Disregarding their subsidiary background, Runic Games has two things in common with Blizzard. One, neither team could perfect the launch of their respective action RPG, and two, their ardent fans know how to bring down servers. While Runic forwent always-online DRM for Torchlight II, meaning customers could actually try the campaign on launch day, the company clearly overestimated the number of pre-orders. Runic’s website crashed hard, preventing eager consumers from creating an online account and testing Torchlight’s first venture into the multiplayer realm.
But the developers had that issue sorted out within a day, giving rabid gamers a chance to really dig into the meat of Torchlight II. Players build a character from one of four classes, each tailor fit to a general preference of ranged, melee, and magic warfare. The Embermage calls upon the arcane to inflict burns and poison ailments; the Outlander dual wields firearms and wands to slay enemies from a distance; Engineers imbue their weapons and armor with Ember (fire) power, buffing their offensive and defensive abilities; and the deranged Berserkers invoke beast magic to augment their swift melee capabilities.
The pet system returns from the original Torchlight, too. You could select a wolf, hawk, ferret, panther, or if you’re the boring type, a bulldog or cat. These loyal beasts aid in combat with their own set of spells and separate inventory. Fishing – a throwaway habit in most other RPGs – rewards players with random seafood to nourish their furry friends and transform them into other creatures, including spiders, crabs, warbeasts, skeletons, or jackals, capable of silencing, stunning, or poisoning enemies.
These companions do more than just fight, though. They give gamers the freedom to unload their loot without ever returning to town. Once burdened with unwanted goods, your pet will disembark to sell its inventory of shields, chainmail, and other armaments at the town merchant or pick up the health and mana potions on your shopping list. However, your combat buddy will be unable to bail you out of danger while it departs for several minutes.
While players do acquire class-specific loot, most weapons and armor can be equipped by any of the four archetypes.
Money was never an issue thanks to my faithful jungle cat. Although Torchlight II color codes its loot variety in typical RPG hues, I still picked up the common gear if only to immediately stash in my pet’s backpack for an eventual trip to the market. Yet players never have enough bag space thanks to the mounds of equipment that pile high with each grave robbed, crate smashed, chest opened, and beast slain. Thankfully, you don’t need to click on each bag of gold to pick it up, and for comparison’s sake, Torchlight II does offer more on-screen riches than Diablo III.
Torchlight II also omits weapon durability. In Diablo III, death cost players 10% of their apparel’s endurance, forcing parties to put their questing on hold to portal home and repair their tarnished valuables. Without weapon degradation (a plus in my mind), there’s little to splurge on. Torchlight II contains unidentified items, which players must analyze using an identity scroll, but these purchasable pieces of parchment dropped more regularly than the mysterious gear. Besides the enchanters that bedazzled the Outlander's armor and firearms with passive effects, I saved a majority of my gold for my hero’s inevitable deaths.
The penalty for dying varies depending on where adventurers respawn. Respawning at the hub town costs nothing, but this may put players farther away from their objective unless they died next to a waypoint. Reviving in the exact spot where they perished requires a heftier sum – about a third of one’s gold. If gamers want to avoid the dragon that just roasted their character’s corpse or that stone golem that flattened them into a pancake, a tenth of their monies buys a resurrection at the beginning of the dungeon.
You would not be the first to mistake these screenshots for Diablo III.
It is important to note the Torchlight II’s difficulty. For action RPG pros, the game recommends starting on Veteran (one notch below Elite), yet my inexperience with Torchlight convinced me to play through on Normal to better acquaint myself with the skills that still punished my user errors, though many boss fights deteriorated into wars of attrition and potion spamming. The gameplay does not scale to your character either. Each area comes labeled with a level range that the game makes perfectly clear before setting foot in. But even when players fall within that level spectrum, the encounters within those dungeons will test one’s hotkeys. Activating the Outlander’s Repulsion Hex against bosses immune to its knockback effects wastes precious mana, and destroying conjured minions instead of the summoner only prolongs the inevitable: being overwhelmed.
But Torchlight II never cheats. Whereas Diablo III’s invulnerable, teleporting, mortar-throwing, vortex-casting champions felt like a curse purposely developed to ruin your day, your death falls on your shoulders in the lands of Torchlight. Its champions do exhibit a potpourri of monster traits, though I never encountered combinations impossible to overcome, and completing every side quest available ensured I always met a location’s maximum level. While not randomly generated, Torchlight II’s swamps, deserts, and mountains could easily encompass three or four of Diablo III’s settings. This contributes to a greater sense of exploration as some caves have no quests tied to them whatsoever. They merely exist to hold throngs of goblins, ghouls, spiders, manticores, or whatever mystical baddies Runic could think of, waiting for some brave explorer to cleanse them of their loot.
Although your journey through these camps, gardens, and torture chambers is supposed to benefit mankind, the story makes little sense. Some steampunk figure called the Alchemist, a playable class in Runic Games’ previous title, succumbed to the Heart of Ordrak’s corruption beneath the town of Torchlight. For reasons unknown, only you possess the mettle to stop the Alchemist’s infection of the world’s elemental spirits. Here, the narrative's lore lost me, but with how much fun I was having firing Bramble Shots to ensnare teleporting enemies, invoking the Stone Pact to buff my armor and increase health regeneration, and throwing my ricocheting glaive to eliminate enemies in droves, I was far too preoccupied to follow the dismissible plot.
These environments look much less aliased than Heroes of Ruin's.
Torchlight II still presents a substantial amount of content at a modest price point, but Runic Games may need a patch for the skill trees. Torchlight II does a poor job of teaching players the values of each character’s two dozen abilities. Levels come fast too. At the fifteen-hour mark, my hero reached level 50. All those available skill points found themselves specced in passive perks that increased the Outlander’s damage while dual-wielding and three active casts – the lethal glaive throw, the knockback Repulsion Hex, and the rejuvenating Stone Pact. You can reset the last three skill points spent if you can spare the cash, but if you follow step-by-step instructions, Runic posted a helpful guide on their forums for generating a respec potion after altering a few of the game’s settings. For an otherwise condemnable feature, I applaud the developers for acknowledging their own limitation and giving consumers a workaround necessary for besting the Veteran and Elite difficulties.
Now, Diablo III gave developers an idea how to avoid the pitfalls of post-launch support. Blizzard wanted to make players feel like unrivaled badasses. Their nerfing of abilities thought to be overpowered had the exact opposite effect. Runic Games has taken a very open-minded approach to Torchlight II. Featuring the full suite of Steam Workshop customization, players can modify or create new content however they see fit. From simple NPC clothing swaps to spawning dozens of monsters with the console commands to building one's very own dungeons, Runic’s tolerance for user-generated material adds one more tally to the merit column.
Those mods may even be implemented in multiplayer sessions with five other players. The challenge increases exponentially with the addition of more people, and from the few hours I played, I never lost a connection despite the peer-to-peer servers. The game runs well on lower budget PCs too, even when swarms of demons start detonating in showers of gore.
With Torchlight II and Diablo III releasing just months apart, the two undoubtedly invite comparisons, but $40 remains the deciding factor between one or the other. Runic’s franchise shares many visual qualities with Blizzard’s trilogy, including standard fantasy settings and creatures that pop like bloody zits, but on a gameplay level, they could not be more different. Torchlight II’s take on Internet connectivity, play styles, pets, side quests, bosses, mod support, and multiplayer will still drain hours from eager fans, even if the narrative is completely bonkers.
Publisher: Runic Games
Developer: Runic Games
Release Date: September 20, 2012
Number of Players: 1-6 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac