faced at the end of the game was generated when a new character was started. By having a thread of quests based on an over-arching storyline, Torchlight avoids the same pitfalls of being inconsequential by providing a reason to keep going down into the dungeons. It’s the typical fledgling hero versus evil mage story, and the main characters in it don’t change every time you play the game. There is consistency in that, at least.
The dungeon levels in Torchlight are still randomly generated, but their layouts appear deliberate. And every seven levels, the surroundings change. It’s strange to see such a variation in environments going down through one set of catacombs, but Diablo did this too. There are new monsters to fight and they all seem to fit together with each level’s theme. It’s a welcome change from the obvious tileset and monster randomization of Fate. But once again Torchlight did not adopt what has become a genre convention: a surface world with more than one town, instead of stacking the differently themed levels.
Nevertheless, the structure and appearance of each dungeon level map are well-crafted and evoke an individual personality for Torchlight. There is a feeling of depth to each dungeon level, whether it’s through the layering of stairs or putting some inaccessible areas as background filler. This is one of the things I liked about the Barbarian Highlands in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, and was further illustrated by the outdoor regions in Titan Quest. It gives the impression of scale and that there is some substance to these areas.
Indeed, Torchlight‘s strongest attribute is its appearance. It looks light-hearted and fun, which is yet another element borrowed from Fate. But in Fate, the game suffered from overly cute character and monster design; there was nothing threatening about its adoption of a casual game’s aesthetic. Torchlight corrects this, so that the game bears enough of a resemblance to what’s expected of a fantasy setting in action role-playing games without drifting into the bland side of the spectrum like Darkstone or Dungeon Siege II. Clearly someone at Runic was paying attention to Blizzard’s philosophy behind the art direction of World of Warcraft.
Because Torchlight‘s scope is limited to one town, it is considerably scaled down from its contemporaries. There are only four people in the town that give out quests, and they all have a type of quest repeated for the whole game with the exception of quests related to the main story thread. The monsters that must be slain are random, the items that must be retrieved are random, and the rewards are random and usually junk when they should have been level and class-based. You will always find better equipment through item drops or even at the vendors, as the game does a terrific job of randomizing their supply. The various non-player characters offer up these quests as if you want to do them, but it hardly seems worth it aside from the experience grind. Runic obviously spent more time on the game’s appearance. Because like Fate, if you play Torchlight for more than five hours you come to realize there is no end to the randomization of the entire affair. There is no incentive to do any of the quests other than there is nothing else to do.
What becomes immediately obvious to veterans of this genre is the lack of difficulty. The most lively parts of the game are the boss or special monster encounters, which often result in drawn out battles of health potion attrition. While the experience and looting grind may be enough incentive to spend hours in the catacombs below the town, even on Hard Torchlight quickly becomes an exercise in tedium when it poses minimal resistance. Money is easy to obtain through selling most of the items that get dropped. There is no money sink through something like equipment degradation, so there is nothing preventing players from stocking up on potions to guarantee survival though most of the tougher mob and level boss encounters. When you die, you “choose your Fate”: respawn at the exact point of death for a loss of experience and renown, at the beginning of the level for a loss of money, or in town for no penalty. And since town portals are persistent between sessions, getting sent back to town is always the best option.
There are also waypoints located at each of the transition areas between the main sections of dungeon, but using these just results in a longer walk. There are no monster respawns on the cleared dungeon levels – even between sessions – so there is no way to earn experience simply by travelling through previously cleared areas, or added risk in retrieving your corpse. If the levelling treadmill provides no opposition, is the purpose of this game to just get to the end? You can’t even show off your character’s gear to anyone. Is it the infinite randomness? Last time I checked, you could go down 2,000,000-plus levels in Fate. While I’m reluctant to label Torchlight as more genre pollution7, Torchlight commits a similar mistake to Borderlands in assuming that providing a new skin for the same well-worn formula is enough. Though at least Torchlight isn’t coy about it.
Everyone likes to compliment Runic on their work in creating Torchlight‘s OGRE engine, and how the game had such a quick development cycle. I have no problems acknowledging this feat when presented with such a polished product. It’s evident that Runic wanted to create something familiar for fans of the genre, and for some people this is good enough. But I see Torchlight as a necessary step to something better. I think Runic did too.
Torchlight doesn’t have any multiplayer. That seems to be the biggest complaint I’ve seen in reviews of this game. And it’s a valid one, when multiplayer is typical among this game’s peers in the year 2009. I took the same exception to Fate, and now that the dungeon design resembles something with purpose, Torchlight would be the perfect pick-up game for a few friends. Given the pedigree of the design team, one would think that multiplayer would be a foregone conclusion. But I suspect it was omitted on purpose.
Torchlight was released mainly to test the OGRE engine and to gauge player response to the game and its setting. In general, the critical reception seems satisfied without multiplayer, so there’s no need to include it even as an add-on. Runic has already confirmed as much on the official forums. Instead, Runic continues to work towards their MMORPG based in the Torchlight universe. Torchlight was an experiment, and the players of the game are all willing test subjects. I’m willing to concede that Runic has my money because they are creating something bigger and better. And they might actually do it this time.
Torchlight is praised as a noteworthy re-imagining of Diablo‘s well-worn formula. And in the wait for Diablo III, I suppose anything will do for obsessive fans of the genre. One only needs to remember the reaction to Darkstone – a painfully mediocre action RPG released during the wait for Diablo II that even I fell victim to. But this adoration is untempered by greater expectations. Torchlight is a competent entry into the action RPG genre, but fails to compete with the games that have already succeeded its greatest influence. Instead, Torchlight limits itself to improving Fate‘s groundwork to make a game based on randomly generated content feel like a game, instead of the transient experience it actually is. Torchlight is not a revelation, but a game that provides enough genre touchstones under a slick appearance to disguise its reservation. Torchlight is the game Fate should have been: an endearing impersonator, but an impersonator nonetheless.
- This is a trick question, actually. We do, but it goes by the name of Diablo III. If anyone has any business modifying/touching the formula, it’s Blizzard. ↩
- Read an unofficial FAQ that answers some common questions about the Torchlight MMORPG. ↩
- As of this writing, Torchlight has an average score of 86% on GameRankings. The PC version of Darkstone has an average score of 77.5%. Though all I can remember is that glowing 90% review in the pages of PC Gamer. I used GameRankings because Metacritic does not have a listing for the PC version of Darkstone. ↩
- I wrote a review of Fate in March 2006. It’s amazing how much of the text is applicable to Torchlight. I’m willing to bet if more reviewers had played Fate, they would have taken a more even-handed approach. ↩
- Fate has an average score of 86% on GameRankings. ↩
- Though the second expansion, The Traitor Soul, added in two new playable races with different starting attributes. ↩
- See the Borderlands review. ↩