One comment I received when I started the Netbook Gamer series was that it was as much a ‘Retroscpectives of My Favorite Games’ series as anything else … and to an extent that is true (though the next entry will be a game I never played before). The problem is that Netbooks are not designed pumping out pixels in a way that is needed for modern games. However, every once in a while something comes along that works – and when I started playing Torchlight and saw a ‘Netbook Mode’ under visual options I was thrilled. So is the game any good – and how does it perform on my netbook? Read on and find out!
I have always been a huge fan of products that demonstrate clarity of purpose and flawlessness of execution. These are not always the biggest ideas, or the greatest innovations, or even remarkably different than what has come before. They are simply products or ideas show an amazing sense of self-awareness, and the realization that it is very rewarding to experience something that is the result of one single thing done extremely well. Of course, the flip-side of of being singularly focused is the opportunity for a complete and total failure. Further adding to the intrigue, the development team for Torchlight consists of folks from the sleeper hit Fate and the high-profile failure* Hellgate: London – so we know there is talent and creativity aplenty, so let’s get right into looking at what the results look like.
Here is the basic outline: you play a lone hero that you select from one of three classes who has either a cat or dog as a pet, enters the town of Torchlight, grabs some basic info and introductory quests, and heads for the mines. Once in the mines you start battling against area after area of enemies, meeting new characters and getting new quests, gaining items and levels and gold, sending your pet back to town, porting yourself back to town, going fishing and so on. Wait … didn’t I play this game back in 2005 when it was called ‘Fate’?
Well, yes and no. As someone aptly said, Torchlight is to Fate as Diablo 2 is to the original Diablo. I know that when I first started playing Torchlight I was instantly reminded of Fate, to the point where I reinstalled it and also pulled out my old GamerDad review. In that review I mention somethings that are also true for Torchlight and others that are not. Since I have already seen countless discussions about whether this game is simply “Fate 2009”, it is worth discussing similarities and differences.
Let’s start with the visuals, since that is the most immediately similar aspect between the games. Both feature vivid colors, and cartoon-ish styles and characterizations that are neither scary nor inappropriate for a younger audience. The games both use a fixed angle perspective viewpoint that cannot be tilted or rotated. Note that the visual style of Torchlight is darker than Fate, and the world-view is grittier and there are more depictions of blood and dead bodies as you battle your way through room after room. Torchlight is not trying to compete with games like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age: Origins in terms of blood & gore, but it has clearly shifted to a much darker and more detailed visual style that cuts a narrow path between casual and hardcore presentations.
From the review: “You choose to play as a boy or girl, and have a pet – dog or cat – that follows you around the game. There are no built-in classes. You simply build up skills as you progress through levels. Each time you level up you get character points and skill points to spend as you please, with derived skills shown on screen. By completing quests you also get ‘fame’ points that give you additional skill points, increase your reputation and ability to wield advanced weapons. Your pet levels up as you progress, also gaining skills. Your pet has slots for jewelry to enhance protection or attack, and it also has an inventory. You can load up your pet and send them to town to sell off unwanted items and they will take about 10 seconds per level to return. Finally, there is a fishing skill in the game, and when you catch a fish and feed it to your pet, they transform into another creature with greatly enhanced characteristics.”
There is no doubt that the majority of that stuff is all still true for Torchlight, but some of the differences are major. In terms of what stays the same: you gain experience by battling enemies and completing quests, and that experience allows you to gain levels, which in turn gives you points to allocate to skills. Your accomplishments also increase your fame, which opens up new potential quests and abilities.
Rather than just choosing a generic boy or girl like you did in Fate, Torchlight offers a choice of three characters classes – the Destroyer, the Vanquisher, and the Alchemist. The Destroyer is your prototypical large male warrior class, focusing on melee combat and with a skill tree aligned to further that focus. The Vanquisher is a female ranged warrior, a sort of hybrid Ranger / Rogue class that also excels at traps and gains skills to advance destructive force from both of those areas. The Alchemist is your catch-all mage class, with an emphasis on ranged magical combat, but available skills in summoning and other side-branches of the typical mage.
Reading your class choices might seem disappointing to some – “what … only three?” – but that belies the depth of character development available through the skill trees. The mage, for example, can be fully developed as a ‘pure mage’, a summoner, or as a battle mage. As a pure mage, you will be dishing out damage from a distance, keeping yourself protected, and likely using a staff that also provides ranged elemental damage. The summoner will unleash creatures to go forth and take out enemies while your character uses spells or weapons to mop up the remaining foes. A battle mage is capable of both spells or heavily-enhanced melee damage, and is great for those looking to get a taste for both a warrior and mage class simultaneously … but also somewhat lacking in both of those specialties.
