With so many options available in this day and age it’s possible that you’ve never played Torchlight, or further still, have never heard of it. Just over a year ago, Torchlight, initially a downloadable release for PC, found a new home on Xbox Live Arcade and now sits conveniently priced to be discovered for the first time, all over again.
Developed by Runic Games, Torchlight treads upon the familiar territory of the dungeon crawler, guided by the creative forces responsible for the acclaimed Diablo series. Though an admirable addition to the waning genre, the title reeks of its creators’ past achievements – a fact that both propels it forward and causes it to stumble upon the expectations of its lineage.
Torchlight draws upon a stylized high fantasy world that beams with vivid lighting and a lively, cartoonish palette. In this setting, Ember, a precious substance harvested from the bowels of the earth is coveted for the magical properties it bestows. The mining boomtown of Torchlight – your starting point and commercial hub – languishes atop an untapped trove of Ember, in desperate need of a hero to stem the hordes inevitably surging forth from the caverns below. This is where you come in.
You start the game as one of three playable classes: the brawny Destroyer, the wizened Alchemist or the sharpshooting Vanquisher. Each class is tied to a singular character model and a shallow, first-person back story explaining their reason for travelling to Torchlight. This attempts to set some sort of narrative in motion from the beginning, but is ultimately forgettable as the characters are never again given the chance to expand on themselves until the game is over.
Lack of narrative is a reoccurring theme throughout Torchlight; a continuous wash of gameplay, briefly punctuated by rare periods of pseudostory – presented in woefully dull screens of text with an accompanying voice over that is inexplicably absent from several. Occasionally non-player characters are tasked with explaining why you must continue to carve your way downwards, speaking at you in quick bursts of scrolling text that always equate to the same directive, “You’ve got to go down those stairs and kill more monsters.” These faulty elements paint the entirety of the story as though it were tacked on; one necessary final step during development to string together semi-related quests.
Shaky narrative notwithstanding, Torchlight plays like the very best the genre has to offer, refining the harsh gameplay edges of its lineage with subtle innovation rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel – a fact indicative of admirable restraint. The essence of the genre has always been reducible to a strict recipe: slay overwhelming legions of enemies, acquire increasingly effective abilities to marvel at their destructive prowess and — most importantly — amass endless troves of treasure while upgrading your character with ever more powerful loot. To summarize in Deadly Sins: Wrath, Pride and Greed. Torchlight perpetrates all three.
Toting a wide variety of cannon fodder to slice, shoot or blast through during the adventure, it never succumbs to the pitfalls of regurgitating enemy models through slight color or equipment alterations. Each new dungeon motif carries its own exclusive bestiary — at least during the story campaign — which helps to stave off the inherent repetition, if only for the initial foray into the zone. Of course, what good would an army of evil minions be without the necessary tools to, quite literally, rain down destruction upon them.
Torchlight offers dozens of unique class-based skills and spells, divvied up amongst three separate skill trees, growing progressively more destructive and consequently more impressive, the father down the tree they reside. Refreshingly, the layout diverges from the ubiquitous “pre-requisite” talent system, where one must wholly invest in an aptitude to unlock the real showstoppers. No longer must you choose between stringing webs of lighting through your victims or conjuring impish minions from the dark nether; so long as you meet the level requirement, any combination of skills or spells can be obtained, creating near limitless styles of play.
At the heart of the dungeon crawling premise is the idea of a constant stream of reward, Torchlight is certainly no exception. Equipment and gold are easily lifted from the river of cadavers left in your wake, ensuring a steady stream of income to purchase increasingly powerful weapons, armor and other mystical tchotchkes from the many merchants found in town. When you do find that invaluable piece of hardware, Torchlight provides a staggering amount of equipment modification from random enchantments to sockets housing dozens of different gem combinations for custom tailored benefits – all for a modest fee, of course.
Though abundant, carrying a medley of sub-par equipment back to eager merchants in town has always been one of the genre’s blind spots. Because routinely unloading each massive haul interrupts the flow of gameplay, Torchlight works to expel this laborious endeavor through the addition of pets. Though they do contribute during combat, a pet’s true value lies in their ability to carry items themselves, making periodic trips back to town, selling anything you’ve placed in their inventory and – like the best trained pack mule – returning the profits to you. Your pet all but removes your need to come up for air, continually generating wealth while you focus solely on the lamentations of your enemies – it’s a magnificent design.
Yet for everything Torchlight does right, the glaring omission of core genre features, namely the lack of any real replay value, specifically multiplayer, simply can’t be overlooked. In a genre that focuses almost exclusively on the advancement of your character to near mythic proportions – what good does that serve if you can’t stroke your ego online, or trade and barter linchpin-equipment with fellow adventurers? Torchlight offers the most modest of leaderboards as your only glimpse of standing within the community, which feels like a step backwards in this genre, given the lofty standards set by its predecessors.
Upon completion of the story, an endless, randomly generated dungeon is unlocked, where you’re able to complete repeatable “gofer” quests and increase your fame. Should you become satisfied with your champion’s prowess, you are given the option to retire the hero, permanently inactivating that character while passing down a single item as a powerful heirloom to your next adventurer. Though thoughtful inclusions, both additions merely prolong the same gameplay, which is genuinely fun, but inherently repetitious without narrative weight or player interaction.
Suffering from an anemic story and non-existent social features, Torchlight feels like a missed opportunity when remembering the genre’s dense heavyweights of yesteryear. Though it does take steps in the right direction through innovative features, lushly stylized visuals and continuously randomized settings – infectiously fun gameplay quickly becomes stale without a narrative framework and overly easy on even the most difficult settings. Torchlight is a respectable title that can’t quite escape the shadow of its lineage, offering a dozen hours of true enjoyment before cracks in the veneer take shape and hinder what could have been a truly remarkable dungeon crawler.
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