Torchlight II is an isometric dungeon-crawler role-playing game in which players, alone or in groups, battle fantasy creatures in order to amass more powerful equipment, with which they can then use to fight even more powerful fantasy creatures.
See how easy that was? I got through the entire Frankenreview introduction without mentioning Diablo.
Oh come on, that one doesn't count.
Three years ago I sat all day out in front of the Starbucks my girlfriend worked at, clicking away at a game called Torchlight on my primitive gaming laptop. It was November, and I distinctly remember my hands getting so cold towards the end of the night I could barely click the buttons on my mouse. I stayed cold, despite the endless supply of warmth and free coffee just feet away. I braved frostbite so I could complete that game. It wasn't so I could write my assigned review. It wasn't because I was engrossed in the story (I don't even remember it). It's because it was a damn fun game.
Does it resemble another relatively fun game? Sure, why not? Is that any reason to constantly refer to it in terms of Blizzards seminal isometric dungeon crawler? Considering I titled my review of the first game "Torchlight Review: The Fate Of DiabloCraft" I'd say yes, yes it does.
So here we go.
It's been a crazy year for action role-playing games. First Diablo III released in May, and then Borderlands 2 came out earlier this week. And now Torchlight II. So, which one is best? The answer isn't easy - they're big-name and quality games. The little design choices are what might sway you to pick one over the other.
In terms of gameplay, Torchlight II (out today on Steam for PC) is exactly what you'd expect from the genre. You fight near-endless hordes of enemies and bosses as you explore different territories and collect loot, upgrading your gear and distributing your stats however you please. It's not an original concept, but it takes more effort on the developer's part to deliver consistent and fair gameplay. Torchlight II pulls it off.
It takes a few hours to appreciate the different play approach when compared to Diablo. Whereas Blizzard's behemoth would have you grind your mouse finger away in an attempt to gain enough loot and coin to finally upgrade or replace your gear back at the main hub, Torchlight II streamlines the experience, offering overpowered loot from each elite beast you conquer as well as a constant flow of coin. There is hardly any need to return to vendors, either, as it is possible to load your pet up with loot and send it off to town to sell it all. You can also give your pet a simple shopping list (potions, identify scrolls etc.) and get it to bring supplies back. Once ordered, your pet is usually only gone for a minute or two.
Your pet is much more than an extra bag slot. It packs a fighting punch and will often turn the tide of battle when things get out of hand. My bulldog, Gerald, is a stalwart companion, loyal, reliable and hardworking. With his AI set to "defensive", he follows me around and attacks any and all who come within our radius. So far, Gerald has even learned some spells, as I am a more physically inclined engineer. His collar and tag slots also feature gleaming bling which give him extra protection and attack speed. I've got in my pack a few caught fish, pulled from the fishing spots scattered around the world. When fed to your pet, fish can turn them into other creatures, such as a spider or bear, for several minutes. They are a handy get-out-of-a-bind card to have for when you need a slightly more powerful sidekick. Yes, Gerald and I get along very well and I foresee our relationship approaching much more pleasant (and bloody) fields in the future.
This time around we've got four classes to choose from — the gun-toting Outlander, the melee-focused Berserker, the glass-cannon Embermage, and the tank-like Engineer — but, honestly, trying to pigeonhole any of them is surprisingly difficult. I described the Engineer as tank-like, which is true as they have a number of skills devoted to using a sword and shield combination. They also have plenty of skills focused on two-handed weapons, or can instead equip a cannon and use a plethora of robotic devices to support them. Classes are heavily customisable through the variety of skills they have available, and it's entirely likely that your Embermage will look and fight nothing like mine, who — by level 50 — resembled a polychromatic pinwheel of death.
That said, once you've started customising your class, you're kinda locked into it. Diablo 3 had you unlock skills gradually, automatically upgraded your stats with each level, and let you swap your active abilities in and out on the fly. Torchlight 2 has you assigning stat points and skill points manually, and the only nod it gives to respeccing is an option that lets you remove the last few skill points you picked. If you decide your build isn't working for you, then you're either going to have to start from scratch or simply stick with it and start assigning your skills in different ways. Anyone who used to restart Diablo 2 regularly when attempting to try and create the perfect build will doubtless be pleased, but anyone scared off by this shouldn't be too worried: breaking your character seems remarkably difficult to do.
The gameplay is classic dungeon crawler with a few nice changes. While Diablo III deadens your ulnar nerve and mouse with clickety clicking, simply holding the mouse button over a target will continue the attack in Torchlight II. The skill comes with holding the sometimes hard-to-see cursor over a mass of mobs and (in co-op) other players and selecting the correct right-click and number key attacks for your weapon and playstyle.
Early in Act 1, the fight with Mordrox is mostly about staying on your toes and clearing wave after wave of add.
Early bosses rely perhaps a little too much on vaulting wave after wave of adds at your character — a genre artifact that's always struck me as lazy design — but it's perhaps unavoidable given that T2 slowly and comfortably introduces new class-specific skills. In the early game, you spend more time learning which weapon sets work best for you (given stat biases and a growing assortment of skills), and too much too soon coupled with highly nuanced boss encounters might have been overwhelming.
One of the biggest complaints users had about Diablo III was requirement to be online to play the game, even in singleplayer mode. Blizzard has their reasons and arguments for that decision, but the fact is I'm preparing to fly 19 hours at the end of this month — and that's 19 hours where I can't play Diablo III. What I can play is Torchlight II. In fact, I can set up a short-range LAN and play with my wife, play with friends online (latency on a plane permitting — but you get the point), and play single-player offline at any point. I can mix and match any of those items with the same character. The game supports 6 players in multiplayer right out of the box, but with modding (yea, the game supports it again! Woohoo!) you'll be able to push that number much higher. You can even play PvP if you are inclined.
With so many great classes, locations, and enemies, I wish Runic had put a little more effort into making Torchlight 2's fiction something that'd tie it all together into a world I'd want to be a part of. Instead, it alternates unevenly between the first game's intentionally light and vague fairytale storytelling of preventing a bad man from doing a bad thing to overly detailed lore about conflicts between peoples with names like the Zeraphi and the Ezrohir. I don't know for sure if I ever met one, and if there's text that explained who they were or why I should care I must've glazed over it. I'm not gonna call it bad, but certainly a missed opportunity. A memorable character or two could've ridden the wave of Torchlight 2's inevitable popularity legacy into PC gaming history — after all, we do need to replace the late Deckard Cain.
Play any video game for a long enough period of time, and you'll start to wonder why you're playing. Torchlight II, with its laser-like focus and medulla-tickling appeal, is a welcome reminder of why we play. We play to visit other worlds, to unlock incredible new power, to meet mysterious new beasts and destroy them. We play video games because they're awesome. Click, kill, loot, level up. Click, kill, loot, level up. More, please.