Game: Torchlight 2
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: 35 hours
Buy If You Like: Torchlight 1, Poorly itemized Diablo-clones
Torchlight 2 is the hack-n-slash sequel to the original Torchlight, itself an homage and erstwhile competitor to Blizzard’s Diablo series. Indeed, Torchlight 2 was released around the same time Diablo 3 was making headlines with its controversial always-on requirements and server-dependent gameplay. While it makes a great counter-point to Diablo 3 on the feature listings, Torchlight 2 is essentially more of the same from the original game. Which, in my case, is bad news.
My fundamental gripes with both Torchlight games are their meaningless adherence to archaic game design, and a fundamentally terrible itemization/progression system. Torchlight 2 features four different classes to choose from, each with three separate class trees. While they mainly follow traditional hack-n-slash roles, there does exist room for experimentation: there are more than enough talents to choose from to transform, say, the archer-esque Outlander into a melee-only tank (albeit not likely as powerful as a normal tank class). Where this experimentation immediately breaks down is how there is no respecing in Torchlight 2; at most, you are allowed to get a refund on your last three talent points. While this was how things worked in Diablo 2, it is also true that at one point people thought asbestos as insulation was a good idea.
The more crippling flaw though, and the singular design that undermines everything else the game set out to accomplish is the awful itemization and item progression system. While not as outlandishly terrible as the original Torchlight, it is still entirely possible (and even likely) that you will receive a random drop at level 17 that you will still be using 40 levels later at the end of the game. The core of what made the Diablo series so compelling to play was how items and gold erupted from nearly every enemy you faced, and thus you had a steady supply of dopamine over the course of what otherwise is series of perpetually unengaging clicks. Torchlight 2 has none of that – nearly two-thirds of the game was spent vendoring every ring, helmet, amulet, and pants I came across.
It gets even worse, if you can image that.
Clearing an entire map’s worth of mobs and collecting every single piece of vendorable debris results in what I would like to term one “Gear Unit” (typically 2000g-3000g). Each GU allows you to either purchase one item from a vendor, or upgrade an existing item by either adding gem sockets, enchantments, or purchasing gems themselves. This ridiculous stinginess with gold means you are perpetually strapped for cash, only allowing you to augment the gear you’ve accumulated one map clear at a time. God help you if you’ve finally accepted the fact that you’ll never replace your boots only to have an infinitely rare upgrade drop right after spending 10,000g (or 3 GUs) on your old pair.
Oh, and by the way, the Gold Chests and Boss Chests that you are “rewarded” with for going out of your way to find the keys or defeat said boss end up dropping jack shit 99% of the time. I have found more rares and unique items out of normal, everyday treasure chests than I have ever gotten from boss chests. How do you fuck something like this up?
I am spending all this time talking about loot and such because that is the heart and soul of the hack-n-slash genre. To get loot wrong in these sort of games is to create a racing game with poor-handling cars or a FPS where the guns don’t shoot at the crosshairs. Indeed, would anyone play a Diablo-esque game if there was no gear at all? The gameplay, which consists of mowing down tens of thousands of mobs within seconds of their appearing on the screen absolutely is not compelling enough on its own, that’s for goddamn sure.
All of which is certainly a shame, as Torchlight 2 is otherwise an improved sequel in pretty much every other way. The gameplay (such as it is) feels more responsive and impactful; the environments are detailed and fun to look at; the music is about a half dozen artful remixes of the Tristram theme; and I enjoy the visual style. It just feels, you know, completely unrewarding to play.
It is worth mentioning that all of these problems have been solved by better game designers, e.g. the players submitting mods to the game. There are mods that range from introducing new character classes to entirely new dungeons to, you guessed it, fixing the loot issue by guaranteeing Unique or better drops from Gold/Boss chests. I decided early on to stick with the vanilla game because I wanted to get a feel for what the devs learned from the original Torchlight. The answer is “pretty much nothing.” Playing with mods “taints” your character though and otherwise makes you ineligible for achievements. But since the base game feels like such a massive chore to play, I highly recommend anyone deciding to install Torchlight 2 to go ahead and fix what the devs had not the brains and/or balls to do.
I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.
My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:
Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?
The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.
Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.
Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?
In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.
Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.
My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.
Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.
I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.
Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.
It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.
In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.