Torchlight II Reviewed: The ARPG genre hits its peak, but it’s time for Runic to move on

Torchlight II

By on October 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Back in 1996, Blizzard purchased a small company called Condor and renamed them to Blizzard North, months before releasing their first game – Diablo.

Diablo saw your hero entering a beleaguered town infested with monsters, and heading down into deeper and deeper catacombs until you finally smashed enough bad guys to pieces and stole enough of their stuff to satisfy yourself. Four years later Diablo II came out — still made by the same team — and featured you chasing down the hero from the previous game who had turned evil, and who wouldn’t stop until you’d smashed enough of his minions to pieces and stolen their stuff.

So let’s talk about Torchlight. Torchlight releases in 2009 from the same key members of Condor/Blizzard North, now calling themselves Runic Games, and sees your hero entering a beleaguered town infested with monsters and heading down into deeper and deeper catacombs until you’ve finally smashed enough bad guys to pieces and stolen enough of their stuff to satisfy yourself. Now three years on we have Torchlight II, which features you chasing down the hero from the previous game who has turned evil, and who won’t stop until you’ve smashed enough of his minions to pieces and stolen their stuff.

Right.

On genres, perfected

Torchlight II is a love letter to Diablo II in the same way as Torchlight was a love letter to the original Diablo. It’s a game built on a deep understanding of ARPG’s, an understanding that you’re bound to have at a company which somehow wound up making the same two games twice. Torchlight II is the alpha and the omega, it is the beginning and the end: it defines the genre so perfectly and nails the mechanics and psychology with such elegance that the British Museum should probably buy a copy just so then can store it in an archive for future generations to marvel at.

Torchlight II is the textbook definition of a sequel. There’s more of everything. More classes (well, one more). More pets. More maps — so many more maps. More skills. More items. More potions, fish, sockets, magic attributes. More people to play with. More randomly generated maps available for purchase through the Mapworks system. It’s exactly what everybody expected, and pretty much what everybody wanted. Oh, and did I mention it has full mod support? And it’s still only $20?

It’s difficult to really level any proper criticism at Torchlight II – it’s so wholly representative of its genre that criticising it would be like criticising the genre itself, which boils down to subjective and ultimately stupid arguments like “action RPG’s are dumb” or the witty rejoinder “no, you’re dumb” and I’d like to think we can elevate our discussion a little higher than that.

The one area in which it does fall patently and objectively flat is the storyline: “something-something the bad guy is going different places follow him and beat him up” is about as much as I can remember and, while I have a deep and abiding hatred for people who write off the hard work of developers with one quick stroke… there’s not really any alternative here. The story is irrelevant and pointless, and it only gets in the way of the delightfully slick shank-em and loot-em festival that underpins this whole exercise. Difficulty levels also seem like they need a bit of work: I opened on Veteran and barely found myself actually challenged, whereas playing on Casual or Normal is just painfully easy.

A thousand ways to kill

Where Torchlight II distinguishes itself from the pleasant-but-mindless coma so inherent to the genre is in the sheer variety of things to do as you play. From everybody’s favourite fishing holes to the introduction of new phase beast challenges — portals which pop out of a defeated phase beast and take you to an arena where you have to perform a set task — there’s always something to do in the world beyond just slaughtering more enemies. Each level is littered with things to click on, random chests that only open if you find a ghost somewhere, a golden key, levers to pull, buildings to burn, secret passages. And sidequests — oh sweet lord, more sidequests than you can poke a stick at.

Co-operative gameplay is as easy as hosting a LAN game and then jumping right in, or even going for the slightly-more-complicated online model of creating a Runic account and then jumping right in. It just works: there’s no faffing about with ports or lag or regions or DRM or always-online or currency conversion or planetary alignment.

