To quote George Oscar Bluth, “I’ve made a huge mistake” — I chose to play Torchlight II at the maximum difficulty setting. That would be “elite” in Torchlight II parlance, intended for the very best players.
I’m not one of those, as my double-digit “Deaths” tally reminds me when I scroll through the game’s Arcane Statistics informational panel to scan stuff like “Monsters Exploded,” “Fumble Damage Penalty” and “Fishing Luck Bonus.” Torchlight II believes in numbers and I believe in Torchlight II, even when it’s telling me I stink.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I’m not playing the game exactly as designer Travis Baldree and the rest of the team at Runic intended.
I’m dying a lot, this is true, but that’s not the same thing as “not progressing.” Somehow, without grinding to chew through character levels (monsters don’t respawn, or at least they don’t right away) or plying an auction house to oil my wheels, I’ve managed to make do.
It’s a delicate balancing dance: Kill enough stuff to snag enough loot to generate enough dinero to keep my Outlander — the game’s hybrid weapons-‘n-magic class — in decanted health and mana, to keep chipping away at the randomly generated steampunk-themed real estate. That’s the goal, after all: to clear one map after another, even if progress in this case depends on a certain kind of measured failure. It’s a little like Demon’s Souls without the bloodstains, the equilibrium point somewhere between life and death. I’ve only lost ground when I misstep, overconfidently jogging smack into enemy platoons, or running down narrow passages where attackers lie in wait.
The design team must have planned it this way. Games are just problem-solving exercises, after all. How do you bounce a ball past the other guy’s paddle? How do you run a pigskin from this side of the field to that one? How do you defeat the thing blocking your way forward? How do you clear a level faster than someone else? How, when many enemies can one-shot kill you, do you juggle loot, cash, inventory, character specs, potions, tactics, crowd-control and dying repeatedly without resenting the penalty?
Better games have multiple solutions. Torchlight II manages to extend those to its difficulty settings, which is something I wasn’t expecting. “Elite” mode isn’t about power-leveling to steamroll jacked up mobs, it’s about dying judiciously.
I have mental markers for how cash flush I need to be in relation to my potion counts. I drop portals at loose intervals. I never spend money to respawn. If you’re shrewd, you can place these gateways mere seconds from your last fail point, and that free trip back to town when you die — giving you a chance to refine your character in ways deploying your pet back to town doesn’t allow — becomes a perk, not a penalty.
That said, in most other ways, Torchlight II is a click-y festival of studied, refined imitation, an extension of Torchlight‘s budget-priced, high-gloss loot game with multiplayer sewn in. It’s seen a little further by standing on the shoulders of giants…and goatmen, dryads, droog, machae, bugbear necromancers and siren’s daughters. In that sense it remains unabashedly Blizzard-like, a greatest hits of greatest hits albums, an amalgam of amalgams.
Its shortcomings are few but notable: Stat upticks are trivial, often occurring in tenths of a point per skill point allocated — life by a thousand sips of sugar water, in other words (or like cutting grass with your fingers). The supplementary abilities that unlock every five skill points help somewhat, but Torchlight II‘s level-up game lacks pizzazz. While this sort of granularity means character builds will vary more than in a less open-ended game like Diablo III, you’ll probably find more satisfaction, in terms of powering up, playing Torchlight II‘s loot game, where every weapon feels unique, and socketing gems is an art you’ll need to master from the get-go.
Other issues are trifling yet notable: Load-screen hints blink past before you can read them if, like me, you have a fast hard drive (a “hit any key to continue” option would solve this). I’d like an option to sort inventory by usable or not-usable items instead of just by “type,” and I’d love a “pick up everything” hotkey, since I leave nothing behind.
While I appreciate the multiple map views, forcing players to cycle through them, one after another, can be tedious and sometimes dangerous, say you’re attacked while doing so (a draggable map, maybe with a switch key to focus the mouse pointer, wouldn’t hurt either). And the pet inventory screen ought to indicate how much money you have when you’re in the “shopping” panel, so you can see this without having to bring up your character’s inventory panel on the right.
That aside, my biggest gripe is probably pet pathfinding. Your pet will sometimes get stuck on a ledge above you (or below, while you’re on one), leaving you to fight solo. If you survive and wander off somewhere, your pet will eventually pop back beside you, magically transported by the development team’s “whoops, that’s too far away” algorithm. Pathfinding quirks are as old as isometric RPGs, but it’s odd to find them here, this pronounced, especially seeing as this isn’t the first Torchlight with pets.
Torchlight II was originally poised to supersede Diablo III by a season or more. And then it was delayed, so that now it’s in the some might say unenviable position of having to go after Blizzard’s 800-pound, demon-tailed gorilla. That makes its timing either good or bad, depending how hack-and-slashed-out you are.
The upside? Blizzard still wants $60 for Diablo III, where Runic’s asking just $20 for a no less polished action roleplaying game, with at least as much content.
Score: 4 out of 5