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Delayed Reactions – Torchlight

By Brian Hertler | 19 January 2010 | Delayed Reactions, Editorial, Featured, Reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments   

So I’ve been playing this game, Torchlight.
Have you heard of Torchlight?  You probably have, by now.  And the rumors are true: Torchlight is basically the first Diablo with prettier graphics.

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This is not a bad thing.  We remember having  a ton of fun with Diablo, back in 1997.  It was a pure, focused experience: a single dungeon full of loot and monsters, a single town where you could sell your stuff and get quests, and a simple list of abilities.  The sequel lost me with its rambling — too much hunting around big open fields looking for caves, and I didn’t like the mercenaries or the multiple towns.  I didn’t need a desert town and a jungle town; I needed to find the blacksmith as fast as possible so I could sell my stuff and get back underground.  With Torchlight, I don’t even need to find the blacksmith — I can just send my dog Augustus.

And that’s the secret to Torchlight: it’s actually a lot better than the original Diablo.  It needs to be to keep up with the layers of nostalgia that we add over time.  In other words: if a new game wants to equal our memory of the original, it needs to be better than the original.

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Alas, there’s not a peg-legged kid in sight.
We can’t go back to the original Diablo nowadays, no matter how much fun we remember having.  It’s become too slow, too simplistic.  I think it may have stumbled across its true greatness by accident: the loot was actually a lot rarer than we remember, and it was a pain in the ass to turn over your inventory.  The Town Portal scrolls seemed to hardly ever appear, so a lot of the time I’d have to backtrack through multiple levels to sell my stuff.  In my current mature state, that sort of thing is no longer acceptable.

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Torchlight understands what you need, and it doesn’t hold back.  The art of pushing your brain’s loot-and-skill-whoring buttons has reached a new peak of efficiency here.  You level up fast, but the really cool skills and equipment are always barely out of reach.  The screen is positively choked with gear after a battle.  You move fast, you kill fast; you finish a quest every ten minutes or so, and get a unique piece of equipment once or twice a floor.  Merchant transactions are fast and painless, and you have tons of storage space.  Town Portal scrolls are some of the most common items.  I hear there’s even an infinite mode, though I haven’t seen it yet.

I know that this style of play is, basically, unhealthy.  The game’s main pleasure is just the little rush that comes from getting progressively stronger — from “watching numbers go up,” as opponents of the genre are fond of saying.  They’re right, too.  I know that games can and should be more than this.  And I know that, if the game were something like World of Warcraft, it could go on forever and ruin my life (in a bad way).For now, though, I’m okay with that.  Even junk food has its place sometimes.

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A man and his dog.
Let me tell you about little Augustus.  I’m playing as a Rogue (Torchlight calls them Vanquishers or something, which is silly since we all know what a Rogue is) who’s good with ranged weapons  and traps, but has terrible defense, magic, and melee.  Basically, if I get swarmed, it’s over.  So Augustus becomes instrumental to my strategy.  He’s an aggressive, crazy magic-user who raises armies of the undead and throws freeze-spells.

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I need him and his minions to draw aggro (as the kids say) and create slow-moving, close-quarter brawls so I can throw my flechette traps and fire at the crowd with my Brainy Flaming Carbine Rifle of the Whale.  The Rogue’s traps are startlingly effective; the battle is over in ten seconds or fewer, and I don’t take damage.  And then my heart overflows with gratitude for my AI animal buddy.

I think the good guys are winning!
That’s the other thing about Torchlight, though: it’s pretty easy.  It straddles the line between easy-fun and easy-boring, actually.  I’m playing on Normal, which in retrospect might have been a mistake.  The difficulty seems appropriate for the junk-food nature of the game, though.  The basic, pleasurable rhythm of loot-whoring, which it delivers so effortlessly, would be interrupted if I got in trouble or — god forbid — died on a regular basis.  But the leveling-up, and the optional side-dungeons where you grind even further, come regularly enough to keep you well ahead of enemies.  In moments of lucidity I realize that this isn’t a very meaty gaming experience — the quests in particular are pretty lightweight — but for the most part I’m lost in the game’s narcotic haze.

The game is, overall, effective.  And yet, still, I think it could be even more effective at what it does; a few little things keep breaking the spell for me.  They’re small points, so I’ll just run through them:

  • The camera settings are strange.  It’s possible to zoom all the way in, so that you’re looking up your Rogue’s nose, and yet I can’t zoom out as far as I’d like.  My view feels restricted; I want just another few inches.
  • The targeting with the mouse is over-precise.  A lot of the time I’ll be clicking on an enemy, trying to shoot him, and instead I mis-click and start walking towards him.  In a big battle, when the screen is cluttered with explosions and whatnot, this can get very problematic indeed.  I’m a Rogue; I should not be approaching the monsters.  And after the battle is over and there’s a pile of loot on the floor, you’ll end up with a unique pistol buried (and impossible to click) underneath a pile of mana potions and Town Portal scrolls.
  • I want to be able to fine-tune my dog’s personality settings.  As it is, he can get me in trouble:  I need him set on aggressive, but I don’t need him to run all over the place picking fights.  Seriously, we perfected this technology with Secret of Mana, over damn ten years ago.  Today, in the year 2010, which is practically the future, I’m forced to choose between three settings again.
  • I want a longer range on my ranged weapons.  This seems like such a small, baffling point: why can’t I shoot across more than half the screen, even with a rifle or a bow?  I’m supposed to fight at a distance.   Again, I don’t want to approach the deadly monsters.  That’s what my undead army is for.

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That’s basically it, in terms of my complaints.  Not every game needs to be Shadow of the Colossus; sometimes we need cotton candy, too.  And the best thing is that I got Torchlight for ten dollars on Steam.  If you get it for that price and play about a dozen hours, like I have, then you’ll have gotten a hell of a deal.

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