Skilling up and starting over

Mechanically Torchlight II strikes a half-half compromise with its skill trees, giving you a variety of abilities to put points into so that you actually have to make choices, but only allowing you to rewind up to three choices at any time. Levelling up, then, becomes a matter of experimentation: put a point into something, try it for a while, and head back to town to remove it if you find it doesn’t work. It’s an interesting design decision and for the most part works, but there’s been times when I’ve been frustrated by my inability to suddenly take my character in a wildly different direction. Fortunately, this problem has already been solved by a mod which adds respec potions without flagging you as a cheater. Again, we are reminded that mod support is literally the most important thing a PC game can ever include. Game has a feature you don’t like? Fix it yourself.

Aside from the lack of native respec support — which probably would have been at the top of Runic’s feature list if it had only been present in Diablo II — the system is great. You’re not locked out of any skill tree by picking any of the others, and there’s no pre-requisites on the skills beyond a level requirement so there’s nothing to stop you blowing all your points in one tree and then cherry-picking a few skills from another once you get high enough.

I’ve been playing an Engineer in the Bots, Bots and More Bots style that Bane discusses in our first Class Guide: stomping through the levels, firing salvos from a massive two-handed cannon and throwing robotic spiders at people while my army of walking turrets and healbots swarms around me. I have a bulldog named Winston, who I specced for tanking so I could wander around with impunity. And do you know how many annoying, repetitive lines Winston sprays out every thirty seconds? None. I love it.

A fitting (hopeful) end

While Torchlight II deliberately held back from releasing even in the shadow of the juggernaut that is Diablo III, it had the unfortunate result of ending up releasing right next to Borderlands 2, another slot machine masquerading as a co-operative gameplay experience. My Steam friends list has been filled with people playing Borderlands 2 instead of Torchlight II, and I fear that it may be overlooked as a result of accidentally swapping out one loot-em-up rival for another. Still at $20 — and let’s be honest, it’ll probably be on sale on Steam in about six weeks time — it’s ridiculously good value.

Torchlight II’s greatest strength is, ultimately, its greatest weakness: its rigid, dogmatic adherence to a decade-old formula

Torchlight II’s greatest strength is, ultimately, its greatest weakness: its rigid, dogmatic adherence to a decade-old formula. There’s a lot to be said for ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but Torchlight II sticks to the script with a glassy-eyed enthusiasm that screams to be called into question. When I saw that the games’ primary antagonist was one of the previous games’ heroes, I accidentally facepalmed my own nose clean into my skull. Really, Runic? Really?

Here’s the deal: I get it. You made Diablo, then you made Diablo II, then you left Blizzard, and then you re-made Diablo again. Now you’ve re-made Diablo II, for 2012, with 2012 sensibilities. I get it, really. But please… stop. You’ve done it. You’ve mastered the genre. You’ve hit the peak. You’ve polished it until it shines. There’s nothing left here, there’s no more blood in the stone, and the stone is now a diamond. Just.. let it go. There’s already another developer on the market who makes a living by releasing sequels which are mostly polished reworkings of their original games, and they used to be your boss. Ironically, Diablo III delivered more innovation (even if a lot of people didn’t like it) than Torchlight II does, which is a weird position for a small indie team to find themselves in.

If there is a Torchlight III — and there probably won’t be, if this Reddit thread is anything to go by — it will be a crying shame, because it will represent the distressing waste of what is a clearly talented development team on re-upholstering the same couch that they’ve been sitting on since 1996. You’ve proven you can tackle the genre, and you’ve left the keys to the kingdom in the hands of the modders. It’s time to move on. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.

Good:

  • It’s pretty much the textbook definition of an ARPG
  • Hours and hours of monster-slaying, mindless fun
  • A bewildering amount of things to do in each map
  • Bigger and better in almost every way
  • Full mod support, and no DRM
  • LAN play!
  • It’s ridiculously good value at $20

Bad:

  • Storyline is just irrelevant and mostly forgettable
  • Occasional map regeneration problems
  • Feels a bit too easy for the experienced ARPG player
  • Let’s be honest: it’s Diablo II for 2012
17 comments (Leave your own)
Bane Williams

Mentioning FATE because if I don’t I feel I’m not doing my job.

