In almost every review you read about Torchlight since its release in 2009, you’ll find mention of seminal 90′s hit, Diablo.Not that this review pretends to be any exception, because it’s virtually impossible not to mention Blizzards game when trying to explain Torchlight to someone. Think of it in the same way that you can’t really eat a sugary doughnut without licking your lips – you could probably do it, but it’s just not worth the effort and might as well give in. And just like that proverbial doughnut, Torchlight from Runic Games is a very sweet deal indeed, finally arriving on XBLA and ready to amass a whole new legion of fans in the process.
Not only does the game share the same mechanics as the Diablo series, it captures the very essence of it. The main over-world hub of the town of Torchlight serves a similar purpose as Diablo’s town of Tristram, an area used to obtain side-quests and sell your loot from the hours spent exploring and ransacking. Even the music has shades of Diablo about it, most noticeably again in the hub area where the soundtrack echoes the memorable floaty strings of Diablo’s Tristram theme. This isn’t exactly surprising when you learn that the same person behind the music for Diablo also worked on Torchlight.
What’s important amid all these constant comparisons is Torchlight’s ability to stand on its own two feet. It never ends up feeling like some kind of shameless rip off and if anything the familiarity it brings is somewhat comforting, easing the player in. Which certainly helps here seeing as the game doesn’t do a very good job of introducing itself. Instead of an introduction or tutorial, the developers have relied on Microsoft’s insistence that all XBLA releases include a `How to Play` guide. The problem is that the guides are generally an underused function these days so it may leave some floundering when they start, especially if this genre isn’t their usual sort of thing. Thankfully there isn’t much to cause confuse for any real length of time and the guide will explain all when they remember to check it.
With its chunky stylised looked, the player assumes the role of an adventurer drawn to explore the mines of Torchlight which are abundant with the magical substance of Ember. There are three classes to pick from – The Destroyer is skilled in melee combat, The Alchemist is an adept spell caster and The Vanquisher specialises in ranged combat and traps. They don’t have to make the journey alone either, since at the start they must choose a pet to go with them. Ranging from a Wolf, Lynx or, new to the XBLA version, a Chakawary (that’s a miniature dragon to you and me) these are far from perfunctory extras. Your chosen familiar becomes invaluable in helping you to fend off the evil dwelling beneath Torchlight, even helping transport your loot gathered from dispatched enemies back to town in exchange for gold and saving you having to teleport back and forth yourself.
The fact that the game starts off in some underground mines might sound pretty restrictive in terms of what can be done with the environments, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The game makes use of magical portals to transport players to different styled areas including ancient tombs and ruined temples, so there’s always something new to see the deeper you go. Each level is also randomly generated and laid out differently each time you start. It sounds good on paper, however in practice it’s one of those features that will probably take some time to actually impact a player (if ever) because they won’t want to abandon hours of playtime with one character to start over on a whim.
Slaughtering the countless hoards of spiders, zombies, demons and other staples of the fantasy genre which are out for your skin (some of which get markedly bigger and vicious as you progress), the player will gradually level up, unlocking new abilities and skills. You can even assign spells to your pet, causing the battles to light up the screen in a chaotic mix of melee and magic that sometimes engulfs everything.
There really is plenty to keep RPG fans happy, with different skill trees for each character type, and more than enough weapons, armour, spells and trinkets to sift through to indulge the magpie in you as you explore. Befitting a modern day action-RPG you can also see your new adornments as you equip them to your character, helping to provide that real sense of progression. In fact this is something which Torchlight seems to make a real feature of. Whereas Diablo (or some other titles) could be punishing on times, Torchlight feels like it has a very different ethos; challenging but at the same time never feeling as if it wants to make you suffer. Certainly on the Normal difficulty level it means the dungeon crawling is actually enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a chore. While it’s undeniable that it can be repetitive, it manages to be one of those games that disguises the fact that you’re just pushing a series of buttons over and over. Before you know it you’ll look up and find that a handful of hours have passed and you’re still nowhere near levelled up enough to equip that powerful looking shield or natty looking helm you picked up several levels before. So back you’ll go, hooked on the item lust which any action RPG worth its salt need to nail.
PC players were able to use keyboards and hot keys for triggering the plethora of skills and spells at their disposal so perhaps the biggest question hanging over this XBLA release is whether all that can be contained with a pad-style set up. The answer is unequivocally yes, with the player able to assign actions to individual buttons. Everything is close at hand and it never feels restricting or as of it’s actually holding the player back, helped no doubt by the auto-aiming system which replaces the mouse selection for which enemy you’d like to pummel.
In fact the only thing that’s still missing from this otherwise perfect port of Torchlight is the option of co-op. Yes, it’s the now rather well worn gripe that it would have been nice to go through the game with a friend, especially since it feels like the sort of adventure that would have been great to share ala Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light. However this is something of a tired nit-picking point now that Runic have announced Torchlight 2 will arrive on PC in 2011 with this feature included. Naturally it doesn’t mean much to XBLA users right now, but it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that we’ll undoubtedly see the sequel on the service at some point too. In any event you’ll be enjoying the game so much as it stands that you won’t be giving much thought to having to do it alone.
While fans of the Diablo series are left hanging, with its third instalment languishing somewhere within the dark corridors of Blizzard HQ, Torchlight has snuck up behind the king of the genre and stolen its crown. Before then awarding it a swift kick in the pants and shoving it head first down the throne room steps. The end result is a beautifully crafted, well balanced and entertaining title that is fun to while away the hours. It’s also a reason to be grateful that services like XBLA exist, as without it gamers would be missing out on a section of market which PC users have had to themselves for some time.