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Delayed Reactions: Torchlight (XBLA)

This review has to be prefaced with some honesty.

First, I never got a chance to play Torchlight on a PC. I know it’s been out for almost two years now, and it’s gone on sale enough times to be had for super-cheap, and it’s been a critical darling since its release. However, all my computers run Linux, with slightly newer hardware than what I was using to play the original Diablo when I was in high school. I could be considered the target market for the XBox Live Arcade version of Torchlight: an audience who would not or could not experience the game in its original PC form. This means that I have entered Torchlight freshly, with only the game’s critical acclaim to inform me about what I should expect.

Second, I have put in as much time as possible with Torchlight since it launched in early March. I have not, however, been able to put in as much time as I would have liked. In the interest of full disclosure, you should note that I have currently two active characters at Hard difficulty, and I have plumbed as far as the 10th level below the city. I have taken numerous sidequests, encountered a fair variety of monsters, and have achieved level 17 with my main character. From my research, I can tell that I am still at the tip of a very deep iceberg, even after dozens of hours of play. I cannot speak to any of the game’s late or ending content. Please, keep these things in consideration as I proceed to tell you about how you should buy this game.

If you’ve had your fingers even near the pulse of the video game industry between 2009 and now, you’d have heard of Torchlight and would probably know that it’s Diablo for the modern age. If you haven’t, then listen up: Torchlight is Diablo for the modern age. It’s a top-down isometric randomly-generated-dungeon crawler with an art style reminiscent of World of Warcraft and more content than you can shake a wizard staff at. The similarities to Diablo are driven home hard as the game opens, thanks to dramatically-narrated text scroll and music that seemed to come from the same soundtrack. It should be no surprise that developer Runic Games consists of several ex-Blizzard employees who worked on both Diablo titles. Players arrive in Tristram Torchlight and are immediately flung into a quest to clear the local mine of the monsters that have suddenly appeared. It is the first step down a dark path that leads deeper and deeper into the tainted mountain. The mines were a source of Ember, some form of magical gem substance that seems to corrupt its surroundings in large quantities… and the deeper depths of the mountain contain a mother lode of the stuff. Thematically the story is in a more fantasy vein, and while I miss the quasi-biblical gothic undertones of Diablo, Torchlight’s world is a world worth inhabiting.

Here is where the comparisons to Diablo will end.

Making a distinctly PC game work on the console must have been a challenge for Runic, but I have to say that they did a very good job. Almost the entire interface and UI have been rearranged or redone to accommodate not just the lack of keyboard and mouse, but also particulars of playing the game on a TV screen. You’ll note in screenshots how the health & mana globes, experience bar, skills bar, and enemy info are all placed to provide the most visible play area possible. This is a good thing, because with hordes of monsters, pets, and friendly golems enter the fray, the action can get quite hectic and a little visually confusing. Picking up items on the ground is one area where console controls show their limitations; the game is a little finicky about giving you the A button prompt to pick up an item you are near, though you can mitigate this fault by holding down the A button and moving through the objects you want to collect. Attacking, using skills, healing, and any other actions correspond to natural places on the controller. I rarely felt like I was playing some substandard PC port; I could believe this game was original to XBLA had I never known it existed first as a PC game. Some stink has been raised about the menu navigation being locked to the analog stick. I never found this to be a problem. I did, however, have an issue with the equipment menus: they are text walls. There is a LOT to read on these screens, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but these are menus that you will be entering very often. I found it difficult to play the game when tired, because that text would just blur together. Part of this problem is that everything is presented in list form, including equipped items. I really wish these menus were more graphical, showing these items in places corresponding to where they are equipped on the character. Thankfully, many items sport unique looks that will actually change the appearance of your character. Load times on the console are pretty snappy, and the game autosaves generously (including anytime you pop back to the title screen, allowing you to save at any place in the game).

The game is bright and colourful, though you shouldn’t take that to mean that it looks like a kid’s game. It has a diverse graphical palette. In my time with the game I explored mines, sunken cities, ancient libraries, temples, and a city of spires connected by rope bridges. The tilesets are varied and the random dungeons maintain a lot of unique features. Though the maps are technically two-dimensional, there are different height elevations and 3D elements that make the environments pop. The monsters are similarly varied, with the occasional leader monsters making things challenging and a full-fledged boss every few levels. Parts of the game are fully voiced, though I have seen no cutscenes other than a couple of in-engine scripted sequences. There are some narrations that seem as though they should have voice clips but are strangely silent. The music is excellent. I wish I could describe it better, but it is soundtrack-worthy, and sets the game’s tone almost perfectly.

The bottom line here is that Torchlight is a simple-to-play game with a deep well of content. It doesn’t explain itself as well as it should; this Penny Arcade comic, written originally about Mass Effect, perfectly conveys how I feel about Torchlight. I discovered a lot of features not in the game’s introduction or tutorial, but by reading the loading screen tips (also, I really wish there were more than one piece of art for the loading screen). This isn’t such a bad thing, but it can cause one to be left unaware of everything available in this game. The pet which accompanies your character for the entire game can be taught spells, sent back to town to sell unwanted gear, and transformed into other creatures by feeding it certain types of fish. In fact, as a bonus gift, every character you make in the XBLA version of Torchlight starts with a special fish that permanently transforms your pet into a Troll (the monster, not the internet annoyance). A shared stash allows you transfer items between characters so that a magic-focused Alchemist, who will never use a rare enchanted Sword found in the dungeon, can bestow it upon a melee-focused Destroyer character. With thirty main levels, seemingly endless random sidequests, and an infinite dungeon available after the story, I can tell I will be playing Torchlight for a good, long while. I have paid $15 for games with far less content, made by far more people, and without half the soul and heart that have obviously been poured into Torchlight. This game is worth your money and attention; delay no further.

Title image by Derek Charm

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