This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Torchlight.
I have a lot of respect for the fantasy peasant village economic model, it seems like those guys have got a good scam going on. First you accidentally build your settlement within easy walking distance of the local gnoll encampment or dragon cave or directly on top of a gateway to Hell, then all you have to do is build a big fat checkpoint in the village square and keep giving birth to potential kidnap victims and your storekeeper, your blacksmith, your tailor and your innkeeper, they'll all be set for fucking life. OK, someone's pretty daughter gets dragged off by kobolds every other night, but hey, you've cornered the lucrative adventurer market, just buy another one. I bet this is why NPCs in RPG peasant villages never move from a single spot directly in front of their place of business. If they move, all their adventurer money in their pockets would pull their trousers down. Presumably they pay a helper gnome to come along every morning to shovel breakfast cereal into their mouths.
Torchlight is an action RPG in which you play one of three adventurers who arrives in a small town who went for the "build directly on top of Satan" option, and then you embark on an epic quest to keep the town economy stimulated. And you have to go hunt down an evil wizard as well, I think. No one in the town seems to be that bothered by him, but as long as you're the one with big sword running around buying souvenir t-shirts, you can do what the fuck you like I guess.
The graphical style owes a lot to World of Warcraft, but while World of Warcraft continually expands the standard array of character classes into one huge mess that's about as easy to keep balanced as a stilt walker with one leg on a treadmill, Torchlight takes the Dragon Age route to boiling them down back to the big three: The Warrior, the melee class looking strongly like Ving Rhames; The Alchemist, the skinny white dude who fills the role of mage, warlock, shaman and everything else where you don't actually have to do any physical work; and a pair of big titties filling in for The Rogue. And since this is a fantasy game, big titties apparently do the exact opposite of what they do in the real world, that is they make you more dexterous and skilled in the use of bows and long ranged weapons without even smacking you across the chops every time you pull the string back. Character customization is extremely intuitive: there isn't any! So unless you happen to be Ving Rhames, don't expect to roleplay much.
Torchlight is a Steam game currently exclusive to PC, and I wouldn't hold your breath for a console port. It would lose a lot of the atmosphere of the original, since you wouldn't be able to hear your mouse button clicking about fifty times a second. This is something the game has in common with Diablo, along with absolutely fucking everything else. You click around town, click your way into some quests, click down to the dungeons, click all the enemies to death and then click back home again. There's more clicks than a school for dolphin telegraph operators. You'd think clicking on an enemy would indicate you want to smack them about until they die, but your character assumes you want to give them a chance to say they're sorry, and you have to click again for each smack, a bad habit I'd assumed had been bred out of RPGs. The other reason why you probably won't see a console port is because we'd need to wait for a console with 50 buttons and a controller the size of a tea tray. With all the number keys assigned to different skills and having to switch between two functions for each mouse button, the controls aren't exactly streamlined. At one point, I accidentally pressed a button that made the map fill the whole screen, and I actually had to wait for one of the fucking loading screen hints to tell me how to get rid of it!
At first, I played as a Warrior on Normal difficulty, and the first thing I discovered is that Torchlight is big on hordes. Large numbers of enemies tend to gather around you, each picking at your Ving Rhames-shaped arse like a swarm of guinea pigs wielding toothpicks. Fortunately, by the end of the first dungeon I had a couple of clearing attacks that sent the guinea pigs flying like a little furry firework. "Holy shit", I exclaimed, "I am so fucking bored! And I haven't used a single health potion, despite having collected thirty-seven!" Apparently Torchlight interprets Normal difficulty as, "Normal for someone who has spent most of their life chained to a basement wall." So I restarted as an Alchemist on Hard difficulty. Perhaps the guinea pigs would pose a greater challenge to my skinny, white, scholarly body. I imagine they would have done if they'd been able to get near it, but my area-of-effect spells and summoned minions kept them at bay. Ten hours later, I'd sold about twenty times as many health potions as I'd actually used and acquired a spell called "Giant Laser Beam Face Melty Death" that gave the enemies even less of a chance. It did eat up mana like nobody's business, but I was practically brushing my teeth with mana potion at that stage.
There was one thing that gave me difficulty, for want of a better, more profane word, and that's NPC pathfinding. Perhaps this is another reason why most of the NPCs spend their whole lives standing perfectly still, because they get easily confused by any movement more complex than walking a straight line. My class choice meant I had a constant entourage of imps and robots, and I lost count of how many times I'd emerge from an unusually difficult battle to find that half my assistants were fifty feet back attempting to navigate their way through a foot-high wall.
Besides them, every character gets either a dog or a cat (in another testament to the phrase, "spoilt for choice"), whose job is to hold spare armor and weapons and take them to the surface to sell them for you to the surprisingly unconcerned shopkeepers. And it doesn't take long until you realize how necessary this is. Monsters constantly drop equipment, most of which needs to be "identified" in the most egregious example of needless busywork, and the vast majority's unusable or worse than what you already have, so it gets filed under "Dog" like you're playing Fantasy Buckaroo. It turns the gameplay into one part action to two parts accounting.
Torchlight attended the Too Human school of level design: make about three rooms for each setting, throw in a few modest hordes, then copy-paste them until your processor melts. Overall, then, the process is like sawing a bunch of logs with overclocked power tools, so the actual sawing is blisteringly easy, but you have to stop every ten seconds to sweep up the sawdust. But then again, I did only pay three bucks for it over the Steam sale, so I guess the question is, did have have the amount of fun equal to or greater than I would have had if I'd just used the money to buy an ice cream sandwich? And the answer is "definitely", as long as the ice cream sandwich was first buried at the bottom of a gravel pit and I have to eat it with a drinking straw.
- Our country's only hope: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And if the ice cream sandwich gets covered in bits of grit you could just feed it to birds instead
- And if the dungeon thing doesn't work out just build a Wal-Mart