INTERIOR: A well-lit tavern. The sound of quaffing and carousing fills the air, along with the twangs of some unmentionable stringed instrument. The camera focuses in on one table to reveal three men deep in discussion. Observing the noble cut of their clothes, the fine pleating of their beards and the ostentatious jangle of their chains and jewellery, one would suppose these gentlemen to be talking of matters of great import, of the rise of kingdoms or the fall of grain prices. We zoom in further, to reveal they’re…talking about Torchlight 2.
Hentzau: So we’re all sitting here, trying to figure out how to kickstart this review/discussion.
Jim: Okay, easy one to start. Why the hell did you buy Torchlight 2. Sinny?
Sinny: I bought it because ARPGs feel like games that should be cheap, simple and quick to play. Torchlight was all of those things, and Torchlight 2 promised to patch up what was missing. I know Jim was somewhat ambivalent towards the original, why did you get Torchlight 2, Hent?
Hentzau: I have been trying to figure that out for the last five minutes. Trying to peer back through the thick fog of boredom and loathing to see what my thought process was before I bought the game. Largely it was a matter of inertia; Torchlight 2 was going to come out before Diablo 3, it was going to provide an ARPG fix while Blizzard put the finishing touches on their Ecce Homo mural, it wouldn’t matter so much that it was good just so long as it existed. Then it was delayed. Then it was delayed some more. Then Diablo 3 was released, and almost immediately afterwards the Torchlight 2 preorder came up, and at this point I’d been waiting so long I blindly jumped aboard the nearest 4-pack without really paying attention to what Diablo 3 might have meant for the genre in general.
Jim: I think ambivalent is nowhere near strong enough to describe my love-hate relationship with the original. I’ve always shied away from these obsessive-compulsive clicky clicky RPGS, but I played Torchlight until the tendons in my wrist ached and that is pretty rare because you could crack nuts with them or use them for bridge suspension they are just that strong. I got obsessed with it for a week, rushed through it and ended up despising not only the game, but myself. I found my old review of it a few weeks ago, it was very succinct. “The worst game ever made, made perfectly.”
Sinny: So we’ve got me, a guy who picked it up specifically as an antidote to Diablo 3, Hent, who bought it to hold him over until Diablo 3, and then Jim in the middle, who can’t work out whether to punch it in the crotch or marry it. This should be a relatively even-handed review, I should think! I’ll start with the sweeping statements then: Torchlight 2 isn’t worth any awards this year, but it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made.
Jim: Justify yourself!
Sinny: There’s nothing here that moves the industry forward or emerges from a flock of doves to the strains of a string quartet. Nor is there anything that feels so polished, cinematic, or packed with human flourishes that it deserves a place in history as a shining example of videogame development. What Torchlight 2 does is take a genre, find out every idea that is key and core to it, and then removes everything else. And it does it in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost that, yes, Diablo 3 tries to.
Hentzau: Oh, that’s certainly what Torchlight 2 does. The problem is that the genre is the ARPG, and the key ideas — the core concepts that are at the very heart of any ARPG worthy of the name — are hitting things, and loot. Torchlight 2 has plenty of both, but that’s all it has. There’s a lot of colourful invective thrown around about ARPGs about how they are basically games about watching numbers get bigger. The numbers on your items. The numbers on your character. The numbers floating out of the baddies’ heads when you smash them in the face with your giant wrench. This is certainly a part of their appeal; however, it is only a part, like butter in a sandwich. Eating butter on its own is probably not something I’d choose to indulge in all that frequently; it needs something more added to the mix in order to make it interesting and give it that addictive APRG tang. What Torchlight 2 is missing, and what it appears to have consciously removed, is the bacon.
Jim: There’s something that really bugs me about the streamlining process and it’s that complexity is necessary for a game to be a dynamic and interesting experience. Torchlight does pursue this gradual chipping away of everything that could be a hassle or a bore with a particular ruthlessness that I think drains a lot of the potential fun out of the game. You start with this overly complex, kind of sharp statue, fine, you sand it a bit. You don’t remove all the arms and legs to make it easier to deal with.
Sinny: I think there’s something to be said for knocking the arms and legs off to achieve a particular effect. I worry that this review might end up at a rather depressing conclusion, because the thing I appreciate most about Torchlight 2 is that it has that satisfying ebb and flow that Bejewelled has. It’s this “blissful productivity” that game designer Jane McGonigal talks about – this feeling of getting things done, even if the final goal is sort of nebulous or maybe entirely non-existent. It’s why you arrange things in neat piles when you’re bored, or why it’s sometimes strangely satisfying to tidy a room. And it’s also why playing Torchlight 2 is simultaneously frenetic, and almost meditative. I suppose the question is – is this an acceptable goal for an ARPG?