Torchlight II for me is an absolutely amazing game, and it feels wrong to say it was pretty much most of what I wanted Diablo III to be, although D3′s story was better if only for memorable cutscenes (or just one, at the end of Act 1).

Great review :D

 

Diablo 3 hardly delivered innovation. It simplified the genre to a stupid degree.

It seems strange to argue that there shouldn’t be a Torchlight 3. There aren’t enough truly good ARPG’s around, especially ones that include full mod support. The ridiculous amount of fun I’ve had playing this with friends indicates that it’s hardly a waste of the dev’s team potential. And Diablo 3 for 2012? I’d argue Torchlight 2 is a far better game than Diablo 3 simply because it didn’t base one of the most important parts of the game around a money-generatingauction house.

 

ausjoker:
Diablo 3 hardly delivered innovation. It simplified the genre to a stupid degree.

It seems strange to argue that there shouldn’t be a Torchlight 3. There aren’t enough truly good ARPG’s around, especially ones that include full mod support. The ridiculous amount of fun I’ve had playing this with friends indicates that it’s hardly a waste of the dev’s team potential. And Diablo 3 for 2012? I’d argue Torchlight 2 is a far better game than Diablo 3 simply because it didn’t base one of the most important parts of the game around a money-generatingauction house.

Diablo III changed a lot more things than Torchlight II did, but the problem was that it made a lot of people angry by doing so. I’m not saying they were good changes, but they were changes. Torchlight II is very content to stay exactly where it is.

If you read the linked Reddit thread, you’ll see the dev team are tired of making Torchlight games, and frankly who can blame them? Core members of the team have been making the same game since 1996.

I’ve tried hard to avoid making comparisons between D3 and T2 but I actually said Torchlight 2 was Diablo 2 for 2012, not Diablo 3 for 2012, so I’m not sure what you mean.

 

It’s not Diablo II for 2012.
Path of Exile is.
Torchlight might be the same genre, but its not even close to being the same game.

I’d much prefer a company stick to making something they are good at making, instead of breaking off into a new genre and fucking it up completely (like many developers have done).

As technology evolves, so do the ability of the games that can be made. There is so much potential in this genre and style of game. IF they made a Torchlight 3 (which they probably wont), they could incorporate increases in technology with the best parts from TL2, Diablo 3 and Path of Exile. Add in support for larger amount of players per server, faction support, PvP, persistent worlds and merge it all into one.

There are plenty of ways to continue a genre while continuing to be innovative.

 

xviper:
It’s not Diablo II for 2012.
Path of Exile is.
Torchlight might be the same genre, but its not even close to being the same game.

Not sure I agree with this. Torchlight II is a lot closer to Diablo II than Path of Exile is.

I think what you’re saying is “Path of Exile is what a Diablo II for 2012 SHOULD have been”, but that’s not what we ended up with.

Torchlight II is a very slavish imitation of Diablo II.

xviper:

I’d much prefer a company stick to making something they are good at making, instead of breaking off into a new genre and fucking it up completely (like many developers have done).

As technology evolves, so do the ability of the games that can be made. There is so much potential in this genre and style of game. IF they made a Torchlight 3 (which they probably wont), they could incorporate increases in technology with the best parts from TL2, Diablo 3 and Path of Exile. Add in support for larger amount of players per server, faction support, PvP, persistent worlds and merge it all into one.

There are plenty of ways to continue a genre while continuing to be innovative.

I don’t disagree with any of this in particular, I just think it’s time for Runic to move on. They’ve really done a spectacular job with this game and if there’s more room to move in the genre, I think other developers should be the one to do it. Runic seem fixated on recreating the past — which is fine, I love the crap outta this game and everything it represents — but it needs to be questioned.

 
jerichosainte

If the game fulfills 95% of what the team intended it to, in hindsight why question their motivation for creating it?

