Sunday, March 28, 2010

Unqualified Opinions: Torchlight Review

During the merry month of December when I was still sitting on top of a relatively nice pile of money thanks to a full time and mind numbingly boring job I fell deep in to the clutches of Steam's Holiday Sale. This digital succubus drew me in with its sleek low prices and voluptuous savings. It took games I had been eyeing for months, waved a delicate claw, and breathily whispered,"Now these are 75% off." With a coquettish wink and a come hither smile it beckoned me into its bosom and I was powerless to resist. By the time I had regained consciousness, I had purchased 22 games (only 9 of which were gifts) for a total price of $88.48. Though the math savvy might note $4.02 per purchase for games that usually range around the $20 to $50 mark is a hell of a deal, the wise person would certainly point out that even a small stream can eventually destroy a mountain. Regardless, my soul (and time) are no longer my own.

Torchlight is one of the myriad titles I picked up in my buying fugue and like many of those games I had yet to touch it. Then I noticed that the digital succubus was offering it up for a delectable $5. So in an attempt at redemption I will give my unqualified opinion and review the game.

Torchlight is a fantasy, action-RPG, dungeon crawler by Runic Games, ie some of the guys who worked on Diablo 1 and 2. Some of you might remember Diablo as "the thing you did instead of going outside for at least 2 years of your youth." The Diablo series and Torchlight are so similar that comparing the two is unavoidable. You have your OCD inspiring lootwhoring, your addictive level gaining, and your entertaining bashing of hordes of evil looking things because somebody in town promised you some exp and a new pair of shoes if you bring back a monster's knee cap. All the most ensnaring aspects of Diablo, which would later be infused into Warcraft to create the soul stealing WoW, are present within the dimly lit subterranean world of Torchlight. This even includes the Gummiberry juice health potions and tedious identification of items (a subtle nod to D&D the way that punching someone in the mouth is a subtle hint that you don't like them).

One aspect of Torchlight that differentiates it from these other games is its streamlined mitigation of these tropes. Comparing the new giant hammer that fell out of the loin-cloth-wearing man-sized-rat's pocket to your old dusty hammer is made simple by an automatic pop up screen that explicitly tells you which does more damage per second. You no longer need to play lootris by rotating items so as to not waste any inventory space. If you should run out of space, you can give items to your faithful pack dog/cat who can run off to town and sell your unwanted trinkets. Sure, you could just pop open a scroll of town portal, sell your stuff to the paralyzed shop keeps, and pop straight back but its nice to have a few options. A sentiment the developers carried on to the leveling up system, which only has a few options. That last sentence might have had the connotation of a critique but speaking as a compulsive min-maxer I assure you it was sincere praise. After a couple of levels I realized that I was spending more time determining how to spend my skill points than it took to attain them. This practice is subtly shunned by Torchlight as you're able to plow through gangs of monsters pretty much regardless of how you build your character.

Combat follows this same pattern of simplicity: either click to smash a skeleton (back) to death or push a hotkeyed spell to magic said creature till it drops. At times this makes the game feel easy. That is until all the chaos from the 20 baddies rushing you, the special effects from your magic, and the constant numerical feedback of how much damage your doing distracts you from your rapidly depleting health. At times the game feels less like an RPG than a tutorial on spinning plates. You lose focus at a crucial moment and everything comes tumbling down. Then, if you're like me, you'll have to explain to yet another sales associate that you think their housewares aisle is haunted and that they should bring a broom and check it out. Wait, was I doing? Right, Torchlight.

Torchlight's art style and tone seem to be aiming for a more broad base, family friendly appeal. If Fisher Price were to make a line of Generic Fantasy Heroes toys, the Fighter, Rogue, and Mage figures would look exactly like your class choices in this game. Whereas most dungeons I've crawled through are drab, dark, and involve a 6'2" leather clad Norse woman named Olga, Torchlight's subterranean locals are surprisingly attractive (like Olga) and have a rich palette. This is especially good since you'll be traipsing through the same 3 or 4 locals for the entire game.

Speaking of these locals I'd like to make a brief aside to address some of my niggling anthropological issues with Torchlight and indeed the dungeon crawling genre as a whole. As I traverse deeper into the world below, cutting broad swaths through hundreds of creatures, I can't help but feel as if I'm encroaching on an underground society. I mean, these anthropomorphic rat people are clearly wearing clothes, mining using tools of their own invention, and seem to have a social hierarchy based on how difficult they are for me to murder. There's something very Manifest Destiny to the whole exercise. I imagine 100 years hence someone will make a movie called, "Dances with Bats" that will include the line,"I never knew who I was, until I heard them squeak my Ratlin name."

The combination of simplified game play and "cartoony" graphics might lead many to believe that Torchlight is a kids game, and I suppose that's true in the same way that Pixar's Up was a meditation on fleeting mortality... for kids. Torchlight strives above all else to be compellingly accessible. Between the familiar game play with some nice twists, simplified interface, and pleasing animation it has something for everyone. That is of course with the exception of those who need a good (or any) storyline and decent voice acting, but time has shown that you can make plenty of money without catering to those people. I'm looking at you Avatar.

There's a lot to like about Torchlight. For me, my trusty, incredibly useful pet features high on that list. The pacing feels more like a brisk dungeon jog than a crawl. Being able to share items across your characters' games is a great feature. Talking to the horse is funny, odd they didn't try to employ more humor throughout the game. Maybe the one person with a sense of humor was stuck on horse duty? Perhaps my favorite, though utterly peripheral, thing in this game is the little steam punk robotic bard NPC. I hope it's a playable class in the inevitable MMO sequel.

For all my praise I do have to point out some glaring flaws. If you happen to play the mage, do not invest anything in minion summoning. The game is enough of a cluster fuck without having to keep track of little demons and constructs running off to get themselves mauled. It's even better when they decide to take a cigarette break while you're getting your skull smashed open by cave troll. At the risk of repeating myself I must again note that the story is nothing more than another cookie from an old, worn out cutter and that the voice acting extols the virtues of the mute button.

Here's the $20 question: Is Torchlight worth the normal price of $20 dollars? This is what I call the Katamari Damacy threshold, named for a game which broke the $50 price tag mold back in the day, both to its credit and great success. My verdict is yes, Torchlight lights up enough of my brain's happy places to justify a $20 cost. You may ask,"But didn't you say that Torchlight is only $5 this weekend?" To which I would reply,"Exactly. Also, thanks for reading, or at least skimming, this far." Until Monday you can pick this game up from either the digital succubus or Torchlight's official site for $15 off. I would implore you to take advantage of this deal quickly, then again I have a reputation for being a weak minded, soulless thrall of the digital succubus. Always take that into consideration.

On a closing note I should talk about some of the current and future steps of the budding Torchlight franchise. Giving the community access to mod tools through TorchED is a savvy, awesome move, +20 cool points and a gold star. Developing Torchlight for consoles is an admirable goal, but unless and until Rock Band comes out with a piano attachment (for the hotkeys) I don't see it working too well. Finally, making a free to play Torchlight MMO as a sequel makes a good bit of sense, especially when coupled with the data they'll pull down from the Torchlight Mods (see how releasing mod tools are savvy?), but the question still remains whether or not such a venture is profitable or indeed necessary.

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