If you have played Torchlight then you don’t need me to tell you how addictive it is. For those of you who haven’t, or are inclined to ask "Torch what?", by all means stop reading this and go buy Torchlight today (www.torchlightgame.com). It’s that good.
Torchlight’s history is as interesting as the game is fun! When financial difficulties hit Flagship Studios – and I can imagine many of you cringe with you see those two words together – the proverbial excrement hit fans. Lawsuits started to fly. There were accusations of fraud. Gamers vented their frustration over Hellgate: London’s $150 lifetime subscription after discovering the game was rife with gameplay problems; only to later learn Flagship Studios was on the brink of disaster. In the midst of this industry cataclysm the team at Flagship Seattle, a small branch of Flagship Studios, was busy working on a new MMO called Mythos; work that would be placed on hold and later handed over to Korean-based HanbitSoft.
Flagship Studios finally dissolved in July 2008 along with Flagship Seattle. With an impending studio closure, employees Travis Baldree, Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer and Peter Hu formed Runic Games. About a month later the entire Flagship Seattle team joined. The foundation was laid for their new game Torchlight.
About a year later Runic released Torchlight. In its purist form Torchlight is an action RPG dungeon crawler. Many have compared Torchlight to Diablo, and I agree. The comparison is spot-on! The truth is there are many clones since the release of Diablo 2, especially in the Asian MMO scene, but Torchlight is the best clone, bar none. Its addictive nature isn’t surprising given that Runic’s key people are Diablo 1 and 2 veteran’s Max Schaefer, Erich Schaefer, and Peter Hu. Even Diablo composer Matt Uelmen joined Runic. Most of the team at Runic is comprised of Blizzard alumni. Talent, experience, and a studio closure, was all the catalyst they needed to make Torchlight the most kick-ass Diablo clone ever. They succeeded admirably!
The game’s story is set in the booming mining town of Torchlight. Like Tristram in Diablo, Torchlight serves as a hub for buying and selling loot, getting quests, following story content, and storing valuables. While the town is an inch wide, the randomized dungeons are a mile deep. The story is pretty basic and can be distilled down to an evil wizard, a mineral called Ember, random dungeons, tons of loot, bosses, and plenty of stuff to kill! That’s it in a nutshell.
What Torchlight’s lacks in story it makes up in environments, gameplay, and fun! It is easy to dismiss the graphics as a World of Warcraft copy but there’s enough of a unique style to give Torchlight a signature look. Even the environments, a dead-ringer of the new 3D-isometrical environment in Diablo 3, has a distinct look. It is fantastic that Torchlight can run well on older computers and newer systems given its incredibly crisp look. There were no performance problems when settings where maximized on my review system. The game is visually solid.
Like the graphics, the audio in Torchlight shares much in common with Diablo. Composing the score and providing sound design is Blizzard alumni Matt Uelmen whose work on Diablo, Diablo 2, Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction, and the World of Warcraft expansion The Burning Crusade is instantly recognizable here.
The first time I played, without knowing who did the music, I could instantly recognize the Diablo-esque music. For example the theme for the town of Torchlight sounds like the theme for Diablo’s Tristram, which, for any Diablo fan, is a total nostalgic treat! Matt’s signature style also extends to dungeons with his use of eerie atmospheres to depict foreboding doom. Even with the World of Warcraft style graphics the sounds he created for casting spells feel powerful, and epic-looking weapons make the kind of noises you’d expect. And given the simple story the actors who supplied their voices did a good job delivering dialog.
When you start Torchlight you are given the choice between three role-playing classes. The Destroyer is the melee and tank. There are a few casting abilities but this class is built for brute-force strength of arms. The Vanquisher is the range class. Finally, the Alchemist is a caster capable of casting spells and summoning minions. Each class has three skills. Each skill has six tiers of talents. What I find enjoyable is the way you can mix-and-match talents to create a hybrid class. For example I spent most of my skill points in the Berserker branch with a dash of Shadow Bowman from the Spectral branch for range abilities (the Shadow Bowman will ride on your character piggy-back style and shoot at stuff from a distance; the duration and damage raises each time you spend a skill point on the talent).
