After fighting my way through a horde of armored war-beasts, greedily snatching fallen gold and weapons and narrowly avoiding death, I looked to my clock and realized with surprise that two hours had passed. That sums up my experience with Torchlight 2, an action role-playing game and the sequel to Runic Games’ Torchlight. While you don’t need to have played the original to enjoy this sequel, Torchlight 2 dramatically improves just about every aspect of its predecessor. It expands on a playful pulp-comic visual style and satisfyingly frenetic, yet subtly strategic, combat of the original game, while offering some new twists and polishing a lot of the clunkier mechanics. I will be reviewing the single player campaign only; the game features online multiplayer, but that’s an entirely different beast.
In contrast to the gritty realism that many games strive for, the colorful art direction in Torchlight 2 immediately arrests your attention upon from the moment you start the game. The entire world has a soft, painted quality to it, with vibrant, cleanly separated colors that give it an animated look. The incredibly diverse assortment of characters, monsters, items and environments share a sleek, comic style. The characters are all created with clean, smooth designs as if they stepped out of a Pixar animation and give the impression of motion even while standing still. Likewise, each monster’s distinct and exaggerated appearance immediately conveys not only a ton of personality, but also, what kind of challenge they’ll present. Brutish beasts swing their oversized axes in massively muscled arms, while weak cannon-fodder rat men slink with hunched backs to try and outnumber you. Attacking these monsters causes them to reel back and a particularly powerful swing of your weapon will send enemies flying. These touches make moving and fighting very visceral and satisfying, as you can almost feel the weight of your movement in every click. The floating third person perspective allows you to really appreciate both the creatures and the environments. These environments include much of the standard RPG fare — crypts, underground cities, forests, deserts — but the unique visuals, coupled with some steampunk-inspired twists, make Torchlight’s world stand apart from a lot of other fantasy settings.
Similar to many other action RPGs, Torchlight’s core game play involves clicking where you want to go and then clicking the monsters you want to attack. While the basics may be familiar to fans of the genre, Torchlight 2 draws you in with its deceptively complex interplay of strategy and tactics. To start the game, you choose a class, which defines the upgrade options that will available to you through the game. Specifically, each class has three sets of skills that outline a way to play your character, though you can mix and match skills from all three sets. This set up means you have no less than nine different ways to tackle the game’s challenges. You can face enemies directly in melee combat, build robots to help you in battle, focus on ranged weapons to keep enemies at a safe distance, cast spells to blast large crowds and more. At the same time, you’ll need tactical thinking to adapt to all the impressively varied enemies in Torchlight 2. For example, some creatures will require you to keep your distance, while others will summon allies and thus need to be taken out immediately. Finally, your equipment plays a vital role in ensuring your survival. Weapons come in different varieties that confer different advantages — damage, range, speed, etc. — and further expand your choices. Likewise, armor not only protects you from harm, but may also improve your health or your skill with weaponry. Choosing your equipment becomes a balancing act of trying to maximize the use of your class skills while also leaving options open for unforeseen circumstances. Because enemies will often drop equipment, strategy (how you plan to fight) flows into tactics (how you handle the unexpected), which then flows back into strategy (how you improve). It’s a deceptively smart approach to the mindless fun of monster slaying that keeps you on your toes. To anyone who played the original game, improvements include more customization options, more classes and pets, more inventory space, even more secret treasures and equipment and, overall, a more satisfying level of difficulty. A feature called the Mapworks also allows you to play through randomly generated levels, offering countless new challenges.
One thing I cannot recommend Torchlight 2 for is the storyline, which is mostly told by a small cast of characters who tell you where to slay bad guys and give you rewards. It begins with the aftermath of the events of the original game, wherein an alchemist, possessed by a powerful creature, destroys the titular town of Torchlight and goes on a rampage. You awaken in a military camp that has just narrowly survived an encounter with the alchemist. Of course, they need you to head out and warn a nearby city, and eventually defeat this great evil. It would be at least an hour until I met someone who could tell me more about what was happening, and then they pointed me in another direction to swing my sword. In the end, the story exists mostly as a framework for the gameplay. You likely will want to replay the game at least once or twice, so it’s not so bad that the story doesn’t assert itself. Starting New Game + after finishing the first time allows you to start with all your skills and equipment against more difficult enemies. A particularly involved story would not lend itself to this style of multiple replays with a single character. While it doesn’t tread new ground for the genre, Torchlight presents itself with an extreme amount of polish, and satisfies my expectations for gameplay on every level. Finally, at $19.99, it offers a ton of content compared to AAA titles. You can download a demo or purchase the game, DRM-free, at www.torchlight2game.com.