Jim: I can see where you’re coming from but I think that clashes with how they’ve packaged the game. Bejewelled looks like it’s meant to go on forever, you play until you’re too bored to carry on, but T2 is a campaign. It’s got throwaway mechanics poured into this epic RPG mould (save the world, kill the bad guy). I’d argue that in the map design stakes, they’ve taken a step backwards from the original. In the first, your goals were “clear this floor of the dungeon, get to the next level”. It was simple, measurable progress that was clearly compulsive. Now, it’s bigger and prettier but there’s no flow. Main areas are gigantic without focal points, and the various event caves dotted around are more or less identical. I think my problem isn’t with the general idea of mindless questing, it’s how it’s implemented.
Sinny: I agree that level design takes a step back here, though perhaps for different reasons: I have a sneaking suspicion that all random map generation has been removed in the sequel, which is a shame. That said, I like the open-plan hub areas. To me, a lot of the areas conveyed a sense of adventure: the swirling snowscapes punctuated with fiery-red caves to quest into; the gaping chasms cutting through the desert. It’s more organic than the original’s cramped, single-minded design. And the art style supports that too, with big brush strokes and the obligatory abundance of particle effects throwing fireflies at you one second and sandstorms the next.
The art is just one of the ways that Torchlight 2 distinguishes itself from a depressing trend throughout Western RPGs to always include dark medieval nonsense, self-important extended metaphors wrapped up in exposition, and the colour grey. Torchlight 2 is vibrant, colourful, and juicy – that great game terminology for a game that moves and shakes and spurts with every player interaction. It’s a lovely-looking game, I think.
Hentzau: The art style goes for a relatively simple and spartan look, probably to make the most of the limited resources the developer had to begin with. NPCs and baddies are picked out in pastel, painterly shades that are a long way from the grimdark look so beloved of other entrants in the ARPG genre. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this and I actually think it works well for rendering the game’s world. Unfortunately the environment I run around in is background only; it generates atmosphere but it is secondary to the creatures populating it and the items you prise from their cold dead fingers, and here I think the game misses two crucial points. The first is that dress-up is a large part of ARPGs. Make the items you pick up and equip look good on the character; when I find an orange pair of trousers I want them to look just as awesome as the stats imply. I don’t want them to look like a pair of skintight lycra pants. It’s not true of all equipment, but most of it is visually bland and unexciting, making the finding of loot that much less interesting.
Jim: In theory the game looks fine, it’s consistent and colourful and full of little elemental fireworks. It’s just that they went for the archetypes of the RPG world. Forests! Snowy forests! Deserts! Fucking swamps! There was no point where I was impressed or cheered or creeped out by the art, but it is competently made.
Sinny: Sure, but Torchlight 2 is Archetype: The Game…
Hentzau: There’s actually a reason the game is set up like that, Jim, but that’s something we shall discuss later. AS I WAS SAYING, my second point is that killing baddies is also a large part of ARPGs. Make the baddies you kill distinctive and recognisable. Make their attacks easily-identifiable. Remember that the player is going to spend pretty much the entire game in this zoomed out isometric view, and that looking at them from fifty metres up at a 45 degree angle is going to make them look very different from what they look like close-up. I’m not sure if this counts as visual design or animation or whatever, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the name of a single baddie I killed in this game, they were that unmemorable to me. They were just things; swarms of things that ran towards my character to be dispatched without thought or mercy. It’s almost like the game has taken its slavish streamlining of the ARPG to its logical conclusion and rendered the concept of enemies down to its most abstract form possible. They simply exist, and Torchlight 2 deems this sufficient.
Jim: I don’t think that’s just a product of the visual design, though, it’s the mechanics underlying them that render everything a little bit of a soupy mess. Ultimately, you barely actually look at your character and what they’re doing. Your two friends, the things that you keep your eyes fixed upon, are the health globule and the map. The bucket o’ blood because the only thing that is happening in these fights is that health is going down and you need to stop it going TOO far down, and the map because it’s impossible to have a general idea of the space you’re in without it. It’s a fine health sphere, sure, there’s little bubbles in it and everything, but it’s not what I want to spend my weeknights glaring at.
Hentzau: Ah, but the importance of the health globe is actually rather down to the game’s poor visual design/feedback in communicating damage spikes to the player. You’ll be fighting a bunch of things just like the last ten bunches of things you thought, and everything will go well at first, and then suddenly your health will start dropping dramatically with nothing appearing on screen to indicate you’re experiencing a particularly damaging attack except the rapidly-emptying health globe. So combat largely consists of watching this thing and pressing “1” to gulp down a health potion whenever your health gets too low rather than, you know, fighting the bad guys.
