The original Torchlight was an amazing anomaly, taking advantage of a genre gap to become a welcome stepping stone while the world waited for Blizzard to finally stop dabbling with Diablo, the undeniable king of the dungeon crawler. Now, releasing mere months after the long-awaited, much-anticipated, and widely-praised return of the daunting devil, Torchlight II takes a second stab at escaping from that behemoth’s shadow.
With such colossal competition, who expected that the end result would so closely approach perfection?
Any executive will tell you first impressions are most important, and the same could be said for Torchlight II. As I stated in an earlier piece, these vibrant visuals and cartoony characteristics come together as an art direction that never dies, and the imagery still looks spectacular on lower-end machines. Each environment is distinct, and even underground side dungeons stand out from one another to show colorful bursts of dazzling hues not used in nearby areas. Animations are just as astounding, and each scene is alive with motion as rain falls, trees sway, and eerie mists move along underfoot to automatically add to a mysterious ambiance.
The game itselftosses the player into its action-oriented core almost instantaneously, though not before the obligatory character creation. Here, however, this process is uncharacteristically quick as you choose one of four classes, each differentiated from the others by a different distribution of a melee, ranged, or magic emphasis. You’ll pick up one of eight pet companions as well, although the separate species only serve (admittedly adorable) cosmetic purposes. With that, a short 2D animation reminiscent of Samurai Jack introduces our narrative. The Alchemist, our magician class from the first Torchlight, has been infected with the Ember Blight, a corruption caused by the underground source of strong magical power entitled Ember. After totaling the town of Torchlight, this madman is on a rampage throughout the land, leaving a devastating trail of death and destruction in his path. As expected, it’s up to you to help save the world.
A bare-bones character creator comes across as surprisingly lacking at first, especially for an RPG with a multiplayer option. It doesn’t take long to understand the reasoning behind these limited designs, however, as Torchlight II’s primary draw takes hold with haste. Loot is lush within this world, tantalizing the player at every turn, and a precisely-crafted pretty face would be covered in an instant by a battlefield-appropriate (and much cooler looking) helmet anyway. But don’t get too attached to that hat–or anything else, really–as you’ll be giving up those goods in a matter of minutes with the discovery of something greater on the ground. With new items serving as the main motivators to move forward, Torchlight II needed an absurd array of weapon, armor, and accessory varieties to ensnare player interest, and it succeeds with soaring colors that even outshine the flying ones.
The continuous always-advancing scenario is as addicting as you might imagine, and the fast and frenetic combat-focused gameplay pushes the player along with a similar mindset. A cacophony of clicks will engulf your ears, the sweet sounds of sending hordes of evil beasties to their bloody graves via sword slashes or magical motions. This rapid pacing is exemplified by the implementation of the Charge Bar, a meter that builds with a consecutive barrage of attacks. With the promise of beneficial statistical bonuses from a bigger bar, “forward” quickly becomes the sole direction in your vocabulary as Torchlight II constantly encourages you to keep having fun.
So much momentum is only maintained because of an incredibly intuitive interface that allows you to spend less time worrying about Torchlight II and more time actually playing it. Essentially, the user experience here is second to none, streamlined so that it’s easy to enjoy without feeling crippled for a casual market. It’s the little things in Torchlight life you treasure, from simple item comparisons and an obvious visibility of equippable gear to every key command you’ll ever need and an oh-so-useful pet that will leave you disgruntled with your own lazy housecat. To elaborate on the latter, my Gracie Jean grabs scattered loot, shakes enemy heat, and actually deals some decent damage while she’s at it. Perhaps best of all, though, is the ability to use her as my personal shop runner, storing unwanted valuables in her inventory before sending my favorite feline on a trip to town to sell it all for gold. If I’m in a pinch, she’ll even stop by a store while she’s away and bring back a bundle of potions or other essentials. Again, all of these features are beautiful efficiencies that fine-tune the focus on fun and eliminate tedious micromanagement.
That isn’t to say you won’t do a fair share of character tweaking, of course. Leveling up is fairly frequent, and each time you are awarded with five stat points and one skill point for a freeform evolution of your hero. Stat points may be dished out between four standard sectors, depending upon whether you would like to increase your physical damage (Strength), critical hit and dodge percentage (Dexterity), magical power (Focus), or health and armor (Vitality). Each class begins with certain areas of emphasis, although you truly do have the freedom to expand as you see fit. Skill-building is similarly self-directed. Will you decide to improve your current abilities or invest in new ones? Are passive or active skills more attractive to you? Would you prefer to deal direct damage or temporarily affect stats to your benefit? It’s all up to you, and this unconstrained customization creates a game where no two playthroughs will ever be the same.
If you were not made aware by my so-far-exclusive acclaim, my biggest initial issue with Torchlight II was finding an issue with Torchlight II, although a few became apparent throughout my adventuring. Enemy AI, for one, is ultimately mindless. Melee monsters make a beeline in relentless mad rushes to murder you, and creatures with ranged skills stand still to shoot from a set distance. Other than a small selection of super bosses, every encounter boils down to this same behavior. For example, when I can lean over a ledge and finish off my supposed-to-be-deadly opposition from afar because they’re too dumb to walk up a nearby ramp, there’s undoubtedly room for improvement.
This missing dynamic element leeches over to the music as well. While usually acceptable with its mystical tones in that fantasy fashion that we’re all familiar with, I wish it adapted to the ongoing action. Ambushes or other instances of swarming scary things would be prime opportunities for high tension with an energetic backing soundtrack. Instead, we get too-somber-too-often tunes better suited for isolated exploration.
My final qualm comes from a story that is insignificant to the state of being nonessential. Animations in the same style as the introduction provide transitions between each of the three acts, but anything beyond that is unfortunately forgettable. NPCs give glimpses into the Alchemist’s goals, motives, and wrong-doings, although I found these text-heavy dialogue deliveries falling flat. In short, hope for a narrative reveal was never a reason to press on.
But really, who is playing Torchlight II primarily for award-winning plot points? These issues may seem severe within the context of other titles, but this one is too fun to get caught up on admittedly minor complaints. With an art design I adore and gameplay that keeps me yearning for more, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something this special anywhere else. The game’s longevity is unbelievable all to its own, supplementing the tens of hours spent to complete a single-player experience with online or LAN multiplayer, a multitude of difficulty settings (which all sport an optional Hardcore Mode where death is permananet), and even a New Game Plus after you finish your first playthrough. And I cannot even begin to fathom the sheer variety of available character builds buried within this wonder.
An inconceivable steal at only 20 bucks, Torchlight II tickles my fancy in all the right places, providing the present-day pinnacle of loot-driven, hack-and-slash action RPGs. It’s fundamentally fantastic on just about every front, and any fan of the genre will immediately fall in love with this terrific title.