Of course, if you have played Fate or dabbled with the Torchlight demo, you will see the summoner as possibly redundant, since you get to choose a pet cat or dog once again. This is one area that definitely feels like it was copied wholesale from Fate. As I said before “Your pet levels up as you progress, also gaining skills. Your pet has slots for jewelry to enhance protection or attack, and it also has an inventory. You can load up your pet and send them to town to sell off unwanted items and they will take about 10 seconds per level to return. Finally, there is a fishing skill in the game, and when you catch a fish and feed it to your pet, they transform into another creature with greatly enhanced characteristics.” All of that is exactly the same in Torchlight, with the exception that your pet now looks fierce, unlike the cute little puppy or kitten you got in Fate. The similarity didn’t bother me, because the pet served as my ‘tank’ and was terribly efficient at taking out all sorts of enemies with fast and effective attacks. Also, you now get to equip your pet with spells to further enhance their usefulness. However, I anticipate this is one area that will bother folks as it is largely untouched from Fate.
So now you have this nice character, you are well equipped to start your adventure. You will find it easy to make your way through the game due to the excellent interface, straightforward controls, and useful hints and tutorial dialogs. As the story opens, you are given a quick backstory and dumped right into Torchlight. From there you get some quick help to get moving, including HOW to get moving – and a tip that those folks with exclamation points on their heads are looking to give you quests. The game uses a typical left & right mouse configuration – left click to move or attack, right click to cast a spell or use a skill. You can also assign a variety of hotkeys to specific items to use on the fly such as mana and health potions.
The rest of the interface is equally easy to use – you can access your inventory, which is tabbed for viewing convenience (and is limited to a reasonable size), you pet’s inventory to hand off stuff to sell, your stats sheet, your skill tree, and so on. When you have new skill points to assign to either page a small red ‘+’ will appear at either side of the screen to let you know, and clicking it will pop open the sheet.
As is the tradition in action-RPG’s, your focus is on venturing forth, battling enemies, and completing quests in order to gain levels and skills and loot … so that you’ll be ready to go back out, battling enemies and completing quests in order to gain MORE levels and skills and loot … and so on. I will discuss the quests themselves momentarily, but let me be very clear about this: Torchlight is a very traditional action-RPG genre game, and as such has a heavy focus on combat and loot collection.
Torchlight features about a dozen quests related to the main quest, and dozens upon dozens of side quests. Have you noticed I haven’t even mentioned the story yet? That is because it is thin and light: there is an evil force that has tainted the Ember, the essence of magic in the world of Torchlight. As you venture into the mines, you meet up with an evil creature who transforms someone and you end up becoming tainted, and therefore gain an extra need to rid the world of the Ember taint. The various quests that advance the main story are placed sporadically and are really secondary to the overall flow of the game – if anything they simply provide a sort of ‘coat rack’ on which to hang the rest of the content. Of course, in contrast with the ‘There is a Hobgoblin Named Xur of the Kodan Armada on Level 47 You Must Vanquish’ style of ‘main quest’ in Fate, this feels like pretty meaty stuff!
There are four preset difficulty levels, with the option to force ‘hardcore mode’ on any of them. You can play at Easy, Normal, Hard or Very Hard – though I would advise against playing at Easy because it is very, very easy. Most folks who are fans of action-RPG’s should play on at least Hard, and anyone who has played anything on the genre should easily handle Normal. Trust me – I played an hour on Easy and it was trivial to the point of being mind-numbingly boring … and I really don’t consider myself all that great at action-RPG clickfests. Hard provided me a solid challenge. For the true fan, Hardcore mode means that when you’re dead … you’re dead! Then you go start a new character, with only the shared storage items remaining. Otherwise dying means paying some sort of minor penalty in gold, experience or location to respawn.
Between the myriad quests and occasional deaths, I estimate that I clocked in ~30 – 40 hours per playthrough. My initial play as a mage took me longer because I really tried to explore everything and seek out every possible quest and item and so on, whereas with my Warrior and my netbook Mage replay (I didn’t complete the game with the Vanquisher, only getting her to level 50) I let things flow more naturally which took closer to 30 hours. The level cap is 100 and the maximum Fame is 55. Each level gives you 5 attribute points and a skill point to assign, and every Fame level nets you an extra skill point. As mentioned, you gain levels by killing monsters and completing quests, whereas Fame is gained by vanquishing named monsters and completing certain quests. As your Fame advances you become more and more recognized and gain access to more quests.
Aside from combat and leveling up, the main attraction in an action-RPG is grabbing some ‘phat lewt’. And Torchlight certainly doesn’t skimp in that area: from the start you will find rare items that grant special bonuses and also items that are part of armor sets that give even larger bonuses when used in combination. Many items – and almost all rare items – provide enhancement slots, and you will come across gems to add to those slots. As you gather powerful weapons and armor and also powerful gems, the combination can produce effects that drastically impact gameplay.
