The boys and I have never hidden our love of all things Runic. For The Lore started right around the same time as Torchlight was released and during our three year run on that podcast, we had the pleasure of interviewing the fine folks at Runic Games several times; not just to discuss Torchlight, but also Torchlight II as it was being developed.
We got to play in the beta, and later were given a couple keys prior to release to dive in head first. Vince and I did just that, often playing together to test out how effective the co-op system is (hint: it’s fantastic once you get it to work).
Since Vince and I have been spending so much time together in this game, I thought it would make a good read if we reviewed the game together. Before we get into our thoughts on the game though, here’s a rundown on what you get for your twenty bucks.
Torchlight II has grown exponentially from its predecessor. It features an open world, separated into Acts (ala Diablo). Each act has a look and feel. The main story progresses through each Act, however each Act is also full of very enjoyable side quests (which are often just as, if not more, enjoyable than the main storyline).
As mentioned before, the game now has multiplayer. You can start public or private games, and play with up to 5 other players (max 6 players). The multiplayer can be a bit persnikity, however if you make certain you and the other players are all running the same version of the game, it is seamless and results and 99% uptime once connected (at least it did for us).
As opposed to its predecessor, Torchlight II allows you to customize your characters. This may seem insignificant to some, however as has been established often, folks like to identify with their avatars, and the main way to do that is to allow us to choose their look. Each of my characters took a while to create, simply because I wanted to make certain that they made me excited to bounce in-game.
In addition to a lot of new features, Runic has kept what works with the Torchlight franchise. The game is fully moddable, which is huge. This alone increases replayability by an exponential factor. The interface, though tweaked here and there, remains largely the same. The music, scored by Matt Uelmen, has the same hypnotic properties as was heard in the original Torchlight (and Diablo II). And yes, pets are back, better than ever.
Onto the review. Though before we jump in, know that there will be comparisons made throughout the review to the Diablo franchise. If this irks you, stop reading now. However seeing as they are both ARPGs (Action Role Play Games), developed by some of the same people, featuring similar themes and game mechanics, we feel they’ve set themselves up for these types of comparisons. Luckily, this works in Torchlight’s favor.
ROGER: ARPGs aren’t exactly known for their lore. Sure, Diablo has an insanely rich story, however we saw how even that can fall flat on its face with Diablo III.
Torchlight II’s main storyline involves following a wanderer (sound familiar?), an Alchemist, as he seeks to rid the world of ember. Along your way, you are aided by an Estherian Guardian by the name of Syl. Picture a large legendary Pokemon. I kept wanting to shout “I CHOOSE YOU, SIL!” whenever I saw him in town.
All in all, the main storyline is quite thin. Don’t get me wrong, it has the potential to be quite awesome, however there’s simply not enough of it. And this is where the side quests come in. Though their purpose is simply to be filler, it is these quests which flesh out the world and provide you with hours of fun. Because Torchlight II’s lore is actually quite immersive. Whether you’re dealing with the Ezrohir, the steampunk rooms of Act II, or the gathering of corpses in Act III, the world feels fully fleshed out (no pun intended).
That said, I feel that more attention should have been paid to the main storyline, despite the genre. Still, my score reflects the appreciation I have for everything else.
VINCE: Believe it or not, I prefer my ARPGs to be a bit light in the story department. The whole point of an ARPG for me is right there in the acronym: action. I want a game with a fully-developed world and plenty of lore to soak in, but I don’t want the narrative to get in the way of the real fun. Overly long cinematics and endless dialog just get in the way and those are valuable mouse clicks that could be better spent hunting loot.
Torchlight II’s story definitely doesn’t get in the way, but I still would have liked something a little better than “chase the bad guy across the continent.” I never really felt that my character had any real motivation to continue on, other than because I was told to. The characters are interesting, I just never felt much attachment to any of them.
The place where Torchlight II really could have excelled was in its larger worldbuilding. The randomly generated map elements are wonderful and varied. The smaller story elements are actually more interesting than the main plot and I found myself wanting more. I can tell there’s so much more to Torchlight than we’re seeing and there’s definitely ways of integrating that into the game without the aforementioned cutscenes and dialog. Audio journals or even small story details integrated into the environment would have gone a long way toward fleshing out the world without getting in the way of the core gameplay. However, I understand that this would have led to budget problems in other aspects of the game.
ROGER: Runic Games took everything that worked about Torchlight, improved upon it, and created a system that works on so many levels. Torchlight II allows you to play your class how you want and in every case, feel badass and awesome.
Want to play a sword and board Engineer that simply cannot be killed? Do it.
A frantic Beserker whose twitch-happy gameplay requires lightning reflexes and a six-pack of Red Bull? Done.
In the few weeks that Vince and I played together, we each tackled some of the same classes, though in each case, played them entirely differently. And both of us would argue that our way is the best, as it feels so natural to our own distinct styles and personalities.