Sinny: I think a lot of this might come down to the game’s insistence on throwing colours and shapes at you from the get-go, so as it tries to ramp up the difficulty it’s hard to make things bigger or badder than they were before. But I’m not sure I agree entirely about the visual signposting or the health dependence. Some classes have their issues, but I had quite fun combat experiences with others. Which classes have you both played as?
Jim: Engineer! I cleverly named her “Enjimeer”. There’s bits and pieces I really liked, the variety of robots you can have sauntering after you is a highlight, but as I played more the game did seem to boil down to the health thing. See, I was trying to play elegantly at first, I had a healing robot and I was determined not to use potions because I hate using potions, so I was running away to my portable dispenser all the time. It was tense! It was sometimes exciting! I died a lot! Then I realised that the game spits more potions at you than you can physically carry and there wasn’t really much point in continuing to cripple myself, so I stashed them all in one of those American ball game hats with the two straws going directly into my face.
Hentzau: Engineer, with an additional hour spent as a Berserker to see if it was just the class that was the problem. Spoiler: it wasn’t.
Sinny: The classes take a few hours to open up, which is a big problem with the way they’re designed, but the Berserker has a lot of interesting skill combinations that encourage you to dash both towards and away from danger. I found that I was focusing on healing a lot less, and more about acrobatic skill usage when playing as him.
Hentzau: TRAP SPRUNG. This is the point where I start railing against Torchlight 2’s skill system and how much I hate it. Specifically, the almost total lack of respec capability. Torchlight 2 lets you pay to refund the last three skill points you spent, which at least allows you to try new skills, but skills on their own do not make a character. You see, in most modern ARPGs skills combine into what we call builds: multiple skills which work together to form something more effective than the individual skills on their own. Torchlight 2’s limited respec system makes the testing of builds impossible. If you’ve invested in the hit-things-really-hard ability and then ten levels down the line realise it doesn’t synergise particularly well with the robomancer your character has become, there’s no way to get those skill points back. It’s intentionally letting you fall into the trap of crippling yourself if you don’t already know what all of the skills do, which I regard as unforgiveable in a modern game. It discourages experimentation, is what it does; there’s loads of skills but you’ll only ever use a small subset of them because bringing in an additional skill is risky when it might not work with the ones you already have.
Sinny: I feel like we’re butting against the same point more than once here, which is that Diablo 3 and Torchlight 2 embrace very different design philosophies, and Hentzau and I seem to come on opposite sides. With Diablo 3’s abandonment of skill points, the player is protected from cornering themselves with a build, but with that loses the feeling of genuine uniqueness and specialisation that permanence confers. Equally, Torchlight 2 – while it tries to let you see how a skill feels with the limited respec points – ultimately is willing to punish the player for changing tactics halfway through a game.
The problem with allowing arbitrary re-customisation of a character is that you’re left with choices feeling meaningless and entirely temporary. While it might be kinder to players (both the expert experimenters and the novice alike) to allow hacks and changes galore, for me it dilutes part of playing an RPG – which is that I chose this path, not this one, and that seeing a pistol drop is a flash of excitement because pistols are my thing.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, though – Torchlight 2 has already been cracked open, and infinite respeccing is modded in. That’s the beauty of the way this game has been designed. Friendliness extends beyond design decisions, and right through to the openness of the game itself. No Internet connection required.
Hentzau: They’re not meaningless, though! If a player tries a skill and a build and doesn’t like it they have gained valuable information: that build is not for them. Why do they have to be penalised for finding this out? If I try a build and it doesn’t work, I don’t want to have to start a whole new character to try another one. There’s enough skills that a player can spend literally hours fine-tuning their build and homing in on one that works best for them. This is something Diablo 3 got very, very right; I went through like five or six iterations on my Wizard before I finally settled on something that felt right to me, and the game didn’t make me roll five or six Wizards to do this.
Jim: I think conceptually I agree with Sinny, to be honest. Hard choices should be made and you should be punished for making them wrong. All the information is there, dammit, and if you want to go around making wrong decisions then I’m not helping you. There’s also a lot of give built into the system if you are sub-optimal, because you die and you respawn and that’s it, there’s no cash lost if you don’t want to, there’s no experience penalty. I mean if you’re playing Ironman yes, but I suppose by that point you have to accept that you should know what you’re doing. That’s not to say I think that Torchlight’s skill system is particularly great, because the skills are, with a few exceptions, phenomenally boring, all plus percents and plus damage a bit and okay yes the occasional helpful robot. Also, nothing really seems to stack together.