But wait, there’s more! You also get a pet! There’s the wolf-life dog and linx-styled cat. Refreshingly enough, you can name your pet with symbols ("=^_^="), and because there are no restrictions your pet can have crazy names if you wish ("@#31dsdadr!TOMx").
Torchlight offers many great features to streamline gameplay. For example the process for saving games was simplified. All you need to do is exit and your current progress is automatically saved. The game offers three forms of off-character storage: character stash chest, shared stash chest, and pet storage. Shared stash chests give you the ability to share loot with other characters.
Speaking of loot, everything you loot only takes one inventory slot. Pet storage is cool! If two spell slots for you pet wasn’t awesome enough (yes, now your pet can cast magic missile into the darkness!), in your pet’s profile is a big yellow button. Pressing this button tells your pet to go to town and sell loot! Just be mindful your pet may "skim" a little off the top as a recent Penny Arcade cartoon joked about. :)
Game play controls match Diablo’s schema: left click to move, right click to perform special attacks, alt shows loot by name, and customizable hotkeys 1 – 0. Scrolling the mouse wheel up zooms down to ground view while scrolling down bring the camera back up to bird’s eye view. Torchlight’s pathing logic with main characters is fantastic. You can click anywhere on screen and your character figures out how to get there (there are small pathing issues with companions and pet, but they correct themselves; in other words they don’t slow you down). Getting quests is as easy as walking up to any NPC with big, yellow exclamation marks above their head. If you’re familiar with this method in MMOs then it will feel intuitive. A subtle but great feature is the combining of health and mana orbs into one orb in the center. Finally, the tab key lets you switch between abilities (for example press tab to stampede for massive AOE damage, then press tab to switch to slash attack for small group burst AOE damage). There are more examples but these were the few that most impressed me.
For a game on the market now for a couple weeks there’s already a great community, thanks in part to Runic’s constant contact with their fans by way of their forums and their recently released TorchED; the Torchlight editor. Without a doubt TorchED extends the shelf life by providing robust modding capabilities. For the past few months the modding community used a pre-release version of TorchED, and even with it they were able to create a flurry of gems. In my humble opinion the best is TorchCam (http://forums.runicgames.com/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=3966). TorchCam literally extends Torchlight’s gameplay by adding features like a rotating camera, extreme zooming in and out, and a super cool FPS mode; although the FPS mode needs some improvements to be usable.
If you have Steam, you and your friends can converse in-game with Steam Friends. This is a hidden user interface that sits over the top of Torchlight. Even Valve has become obsessed with Torchlight as they announced it more than a few times. Runic plans to change the game and community by 2012 by offering a MMO that supposedly will be a "free upgrade" for players who have the single player game. Suffice it say the Torchlight community is thriving!
Few games ever achieve perfect status, but Torchlight is pretty damn close to perfect. In scoring Torchlight several factors came into play. A 4.5 was awarded to gameplay because even though the game is very addicting, and you’ll want to do just one more quest, or kill one more boss, or try and get one more epic drop, it may start to feel shallow or repetitive over time. A 4.5 was awarded to fun because I had discovered that some talent combinations and pet abilities can transform your character into some sort of nearly unstoppable demigod, thereby sacrificing challenge.
Torchlight is a diamond in the rough! It has almost no bugs. Plays like a gem on older systems! And unlike many games on the market, Torchlight has a playable demo (imagine that, the publisher wants you to try the game first before you buy). There’s no DRM in this game except what Steam has. If you do not want DRM then Runic lets you buy directly from them by way of Paypal or Google Checkout. There’s also the robust TorchED editor. A great community! I’ve never seen a budget title offered so much for an incredible price like $20. But I think the most surprising thing is that this budget title easily gets my vote for Game of the Year.