Monday, January 11, 2010

Torchlight review

A new year sees the first of hopefully many new reviews for 2010, with Runic Games Torchlight being the subject of scrutiny this time around. This has been hailed by many as the spiritual successor of Diablo 2, and it's fairly easy to see why just by glancing at screen shots of the game. Several members of Runic even worked on Blizzard's highly regarded series. That's not to say that this game doesn't bring anything new to the table, however...

Publisher: Runic Games
Developer: Runic Games
Genre: Action RPG
Expect to pay: $19.95 (about £16)

Graphics: 8 out 0f 10

Torchlight boasts a bright, cartoony visual style somewhat similar to World of Warcraft, and it manages to look good while being able to run on even the most modest of PC's. My laptop with it's integrated graphics chipset can run the game with all the settings turned to maximum - a fairly rare event these days, and there's even a "Netbook mode" check box in the options menu to help out those with underpowered systems.

Technical aspects aside though, Torchlight also boasts great design, from the monsters to the various different layers of the dungeon. Every 4 or so floors (after a boss battle) the tileset shifts to a different style, moving through such environments as a mine, a tropical jungle (not quite sure how this got underground or how it's raining, but never mind), a dwarven fortress complete with moats of lava and more. New areas mean new monster types as well, from ratlings and spiders, through to pygmies (annoying little bastards) and a legion of undead dwarves. You will also randomly encounter named boss monsters which are much bigger than the regular type and sport a glowing aura, as well as being stronger and dishing out more damage than your standard fodder, as you would expect.

The game also features some very nice atmospheric lighting and particle effects - monsters often explode in a hugely satisfying shower of gore. All in all it just goes to show that you can deliver a very good looking game without insisting that players upgrade to the latest behemoth of a PC first.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
The composer of the Diablo and Diablo 2 soundtracks, Matt Uelman, returns to write the music for Torchlight the moment you hear the town theme you will absolutely know it is him, as he has used exactly the same style and instruments to invoke memories of Tristram. That's not to say that the whle soundtrack is a clone of the Diablo games - the music starts to diversify once you get deeper down into the dungeon, but the town theme is that main piece that sticks in the memory.

Voice work is competent but not amazing - as you would expect for a fairly low budget game. Aside from the storyline voice overs, you are also prompted by your character when your health or mana is running low (which has saved my life a fair few times as I've been too engrossed in the battle to notice I'm almost dead) and when your pet is fleeing (more on that in a moment). Spot effects for monsters and spells are decent enough but nothing to make you go "wow"!

Here you can see the Destroyer class squishing some enemies with his stomp attack

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
For the most part the underlying mechanics of Torchlight are the same as the venerable Diablo games, but with a few notable additions. Basically, your character is freshly arrived in the town at the beginning of the game, having been drawn there by the promise of riches thanks to the thriving Ember mines underneath the town. Little does anyone realise however, that the mines hide terrible secrets, and the townsfolk have begun to dig too deep, and too greedily. It soon falls to you to venture into the Ember mines and beyond in order to free the town of its terrible curse.

At the start of the game, the player can choose from 3 classes - the Destroyer, Alchemist or Vanquisher, which basically boil down to the age old archetypes of warrior, mage and rogue. Once you've chosen your class and name, you also get to choose a pet - either a dog or a cat - that will a big help to you throughout the game. They will help you in combat, you can load them up with with excess loot and send them back to town, you can feed them various fish to transform them into other temporary forms, and they can equip their own spells. I chose a cat for my Vanquisher character who was equipped with a Haste spell so he could run at double speed, and a Summon Zombies spell so I always had my own posse of undead helping me out.

As you level up, you can add points into various stats such as magic, defense etc - your equipment often relies on you having a certain number of points in these stats, so when an amazing new gun drops you may not have the skills to equip it straight way. Not to worry, you can put it in the stash in town and increase the required stat as you level up, though you might find an even better weapon along the way, such is the random nature of the game. Not only are the loot drops randomised, but so are the dungeon layouts). Levelling happens fairly frequently - usually at least once a floor, so it's a fairly fast paced game, and your always being enticed to play just a little bit longer to see if another even better piece of weaponry or armour drops. Those who can't afford to spend hours at a time playing the game can still dip in for a while and then leave again thanks to the tried and true Town Portal system and the fact that the game remembers exactly where you were when you shut it down.

Your character has two types of experience meter - normal experience and fame. Fame is only gained when you defeat a random or end of area boss. Upon each level up (character level and fame level) you get the opportunity to spend one point on your talents - these range from powerful attack spells, temporary buffs, the ability to have various minions (in addition to your pet) or passive skills that for example reduce the amount of time that your pet takes to get to town and back. There are skills that only apply to each class, and others that are open to all classes but at different times (the alchemist for example gets access to the pet skill I just mentioned much sooner than the Vanquisher).

I recommend that you skip the Normal difficulty setting and go straight to Hard, because Normal offers almost no challenge at all until you get to the final boss. Hard is much more enjoyable because it offers more of a challenge, plus the loot is better as a result. Should you happen to die in battle you have several options - either be transported back to town for no penalty and make your own way back to where you were, take a cash penalty and start at the beginning of the current floor, or take an experience and fame penalty and go back exactly where you died. I almost always took the second option, as I had tons of spare cash thanks to picking up every single bit of loot and sending my pet back to sell it. There is also the Hardcore option - should you tick this box death is permanent and your character will be erased. It can be fun just to see how far you can get before biting the dust.

Upon completing the main story of the game (about 36 floors of the dungeon) you are given several options. You can carry on levelling and doing random quests in the Shadow Vault - a never ending series of randomly generated dungeons, or you can retire your character. Doing so allows you to choose one item as an heirloom to hand down to your next character, and it also boosts the stats of said item slightly.

A Vanquisher, facing off against a horde of Dwarven Wights.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Torchlight does bring some nice ideas to the table such as the multiple options for the player upon death. I would say that the pet idea was a big innovation - were it not for the fact that it was actually implemented in the previous game by the game team - Mythos. For the most part though Torchlight is a great example of a Diablo style game, and it truer to its inspiration than many of the games that have come since such as Titan Quest.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The amount that you can replay Torchlight really depends on how repetitive you find the game. It can start to get a little samey after a while, but played in small doses it remains fun. Think of it as a light RPG snack between main meals like Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, if you will. The price of the game is a big factor in this category of course - at £16 the game is well worth the money.

Overall: 7 out of 10
If you've been eagerly awaiting Diablo 3 then Torchlight should serve to placate your need for a hack and slash RPG, for a little while at least. If there was a multi player mode then the game would be even more enjoyable of course, but at present there is nothing. A full on MMO sequel to the game is in the works but we're not likely to see it until around 2012. A powerful editing/modding tool has been made available to the community, and it will be interesting to see what type of thing that people manage to come up with. So far I've only downloaded a few additional quest givers for the Shadow Vault, but given time I expect some enterprising soul with too much time on their hands will come up with a total conversion.

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