Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tech: Torchlight review

It's been a long, rough ride for the ex-Blizzard North employees who struck out on their own following Blizzard's acquisition by Vivendi. After several stops and starts, Max and Erich Schaefer (who helped design the megahit "Diablo" series) have teamed up with Travis Baldree to form Runic Games. Their first title is, somewhat predictably, a "Diablo" clone called "Torchlight."

"Torchlight" will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played a "Diablo"-style hack-and-slash action RPG: isometric perspective, randomly generated dungeons, big red and blue balls representing your health and mana, etc. The game also mixes in a lot of ideas from Baldree's "Fate" series, like your ever-faithful pet and a pleasant, cartoony art style.

Most importantly, the designers of "Torchlight" know what hack-and-slash is supposed to feel like. The sounds and graphics that accompany your warrior cleaving into a goblin horde feel appropriately meaty. High-level spells put out colorful pyrotechnics, and level-ups get the fanfare they deserve. These are the kinds of visceral details most "Diablo" clones omit. Like in "Diablo," the levels themselves are a nice mix of interesting environments, with locales ranging from an abandoned dwarven fortress to a goblin prison perched on a sea of lava.

There are plenty of times when the game feels a little too much like "Diablo," though. That's because there are numerous enemies that have been imported wholesale. Vicious jungle pygmies? Giant spiders that spew immobilizing webs? Mummies that explode in a poison gas cloud after death? "Diablo II" fans will immediately recognize all of these enemies, and it's a little lazy of Runic Games to just recycle them, no matter what the nostalgia value.

The game fares better when it makes smart changes to the tried-and-true "Diablo" model. Unlike in "Diablo II," there are numerous shared spells and passive abilties between the three selectable characters (Destroyer, Vanquisher, and Alchemist, although they're basically remixes of the standard warrior, rogue, and mage classes). This means that you can create interesting variant builds, like a melee-focused Alchemist or a spellcasting Destroyer. That's a lot of replay value for a $20 downloadable game.

You're going to need that replay value, however, since "Torchlight" is single-player only at the moment. Runic is currently working on a free-to-play, microtransaction-supported MMO add-on (or perhaps a standalone sequel). In the meantime, the game's harder difficulty levels and hardcore mode (where character deaths are permanent) should keep you occupied.

I haven't said much about the game's plot because there really isn't much of one to speak of. Sure, there's some token NPCs and an ongoing theme of corruption involving the game's magic source, Ember, but it's all just an excuse to kill stuff. If you don't mind your hack-and-slash being a little purposeless, "Torchlight" is well worth a look.

Rating: 84/100


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