[26 October 2012]
Here’s one of the great things about the Torchlight franchise: nobody will ever accuse it of being ”too colorful”.
Torchlight, as brilliant and wonderful as it was, always felt like Diablo‘s crowd-pleasing little cousin, a simpler version of its point-‘n-clicking hack-‘n-slashing inspiration. All of the action took place in the same couple of dungeons, and every little design decision that differed from Diablo seemed to be a move toward making the genre—limited as it is—more approachable. Somehow amidst all of this, whether through a set of achievements skewed toward the more devoted gamers or through bosses that actually took some effort and strategy to defeat (particularly on the harder difficulty levels), Torchlight managed to keep its hardcore base as well as invite new players who might have been put off by the scope or the darkness of Diablo.
Still, it was hard for many to see Torchlight as anything other than a pleasant time-waster to put off the hunger pangs brought on by Diablo III‘s protracted development schedule. Torchlight 2 was Runic Games’s chance to separate itself from Blizzard’s behemoth.
Somehow, by sticking with the design philosophy of the original while skillfully adding elements of more expansive games, they pulled it off. Torchlight 2 is brilliant.
Torchlight 2‘s brilliance lies in its balance. Torchlight, despite its casual feel, managed to get a tremendous population of players to dump 30+ hours into it. Like Diablo, it managed to take an exceedingly simple mechanic and draw people into it for hours at a time, still leaving them wanting more by the time they either had to go to sleep or remember what the real world was like. That is a significant time investment, enough for people to get attached to what they are doing. There’s no way that a second Torchlight game could too obviously turn around what the first accomplished because the first cultivated an intensely loyal audience. That it could manage this sort of attachment without resorting to any sort of multiplayer made the feat doubly impressive.
So what does Torchlight 2 do? Well of course it introduces multiplayer. You can play in a party of up to six players, all walking around, exploring the land, and hacking at the bad guys. And when the loot drops—and oh, does it drop—everyone gets their own. Loot is tailored to each individual player, and there is no competition because everyone gets their own. This is designed to be a team effort, to encourage good vibes, not ill will. It is not an MMO by any stretch of the definition. It is simply a game that works fine as a single-player experience and is utterly joyous as a multiplayer one.
This has a lot to do with the environments. Rather than delving down into an endless dungeon, the various tasks and quests send you out into the wilderness, making you explore an environment that feels liberating, rather than the claustrophobic dungeons of the first game. You wander out of whatever hub town is appropriate for a given moment in the game, and there’s a feeling of getting a look at a small piece of a tremendous world. Granted, there are dungeons, and everything here is essentially its own enclosed space. However, the way that it’s laid out, the way you travel from place to place, the way you’re directed to slowly open the world up through quests and the appeal of loot, it all combines to create an enclosed environment that feels huge. The draw to explore this sort of world tends to be so much stronger than the draw to explore a world that is impossibly, infinitely huge but feels small due to the fact that its hugeness stems from existing as an infinitely deep dungeon. You’re trapped by a dungeon. There are walls, and the only way to explore is to go up or down. Again, while Torchlight 2 is structurally the same, the mere fact that the exits can go from land to land rather than simply up or down some stairs makes it feel utterly tremendous.
That said, a Torchlight game would be nothing without the loot, and oh, the loot is worth it. Ornate helmets, menacing weapons, and suits of armor with all the flair you could want. Not only that but you can slot dice, and skulls, and regular plain old gems in the things. You could design an entirely complementary weapon and armor set that utterly maximizes your stats in the trickiest of ways, or you could just go with whatever makes you look the most badass.
Have I sold the game? Probabaly not. Reading this review back, there’s nothing in particular here that sets Torchlight 2 apart from any other isometric hack ‘n slashing point ‘n clicking dungeon crawler. The thing is, it does everything it sets out to do, and it does it with polish and with style. From the color scheme to the mechanics to the simple way that every click feels like a tactile thing that you are doing in the world, Torchlight 2 feels right. It’s everything we could have wanted from a new Torchlight game, aside from perhaps the long-rumored MMO take.
If the genre appeals to you, you probably already have Torchlight 2. If the genre doesn’t appeal to you, maybe you should try Torchlight 2 anyway.