Torchlight 2 Review

I just finished my first run through Torchlight 2 with an engineer on veteran difficulty level, so here are a couple of thoughts on the game. First, there’s a lot of things to like:

  • Only $20, available directly from the developer as a fairly compact 1.4 GB download. The simple game launcher merely checks for patches – there’s no onerous DRM, dependence on Steam or other services, mandatory registration or login, obnoxious advertising, or missing chunks sold as IAP. It’s like the goold old days!

  • Technically very solid. I expected that the game would run smoothly on my rather overpowered system, but it’s nice not to encounter any bugs at all. The user interface deserves special praise: it not only correctly scales with resolution but allows custom resizing to boot! Other games need user-created mods for that.

  • Torchlight’s endearing cartoon style returns with more details and better animations. Matt Uelmen’s music is as fabulous as ever, although its eerie atmosphere admittedly doesn’t quite fit the colorful visuals. The story is still quite silly, which is okay because nobody plays these games for the story anyway.

  • Pets, robots, arenas! I had a weasel pet with engineering goggles that I taught to cast fireballs and transformed into a battle crab. Pet and minion AI was fixed so they always join a fight in time, without getting stuck in corridors. There are quite a few nice unique places and puzzles, especially the epic portal arena battles reached by killing portal beasts. Boss battles are both mercifully shorter and much more varied.

  • Surprisingly, you can actually complete item sets within a single solo playthrough. This is partly because set items drop more often, and partly because you can occasionally buy them at stores. Some people complained about this, but I quite like it – aside from set completion it provides an excellent money sink and prevents the usual syndrome of having a million gold with nothing to spend it on.

  • If you still don’t have enough after finishing the story, you can explore a ton of stand-alone dungeons for context-free monster bashing. I didn’t try that feature but the dungeon selection looked quite impressive!

So if you want a fun game in the style of Diablo 2 I can tell you right now that you should buy Torchlight 2. However, I also have some specific complaints relating to game design and balancing, so if you’re interested in such discussions read on.

Mêlée Weapons are clearly inferior to ranged weapons. This seems to apply universally, although class-specific skills might make a difference. The engineer is supposed to be the tank class, with a primary specialization in two-handed mêlée weapons, but I switched to ranged weapons exclusively before mid-game. Monsters would either use short-range attacks and could be kited, or else long-range attacks that I could easily absorb or evade if I wasn’t too close. Trying to go hand-to-hand would either result in annoying chases after fleeing monsters, or simply get me killed despite my impressive health and armor ratings. Possibly one could make a viable mêlée build by focusing on protection skills but that seemed too risky, given the obvious usefulness of ranged attacks.

Overland Areas now contain and connect the various dungeons, just as in Diablo 2. Unfortunately, the downside is also the same: you need to painstakingly uncover vast areas that are randomly generated, understaffed with monsters, and generally extremely boring. Whenever I thought of abandoning the game it was during one of those terribly big, terribly dull overland areas. Torchlight 2 would be four times better if these were four times smaller, and they are perhaps the single biggest obstacle to replaying the game.

Character Skills have 15 levels each, all providing substantial upgrades – often scaled with character level – and three extra bonus tiers. You have free choice among all available skills, barring character level restrictions, plus several non-tiered skills for generally useful bonuses such as higher armor class. This is basically the opposite of the traditional skill tree system that offers only a few alternatives at any given time, and often requires taking an unwanted skill to unlock others higher up the tree.

However, you still only get a single skill point per character level, plus one per fame level. Skill respec is available but expensive, and limited to your last three points. This discrepancy between a wealth of investment opportunities and a dearth of available skill points has a paradoxical consequence: I unlocked fewer skills than I would in a skill tree system, and therefore gameplay became relatively monotonous! The reason is that there’s usually nothing to prevent you from investing in the most obviously useful skill, and then you get very substantial incremental returns for putting another 4-14 points into that same skill. When that’s temporarily impossible due to character level requirements, it’s still more attractive to pump a general passive skill (extra armor etc.) rather than putting one point into a new active skill whose higher tiers you’ll never reach.

So the old “problem” of being forced to take unwanted skills was actually a feature: it also enforced a more varied gameplay, and provided a nice feeling of accomplishment when you finally unlocked that powerful spell you wanted all along. Allowing direct investment in any skill, with big incremental rewards for further investment, might sound like a favor to the player but actually removes much of what made skill systems fun in the first place.

edit: It occurred to me that Torchlight 2’s skill system may be optimally suited for multiple playthroughs with the same character class: pick a few skills to focus on, then pick different skills in your next game. If so the skill system does make sense – but unfortunately not for those of us who want to play only once, or once per character class.

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