By Mike Bezek
A few weeks ago, I was a virgin. I remained untouched by the devious, yet loving hands of a genre known to many as more of a contractual commitment then a loving relationship. A very selfish lover, it required many long nights of sweaty, dexterous finger movements to simply make my life a tiny bit easier in the long run. The more I understood it, the more I came to love the tiny nuances that made such a simple concept executed in masterful fashion. Now, get your mind out of the gutter, because I am talking about the take no prisoners methodology of dungeon-crawlers, specifically: Torchlight 2.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike’s previous experience with the Torchlight franchise is based on its XBOX Live Arcade iteration. We have come to understand that the UI was vastly different in order to accommodate the different control scheme. Please keep this in mind as you read the article. We apologize for the confusion on this issue and will work hard in the future to prevent similar miscommunications from happening again.
In a genre almost totally dominated by Diablo, the original Torchlight brought a lighter tone to the table by avoiding the darker subjects that pervade most games of its kind. With this lighter ambience brought a less intriguing story, which made it a bit difficult to stay engaged in a game that did not have much variety in the adventuring aspect of the experience. What Runic games had created was an excellent starting point for a franchise that could only go up from that point, and boy, have they in this sequel.
One of Torchlight’s major failing points in my eyes was the absolute atrocity that was the inventory system. Stepping away from the game for a few days would result in the player having to remember exactly what made your character “tick”,and made it very difficult to pick up and play. The sequel has addressed this issue by making the interface incredibly user friendly, devoid of the barrage of information its predecessor dumped on players. Player and pet inventories are kept separate and have been improved so that sending your pet back to town with your heaps of junk items is as streamlined as possible. Instead of relying on a myriad of tabs and scrolling lists to organize all of your items, everything is displayed in a single snapshot within one repository: a simple and sweet addition that makes the game so much more accessible. Small tabs populate the left and right sides of the screen providing easy access to either your pet, players attribute, inventory and skill pages. You are always on the right side, and your pet is always on the left, simply the most effective way to make a buddy cohesive system properly.
A second, huge improvement within the menu system is the attribute and skill system. Previously, the player skill progression charts were littered with an overabundance of information and ended up becoming slightly overwhelming when trying to discover which direction to take your character. Runic has cleaned up the skill sets and made it simple for players to navigate and pick a path that will not require a spreadsheet to understand. Each class has three separate trees to allocate skill points in a very easy to understand chart that allows players to dump points (in natural progression) in any tree they like. This allows for hybrid characters early on in the game, while most games using this system usually do not allow for hybrids to exist until later on down the road. Having this customization readily available in the sequel, but simplified, is a very welcome addition to a genre sometimes stuck in restricting class roles. Some would argue this is “dumbing down” the experience by making it accessible to a broader audience, but as a very big fan of number-crunching RPG experiences, I posit this is a step in the right direction for a game that seemingly exists as an alternative to number-heavy, RNG themed dungeon crawlers.
Items have also been shaved down a bit to make upgrading your inventory a less daunting task. I was not the biggest fan of the socketing system used in original due to the fact most gems dumped a large amount of useless resistances. But now the game encourages players to socket items with random resistances because you will be constantly upgrading, thanks to a better loot progression this time around. A character of mine in the original Torchlight owned a pair of bracers that had been equipped for ages simply because not a single item dropped in almost 15 levels that was even marginally better. In Torchlight 2, I was frequently cycling through better and more optimized gear for my characters that really gave me a sense of true loot progression while taking on more daunting tasks.
One of the biggest differences immediately recognizable is the desertion of Torchlight as a hub town where players were stuck in a perpetual loop of dungeon-to-hub-to-dungeon slogging that dragged down the previous experience. Players will find themselves scouring large fields with branching passageways allowing for a bit of exploration which deviates from the beaten path. Personally, I enjoy being able to go off on my own adventure from time to time and not be penalized for it by the game not offering an equally gratifying experience. Once out in the wilds, I found myself in the middle of an orc town with dozens of lackeys bearing down on me from the entrance. Huts, fires, and the general scatterings of a hastily-pitched campsite were strewn about as I navigated the maze of hovels only to eventually run into the inhospitable leader of the pack, who put up quite the fight. Once defeated, I was able to loot a huge chest in the center of the village, rewarding me for my decision to go off and discover the surprisingly expansive environments on my own. This entire encounter had absolutely no bearing on the story, or my character at all, yet it was leaps and bounds more rewarding then the side quests of the original Torchlight. This is a welcome direction for a game that could have easily stuck to its original formula and forced the player into a bubble.
