If you are one of those poor bastards lamenting the long, slow wait for Diablo III, then I offer you a slight reprieve: Torchlight. To quote former Computer Gaming World EIC Jeff Green, "Torchlight is the best thing since Titan Quest." I wholeheartedly agree.
That said, Torchlight is also highly derivative of other games Runic Games has worked on. A spiritual sequel to FATE, it offers the same nearly endless action role-playing gameplay, pets and pet management, and joys and travails of continual inventory management (that vicious cycle of identify, keep, or sell). These are coupled with the subgenre's predictable ingredients of boss fights and fetch quests.
Naturally, there will be the obvious comparisons to Diablo, mostly because that game series is the standard-bearer of the action-RPG genre, and partly because some of the developers behind Diablo worked on Torchlight as well. But the familiar formula of dungeon delving, looting, and foozle killing is executed here with finesse, style and a production value that shouldn't be possible on an indie-game developer's budget. When you get right down to it, Torchlight is really the bastard child of Diablo, FATE and Mythos (a massively-multiplayer project that the core team from Runic Games was working on at Flagship Studios before the company went belly-up). And that is a very good thing.
Players are initially charged with delving deep into the underground corridors of an Ember mine underneath the town called Torchlight. Ember is a mineral that is highly sought after by mages, adventurers and merchants because of its powerful magical properties, which are in turn used to create all kinds of wonderful effects on weapons, armor and trinkets. But this vein of Ember, the largest in the world, also seems to be corrupted by an unnamed monster. Prolonged exposure to the mineral turns gentle townsfolk into mindless lunatics. This of course leads to your character to an investigation into the mines and whatever secrets lie buried below it, ultimately ending with the mother of all foozles in Torchlight.
At first, as you descend into the mine -- and the dark obsidian fortresses, sunken temples, additional subterranean mines, fiery lairs and cold granite dungeons below it -- everything seems a bit too easy. You'll begin the vicious cycle of killing thousands of different monsters, engaging in the occasional mid-boss fight, collecting both mundane and rare loot, sending your pet to town to sell said loot, leveling up your attributes, and picking your skills as you go deeper into the dungeons to solve the few quests the game throws at you until you get to the very bottom.
Those that have played Diablo or Diablo II will want to start the game on Hard or Very Hard, where most mid-boss fights will take considerably more than three or four mouse clicks to win. For those that think they are true bad-asses, there's the Hardcore mode, which forces players to avoid dying altogether. If you die in Hardcore mode, your game is over, and your only option is to exit to the title screen, where you'll find that your character is now deceased (and slightly translucent).
Like in FATE, Torchlight saves the game when exiting the dungeon through a portal, going up and down stairs, or quitting to the main menu. Naturally, some players are not happy that there isn't a "save anywhere" feature, but this system works pretty well with the game's resurrection system. You have the option to resurrect where you are and take a Fame and money penalty, resurrect at the entrance of the level you are on and take just a money penalty, or resurrect in town with no penalty. This system makes you think before you approach a challenging situation. How important are Fame and money to you? Will you have to backtrack if you resurrect in town, because you forgot to open up a town portal before the fight? Being able to save and reload ad nauseum takes away these elements, which I think add a nice layer of NetHack-like challenge.
Higher difficulties really balance things out for players that aren't looking for a candy-coated cakewalk through lollipop village. But one of the strong points of Torchlight is that you don't have to be a hardcore action-RPG player to enjoy it, and the mechanics are mostly self explanatory.
While there are only three classes in the game -- Vanquisher, Alchemist and Berserker -- each class has three distinct paths it can follow; and you pick from those skill trees at your discretion, mixing and matching the skills you think you need or want, or following one specific discipline. Playing as the Vanquisher, for example, you could pick Marksmen skills that make it easier to pick off enemies at range, get up close and personal with the Rogue skill set (using dirks and daggers that you pull out of nowhere), or choose a variety of explosive traps from the Arbiter set. Each class also has access to some form of magic mastery. The generic magic spells, a leftover from FATE's magic system, allow you to do everything from identifying items and summoning skeletons and zombies, to hurling fireballs and shards of ice.
There are no real restrictions -- besides stat and level requirements -- on using weapons, armor and generic magic. But some weapons and armor just work better in the hands of some classes. Berserkers can use guns and bows, but they really excel when wielding a melee weapon (sword, axe, club or polearm); Vanquishers can use polearms, axes and shields, but their true affinity is with crossbows, guns, rifles and bows; the Alchemist is handy with a gun, but staves and magic are his forte. Just because you can use a weapon doesn't mean you should. Each class is balanced well enough that when you pick the right skills, weapons and attribute points, you can unlock that class' full potential.
Finally, you can put things in the shared stash, which can be accessed by your characters. This is an interesting way to collect and share the best gear in Torchlight with your entire lineup of characters, and makes it easier to collect many of the game's unique sets of armor (which give a variety of great bonuses to the wearer, based on how many pieces of the set you are wearing).
Despite the class-defining skills, weapon affinities and stats, sometimes Torchlight feels a little too wide open. That's because you want to use the best gear, and the game throws everything but the kitchen sink at you. You want to use that rare sword or wear that strange helmet, so you might be tempted to dump a few attribute points into Strength or Magic to meet its requirements. The temptation to tailor your character toward specific gear is ever-present. This feels like a trick to get you to stumble off your profession's path that even the manual warns you about. Better gear for your class will eventually come your way, so being patient and spending gold on something more suited to your needs is always a better idea than mucking around with stats that you cannot change after the fact.
Having a pet is tied deeply into the gameplay, and not just because you need a pack mule to carry all the exotic items (and crap) you are collecting. In FATE, pets were just glorified backpacks that could also fight and be transformed into other creatures by being fed fish. Your pet in Torchlight hasn't changed in that regard, but it is definitely more useful. Your pet can now use the same spells that you do; for example, if you give it Heal All and Summon Zombies, then your pet will spam the hell out of those spells, without prompting, to heal your party and bring in allies to help you fight. In FATE your pet spent more time running away than it did helping you fight. In Torchlight, your pet is a vital member of your team.
My steam-powered robots make clanking sounds in the background, proving that even robots can have ADD.
There is plenty to do after the main storyline's meager 35-level dungeon is complete: a 100-level dungeon to explore that opens up after the main quest, random maps that you can buy from vendors that will give you short "lunch break"-style adventures, and the ability to go all the way to level 100 with your character if you want to.
And when you grow tired of the character you started out with, you can simply retire, leaving an heirloom of your choice to a descendant who will get it at the start of the game, along with a boost in fame to allow for better weapons and items from various vendors.
Anyone with even an iota of common sense should just go out and buy Torchlight. In fact, you have my blessing to marry it, buy a house with it in Connecticut, have nine kids with it, and get a family dog. Torchlight is a wonderfully charming game that is highly polished and easy to pick up and play, and offers some great depth hidden beneath a veneer of accessibility. Honestly, it's really just an appetizer to Runic Games' upcoming massively-multiplayer online game set in the same world -- an introduction to the lore of the world, the gameplay systems and some of the elements fans will be able to experience when the game is complete many, many moons from now. So go pay the measly $20 bucks to Runic, or Perfect World Entertainment, or Steam, or Impulse, or whomever you like to buy games from online. It's worth every last little penny.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PC game provided by the publisher.