Toss into that equation the ability to choose varying degrees of difficulty levels, and you’ve got a system that’s tailor-made for you. Vince hasn’t hid his disdain of my habit of creating alts on Normal difficulty, however as I’ve told him several times, I have nothing to prove in game. Playing on a harder difficulty won’t make me feel as though I’ve accomplished more and so am a better gamer. Hell naw. I just want to feel unstoppable in-game. I want to feel as though I can rip through mobs in a heroic fashion. When my crazed Beserker has left an Act, I want a sign to be posted that reads “This wasteland brought to you by Bat Poo Crazy!”.
Torchlight II allows so much in terms of skill tree points and stats allocation as well as loot distribution. I mean, what’s an ARPG without godly amounts of loot to fill all your chests. And in my opinion, this is where Runic Games struck an amazing balance.
What some people don’t realize is that there is such a thing as too much loot. *Gasp* Yes, it is possible to have a system that is so clogged that it actually interferes with the game’s overall enjoyment (I’m kinda looking at you, Borderlands 2).
However Torchlight II allows you to become attached to certain items and retain them for more than a level or two. Sure, you’ll still get mountains of items, and if you stack magic-find, you’ll be swimming in yellows like an adult at a kids’ pool, but due to the way items work (stats and/or level requirements), you actually have the ability to tweak your characters for the specific purpose of using said items. And that can be hella fun, lemme tell you.
Case in point, during one of our expeditions together, me on my Engineer, Vince on his Beserker, I received not one, but two yellow fist weapons. They were level 29s, so too high for my baby Beserker, however their stats requirement listed only Dexterity.
In my mind, I heard Barney Stinson hollering “Challenge accepted” and I created a new Beserker whose only stat I increased was Dexterity. By level 11, he was sporting not one, but two level 29 fist weapons which I’d slotted with high end gems as well.
His gameplay had been very fun. It turned godly in a moment, and I have yet to give him any stats other than Dexterity since. He’s now level 40, and his gameplay is beyond frantic.
It’s fun. Unbearably fun.
VINCE: For anyone other than Roger, I wouldn’t mock the choice of Normal difficulty. Well, at least not as much. Every player should play the way they find most fun. For my tastes, Normal difficulty was so easy, the complete lack of challenge wasn’t fun. It’s not quite as easy as the original Torchlight (you at least need to keep your eyes open this time), but I still feel it’s tuned a little too lightly. Beyond that, I found the difficulty, at least on Veteran, to be a bit uneven at times. I found many peaks and valleys between dungeons of similar level. I think it’s more a matter of the particular challenges not fitting my playstyle, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Beyond my minor concerns with difficulty, this game is an absolute blast. It’s fast, it’s responsive and it just feels right. Every thing you do, every monster you kill, every piece of loot you pick up is satisfying. On Veteran difficulty, each pack of enemies presents its own challenge and figuring out the most effective tactic leaves you with a good feeling.
However, the best approach will vary wildly from player to player, even among the same class. Customization is where Torchlight II really shines, and for me the Engineer is the perfect example. Going in, I figured my Engineer would be a tank or possibly a two-handed damage dealer. That all changed when I found my first cannon. Charging into battle hauling a giant brass death dealer is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had this year. I wouldn’t have expected a class portrayed as a heavily armored melee character to be so effective at range and now I’m constantly looking for creative ways to build my characters. This versatility also means there’s no such thing as bad loot, just loot that works better for someone else.
Runic knows how fun Torchlight II is and is more than willing to keep it that way. As I mentioned before, not only does the story stay out of the game’s way, but the game stays out of its own way. Where Diablo III made a conscious decision to force players back to town regularly, Torchlight never wants you to leave the field. The pet vendor system makes a welcome return, but the new shopping list feature is something that needs to be implemented in every game in the future.
ROGER: Torchlight had a light, highly stylized quality which I really loved. Despite using very little GPU resources, it managed to look fantastic and immersive. The only downside of course, was that the color palette was limited by the setting which was mainly indoor dungeons. Torchlight II does not have that problem, and you can tell that Runic’s designers had a blast with the variety of settings and monsters in the game. The color palette ranges from bright and full of life, to dark and atmospheric.
Particle and spell effects look great, though won’t blow your mind away.
I would have liked to have seen more facial details and/or expression, especially when accepting quests from ventriloquist NPCs whose mouths never move, however I realize that would have kicked up the game’s development time (and cost) a notch.
The opening cinematic is highly stylized as well, looking like concept art in movement. This type of style has grown in popularity as of late. I think a little more detail could have gone into this as well, however it still manages to suck me in with each new alt.
VINCE: Without a doubt, there are better looking games on the market. However, you have to expect that a $20 game won’t have high-resolution graphics. Overall, Torchlight delivers and in some ways exceeds expectations. Character models are solid and there’s a great variety of enemies. More importantly, the simpler models are brought to life with great animation.
Every attack and spell effect is impressive and visually distinct. Some skills, such as the Engineer’s Flame Hammer, are so satisfying visually that I can’t help but use them as often as possible. Colors and lighting are used to great effect to make a graphically simplistic game visually striking.