Combat has remained largely the same, which is in no way a bad thing. One of my favorite features of the original was how responsive and precise the controls were. Instant feedback is an integral part of a genre that mercilessly punished players who cannot keep speed. I spent a decent amount of time with the Outlander, a new hunter-type class very akin to Diablo 3′s Demon Hunter class. Very early on in the game I was given access to abilities that allowed me to move across the battlefield with ease and fluidity. The level limit kept my talent allocation pretty limited, but seeing that the new talent system has been cleaned up massively is a welcome sight. Gone is the clunky, information overload that was very daunting to new players. Simple, clean interfaces give understandable tooltips that help facilitate creating a workable character build. I found it very easy to plan a path that allowed my character to adapt to changing battlefield conditions. This was a major concern for me coming into this sequel, as one of my main gripes with the previous system was that the talent trees were too complex and did not flow very well.
The real fun began once I was introduced to the variety of weapons that were immediately available within the first few levels. My bow and arrow was starting to bore me for its innate ability to retain the loathsome staple of all hunter classes, but then something destructively delightful happened: I found myself a cannon. I went from a deft marksman to a lanky hero wielding a mobile fortress of projectile driven death. With the incredibly useful ability to switch equipment at any time with the press of a hotkey, I was able to get out of situations where I was able to whip out my cannon and mow down encroaching enemies. Being able to swap equipment brings a whole new layer of depth and strategy to a genre that normally does not allow players to swap so easily. It is rewarding to be able to exercise your skill of being able to quickly adapt to new challenges.
A second mainstay of the series is the cartoonish world/character design that sets the game apart from the competition with vibrant colors and a light hearted overtone. Obviously, there have been graphical tweaks and improvements that bring a bit more depth to the experience, but the decision to not change the visual characteristics on a whole fits very well. There is a great amount of detail that has gone into creating this new world of Torchlight, and I beseech everyone to take a closer look at the finer nuances of all the locations – you will be surprised.
One of the largest improvements in the series is the music, it is simply fantastic. The previous game had a very depressing overtone in its theme music that seemed to lack any tracks to bring the player “back” out of the saddening atmosphere of the dungeons. This issue has been resolved with sweeping and entrancing tunes that draw the player into the atmosphere with whimsical overworld themes. I highly recommend heading over to YouTube and cueing up any one of Matt Uelman’s excellent new tracks that accompany such a polished beta experience.
To punctuate such an enjoyable experience is the relief that TL2 features single-player modes for people like myself who enjoy playing alone once in awhile. One of the raging topics right now among the Diablo 3 community is Blizzard’s refusal to arrive at a compromise over their “always on” DRM that landed Ubisoft in hot water only a few months back. Players should not be forced to participate in a solitary experience that relies on server ping times to negotiate real-time gameplay. Many a time I have killed unfairly in Diablo simply because my latency shot up. I am not alone in my frustration as this sentiment resonates throughout the D3 community as well. The option to play single player, LAN or Online mode transforms Runic into a sweet cherub bearing DRM-free glory to a flogged community at their breaking point with companies that do not understand how to treat their user base.
From what limited time I had with Runic games newest offering that even though it is competing in the gargantuan shadow of its bigger “brother”, Diablo 3, I can safely say detractors of Blizzard’s behemoth will find safe haven in Torchlight 2. The numerous improvements seem to stem from direct contact with their player base to resolve issues of its predecessor. This leads me to believe there is a very good chance we might have one of the best sequels to a game in recent years.
You can pre-order Torchlight II via Steam and receive a copy of Torchlight I. If you already own Torchlight I, send it to a friend.
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