Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Torchlight - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

For me, Torchlight was at its best in its opening hours. I had recently finished getting another character to level 70 in Diablo 3 and wanted to sample a Diablo 2-esque experience for comparison. I could've just played Diablo 2 again, but I was in the mood for something more bite-sized and different. Torchlight fit that bill nicely, so I went into it wanting to build a beefy dual-wielding fighter that dominates his foes through left clicks alone. My plans had to change the deeper I went underground, which slowly began to remind me of why I tend to stay away from Diablo clones in general: monotonous grind.

I have a soft spot for the first Diablo's atmosphere, having played the demo of it a ton as a kid, and Torchlight pulls on the same strings. Which makes sense, given that Runic Games was formed by the creators of Diablo, and they roped in Matt Uelmen, the moody master composer of the Diablo series. Though the game looks more like World of Warcraft than Blizzard's dark demon slaying series, everything else reeks of the first Diablo. You have three classes to choose from, a captivatingly eerie town theme, and NPCs in need of saving from subterranean spooks. Throw on top of that various Diablo staples like gems, gear sets, health & mana globes, and blue & red scrolls, and you have yourself a game that knows its target audience and isn't afraid to appeal to them.

Torchlight is an ambitious title for a new studio to create, but it isn't ambitious in and of itself. There are no twists and turns to be found in its story or gameplay, and the whole experience is meant to last 10-12 hours. Which is fine—after all, if the formula works you don't need to change things—except that I had my Diablo fill around hour 5. By then I had mapped out my intended path through the skill tree, figured out what magical skills to keep, and was thoughtlessly left-clicking my way to the end. And since the game lets you buy potions to your hearts content, the dungeon couldn't set any challenge upon me that I was unable to heal through.

Well, until the end.

I simultaneously admire and feel vexed by games that have difficulty spikes in their final act. Since I'm a challenge-oriented player, I prefer experiences that put up a fight rather than those that let me coast to the credits. But being roadblocked during a game I desperately want to finish (in order to take it off of my "to play" list) is a frustration too bitter to savor. And boy, does Torchlight put up one hell of a fight!

Two problems exacerbated my struggle: I barely did any sidequests and I was playing on hard. But neither really stymied my progress—I just had to keep my ring finger on the potion button in case I got surrounded. This all changed once I got to the final area, where a number of foes hammer you with elemental attacks. And since I was playing a strictly melee-focused class, it's not like kiting my opponents was a viable option. This turned the final few hours of the game into an arduous crawl as I repeatedly died over and over whenever I had to face more than two dragons or dark zealots at a time. And I died a ton; I was slain around a dozen times before Torchlight's final floors, while the Dark Palace alone racked up over a hundred deaths.

So what was I supposed to do? Despite dumping a lot of points into defense, there was no way I could affect my elemental resistances (which is what I was dying to) outside of slotting +2/4 resistance gems into my gear—and for reference, I had 94 lightning resist and was still losing half my health to undodgeable lighting beams. And since there's no way to respec my build there was only one option: grind. Grind a whole lot. Just get enough health that I can survive two poison bolt barrages instead of one. Would that have been fun though? I was very rarely finding new gear in the final ten floors of the game that was better than the legendary equipment I had on, and grinding was a chore since my character approached all enemy types the same way. When the final boss finally fell, I was elated, not just because I had finished a mindless twenty minute melee against him, but also because I could wipe my hands of the game. Without a second thought I retired my character, permanently shelving them because I was so done with this journey.

My gripes with Torchlight are more of a universal problem with the genre its rooted in than a denouncement of the game itself. For what it's worth, I approve of what Torchlight offers: it's a well built game with a lot of depth and great music, acting as a delectable lunch to Diablo 2's gargantuan dinner. The only thing you could argue it's truly lacking is a multiplayer component. But Torchlight revels in its repetitiveness, which is something I barely have any patience for if I'm not enthralled by the core gameplay. I went into Torchlight wanting a nostalgic flashback, yet emerged out the other end realizing that I was actually looking for something more.

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