 

Tim Colwill: Diablo III changed a lot more things than Torchlight II did, but the problem was that it made a lot of people angry by doing so. I’m not saying they were good changes, but they were changes. Torchlight II is very content to stay exactly where it is.

If you read the linked Reddit thread, you’ll see the dev team are tired of making Torchlight games, and frankly who can blame them? Core members of the team have been making the same game since 1996.

I’ve tried hard to avoid making comparisons between D3 and T2 but I actually said Torchlight 2 was Diablo 2 for 2012, not Diablo 3 for 2012, so I’m not sure what you mean.

Ah, I misread that II as III. My mistake.

I can’t blame the Runic team for wanting to move to something different. I’ll miss the possibility of any future Torchlight games (although in all honest, I’m pretty sure there will be more at some point) because as far as I’m concerned Torchlight II the best ARPG since Diablo 2, but you’re right – a team of their talent should be taking chances with new stuff.

I suppose Diablo III does deserve credit for attempting to change the genre – I just find myself pretty annoyed that the whole loot system seems to revolve around the auction house. I guess that clouds my judgement a bit. I’m all for developers finding other ways to make money, but there most definitely is a problem when those money-making avenues have an effect on the game itself (in this case, the whole loot system has become pretty shitty). It’s not just because of the auction house, I suppose – removing player-designated stats has greatly limited item selection too.

Anyway, I better not rant as I could write essays on Diablo 3. I love the game and I gladly played it to death, but it frustrates me more than any other. Here’s hoping this post came across reasonably sane.

 

ausjoker: Here’s hoping this post came across reasonably sane.

All good :)

 

The difference for me between D3 and Torchlight 2 is if the battle.net servers go down for good, so does D3.. T2 on the other hand I can keep playing from now until he end of time, assuming I have power to a computer that can run it.

For me thats a big deal, forcing people to play D3 on their servers without setting up local servers for each location was a truly poor effort. I enjoyed D3, but playing 1/4 of a second (At it’s best, nearly half a second at it’s worse) behind the game is truly unsatisfying.

 

Good review. Totally agree that Diablo 3 was the more innovative game which was flawed by some stupid design choices while TL2 plays it safe but is still an excellent game for ARPG purists.

Which one am I enjoying more?

I loved D3′s skill system. When a game doesn’t limit me to what skills I am able to use at any particular time (apart from the 6 active skills limit), I am free to try out different builds. I really wish TL2 allowed for full respecs on stat and skill points… sometimes, you just need this flexibility to change things up.

However, TL2 does let me use 3 skill points with the option of respecs and there’s learnt spells which, in TL1, got me through most of the campaign. Amazingly, Torchlight is still fun without the use of skills but not as fun as D3′s skill system.

TL2 drops good loot way more often which I believe is a better system compared to the D3 AH. And I can play TL2 without having to be online continuously.

 

I love the trend of not giving games a score. Is this a new thing for the site or has it been like this a while? Also, great review! Loving this game so much

 

For those wanting to respec without being flagged in game as a cheater try this mod:

http://www.runicgamesfansite.com/vbdownloads.php?do=download&fileid=18

 

It’s a shame to see Path of Exile called a copy of D2 in the comments here. It does take a lot of features of the Diablo games, but it also delivers a few key innovations.

 

mugsy,

I thoroughly disliked the D3′s skill system. It felt like a step backwards. It felt too dumb downed.

 

fasty:
I love the trend of not giving games a score. Is this a new thing for the site or has it been like this a while? Also, great review! Loving this game so much

We changed back in April, haven’t given a single review score since. Glad you like it!

 

Marius,

That was me. I played in the beta, and liked the game. It’s a good game.
But its interface is a direct copy of Diablo II. Its inventory management is just as horrible.

Their passive skill tree is incredibly innovative and I love it, but they make the game so tedious to play it sucked all the fun out of it for me. I don’t want to have to go back to town every 5 minutes because my inventory is full.

 
CielPhantomhive

Great review. LOVING this game after I got it for the Summer sales. XD

 
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