My one major complaint is in the level design. Not the levels themselves; they all look great. Rather, I had some problems with passing behind objects. It’s a given with any isometric game, you’re going to pass behind objects in the environment. Overall, Torchlight handles it well. Unfortunately, some of the objects in the field are a little too large. Their geometry is so massive, they obscure too much. Having my character, a pack of enemies, a few barrels and some loot all hidden was a definite problem in some areas, especially when I needed to watch out for certain spell effects to manage a higher difficulty.
ROGER: One of the things that struck people with Torchlight, was the absolutely phenomenal soundtrack, reminiscent of Diablo II. As folks came to realize, it was reminiscent of D2 as it was created by the same composer, Matt Uelmen.
Uelmen returns with a new score for Torchlight II which is as wonderful and impressive as the original. That said though, certain tracks used for different zones are simply too similar at this point. “Slavers” and “Curse of Ember” are too good examples of that. I understand wanting similarity for the sake of consistency, however there comes a point where it feels like reusing assets, or in this case rifts, in order to save time and production costs.
In-game sound effects are fantastic throughout, as are ambient sounds. I was even impressed with the voice acting for some of the quests. When you look at the game’s $20 cost, you lower your expectations when it comes to the voice acting. Yet Torchlight II proves that you can have great quality, sparingly used to keep costs down.
(If you’re interested in the Torchlight II soundtrack, you can pick it up here for free. Totally legit from Runic, as they are awesome like that.)
VINCE: Matt Uelmen went with a very familiar tone for the music in the first Torchlight. Of course, the music for the sequel would follow a similar style. Many of the tracks do sound similar to the first game, but the further I progressed in the game, the more pleased I was with the diversity. I particularly enjoyed much of the Act II music. The desert setting brought in some very cool eastern sounds and the later transition to the steampunk-style areas further evolved the sound.
The sounds for the spell effects weren’t quite as impressive to me as the visuals, but I can’t complain either. The voice acting was solid throughout, with some nice effects to give the non-human characters a more otherworldly feel. Honestly, when we’re talking about sound in Torchlight, everything else is secondary to the music, and the game excells in that regard.
ROGER: When asked why Runic Games chose $20 for Torchlight II, despite it having equivalent content to $60 games, Max Schaefer replied with the following:
“We sell for $20 because we want a bigger community, and for people all over the world to enjoy our game. Not everyone has $60 lying around. Plus, digital distribution, like on Steam, makes this more economically viable for a company like us. We couldn’t make money selling $20 boxes only, but we’ll do fine with this price because of the trend towards digital distribution. With respect to piracy, a small company like ours isn’t going to solve it. And the last thing we think is appropriate is to punish our honest customers for something other people are doing. We believe that if we put out a quality game at a fair price, there will be less incentive to pirate the game, and that those who do pirate it may decide to buy it down the road. That’s our approach and we’re sticking to it!”
Unlike Blizzard who decided they wanted to nickel and dime their customers by damn near forcing them to use their real money auction house, Runic Games created an insanely fun game at a cost that is simply too low not to pick up.
Tack onto this the game’s modding community, who will extend the life of the game by creating entire new levels and worlds for us to explore, and you’ve got a perfect score in this category as well. Though to be fair, even without that, I would still give this game a 10/10 here for the sheer wealth of gameplay to be had within the main story campaign and side quests.
VINCE: My biggest joy in ARPGs is playing through repeatedly with new character concepts. This is something I’ll do many times with Torchlight II. I’ve already mentioned the vast amount of customization options, and I can guarantee I’ll explore just about every one of them at some time. The loot variety only enhances this feeling. Every time I get a great unique drop, my first thought is how I can use it in a way different from anything I’ve done before.
Playing through the early parts of the game a few times, I haven’t seen a great deal of randomization yet; things are laid out in largely the same manner. Some sidequests have been present each time, while there are others I’ve only seen once. I’ll obviously need a larger sample size to determine the true amount of randomization, but it seems Torchlight II will offer at least a slightly unique experience each time.
For various reasons, I played Diablo II for the better part of ten years and Diablo III for the better part of ten days. From what I’ve seen so far, the amount of enjoyment I’ll likely get out of Torchlight II won’t be measured in days, weeks or even months, and that’s before taking user-created mods into account.
ROGER: It is amazing what this little team of about 34 people has done. They took an IP that has become a fan favorite, and faithfully created a sequel which impresses on so many levels. Instead of creating restrictions, they’ve blown the game open allowing gamers and amateur developers to create an environment which caters to their definition of epic.
Buy. This. Game.
VINCE: Runic knows this genre better than any other company in the business and it shows. Every decision they made in the design of Torchlight II was for a very specific reason: fun. There was no motivation to artificially increase playtime or force players to play the game a specific way. Runic created a wonderful playground and given their players every possible way to use it to its fullest potential. Any small complaints I have about the game are completely overshadowed by the sheer enjoyment I get from playing it. For the price they’re asking and the product they delivered, there’s no reason for this game to be missing from any PC gamer’s library.