I recently had a fling with Runic Games‘ newly released title Torchlight and, as usual, I have too much to talk about so I figured I would sum up my thoughts here in a new quasi-column called Indirect Fire.
The Fate of Torchlight
WildTangent released Fate quite some time ago at this point, and it can still be a fun game today – one of the benefits of being a dungeon romp title is being nearly immune to the effects of time passage. I really enjoyed it when it came out and was pleasantly surprised with the unique pet system and some of the mechanics like enchanting. With a little refinement and polish, it could have been something really special and unique amongst the old and tired genre.
Given this, I was very excited for Torchlight. Coming from the combined efforts of the developers of Fate, the ill-fated original Mythos and the prestigious Diablo, it was poised to incorporate all of the best things about these games with extra polish and love from such an experienced development team. Unfortunately, Runic seemed to learn nothing from Fate or Mythos and repeated some very questionable design decisions. I find this hard to understand as they become quite apparent after playing for more than a few hours, and surely they must have known of their existence. As usual, these design mistakes are fairly simple in nature and shouldn’t require that much labor to fix. Even now the developers are releasing patches in effort to alleviate this issues, but being as the game is already released, the stamp of semi-permanence has seemingly been applied to it and these mechanics certainly need much more than simple alleviation.
What Went Wrong
One of the major problems of the game is in the character classes. Boasting only 3 classes, Torchlight aims to make up for the lack of quantity in that each of them has 3 extensive skill trees, and this design is largely taken from Mythos. Such a system is pretty common in today’s RPG games, however I’ve always felt they were one of the worst aspects of Mythos and the same rings true in Torchlight. Rather than being restricted by previous skill purchases (i.e. requiring 5 points in one ability before being able to purchase the next), you can get any skill at any time as long as you meet the level requirement for it. This promotes heavy skill saving in effort to max out the later more powerful abilities, which – while rewarding players for thinking ahead – drastically removes fun from the beginning of the game. This is emphasized even more strongly when you realize that abilities have no cooldown, you can use them as often as you’d like. This turns the 3 big trees of skill choices into a simple chore of finding which ability is the most powerful and then maxing it out and using it for the rest of your character’s career (with the possible exception of using pets).
No difficulty mode transference is another big core problem. By this I mean the ability to start a game on Normal, and when finishing Normal you move on to Hard with higher level monsters and such. The absence of such a feature may sound non-important, or even good, but it really takes a lot away from the game. In Torchlight, easier difficulties only serve as a grounds to learn the game before jumping right into the hardest difficulty. Worse, some people get too far on Easy/Normal and then do not wish to start over on a new difficulty, but they also feel that the game is too easy and boring. However you cannot beat the game and move on to a higher difficulty, aside from retiring your character which essentially deletes it and lets you start a new one that inherits one of your items, making it stronger. This sounds tempting but is silly as the inheritance bonus is more or less just enchanting the item (a feature which already exists in the game without having to retire) and then transferring this item to the new character (a feature which again already exists in the form of a shared stash). In the end, retiring a character for the sake of the bonus simply isn’t worth it ever, aside from the case of “I have a character on normal who is close to the end and I want to play very hard” (which is what I did). A shame as this was a highly hyped feature of the game, and a big selling point for replayability.
In place of the standard dungeon monsters being higher level on higher difficulties, the game touts an infinite dungeon. This uses Torchlight’s impressive automatically generated dungeon technology – possibly the best procedural dungeons as of yet. So there’s certainly nothing wrong with the dungeon itself. However, the idea of an “infinite dungeon” really struck me as off-putting. Perhaps if the game was multiplayer this wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue, if it would be an issue at all – but in a single player game I just can’t justify trudging through a dungeon that never ends for more than a few floors in the pursuit of trivial loot.