As you battle enemies and come upon chests in dungeons, you will find plenty of items you can use – and loads you can’t use or are less useful than what you have equipped. This is when having a pet comes in handy: you simply load up your pet with items to sell and send them off when their inventory is full. As you progress through the dungeon the time it takes them to return becomes much longer, leaving you the choice of battling alone, waiting idle, or using a town teleport scroll. Naturally there is a purpose to all of this loot collection – gaining more gold to buy more items or enchant weapons or even remove slotted gems in order to slot in more powerful ones.
Multiplayer is … well, it really ISN’T, since there is no multiplayer. This is a real sore spot for many who consider multiplayer to be the life blood of a game such as Torchlight. Certainly the ability to run through the game in co-op mode would have been real bonus, but given the budget pricing and the amount of depth and content available, having a single player only experience seems reasonable to me. That said, I’m primarily a single player gamer, so if you play action RPG games primarily for multiplayer, you should know that there is none in Torchlight – and no plans to add any. However, Runic IS working on a ‘Torchlight MMO’ that will be a separate product and not a patch to this game.
While there is no multiplayer, that doesn’t mean that after a quick romp through single player the game is done. Runic has provided a tool kit called TorchEd to allow creative folks to make mods to extend the game in a variety of ways. These mods include different classes, areas, skins, items, and so on. Not only that, but Runic provides an incentive for players to use mods by providing Steam achievements for using certain amounts of mods. It is a great system that is quickly gaining traction with mod developers.
While there are many things that are similar to Fate, the music of Torchlight isn’t one. That is because Matt Uelman, who was responsible for the music of the Diablo games, created the Music in Torchlight. The music is high quality and very well done, and provides a nice complement to adventuring through the dungeons. There is some voice acting throughout Torchlight, and it is generally pretty well done. It certainly doesn’t live up to any of the recent story-based RPG releases, but then it really isn’t trying to convey the same sort of emotional context.
Torchlight has gotten loads of attention and has become something of a media darling in late 2009 – yet as some have noted very few reviews have made reference to the vast similarities to 2005’s Fate. I have no idea why that is, but let me again be clear: if you played Fate you will see more than a passing resemblance in Torchlight. That is good and bad, as I said: because if you liked Fate, chances are you’ll enjoy Torchlight; but if you didn’t like Fate don’t even bother trying Torchlight. Torchlight is a pure action-RPG, and as such doesn’t pretend to be ‘story driven’ or character centric – not even to the limited extent of games like Sacred or Titan Quest. But as I said at the outset – it never tries to be those things, it just aims for pure action-RPG fun, and it absolutely succeeds at being an evolutionary step forward from Fate in that regard.
* We can debate whether or not Hellgate: London is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ until we are blue in the face, but there is little argument that the financial performance of the game was in large part responsible for the demise of the development studio.
RetroGamer Perspective: Here is a switch … this is a brand new game – no retro perspective needed!
Netbook Gamer Perspective:
– Digital Download / CD version? – the initial release was Digital only, and the retail version is being released in early January 2010.
– Installation Notes: The game is available on the various digital download sites or direct from Runic games. Some systems do ‘direct install’ like Steam, others download an installer program to do a manual installation.
– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~400MB.
– CD Required to Play? Digital download versions have no requirement after initial validation, but the CD requirements for the retail version are unknown.
– Control Considerations? Torchlight uses a very standard control setup for an action-RPG, and anyone who has played a game in the genre since Diablo will immediately feel at home.
– Will it run on a VIA C7? ‘Run, yes … but with poor performance. I no longer have a C7 equipped netbook, but the perspective from the official forums is that ‘low end netbooks’ will seriously struggle when playing in dungeons.
– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!
– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP? None.
– Does it work with Vista? Yes, but due to the marginal performance, netbooks runnig Windows XP will tend to do better.
– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? Not yet – a third party port for the Mac is coming soon, but there is no more specific release date than ‘some time in 2010’. Also, the TorchEd mod editor is not expected to make the port.
– Notes on the Digital Version: Due to being designed around a digital release, and based on the main developer’s experience making a downloadable game (Fate), this has been one of the smoothest releases in recent memory.
Conclusion: While Torchlight is ‘netbook friendly’, that doesn’t mean you’ll get the full experience playing on a netbook. I would describe the performance as ‘acceptable’ on my Lenovo s10 – which means you’d be fine on any ION-equipped netbook but really struggle on a lower-end netbook. This is definitely a judgement call moment – if you can deal with the low frame-rates, grab this fun game. Otherwise check out the demo and see if it is something you can tolerate.