Hentzau: Arguably any flexibility that exists in the system does so because the combat is based in large part around constantly guzzling health potions. As long as you don’t run out of health potions you will win.
Sinny: I don’t know how the Engineer works later in the game, but I know that a lot of its abilities are geared towards firing-and-forgetting, particularly the robot pet stuff. Other classes definitely have synergistic skills, though, but not as many as an ARPG should have, certainly. One thing I do feel, both from writing this review and reading others, is that spending six hours with each of Torchlight 2’s classes gives a better picture of the game than spending twenty-four hours with one of them.
Jim: Playing it through with one class doesn’t give you a picture? It’s going to take me thirty hours to finish my first playthrough and I don’t think I could take much more.
Sinny: I said it gives you a better picture. Even at thirty hours, if you were truly drained at that point, you paid a third of what Diablo 3 is currently going for on Amazon.
Hentzau: And so we come to the elephant in the room: the Diablo franchise and Torchlight’s love-hate relationship with its older, pricier sibling. Torchlight was a modern update of Diablo, in that you descended through a dungeon underneath a town to slay the boss at the bottom. Torchlight 2 is unarguably a modern update of Diablo 2; the action transitions to an overworld and you travel from town to town chasing the bad guy. The levels are even the same, since you start off in your green foresty level (although it swiftly transitions to snow), and then act two is the desert level, and then act three is the swamp level. If you really love Diablo 2 I guess this isn’t so much of a problem, except…
…well, here’s something it took me a while to realise about Torchlight 2 and why I hated it so much: it missed its window. Diablo 3 was taking such a gosh-darned long time — and there had been so few other ARPG titles in the interregnum — that a modern update of Diablo 2 wouldn’t have seemed anachronistic at all. But then Torchlight 2 was delayed to the point where it released after Diablo 3, and the moment Blizzard’s effort came out Torchlight 2 instantly aged twelve years and started to resemble a misguided Spanish lady’s attempt to restore life to a dated work of art. Diablo 3 isn’t perfect by any means and there is much about it that I didn’t like, but it’s taken Torchlight 2’s deliberately retro approach to make me realise that many of the changes it made to the formula were changes for the better.
Sinny: I think I understand everything you’re saying about missing its window, and Diablo 3 shifting the goalposts somewhat, yet for me I was happy to see the Diablo series sail off in search of new waters. Just as Team Fortress 2 retained the fun and vibrancy of first-person shooting, in the face of gritty, noisy, moody militaryfests like CoD, Torchlight 2 offered a respite from the course Blizzard was charting for the ARPG genre, and allowed me to enjoy the genre in the way I wanted to.
Perhaps this is the sad tale of Torchlight 2 – that it turned up for a big fight with Diablo 3 behind the bike sheds only to find it had graduated and gone off to big school. These two fanbases, these two opposing schools of thought on the genre, they’re really not talking about the same types of game any more? I think that’s okay though. I think it means that the old ways get to continue to live and look beautiful and have Internet co-op, while the huge development machine that is Blizzard pushes the core of the genre in the direction it believes it needs to go in?
Jim: Beautiful as that is, I would point out that I am someone who eschews other ARPGS, who has never played a second of Diablo, and those flaws still stuck out like the massive thumbs of a novelty foam hand. I’m sure that Diablo 3 has hammered a few more nails into its general reception but T2 brought that on itself by being such a predictable and derivative game. We haven’t even mentioned the plot or the cutscenes or any of the attempts to stitch their reasonably-fun monster-smashing into a big ol’ game, but they are so, so awful. I think the problem is that it overreached. Torchlight was successful and deserved to be successful, it was a cheap and cheerful game that tried doing things in a completely new and streamlined way and novelty counts for a lot. Torchlight 2 is, well, bloated beyond fun.
Sinny: To me, it’s the realised full game that Torchlight was the proof of concept for.
Hentzau: And to me it’s obsolete. Redundant. Supernumerary. I appreciate that not everyone has the moolah to splash out on the premium rates Blizzard charges for their games, but Torchlight 2 isn’t really an alternative to Diablo 3. It’s something different, and to my mind inferior Its low price point is certainly a point in its favour, but that’s not going to help if it’s not what you were looking for in the first place.
Sinny: I’m sticking with my composite ship-sailing, schoolyard-sparring metaphor. 2012 has pinned the Diablo and the Torchlight series to the opposite ends of the ARPG genre. I’m genuinely excited to see where both of them go next, and the fact that Torchlight 2 could do this without changing its core philosophy is really wonderful.
Jim: I’m middle class, I look up to him and down to him.