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It seems that when a new genre springs into being, that’s when the biggest deluge of imitators tends to appear. That was certainly the case if you look at the field of ARPGs, as a huge number of them rose in the shadow of the original Diablo rather than either of its sequels. Torchlight wasn’t a contemporary of Diablo but even coming a decade later the influence is clear, and unsurprising given the talent behind it at Runic Games. It followed the pattern so faithfully, in fact, that it failed to innovate in ways that have allowed other ARPGs to flourish in the same period. That’s not to say Torchlight is a bad game, but rather one where the gulf between it and better games is evident.
The town of Torchlight was founded atop an enormous vein of ember, a pretty standard mystical mineral that can enchant or corrupt things depending on what the plot requires. Mining the stuff was going just great before evil monsters began pouring out of the tunnels, and the chaos has claimed your mentor somewhere deep beneath the world. Being a fine, strapping hero you descend into the mines with your trusty (and capable) pet to fight, loot, explore, loot, fish, loot, and maybe get to the bottom of whatever’s going on. And collect some loot while you’re at it.
You’ll notice the connections to Diablo 1 the moment you load into town, and not just because the BGM there is a send-up of the Tristram theme. The structure of the game is identical, with you descending into a single, expansive, multi-level dungeon beneath the town to score loot and press on to the bosses in your way. Back in town you can sell your junk, buy new junk, mash your old junk into new junk, and give your junk new traits. It’s a familiar cycle, one that’s been expanded upon by virtually every ARPG that came after Diablo 1 (including its sequels), except for those that followed faithfully in its footsteps. I don’t consider this disqualifying, but taken alongside its other shortcomings it’s not a good look.
Combat is where you’ll spend the half of the game where you’re not futzing with loot, and it’s in a rough place between D1 and modern sensibilities. You’re certainly not snapped to a grid in these bright, colorful maps but your skills remain very stiff and not terribly exciting to use. I’ve gotten the farthest with the archer-style character who thankfully gets guns from the steampunk trappings of the setting, but ended up with no skills more interesting than exploding or ricocheting shots. The skill trees borrow from Diablo 2 in fact, expecting you to dump points into a main skill to spam all the time forever and ever. And keep in mind you’re going to be killing lots of very standard goblins and spiders with these skills, albeit very elaborately-designed ones.
What Torchlight has going for it, and what can save you from burning out on it after just a few hours, is a load of little side features that still support your ultimate goal of… well, finding loot, really. Your pet is a pretty big selling point on its own, starting you off with a doggie or kitty that you can eventually transmogrify into all kinds of adorable horrors. They can fight alongside you, get equipped with accessory items, hold extra items for you, and even cart junk back to town to sell while you forge ahead in the depths. There’s also fishing of all things that can turn up special items and buffs, and a portal to randomized challenge maps that can earn you important gear upgrades if you can make it to the end.
None of these elements are unique to Torchlight, of course, leaving the game feeling like a title cobbled together from the most visible bits of other games. Even the look is heavily cribbed from World of Warcraft, with great big technicolor shapes and over-designed armors and enemies. Time has only made these comparisons less favorable as the genre has moved forward with titles like Path of Exile and Grim Dawn, leaving Torchlight to stand as one of the better imitators of an outmoded game. That’s not the brightest crown to wear but it’s better than nothing, which is really the nicest thing I can say about this game in terms of a recommendation.
I’m not much of an ARPG guy, but I’ve always wanted to find a good “in” to the genre. Torchlight looked like just that, visually and mechanically accessible, but the points you bring up are the same reasons I couldn’t get into it. The combat was the real killer for me, especially in contrast to Grim Dawn’s which I played a few months after. It feels so stiff and unsatisfying and I could never shake the feeling I’m not seeing everything I reasonably should be seeing; the camera is just way too close in.
Apparently T2 improved a lot from the original though, although every time I play an ARPG now I always end up going back to GD.
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