Torchlight II review
For the sake of this demonstration, I am an Embermage: you are a Varkolyn whelpling, an unarmed and mostly undressed little bat-person sitting up a tree. You've been sitting up that tree for a long time, waiting with your many brothers and sisters for someone to wander past. Suddenly, a stranger approaches! You leap down, snarl, prance about, and are almost immediately annihilated by five blind-fired bolts of magic that leap from my outstretched hands.
Let's assume that, in those final moments, time slows to a tiny fraction of its regular speed. This is what you see: half a dozen of your siblings, stumbling into a purple patch of energy that slows them to a crawl. Six columns of flame bursting from the Embermage. A rain of firebolts. A storm contained in a vortex of wind that turns your nearby cousins to ash. Sometimes, when a whelpling dies, they explode into icy bolts that freeze nearby friends. Sometimes, the Embermage gets all its health back for no apparent reason. Sometimes, the ground shakes and a meteor falls from the sky, as if to drive the point home.
You want to cry out, as the end approaches, but you can't. You've been magically silenced by a nearby raven, who has eaten an egg and is - temporarily - a crab. The crab-raven then summons a nether imp, five skeleton archers, and a zombie, before flying over and stealing your shoes and your money. The name on the crab-raven's tag is 'George Orwell'.
I am gone by the time the first prismatic bolt hits you. The last thing you see is a familiar pattern of lights bursting beyond the treeline: me, doing exactly the same thing to those undead dwarves down the road. The last thing you think is this:
"Oh, man. I'm not even special."
As an action-RPG, the best thing about Torchlight II is the way that loot, skill choice and chance bubbles over into a fountain of light and treasure at the whiff of a right-click, every single time, for as long as you can keep going. As an action-RPG, the worst thing about Torchlight II is the way that loot, skill choice and chance bubbles over into a fountain of light and treasure at the whiff of a right-click, in the exact same way, for as long as you can keep going.
After more than 20 hours I've built my Embermage into a machine for the consumption and processing of monsters. My wands cast random spells when I kill an enemy. My armour reflects melee damage. I have a passive ability that randomly teleports attackers further away. My firestorm plants a fire vulnerability on enemies that my columns of flame capitalise on, explosively. Every point of damage I do fills my charge bar, which ultimately reduces the casting cost of all my spells to zero. When this happens I summon a duplicate of myself, just because I can. I've also got this raven. His name's George. I think you've met.
As the difficulty rises, it's sometimes necessary to tinker with the machinery: to invest in new skills, or alter the opening moves of my combat rotation. By and large, though, the character I've made worked in act one and she's still working a campaign and a bit later.
Your place in Torchlight II's plot is circumstantial: you're a hero, and that's about it. You're chasing down the villainous Alchemist - one of the original game's protagonists - for reasons that nobody in the game sounds especially concerned about. Character emerges as you settle on a playstyle: I'm a stationary death vortex now, but I could have specced differently - a teleporting, sword-wielding warrior mage, perhaps.
Besides the Embermage, the other predominantly ranged character is the Outlander: a mobile weapons platform specialising in guns, glaives, and debilitating magic. The Berserker channels spirit animals to augment melee attacks, buffing allies and debuffing foes to build an advantage. The Engineer is a tank that can specialise in heavy weapons or sword-and-shield durability, with the option of swapping out for a massive handheld cannon and an army of robotic pets.
They're a varied bunch, although the game struggles to communicate precisely how different they are before you start playing. I arrived at the Embermage through a process of experimentation: given the game's hundred levels of character advancement, I recommend you do the same before committing.
Levelling grants you points to spend on attribute boosts and new skills. The two are linked: attributes determine the relative power of your weapon and magic damage, for example, impacting the usefulness of the skills you may choose to invest in. Unlike the original Torchlight, you don't need to invest points in a skill tree to unlock its late-game potential. Instead, new skills open up as you level, allowing for greater dabbling as you progress. The system is over reliant, as many action-RPGs are, on incrementing your power by tiny percentages every time you spend a point and each individual level up can feel inconsequential as a result. In the long term, however, there's a lot of scope for cleverness and creativity.
Unfortunately, Torchlight II limits your ability to respec to undoing the last three skill decisions you made. This effectively prevents shifts in direction at high levels: even though I've built a character I like, I can't change her - and my skill trees are littered with discarded investments. If I want her to be perfect I either need to start again or wait for the inevitable respec mod, and both feel like a compromise. Certainly, it's a system where decisions have consequences: it's just that those consequences are a needless waste of time. In a year where multiple RPGs have figured out that freedom to change your mind actually results in more interesting decisions, not less, this aspect of Torchlight II's design sticks out as an unwelcome manifestation of its early noughties influences.
Other aspects are much more gratefully received. Offline play, six player co-op (both online and over LAN) and full mod support are all present, and Steam Cloud support enables the game to benefit from the best bits of modern online integration.
In terms of features, Torchlight II has tremendous scope. The campaign is randomised from the overworld down, remixing environments and sprinkling them with events that keep the pace up even as you go about the busywork of map clearance. You might kill a sprite who drops a golden key, then go looking for the chest it opens. You might kill a phase beast and enter a pocket-sized challenge stage, or stumble across a hidden side quest that stretches across the whole game.
When you finish the campaign, you can start over from where you left off or enter the 'Map Room', a nexus where you can use in-game gold to buy access to randomised dungeons with custom rulesets. A full set of difficulty levels are available from the start, along with a hardcore permadeath mode for the committed. The game bends over backwards to give you options, a limbo act that twists the rest of the way and swallows itself with the provision of mod support. This is a game with a long, community-driven future, one that scrawls an infinity symbol over your potential time investment in effortless freehand.
It's less successful in terms of scale. There's very little sense of escalation to the environments or encounters: you start in a field, pass through a desert, visit a swamp and spend an awful lot of time in caves. You will be fighting level 1 rat-men at level 1 and level 40 bat-men at level 40: although it apes Diablo II's narrative and structure to a comical degree, Torchlight II doesn't up the stakes in the same way. The short fourth act changes the tone but is thin on surprises.
The game's stock-in-trade is charm and detail: characterful animations that you'll zoom in to watch, witty item descriptions, the sound of fingers on strings in Matt Uelmen's excellent soundtrack. Action-RPGs are at their best, however, when they can complement detail with spectacle. A sense of escalation helps to mask the numbers game by implying that there's more to higher difficulties than a shift in some underlying equation. If the numbers game is why you're here, then you're unlikely to complain: Torchlight II will escalate your numbers all day long. If not, though, then expect repetition to limit the game's longevity.
Torchlight II's status as the conservative underdog is the source of both its most impressive successes and its most visible limitations. It's tempting to wonder what this chamber orchestra could do with the resources afforded Blizzard's full-blown philharmonic: at the same time, there are moments when Runic's devotion to the genre's past - which, admittedly, they helped to shape - holds the game back. It's a charming, sunshine-bright indie action-RPG with an old-school disregard for your time. It’ll consume you with a smile, and you’ll be smiling, too: but it's down to the community to turn it into something special.
A massive action-RPG in a small package. A few misjudged dalliances with the past don't hold it back from a bright future.