Enchanting, This Feature is Not
I touched on this topic a couple of times by now, yet I feel the need to elaborate on it as it is definitely one of the biggest gamebreakers for me personally. Enchanting. Fate had this problem as well and it is easily one of the top two things that I just can’t understand the developers ported into Torchlight without significant design changes. Here’s how it works: you talk to an NPC in town who gives you a dialogue box where you can place a piece of armor or a weapon. Upon doing so he gives you a price. You click the Enchant button and one of a few different things can happen: the item is enchanted, giving it more sockets or magical bonuses; nothing happens at all; or the slim chance that the item is disenchanted and returns to being a plain “white” item. The major problem here is there is no limit on enchanting. You can do it over and over and over, making the only thing between you and amazing gear is money. Even this might not sound so bad, but the cost to enchant barely goes up and is instead defined by the rarity of the item. A common “white” item costs nearly nothing to enchant whereas a unique rare item costs tens of thousands of gold. Ultimately this makes it so starting off with a common basic item that drops all of the time and enchanting it until it greatly surpasses the quality of rare items is very easy to do and more or less ruins the loot gathering component of the game, which is one of the strongest hooks in this genre.
This enchanting problems falls back on a very common issue these days, the problem of automatically generated loot that is perfectly balanced each level, with various possible modifiers (usually altering it’s name based on the modifier). Popularized in World of Warcraft and of course copy-pasted into every game to be released afterwards, this is the main reason so much loot in a lot of MMOs today is extremely boring; when you have the possibility of getting a “dagger” that does 5 damage, or a “dagger of agility” that does 5 damage and gives 1 agility, etc. However, this is another topic completely that I could ramble on about forever.
A Matter of Timing
Torchlight is single player only, which is most likely the biggest downside to to the title overshadowing all of the other issues (of course, all of the other issues would be amplified had it been multiplayer). Curiously, Runic Games is claiming that an MMO component/version is coming, which is a very interesting prospect given that the game is begging for multiplayer. Not so interesting is the fact that the estimated time of arrival for “Torchlight the MMO” is in 1.5 years. Frankly, in such a long timespan I am having trouble understanding why they insist on even calling it the same game – at such a length of time, I question the necessary secondary marketing to be worth it rather than just using Torchlight as a “brought to you by the creators of” reference.
More than just breaking free of the chains of an already marketed and hyped game, they could also use it as a chance to rebalance and design questionable aspects of the game. Certainly, one would hope this to be true as while these issues can be acceptable for a single player title, they would be exponentially worse in a multiplayer environment.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
With everything I’ve written so far, I guess it is hard to believe that I could still somehow scribble out anything positive about Torchlight. However, it certainly isn’t all bad, and contains many of the elements that made Fate really fun. Of note is that it brought back the pet system from Fate, where you have a permanent companion that runs around with you fighting monsters. You can equip this pet and also send him back to sell your extra loot without you actually having to leave the dungeon. This was also a feature in Fate but as that game was very underrated and not well known, this is new to many people and has caused quite a stir of interest.
The game is also known to be beautiful, which it certainly is. Being rendered in a stylized manner allows for detailed environments, extravagant spell effects and of course huge packs of monsters.
Speaking of environments, Torchlight also features a very easy to use and fun map editor for which users can create their own mods on the game’s engine. I have to say this really shows just how good the randomized dungeon technology in the game is, especially with how easy it is to make gorgeous and varied environments.
And of course at the end of the day Torchlight is still a very solid dungeon crawler.
Torchlight is still easily a great game, well worth $20 in today’s market. It is just a shame that the multiplayer wasn’t near being ready as it is plain to see from user reactions how thirsty gamers are for a Diablo-like experience these days. The design issues, while annoying, don’t really detract from the $20 worth of gameplay; however they easily keep it from being a long-lasting title that you’ll want to invest countless hours in like a Bioware or Bethesda game. Instead I suspect most will keep it at a single play-through, not taking advantage of the game’s infinite dungeon or extensive levels, or at least not for any length of time. The bland skill and loot systems simply ruin the game’s staying power, and this is cause for concern as they are planning to use the Torchlight IP for an MMO later on.
However, I wouldn’t let any of this detract you from buying Torchlight as the pricepoint doesn’t really demand an amazingly long game, and playing it through on the hardest setting will serve more hours of gameplay than most titles can offer currently. My personal suggestion is to just take it easy and enjoy the game for what it is instead of trying to work the system and make your character as strong as possible. I know this is the whole point of anything with RPG elements, but trust me. Just enjoy the ride. Don’t over-analyze it and write a novel about it on your personal blog. Er…